Chryshane Mendis Colonial Heritage Exploration History

Truth behind the Prison cell of the last King in Colombo Fort

By Chryshane Mendis


The Prison cell of the last King of Kandy, King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha in Colombo fort is a somewhat well-known monument. Although most individuals working in the Fort area do not notice it, it is a famous destination for tourists. It is situated within the premises of the Ceylinco House building down Janadipathi Mawatha (Queen’s Street) at the turn off to Bank of Ceylon Mawatha. The aim of this article is to see if this is really the prison cell of the last King or something else; as there appear currently two traditions to this story, a common tradition and an academic tradition.



The present monument is in the shape of a half capsule with the curved half facing north containing the chamber. The structure is roughly 12 feet in length, 11 feet in width and about 8 feet in height. The entrance to the chamber is 3 feet wide facing north with two small vertical openings on either side with two iron bars; the width of the walls is approximately 2 feet. The outer surface is decorated with 6 simple pilasters. The structure contains a vaulted roof with the exterior decorated in scales with a circular ventilation duct figuring prominently on top. At the rear end of the structure is a sculptured bust of King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha with an inscription underneath. Close to the entrance fixed onto the wall is another inscription in Sinhala and English which states the capture of the King and his imprisonment in this chamber. Further within the chamber are portraits of the King and Queen, that of Governor Robert Brownrigg and Adigar Pilimatalawe. Also is a painting of the tomb of the King in Vellore and the ship on which he was deported to India.

The Investigation

The King in Colombo

The popular story goes that the King was kept in a cell within the fort of Colombo before his departure, but is it the actual story? Was he imprisoned or placed under house arrest as said by some?

King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha was captured on the 18th February 1815 in Madamahanuwara and was transferred to Colombo without entering Kandy. On the 6th of March the King and his escort entered the Colombo fort where they were received by Colonel Kerr, the commandant of the garrison. Here the King remained for nearly a year till the 24th of January 1816 when he and his family was deported to Vellore aboard the HMS Cornwallis.

According to the Official Government Gazette and the writings of Dr. Henry Marshall, he was kept in a house and placed under house arrest, and not in a cell.

To quote the Gazette No. 704, Wednesday, 15th March 1815:

“On the Monday following Major Hook with the Detachment under his command escorting the late King of Kandy and his family entered the Fort…He is logged in a House in the Fort which has been suitably prepared for his reception and is stockaded round to prevent any intrusion on his privacy”

This being an official Government document cements the fact that he was placed in a house specially prepared for him as mentioned above. Further the account of Dr. Henry Marshall too is to be noted here.

Dr. Henry Marshall was a British Army surgeon who served in the island from 1806 to 1821. He is a celebrated Army Doctor and is considered the ‘Father of Army Medicine’, retiring as the Deputy Inspector General of Army Hospitals of the British Empire. In his celebrated work Ceylon: a general description of the island and its inhabitants, with a historical sketch of the conquest of the colony by the English published in 1846 and reprinted by Tisara Prakasakayo in 1969, he gives an accurate and neutral description of the island and the events in its conquest, even being critical of his own, the British, in their conduct of the 1818 rebellion. In the above work he gives a detailed account of the last King, his appearance, his character and a very neutral look at his rise and fall. In it he states that

“ the prison or house provided for him was spacious, and handsomely fitted up. He was obviously well pleased with his new adobe, and upon entering it, observed, “As I am no longer permitted to be a King, I am thankful for the kindness and attention which have been shown to me”

Adding further in his book he also gives a dialog between him and the King in Colombo, whom he was requested to visit professionally; he states that he found the king frank and affable and willing to converse on any subject. It is given that apart from Kandyan matters, the former king also asked Dr. Marshall aspects of his personal life such as the duration of his stay in the island, and his home in England.

The writings of Dr. Marshall, a contemporary of the present events at discussion, further confirm beyond doubt, of the King being placed within a house in the fort and not in a prison cell.

Having given facts that dispel the myth of the late king being placed in a cell, it is important to see the whereabouts of the said house. Through a brief study done by the writer, only the reference from R. L. Brohier’s Changing Face of Colombo was found indicating the location of the said house. He states it to be a Dutch dwelling house, which was later occupied by the Darley Butler firm; this is the present site of the Ceylinco House, the location of the present monument.

Figure 1 – Dutch plan of Colombo, 1756 (from Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company)

An investigation into the location of this site through the maps in National Archives and the Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV Ceylon, found indeed this location to be a residential block. From the maps of 1733 and 1756-59 from Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV Ceylon, it is clear that the block along the Janadipathi Mawatha from Ceylinco House to the National Mutual Building (Center Point Building) was a residential area for officers of the Dutch East India Company.


Thus it is clear that the present site of the Ceylinco House was the site of a Dutch house during the 1700s and would have most likely been there in 1815, which is just 19 years after the takeover of the Colombo fort by the British.

The identity of this building

Having proved the stay of the king in a house and not a cell, the next question raised is as to the true identity of the present monument which is said to be the cell of the king. When was it built? What was its purpose?  R. L. Brohier states the following in his Changing Face of Colombo:

“a quaint concrete cubicle in which a man can barely sit, is displayed in the court-yard off the foyer of Ceylinco House. It is popularly accredited to have been the cell in which King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha was restrained- mind you, for nearly one year. On the face of the written word and evidence of once own eyes, the assumption is a travesty. The monument has no greater significance possibly than that of having been a sentry box set up at the gate-way to the adjoining garrison building erected by the British in 1875 (Echelon square buildings- now demolished)”

Thus R. L. Brohier claims that this was a guard house of the adjoining Echelon barracks. To further test this, the writer conducted a deeper inquiry using two approaches, one, to examine on the location of the site and two, to the nature of the building.

The first approach is an examination on the location of the site and its built history.

Figure 2 – Plan of 1904/5 from the National Archives. BLUE shows block with Darley Butler building; GREEN shows Dutch Hospital.

Between the timeline of the Dutch house and the present Ceylinco building on this block, is another building, that of the Darley Butler building owned by the company of the same name (plus some unidentified smaller buildings adjoining the east of Darley Butler building on the same block). Tracing the monument here could help fit it in a particular context.

By the 1860s, prior to the removal of the ramparts, the Darley Butler building had been established on the site as per an old photograph, and continued till 1960/61 when it was demolished during the building of the present Ceylinco House. The foundation for the present Ceylinco House was cut on 21st October 1955 and completed on 20th October 1962. As per figure 3, a 1960 aerial image, and comparing the ground plan with the 1904/5 map, the superstructure of the Ceylinco building was constructed on the south-east section of this block, while the Darley Butler building (on the northwest section of the block) remained standing. However it may have been demolished between 1961 and 1962 and would now comprise the area of the car park situated just behind the Ceylinco House.

Figure 3 – taken from the Baur’s building in 1960. RED circle shows the present monument (from book The Faithful Foreigner)

It is interesting to note here as mentioned in the book ‘When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a history of Ceylinco Insurance’ that during the construction of the present Ceylinco House, within the eight foot deep foundation, there had been a viaduct about 6 ½ feet in height and also was found the remains of human bones without the skull; and also that architects confirmed that the Darley Butler building was built on the site of an old Dutch house.

Accordingly prior to the removal of the ramparts, to the northeast of this block was the Dutch Hospital, to the south the Middleburg bastion and to the southwest the Galle gate. After the removal of the ramparts, bordering this site to the south was the Echelon barracks.

Understanding the context of the Darley Butler building and the Ceylinco House, now the monument in its built context will be looked at. The map of 1904/5 of Colombo shows a small box shaped structure just bordering the Darley Butler building to the south, a closer examination of it from a much clearer map of 1938 showed this particular structure within the boundary of the Echelon barracks, it appears to have been a guardroom as there is an entrance to the barracks just by it facing Queen’s road.

Figure 4 – Plan of 1904/5 from the National Archives. RED-Darley Butler building; GREEN-Dutch Hospital; BLUE-Echelon barracks; RED CIRCLE- shows a square structure which is part of the entrance to the barracks from Queen’s Street.


Figure 5 – BLUE arrow shows entrance to barracks. Image taken from Chathams Street Clock tower c.late 19th century (from 20th Century Impressions)

The Echelon barracks built on Echelon square was the new military barracks built by the British in 1875. It was constructed on the area which comprised of the Middleburg and Rotterdam bastions and the adjoining rampart and moat. The barracks comprised of four large barrack blocks positioned in the echelon formation and other buildings with a large ground in the center. Its present area comprises of the properties of the World Trade Center, BOC Tower, the Galadari and Hilton.

As stated above, the small box on map of 1904/5 appears to be a guardroom to the entrance of Echelon barracks situated just behind the Darley Butler building. This could be clearly seen from the below photograph of a date around the 1920s/30s(figure 6). It appears square in form and is clearly seen next to the small entrance to Echelon barracks. When analyzing the position of this guardroom and the present monument, they fall perfectly in the same location.

Figure 6 – RED circle clearly shows the Guard house with entrance (from Extract from Sea Ports of India and Ceylon)                    

Further taking the 1904/5 map, when drawing a horizontal line from it towards the west, it falls exactly to the turn off to Flagstaff Street. This is the same when a horizontal line is drawn from the present monument towards the west. And further analyzing the position of the guardroom and the present monument from the 1904/5 map, an aerial image of 1960 and a present satellite image in relation to the Darley Butler building and the Ceylinco House, it clearly shows that both the guardroom and the present monument are the same.


But then this brings us to another problem, the outlook of the present monument looks totally different to the guardroom. From the map of 1904/5 and figure 6, it clearly shows it to be a square shaped building with a tiled roof. But figure 3 taken from the Baur’s building in 1960 shows the present monument with its prominent vaulted roof and ventilation duct.


This brings to conclusion that as both the guardroom and the present monument fit to the same location, there appears to have been a modification or complete remodeling effected to the guardroom by 1960. The purpose of this we do not know. An argument can be thrown at this here is that, if that was the guardroom of the Queen’s Street entrance of Echelon barracks, what was it doing within the Ceylinco House premises when the Echelon barracks existed well beyond the construction of the Ceylinco House (Echelon barracks were demolished in the 1980s). For this, a clearer examination from the plans, maps and images by the writer showed that the Ceylinco House premises had in fact slightly extended southwards to the premises of the barracks; this may have been the case during the acquisition of the property, but the exact nature of which we do not know. Therefore the once guardroom of the Echelon barracks was now within the premises of the Ceylinco House.

For the second approach, the nature of the building can be looked at; is it a prison, a sentry box/guardroom, or even a storage chamber? The writer wrote to the Fortress Study Group UK, which is a professional body on the study of artillery and fortifications, on the possible identification of this building. They responded saying that “it does not look like a prison” and that it may well be a guard house.


In conclusion, and regarding the identity of this monument, both approaches used, identified it to a guard house/guardroom; with the first approach being the more conclusive. Therefore the present monument was indeed a guardroom of the Echelon barracks as stated by Dr. R. L. Brohier. So as to why its appearance was changed and then being associated with being the prison cell of the last King, we may never know. Somewhere down the line for political reasons or either, this claim was brought up and acted upon officially by the authorities. This is a protected archaeological monument at present and contains the official Department of Archaeology description as well as a granite inscription stating the same.

Further as mentioned in the introduction, the story of this site as the prison cell of the last King has two traditions, the common and the academic. According to the common tradition and as per the inscriptions on the monument, it is the cell of the last King; but this is proved wrong as mentioned above. In the academic tradition, it is well known that the King was placed in a house and not a cell.

It is clear from this article that the King was not kept in a cell and that the present monument belongs to a later period. This article aims at changing this public opinion and bringing it in line with the accepted academic tradition, by providing evidence to support the claim.

This is a humble request to all enthusiasts and tour operators – do not mislead the tourist on this site as the cell of King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha; but it still could be taken as a ‘Monument’ to the Last King of Sri Lanka of the location where he last stayed in the island before his departure to India.



  • Brohier, R. L., Changing Face of Colombo, 1984.
  • Macmillan, A., Extract from Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, 2005
  • Marshall, H., Ceylon, 1846, (reprint 1969).
  • Pieris, P. E., Tri Simhala: The Last phase, 1939.
  • Perere, J. G., When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a history of Ceylinco Insurance, 2011.
  • Ranasinghe, D., The Faithful Foreigner, Thilo Hoffmann, The Man Who Saved Sinharaja, 2015
  • Van Diessen, R., & Nelemans, B., Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV Ceylon,
  • Wright, A., 20th Century Impressions, 1907.
  • British documents and maps from the National Archives
  • Gazette No. 704, Wednesday, 15th March 1815




Colonial Heritage Maritime Archaeology Research Paper

Sailing Ships and Temple walls

By Lieutenant Commander Somasiri Devendra, SLN (Rtd.)

Published in Honouring Martin Quere o.m.i, ed. Gerard Robuchon, Viator Publications, 2002.




The present paper is an account of work in progress on a subject the writer has been desultorily researching over some years. Work has not been systematically carried out and much remains yet to be done. However, it is felt useful to place the preliminary work in print so that others more knowledgeable and/or with better access to primary sources, would be able to add to it. The paper is, therefore tentative, and none of the conclusions arrived at should be taken as conclusive.

Prof. P.L.Prematilaka, of the Central Cultural Fund, drew my attention to the graffiti, representing sailing ships, in the course of the paper he read at the annual “D.T.Devendra Memorial Lecture” in 1996. Describing the UNESCO-Sri Lanka excavation programme on the Natha Devale site he says that important vestiges were found, among which was

“The exposure of a layer of painting with scribblings of sailing ships on the painting. The designs of the ships indicate that they imitate the Portuguese sailing ships of the time. Thus, the paintings should pre-date the Portuguese invasion of Kandy in the 16th.century.”

This graffiti, which was incidental to the paper he presented, forms the subject of the present paper, which is an account of attempts made to identify the ships, either through details of rigging and construction or through an identification of the flags depicted.

The site: history and significance

It is necessary to describe location and history of this site in such detail as is sufficient to place it in historical context. Prof. Prematilaka’s dating of the graffiti and the underlying wall paintings, it must be noted, also depended much on events that are recorded in history.


Although the present building can be traced to the 16th. Century and to a period before the arrival of the Portuguese, a specific date cannot be attributed to it. In the historical chronicle, the Culavamsa, there occurs a description of certain improvements effected to it: “In the midst of the town, he (King Narendrasingha) had erected round the great Bodhi tree, the chetiyas and the temple of Nathasura and encircling them on all four sides a fine wall of stone, massive, lofty, brilliant in its coating of stucco.”


The graffiti are found on the walls of a desecrated shrine located at the Natha Devale complex in Kandy. This complex, has a special significance in relation to the Kingdom of Kandy, the last independent kingdom of Sri Lanka, which came under British rule in 1815. It is situated within a stone-walled square with the Vishnu Devale on the north, the Dalada Maligawa on the east, the Maha-maluwa on the south and the (then) Eth Vidiya on the west. Immediately across the road, to the east, is the Dalada Maligawa, or “Temple of the Tooth”, the shrine which houses the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. In the oldest known map of Kandy – a Portuguese one of 1601 – shows a “small tower-like structure” close to the north-east corner, immediately facing the King’s Palace, which is possibly the Yuktiya Istakirime Gantava or ‘the bell to call upon the king to perform his duty’. In historical times, such bells could be rung by any citizen who felt that justice had been not been done to him, as a direct appeal to the King who was “the Court of Last Resort” and “the Font of Justice”. The “Mahavamsa” and popular history link this practice to the time of King Elara in the second century before Christ.


The Tooth Relic has specific significance in that, any claimant to the Kandyan throne had to have it in his custody. The Palace of the incumbent king also formed part of the same premises as the Dalada Maligawa. The Natha Dewale complex was the closest, and only, neighbouring set of buildings. Apart from mere proximity, it had other links with both the Dalada Maligawa and royalty. The Esala Perahera, Kandy’s major religious event did not, prior to the reign of King Kirthisri Rajasingha, include the Dalada Perahera. It was a procession held in honour of the divinity enshrined in the Natha Devale in which the other three devales of Kandy (Vishnu, Skanda and Pattini devales) also participated. Traditinally, this devale served as the venue for the coronation of the Kings of that kingdom and it was before the statue of this devale – and not at the more highly venerated Dalada Maligawa – that the king placed his head, worshipped and made the promise to rule virtuously.  The Natha Dewale is dedicated to “Natha’, or “Lokeswara Natha’ who, in Mahayana Buddhism, is the Bodhisatwa “Avalokeswara Natha” – perhaps the only Bodhisatwa of the Mahayana pantheon who is venerated by Sri Lankan Buddhists. The actual bronze statue enshrined within the devale is, unmistakably, that of Avalokateswara on iconographic grounds.

The deity venerated.

At this devale, Natha is venerated as Senkadagala Devindu (the god of Senkadagala, or Kandy), due to a legendary link between with the establishment of the kingdom of Senkadagala Nuwara, or Kandy. The main shrine itself, built in the architectural form of a gedige, carries a decorative frieze around the base of the vaulted roof above the inner sanctum. This feature, not found anywhere else in Sri Lanka, repeats a traditional legend about the selection of Kandy as capital city. It was selected for this purpose, according to the legend, during the declining years of the Gampola kingdom as it was the site of a miracle: a spot where a hermit had witnessed a hare being hunted by a jackal, turning on his pursuer making the hunter become the hunted. The Sagama inscription of Buvenekabahu V, dated to 1381 AD refers to Senkadagala Devindu as Nathasami, confirming the identification. The slab inscription on the walls of the devale itself supports the fact that it existed in its present form in the 16th century and refers to a ruler named Jayaweera maha Veda-hun tana to persons for their help in defeating the Portuguese forces invading Kandy.

The above remarks would make the point that, whatever function the ruined shrine may originally have served, it was one of a complex of buildings with more than religious importance: that they were, in fact, closely linked to the institution of kingship in Kandy

Kandy: Political History.

The kindom of Kandy had emerged as, at least a semi-autonomous sate by the time the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 16th century. By that time, Kandy – and Jaffna – had been developing into autonomous kingdoms but, in the previous (15th.) century, the growing power of Kotte led to Parakramabahu VI imposing his power over them and subjugating them to subordinate status acknowledging his suzerainty. In the 16th. century, however, Kotte lost its pre-eminent status due to its rulers’ acceptance of Portuguese sovereignty. This resulted in its disintegration into the autonomous regions of Sitawaka, and Raigama. Resistance to foreign domination was led by Sitawaka, which, shortly annexed Raigama. Its kings, Mayadunne and Rajasingha I, lay siege to the Portuguese at Colombo, with the assistance of the Rajah of Calicut and the backing of Kandy. Although the siege was raised, both Sitawaka and the Portuguese realized the strategic value of the Kandyan kingdom. Both tried to gain control of it, carrying the war into Kandyan territory seeking to subdue it. Both failed. Eventually it was Sitawaka that fell first, and  Kandy emerged as the last centre of indigenous resistance to the growing power of the Portuguese over the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, and later, of the Dutch and British.

In the formal Sinhala classification of fortified sites, Kandy was both a “Giri Durga” (protected by mountains) and a “Wana Durga” (protected by forest). During the south-west monsoon season it could also be considered a “Jala Durga” (protected by water). Kandyan defence strategy, dictated by its inability to regularly raise and maintain large, well-equipped armies to take on the foreign troops and their native levies in pitched battle, capitalised on the strengths that Nature had provided. Look-outs positioned on hilltops overlooking the roads and passes relayed information of the type and strength of the invading columns. These were harried by guerilla attacks and ambushes.  This tactic did not always succeed and, on occasion, the invaders entered and gained temporary control of parts of the kingdom and even the city of Kandy itself. The Kings of Kandy, on such occasions, carried out the pre-planned maneuver that was their second line of defence: namely, that of evacuating the city and taking refuge in the less accessible countryside. The temporary occupying forces in Kandy, unable to reach the king, resorted to destruction and desecration of buildings of importance, among which was Natha Devale. Many temples within the complex were destroyed in this manner and, although the more important of them were rebuilt, not all were restored. The drawings which form the subject of this paper were part of the desecration resulting from the general destruction carried out during one of these raids. In the third part of the strategy, supplies were prevented from reaching the occupying forces who, wracked by disease and unable to sustain themselves, were forced to retire. They were then subject to the same sort of guerilla attacks that was often more effective on an army in retreat than on one in the flush of success.

The Excavations

Some time later, during the first decade of the 19th. century, the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasingha, constructed the Kandy Lake, known as the Kiri Muhuda, on what had been the site of a stretch of paddy fields. Much of the soil excavated was dumped within the premises, and behind the terraces of Natha Devale, resulting in the burying of vestiges of the complex and in the ground level within the area becoming significantly higher than it had earlier been.  Prof. Prematilaka, conducting the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle excavation to establish the original level, made several significant finds, including the plastered berms of two stupas, the ancient square terrace of the historic Bodhi tree, the base of a mandapa with stone bases of timber columns, the base of another ancient Bodhi tree with 14th century features, fragments of a large bronze seated Buddha image, heaps of cannon balls and the building with the graffiti depicting sailing ships referred to earlier.

The one that concerns this paper is the last of the above.

The Graffiti

The external walls of this small shrine had originally been covered with wall paintings of a type typical of the period. These had been deliberately defaced by graffiti. Among the graffiti, however, was a group of sailing ships scratched with a pointed instrument To judge from the lack of corrections they appear to have been drawn with a practiced hand and, perhaps, with no intention of correcting them. The three ships are each different from the other, and no evidence is available to judge whether they are the work of the same person, or not. Figures 1,2, and 3, arbitrarily labeled “Ship 1”, “Ship 2” and “Ship 3” are the graffiti under discussion. It must be noted that the background, predominantly red-brown in colour, is the original wall paintings. Even in these few pictures, it is possible to see some features of the original subject. Underlying the thin layer of paint the wall itself appears as of contrasting lightness a feature that makes the graffiti quite visible.

This paper deals with an attempt to identify the ships, by nationality, since would help date the destruction of this building (whether it was by Portuguese, Dutch or British invaders) and thus add to the known history of the Natha Devale complex, particularly by helping to identify the date of the desecration and destruction of the shrine.

The Search: Features chosen

Prof.Prematilaka’s initial hypothesis was that the ships were Portuguese vessels which is reasonable when taking into account the slab inscription on the wall of the devale where reference is made to an invasion by the Portuguese. In the present study, a less definitive working assumption was initially made: that the ships portrayed were of European ships of unknown nationality.  However, in the course of the search some doubt was raised even as regards this, and the reasons are given below. Notwithstanding this, the working assumption was persisted with and further refined: that they were not only European but they were either 16-17th century Portuguese, 17-18th. century Dutch or 18th. Century  British.

European ships of the period 16th to 18th centuries cannot be treated as of one class. They developed in many ways and variously in different countries, covering a range of classes, sizes and types. Some types described in specialized treatises would not even have sailed in Sri Lankan waters. Further, ships were built locally by the European powers, using indigenous shipwrights and craftsmen, incorporating non-European elements chosen for their suitability to the local environment. To make the waters even murkier, purely indigenous ships were built by locally, that bore a spurious surface similarity to European vessels. (The thoni of Jaffna, that survived into the 1930s was one such that Hornell (1943) describes as “….of purely European design. It diverges in no detail from the small wooden schooners employed in English coasting in the nineteenth century….”) Given this large and imprecise area, and the fact that there was no specifically identifying feature on any (a specifically British flag, for example), certain areas were singled out for study. These were:

  • Overall view ( realistic or not? Proportions, disposition of parts, etc.)
  • Constructional details (masts, bowsprit, poop deck etc.)
  • Sails and rigging (square, lateen, spritsails, etc.)
  • Flags shown (designs, where flown, etc.)


The Search:  Method followed

Sri Lanka lacks experts in the field of medieval European ship-building. Libraries, too, can provide hardly any material. In the circumstances, the solution was to seek foreign expertise. To build upon a wider base than the few persons personally known to the writer, it was decided to spread the pictures around as many people as possible who would not otherwise not be available to comment. The means adopted for this was the email discussion group, Marhist, (an international electronic discussion group sponsored and administered by the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston with the assistance of Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada) to which the writer was a subscriber. Many persons – historians, maritime archaeologists, and seamen – who have specialized knowledge of different aspects of maritime history participate in the discussions. The question was posed by the writer, as a preliminary call for help, in a posting that read, in part, as follows:

“Recently, an important temple complex site was being excavated by archaeologists and several older temples that had been sacked were found completely below the ground. In one of them, someone had drawn with a pointed instrument on top of the wall paintings. The subject is several “European” style sailing ships. They are most definitely not the work of a local person, as we have no tradition of drawing nautical subjects. The drawings show a good knowledge of European ships’ structure, rigging etc. and even shows the flags. My question is whether these ships are (a) Portuguese (b) Dutch or (c) British. I believe the flags are a clue, but the ships’ structure will also reveal clues: it is known that all three European nations built ships in India and that they might have been slightly different from those built in Europe.”

When responses from those interested in the subject were received, further person-to-person email discussions were continued. Apart from them, particular persons known to the writer were consulted, in particular Dr. Eric Reith of the Musee de la Maine, Paris and Robert Parthesius of the Amsterdam Historical Museum, who is associated with me in the “Avondster” maritime archaeological project in Galle.. The comments of those who participated in the discussion is dealt with first; the contribution of Eric Reith is dealt with later.

The Discussion: content and opinions

It became apparent, early on, that there was no consensus on identification by type, period or nationality. Yet, as of now, a consensus has emerged regarding the larger question, which is discussed below. The discussions are described below, under separate headings.

The subscribers to Marhist merely responded to the call for help that was posted by the writer. Their responses were never meant to be works of research, and must be treated as such. For this reason their institutional affiliations are not shown. 

Overall impressions of construction, sails and rigging.

  1. Robert Parthesius, Netherlands

My first reaction (I will need some more time for further study) is:

18th century, may be 19th century! I base that conclusion on the rigging. On image 2 and 3 one can see foresails, those became in use in the 18th century before that time in the 17th century the ship as characteristic spritsail and spritsail topsail.

Also the lateen mizzen has a 18th century form (4 corners) In the 16th and 17th century the lateen mizzen was a triangle which yard was running further then the mast. This was unpractical if the ship tacked, so they replaced this system with a sail that was placed completely behind the mast.  Image 1 looks a bit like a brig, or small schooner (because of the visible rudder). These vessels were also in use in the 18th and 19th century.

  1. Paulo Alexandre Monteiro Portugal

(a) Unfortunately, nobody knows what a Portuguese ship looked like..Please let me know more…..Good iconography on Portuguese ships is not abundant but, hopefully, we can try and match what we have so far in Portugal with what you have.

(b) I received the photos of the graffiti and I have had not much time to do some research on them. On a first impression, looking at the lines and rigging, I would say were looking at Dutch or English ships of the late XVII or early XVIIIth centuries.

(c) I will dwell into it further, but I believe I concluded that the ships might belong to the late 18th century.

  1. Nick Burningham, Australia

(a) Interesting looking craft. The first is a single master, seemingly a gaff cutter or sloop, running before the wind with square topsail, course and probably stunsails set. She is fairly flat sheered and, somewhat curiously has a well raked stem. Apart from the stem, she seems to have the characteristics of a fast armed sloop built between about 1760 and 1840.

The second is obviously a larger vessel, also setting a full set of stunsails, and again with a well raked bow. The courses (lower sails) are very deep as if she is a schooner setting square canvas to run before the wind. The square sail set under the bowsprit is important for dating – it pretty firmly says not later than about 1830 if the vessel is European built.

The square sail on the mizzen is tiny. If the courses were not so deep one might descibe her as a barque with a square topsail which would fit with the date already ascribed.

The third is similar but the lacuna hides the bow.

All three vessels are heavily canvassed with slightly unusual late-18th — early 19th century rigs.

(b) The flat sheer and use of gaffs suggests ships of about a century later (i.e.  later than late XVII or early XVIII centuries) — circa 1800.

(c) It seems to me that the artist has some familiarity with ships but is probably not a professional sailor. The drawings do not show any particular concern with depicting details such as braces and sheets, anchor handling gear, and other equipment that provide the hardest physical work for sailors

  1. Rui Godinho, Portugal

I’m not an expert in shipbuilding or even in identification of ships. My research point more to the organization of India Run…..If you are sure that the pictures are from the XVIth century then this are Portuguese ships, probably “naus” with 3 or 4 masts, they seem so. Also for the number of sails it seems to be Portuguese or at least European ships, local vessels didn’t have a large number of sails and such big masts. Be careful with this notes because as I told before I’m no expert in this matter!


Were they locally built craft?

 Nick Burningham, Australia

(a) All three vessels are heavily canvassed with slightly unusual late-18th –early 19th century rigs. There were in the first half of this century, I believe, quite a number of Indian owned square-riggers that traded to Colombo carrying rice. Some of these carried interesting and somewhat anachronistic rigs, often very heavily canvassed. I don’t think any of them set a square sail under the bowsprit, but, aside from that detail, the deep courses and raked bows would fit quite well.

There is evidence of gunports and guns. Some of the rice carriers were painted with false ports but, I think, we are looking at genuinely armed ships — that doesn’t exclude the possibility that they are Asian built. Approximately circa 1800 is my first impression. I’ll let you know if other aspects occur to me.

(Response by the writer:

Thanks for information. The possibility of the Jaffna Dhoni (Hornell’s photographs) did cross my mind, but it is difficult to tie it up with the known historical record and the stratification of the site. Would an European draw a “native” ship? We have no tradition of detailed drawings/paintings of ships and those that survive from 8th. century onwards are clumsy and unreal. We could, it seems, build ships, but not draw them. Also, what do you make of the flags? Tri-colours and crosses are distinctly European ‘heraldic’ devices and have no place in the Indian/Sri Lankan vexicological tradition.

 Do give some thought to the flags and other details and a considered opinion. As I said, we are contemplating a paper juxtaposing the archaeological and nautical parameters.)

(b) Apologies for being a bit slow in responding — I’ve been away for a few days. It wasn’t actually the Jaffna Dhoni that I was thinking of. In competition with the Dhoni were a significant number European-style square riggers that were Indian owned. Some were very fine looking vessels and, because they operated at times in light winds they tended to have very tall rigs and to retain or re-invent some of the rig details of the early clippers. However, if the site’s history and stratigraphy do not fit easily with the iconography representing those Indian ships, then there is no good reason to pursue that idea.

Rui Godinho

For the first picture it can be a local ship? It doesn’t have a forecastle and Portuguese ships have. It has one main mast and Portuguese ships usually have 3 or 4 like in the second and third picture.

Can the flags be identified? 

There are two flags shown. In ships 1 and 3, a large flag is shown in the stern, in proportions that are acceptable. The flags are divided into two horizontal stripes although it is quite possible that the artist(s) intended them to be tri-colour flags. In ship 3  two flags are shown, one on the bowsprit and one at the stern, both of which feature a diagonal cross like the St. Andrew’s cross. Much interest was generated by vexicologists, particularly regarding this. A sampling of the different ideas expressed is given below.

Morgiana P.Halley,  USA

… query is *which* “Scottish flag”?  Is it the one with the blue field and the white X cross?  Or the one with the yellow field and the red lion rampant?  If the former, it’s so simple that it might have been used by just about anyone, especially if there are alterations that are invisible to the naked eye in a line-drawing situation.  If it’s the lion, there might be more basis for serious investigation, even though it’s a later item….a flag with an X on it in a line drawing might be *anything*!  A lion, however, has limited possibilities, but only one of them is Scottish.

Bill Bedford, UK

Yes (it could be Scottish) — but only if the drawings were dated to before the Act of Union of 1703.

David Asprey, UK

My (untutored) observation over the years has been that Scottish-like flags (ie blue with white saltire – or sometimes black base) were widely included in 18th and 19th century ship paintings – and for all I know actually by the ships themselves.  But I have not thought of them as actually being Scottish.

Bill Schleihauf ,Canada

(a) Could it not be the old Russian flag?

(b) I can’t say anything about the history of the Russian flag. The Naval flag was white with a blue saltire.*

(* “Saltire” in heraldry, is “A charge consisting of  a cross formed by a bend dexter and a bend sinister crossing in the center”)

Nick Burningham, Australia

(a) The flag certainly looks right. Did Krusenstern (the Russian circumnavigtor, not the sail training ship) ever visit Sri Lanka? He is of about the right date to fit the iconography.

(b) I don’t know what to make of those flags. Vexicology isn’t one of my strong points.

The crossed flag, like the flag of Scotland, is very clearly depicted and ought to be an unequivocal signifier of the ship’s origin. But what country had a flag like that? Looking through the selection of flags provided by my computer’s clip art only Jamaica and Scotland have flags with diagonal crosses and neither country was in the position to launch a naval expedition to Sri Lanka around the end of the 18th century. I’ve looked through a few books hoping to see a similar flag but haven’t come up with anything. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if I do come across anything.

(c) In off-list discussion I said to Somasiri that the only national flags I knew of with diagonal crosses were Scottish and Jamaican, neither of which were likely to send naval forces to Sri Lanka circa 1800.

If Krusenstern’s ships visited Sri Lanka one could posit a fairly clear identification of the ship depiected with the mystery ensign. The other two vessels appear to have tricolours which could conceivably be the tricolour carried by Russian merchant ships?

Lincoln Paine, USA

So far as I know, Kruzenshtern’s ships NADEZHDA and NEVA did not visit Sri Lanka during their voyage to Russia’s Pacific coast in 1803-1806.  Other Russian voyages from the early 19th century include:

1807-13  Golovnin in DIANA.

1815-18  Kotzebue in RURIK.

1819-21  Bellingshausen in VOSTOK.

1823-26  Kotzebue in PREDPRIYATIYE.

I don’t think that any of these ships called in Sri Lanka.

Paulo Alexandre Monteiro, Portugal

(a)The banner with the X is quite curious. I have only seen such a flag and it was displayed on a late XVIth century representation, on an engraving done by Linschoten. Does any one have any ideas as to what might represent? I dont’ think the Portuguese or the Spanish ever used such a flag.

(b) As for the flag, as far as I know, no Portguese vessels ever had one as that.

David Prothero, UK

The ragged cross was a diagonal knotty cross, representing a tree trunk from which the projecting branches had been only roughly lopped.  The same as the staff in the Bear and Ragged Staff of the Earls of Warwick and some Public Houses. On a small scale the irregularities are invisible.  It is also called the cross of Burgundy, which suggests a connection with the Dutch through the Spanish Netherlands, but is unlikely to have been used on Dutch ships since it represented Spanish rule.

Flag charts of 1685 and c1700 show a white ragged cross on red as the ensign of Biskay/Biscays, and a red ragged cross on white as the ensign of Ostend.

There is also a rather remote Dutch possibility.  Some gyronny flags, (triangles radiating out from the centre) can, depending upon the number of triangles and pattern of colouring, look something like  diagonal crosses.

So not very likely (to be one of a new range of naval jacks in which the red, white and blue were arranged in a gyronny pattern radiating from the center)., particularly if your flags are also shown on mast and stern..

Robert Parthesius, Netherlands

The flags are more difficult. I find it hard to recognise a tri-colour (I can see only two), but the diagonal cross is certainly there. If we date the ships in the 18th or even the 19th century the cross can then be English (although the union jack should be in a corner of the flag and the red cross should be different)

Opinion: Eric Reith of Musee de la Marine, Paris.

The contribution of Dr. Eric Reith is dealt with separately as he was not commenting informally but in his capacity as Directeur de recherché au CNRS, Departement d’Archeologie Navale, CNRS. He is on the staff of the Musee de la Marine, Paris, and his assessment can be accepted as a considered opinion. Writing in French his comments were as follows”

“Doc 1 (ship 3)

Il s’agit manifestement d’un navire de guerre. On distingue une batterie avec des saborde (5 sont visible). Le greement est a trios mats avec une brigantine a l’artimon et des focs a l’avant. Il me semle que l’on pourrait dater le profil, sommaire it est vrai, de la fin du XVIIe siecle. En ce qui concerne le pavillon, je ne trouve que deux elements de comparaison, tous les deux brittanniques (croix de St Andre et croix de Saint Patrick.’

(Translation: The subject represented is a warship. A gun battery, with 5 guns visible is to be seen on the port side. There are three masts, the mizzen mast being rigged as a brigantine, and there are jibsails for’ard. It would appear that dating has to be done on the basis of ship’s profile and, although roughly, it can be dated to the end of the 18th. Century. As regards the flag, I forward two designs that may fit, both being British, the crosses of St.Andrew and St. Patrick.)

“Doc.2 (ship 1)

Il s’agit d’un navire (guerre ou commerce?) a deux mats et greement carre du type des bricks. Il me semble que la datation pourrait stre la meme que celle du doc. 1.”

(Translation: The representation is of a ship, but it is uncertain whether it is a warship or a merchantman. It carries two masts, square rigged in the style of a brig. The dating is he same as for ship 3 )

“Doc. 3 (ship 2)

Il s’apparente au doc.1.”

(Translation: This is similar to ship 3.)

Dr.Reith’s concluding remarks are also interesting. He says:

“Ce qui est frappant, c’est que le dessin de ces trios graffti de navires de type europeen presente, a mon avis, des resemblances qui pourraint indiquer qu’il s’agit du meme dessinateur (voir, par example, le facon don’t est represente le gaillard arriere). Par ailleurs, il est sur que ces representations sont sommaire mais qu’elles sont bien proportionnees.”

(Translation: A striking feature is that the graffiti of the three ships show, in my opinion, a similarity of style which would indicate that they are the work of the same artist. For example, note the manner in which the quarter deck is represented. However, other considerations indicate that the drawings have been done rather sketchily although the proportions are rendered well.)


After a consideration of all the comments and observations, it is possible to come to some conclusions, even tentatively.

The Artist. All the ships have been drawn by the same artist. That he was a skilled quick-sketch artist, used to drawing ships is apparent. (Reith) However, his vagueness as regards nautical details would identify him as not a sailor and more likely a soldier (Burningham).

Period. The ships represented belong to the late 18th. Century. During this period the presence of Portuguese ships in the area can be discounted. This leaves the Dutch and the British in the reckoning, and even the French. The Dutch, however, were the power who invaded Kandy around this time and the artist has to be considered a Dutchman. (Reith, Parthesius, Monteiro, Burningham)

Type of ships.

Ship 1:     

–  a warship, or a merchantman, two-masted and square sailed like a brig    (Reith),

– The first is a single master, seemingly a gaff cutter or sloop,….. with square topsail, course and probably stunsails set….. fairly flat sheered and, somewhat curiously has a well raked stem….. she seems to have the characteristics of a fast armed sloop. (Burningham)

–   the lateen mizzen is a square sail, not a lateen (Parthesius)


Ship 2:    

 –   On ships 2 and 3 one can see foresails (Parthesius)

The second is obviously a larger vessel…..a full set of stunsails, and ….. with a well raked bow. The courses (lower sails) are very deep …the square sail set under the bowsprit is important for dating. The square sail on the mizzen is tiny. If the courses were not so deep one might descibe her as a barque with a square topsail (Burningham)


Ship 3:      

– a warship. A gun battery, with 5 guns visible is to be seen on the port side….. three masts, the mizzen mast being rigged as a brigantine, and there are jibsails for’ard. (Reith)




Nationality. To judge from the flags, at least two (if not all) are Dutch and one (with the flag showing a cross) may be British.(Reith, Asprey). However, it is also likely that it is equally possible that the Cross is merely a non-specific symbol (Halley) comments. Nevertleless, as all the ships have been drawn by the same artist who has clearly indicated the Dutch flag on two ships, it is possible that this flag indicates that the ship is “non-Dutch”. Certainly not Portuguese (Monteiro). The period of occurrence of invasions precludes the possibility of them being “native craft” (Burningham).

Tentative identification

  • The graffiti was not the work of a sailor who is familiar with the details of a ship, but of one who is used to draw ships. Possibly he was a soldier who would have been frequently on board ship.
  • The ships are definitely European and not local or regional. More specifically, at least two are Dutch ships. The other may be British, or non-Dutch at least. They are definitely not Portuguese. Prof.Prematilaka’s earlier identification may have to be revised.
  • Identification by type is difficult, but one is definitely a warship or an armed merchantman while another may be a small vessel though armed.
  • Chronologically they would fit into the latter part of the 18th Hence the unknown ‘artist’ would have taken part in a Dutch invasion of Kandy


As stated at the beginning of the paper, the work so far carried out is not conclusive. There remains much to be done. For example, it would be useful to compare this graffiti with the drawings of ships shown in Dutch period maps of Ceylon, India and Indonesia. In addition, any dates arrived at with regard to the wall paintings on which the graffiti had been drawn, would have to be taken into consideration. In conclusion it is wished to invite scholars with specialist knowledge to build upon the foundation laid and carry this fascinating line of inquiry further.

Colonial Heritage Description: History

Whatever happened to the King’s mother?

By Somasiri Devendra and Prof. Sarath Edirisinghe

Questions, and an Answer

Signature of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe


Like so many good things, what follows is a spin-off  from the “Ceylankan”.

Last year Devendra wrote to the Editor of the “Sunday Times” voicing a question that had vexed him for long, and the Editor was kind enough to carry my query, as follows:

“On re-reading Andrew Scott’s piece on the ‘Capture and exile of the last king of Kandy’ in the ISLAND of February 4th, 2013, I was struck by a small but important fact. He quotes D’Oyly on the capture of the king thus:

“This morning the king again desired to see me and formally presented to me his mother and his four queens, and successively placing their hands in mine, committed them to my charge and protection. These female relatives, who have no participation in his crimes, are certainly deserving of our commiseration in his and particularly the aged mother who appears inconsolable, and I hear has been almost constantly in tears since the captivity of her son…”

Note the references to the King’s aged mother, which I have emphasized. Later, Andrew Scott quotes Henry Marshall about the embarkation of the Royal party:

“The king embarked, with his wives and mother-in-law, in the captain’s barge…”

Here there is no reference to an “aged mother”, but a “mother-in-law” appears on stage. Is this an error – or not? If not, what really happened to the King’s mother? Was D’Oyly mistaken and that she was not the “mother” but the “mother-in-law”? If not, she was not in the King’s party: what records do we have of her after the King’s departure? The answer to this conundrum comes to us from – of all places! – Australia.

Sometime ago, some members of the Ceylon Society of Australia were investigating the story of the first person from Ceylon to have been banished to the penal colony of Australia. As the story has been published both in Sri Lanka and Australia, I shall not repeat it here, other than to say that a genealogical search in Australia by a descendant, Glynnis Ferguson, for the founder of the O’Deane family there. [ see also M.D.(Tony) Saldin’s “Banishment of the first Sri Lankan family to Australia” in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 12th. January, 2003]  Among the first-hand material found was a newspaper: “The Sydney Gazette, and New South Wales Advertiser”, Volume the Fourteenth, dated Saturday, February, 1816

The paper announces the arrival of, and the ‘human cargo’, aboard the ship Kangaroo, from Colombo. Quite some space is devoted to a description of the ‘Malayan’ prisoner from Ceylon his wife and children, and the tone is one of great sympathy. But one little paragraph, apparently reporting something the Captain said, caught my eye:

“The reduced King of Kandy, who is a native of the Malabar Coast, is held close-prisoner at Colombo, – His mother died there during the stay of the Kangaroo, and was interred with royal honours.” (Emphasis mine)

So the old Queen Mother died before she saw her son deported. But where was she interred with royal honours? Whether she was interred according to Buddhist or Hindu rites, she must have been cremated: but where? And where were her ashes interred ‘with royal honours’? What information could we hope to find about her death, the honours accorded and the place she was interred?

In fact, what do we know about her, at all?

After all, she was the mother of our last King, and we should, surely, accord her our own (Republican, not Royal) honours? Being unable to undertake this search myself, may I ask that a historian or archivist to flesh out this story?”

No answers were forthcoming but, serendipitously, Prof. Edirisinghe [of the Faculty of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Rajarata University] did have some, and he forwarded them to the “Sunday Times”. He awaited the publication but, alas!, the Editor did not deign to publish it. After a while, Prof. Ediriweera agreed to the publication of his answers to the questions raised, as Devendra felt it too good to languish unread.

“Buried with Royal Honours in Vellore; last days of Sri Vikrama’s mother.

A short article, under the caption, Buried with Royal Honours and Forgotten appeared in the ‘Plus’ section of ‘The Sunday Times’ (2nd June 2013, written by Somasiri Devendra. He invited the readers to ‘flesh out’ the story of the burial of the mother of Sri Vikrama Rajasimha, the last King of the Kandyan kingdom. The question or the confusion was regarding a statement made by D’Oyly and a news item that appeared in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The central character in the story is the mother or the mother in law of the deposed king.

As emphasized by Mr. Devendra, D’Oyly clearly says that the morning following the capture, the king desired to meet him. At the meeting that followed, the king presented his four queens and the mother to D’Oyly. According to D’Oyly the King had been reserved at first and on being assured that they would be treated kindly, betrayed evident signs of emotions and taking the hands of his aged mother and his four wives presented them to him one by one and ‘recommended them in the most solemn and affecting manner to his protection’. The confusion arose because Henry Marshall in his book ‘Ceylon, A general Description of the Island and Its Inhabitants’ says about the deportation of the ex-king that the deposed king embarked, with his wives and mother in law in the captain’s barge and the attendants in another. Mr. Devendra states that, sometime ago, the ‘Ceylon Society of Australia’ was investigating the story of the first person from Ceylon who was banished to the penal colony of Australia and one of the first hand material found was the news paper ‘ The Sydney gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Volume 14, Saturday February 1818). The paper had announced the arrival of a human cargo on board the ship Kangaroo from Colombo. Apart from the story of O’Deane and his Kandyan wife and children, the first family to be banished from Ceylon, the captain had also stated that, ‘…..The reduced king of Kandy, who is a relative of the Malabar Coast, is held close prisoner at Colombo”. The captain goes on to say that the king’s mother died while the Kangaroo was in the Colombo harbor and was interred with Royal honours. What Mr. Devendra requested was information on where the burial or the cremation took place and the honours accorded to mother of the deposed king.

Sri Vikrama’s (formerly Konnusamy Naik) mother was Subbamma Nayaka and the father was Sri Venkata Perumal. Subbamma Nayaka was a sister of one of Rajhadi Rajasimha’s queens. He was born in India in 1780 and arrived in the island of Lanka with the queens of Rajhadi Rajasimha. There are numerous stories regarding the paternity of this king, some involving the chief Adgar of the Kandyan courts. On the death of Rajhadi Rajasimha, apparently following a malignant fever, Pilimatalauve, the first Adigar put forward this eighteen year old lad with not much formal education to the vacant throne of the Kande Uda Rata. This departure from the traditional rules of succession, sidelining Queen Upendramma’s brother, Muttusamy was considered as a plan by the first Adigar to usurp the young king at a later date in order to place him on the Kandyan throne. The records show that the king’s mother was in the Kandyan courts throughout his reign that ended on the 10th of February 1815.

Sri Vikrama had four consorts – Venkataraja Rajammal, Venkatamima, Moodoocunamma and Venkata Jammal. It was customary for a large retinue to accompany new brides to the Kandyan courts. Therefore at least two mothers in law would have been in the palace if two of the queens were sisters. At the time of deportation of the ex-king and his relatives there were two fathers in law, named in a list prepared by the British

Detailed descriptions are available regarding the capture of the fleeing King. The king had been hiding in the house of an Arachchi at Galleyhe Watta with two of his queens. They were captured on the 18th of February 1815. The king and the two queens were later united with the other queens and the king’s mother. The Royal family was transferred to Colombo under the protection of the British, reaching Colombo on the 6th of March 1815. The king and his immediate family lived quite comfortably in Colombo until the 24th January 1816, when he and his all relations, dependents and adherents amounting to about hundred individuals were transferred to India. Although Marshall says that the king with his queens and the mother in law embarked at Colombo on board H. M. ship Cornwallis, a detailed description of the embarkation left by E. L. Seibel (see below P. E. E. Fernando) mentions the king and his four queens embarked on the Cornwallis, but makes no reference to the mother or a mother in law of the king. Prof. Fernando in his paper says that Robert Bownrigg informed Rt. Hon. Hue Eliott, the Governor – in- Council at Ft. St. George, Madras about the deportees and four separate lists of king’s relatives, classified according to the relationship to the king, were forwarded. The same paper gives the List No.1 – Immediate family members, as a foot note which gives the names and the relationship to king of ten persons. Two of his fathers in law and an aunt are mentioned but there is no mention of either the mother or a mother in law. K. T. Rajasingham, writing in the Asia Tribune (Volume 12) says that the declaration and the parole of the prisoner of war are found in a document of eight pages carrying two sets of signatures of king’s adherents. The first set dated 8th March has 62 signatures (some are thumb prints) and the second dated 27th July 1816, numbering altogether 168 Nayakkars.

The exile of Sri Vikrama is detailed in British records in India. Prof. P. E. E. Fernando, one time Professor of Sinhalese at Peradeniya in his paper on the ‘Deportation of Sri Vikrama Rajasimha and his exile in India’, published in the Ceylon University Review (volume xx, 1966) quotes the records kept by the British on the prisoner king in the Vellore Fort which proves that the king’s mother was still alive in the fort and details about her subsequent death. These records maintained by the British detail the administrative problems regarding non-stop harangues by the king for increased allowances, provisions, coming of age of his daughter, marriage preparations of his daughter, birth of a son, plans of the British to educate the boy and the state of health of the king’s mother, her death and the building of a monument. Thus it is very clear that the king’s mother was in fact with the family up to her demise in January 1831. There are several instances mentioned in Prof. Fernando’s paper where the Paymaster requests sanction for various expenditure with regards to king’s mother.

The king became quarrelsome frequently during his days in the Vellore Fort. Once when he quarreled with his brother on law – Coomaraswamy, the authorities decided to transfer the relative. The king intervened to say that in case his mother dies there will not be a brother in law to perform the funeral rites. At one time the Paymaster asks his superiors in Madras whether they would sanction the expenditure needed for the funeral of king’s mother in the event she dies. The Secretary of the Kandyan Provinces directed that the expenses for the funeral of the king’s mother, in the event of her death, be decided by the Paymaster in compliance with any orders the Ft. St. George might desire to give, stating that he saw no reason why a larger allowance should be given then than in the case of the funeral of the king’s aunt (named in the List No.1 of deportees)

As for the Royal Honours mentioned by Mr.Somasiri Devendra the following paragraph from Prof. Fernando’s paper gives glimpse of what actually happened.

“In 1826 the king’s mother became seriously ill and the Paymaster taking timely action sought permission from authorities at Ft. St. George to employ a party of soldiers to accompany the remains of the royal lady, in the event of her death to the cemetery. The authorities in Madras had no objection to a party of native officers being employed to accompany the remains of the king’s mother in the event of her death”. A sum of Rs. 3000/- 3500 was sanctioned for the expenditure.

“Towards the end of 1831 the king’s mother’s condition became alarming and Lt. Col. Stewart wrote as follows. It is customary with Hindoos of distinction and particularly with persons of the captive’s rank to preserve in tombs or transmit to Benares the bones of deceased relatives or erect over ashes a building…….Brindhavanam; the latter has been the usage of the Kandyan family and ….king possesses a drawing of the family tombs at Kandy (the Adhahana Maluwa). The colonel therefore suggested that a piece of land situated near the river and to the left of the road from Vellore to Chittore should be acquired for the purpose of erecting a Brindhavanam”.

The king’s mother died in last week of January 1831. Prof. Fernando, quoting British records, says that arrangements were made for a party of fifty men, all Hindus, commanded by a native officer and a drummer and a fifer to escort the remains of the deceased lady to the place of sepulcher on the banks of the river. The escort was provided with three rounds per man of blank ammunition.

It is now clear that the lady that was buried with royal honours, as narrated by the captain of the Ship Kangaroo, was not the mother of Sri Vikrama. If an event as stated in the ‘Sydney Gazette and the New South Wales Advertiser’ really took place in Colombo, it certainly was not concerning the king’s mother. The lady in question was more likely to be the mother in law of the king. She must have died soon after reaching Colombo since her name was not in the List No.1 of the deportees while the names of the two fathers in law were included. The aunt named in the list died in Vellore.”

The questions that had originally been posed have now been answered. It was not the old Queen Mother who died in Colombo, but a mother-in-law of the King. When the Queen Mother  died later, in Vellore, she was given the royal honours that the British considered due, and these are described in Prof. Edirisinghe.

And so the mystery is solved.

Colonial Heritage

The Fortress of Colombo: What else remains?

By Chryshane Mendis

My research into the remains of the Fort of Colombo led me to identify 7 locations in total which all belongs to the Dutch built Fort. The previous article dealt with my identification of 3 sections of the Dutch fort lying within the Navy Headquarters; that is the entire Dan Briel bastion, the Postern gate known as the Slave port and sections of the rampart from Dan Briel bastion to Amsterdam bastion. In this article, I would discuss the remaining 4 locations.

The passion for exploration and history combined can be very fascinating. One does not need to explore unchartered jungles searching for lost ruins to get this experience. The heart that carries this passion  can find it in any environment; in my case, it was a concrete jungle, the well-known and very much alive, city of Colombo. The area of the Colombo fort which was once one entity is now broken down by various roads and private and public buildings thus remnants of a bygone era could be scattered and links joining them to a common history, lost. Thus the remains of the fort of Colombo which once would have collectively known to exist became separated in time and space as Colombo developed into its present form.

These 4 locations I identified on separate occasions. The first of these 4, the Delft gateway is one of the first remains which I came across. This remnant is no secret, and I came to know of it when I began work at the World Trade Center. This can be found in the Commercial Bank premises down Bristol Street. This monument is protected by the Archaeological Department and is well maintained by Commercial Bank, and anyone could freely visit the place.

The Delft gate formed one of the three main entrances to the Dutch Fort of Colombo, the others being the Galle gate in the south and the Water gate in the harbour. This gate was located on the eastern ramparts between the bastions of Delft and Hoorn and opened up to the Pettah which was the residential area of the city known during the Dutch times as Oud Stad or Old City.

The Delft gate was entered upon from the Pettah by crossing the moat using a draw bridge, and a curved passage way to the right gave entrance to the fort. On either side of the gate was one continuous building which housed the guards. The reason for the curved passage way was to avoid direct fire from the outside to the interior of the fort in case of an attack.

What remains at present is the latter part of the interior of the gate opening inside the fort, and the curved passage way could easily be traced. This is the only section of the fort that remains on the east of the fort if bisected from York Street.

The Delft gate (Author, 2016)
The Delft gate (Author, 2016)
The Delft gate through a plan from the 1690s. The black arrow indicates entrance from the Pettah, circled in red is what remains of the gate. Note the curved passageway.


The second location is the remains of the wall of Battenburg battery which can be found inside the Harbour. This section is also known to the Archaeological Department. I came to know of this section through a Television documentary made a few years back and with the help of my cousin brother we gained access to the harbour to see it.

The Battenburg battery was one of the two gun batteries built by the Dutch on the harbour arm that stretched into the sea. A gun battery is an arrangement of guns protected by a wall and does not contain any distinctive shape unlike the bastion and is built independently of the fort. The Dutch built these two batteries, Battenburg and Waterpass on the harbour arm to cover the approach from the sea and linked these two to the main fort through two lines of fortified warehouses. The Battenburg battery was the only section of the Dutch fort to be continuously used in warfare even after the demolition. This was used by the British as one of the four gun batteries which protected Colombo up until the Second World War where the British had installed six inches breech loading coastal artillery on it.

All that remains now is a seaward section stretching for about 50 meters and is made up of Kabook and bricks with relatively new cement plastering at certain sections. What is exposed is the side that would have been open to the sea, the area of which is now all filled due to the expansion of the harbour whereas the side of the wall facing the inside of the harbour is sealed by a concrete wall.

Battenburg battery (Author, 2015)
Battenburg battery (Author, 2015)
Battenburg battery as seen from the Chaitya, circled in red. (Author, 2015)

The third remnant of the fortifications of the Dutch fort of Colombo is the fortified warehouse. This is located at the end of Chaitya road and now functions as the Maritime Museum. Linking the fort proper with the gun batteries on the harbour arm were two lines of warehouses known as Pakhuizen which were double barrel roofed in design unique to the Dutch. It was here that all the commercial activities of the harbour took place as one of the main gates, the Water gate was situated in the centre of the north warehouse which opened up to the jetty where the ships would dock. Apart from performing the warehouse function it served as a link to the fort proper and the outer defences and was thus fortified with thick masonry so as to withstand bombardment from the sea.

What remains at present is the south warehouse and is in a good state of preservation, a close examination of it would reveal the heavy masonry in its construction which could have withstood heavy bombardment, its function is similar to that of the Galle fort which is also the Maritime Archaeology Museum where the warehouse forms part of the connecting rampart of the fort. The remains of the north warehouse could barely be traced as it has been completely modified and now serve as the Harbour Master’s Office; interestingly the rock with the Portuguese court of arms can be found in a small garden in front of this office. The remaining warehouse which functions as the Maritime Museum houses a lovely collection of artefacts and models of the development of the Colombo harbour and also several large scale models of wooden warships of different periods.

The fortified warehouse (Author, 2015)
The fortified warehouse, note the distinctive double barrel roofs. (Author, 2015)

The final location of the remains of the Dutch fort is a large section of the wall from Enkhuysen bastion and to Dan Briel bastion and is located behind the Junior Police Officers Mess down Chaitya road. I came across this section of the rampart by tracing a plan of the Dutch fort which I superimposed onto a present day satellite map. I had concluded that only six locations of the fort remained and tracing this superimposed map I wished to identify the names of the buildings that occupied the ramparts and bastions for the research paper which I was writing. Coming to this section of the ramparts I walked one evening down Chaitya road after work to find the name of this particular building, which my map showed that the ramparts would have run behind it. Noting that this was the building of the Junior Police Officers Mess I noticed something strange. In one corner of the building was a small canteen with a door opening to a court yard at the back; my eyes, trained to spot anything old from my childhood noticed an old wall. My mind went blank, I thought for a second “could it be…” and walked through the canteen to the back to find to my astonishment the largest section of the ramparts I have yet seen! The distinctive slope of the rampart was quite evident, and it was about 10-12 feet in height and stretched for about 40 meters. It appears to have been plastered over several times as different plastering can be observed.  There is also an interesting stone cut drain jotting out of the wall at a point.

Sections of the rampart between Enkhuysen to Dan Briel (Author, 2016)
Sections of the rampart between Enkhuysen to Dan Briel (Author, 2016)
Sections of the rampart between Enkhuysen to Dan Briel (Author, 2016)


These 4 locations and the 3 locations in the Navy Headquarters add up to 7 locations which all belong to the Dutch fort of Colombo. The Dutch fort of Colombo was completed with all its components by the end of the 17th century but which were subjected to modifications over time. When Colombo fell to the British in 1796, the new owners continued to maintain the Dutch fortifications with very few modifications and in 1869 it was decided to demolish the fortifications for the commercial expansion of the city leaving only sections of the fortifications on the west standing.

The Dutch fort, in blue are the sections that remain at present.
The sections of the fort at present. 1) Battenburg battery, 2) Fortified warehouse (maritime museum), 3) Dan Briel bastion, 4) Rampart between Enkhuysen and Dan Briel, 5) Rampart north of Dan Briel, 6) Postern gate, and 7) Delft gate.

Thus this romantic adventure with the Fort of Colombo made me feel like a modern day Howard Carter and made me realise, even in living modern cities, ruins can be lost and forgotten.

For more details on the remains of Colombo and the list of references, please see my research paper titled “Archaeological Remains of the Fort of Colombo” in the Journal of the Archaeological Society of Sri Lanka Sri Lanka Puravidya Samhitha Vol. 6, 2016.


Colonial Heritage

Defiling Modern Warfare: The Dutch Castle of the North

Chryshane Mendis

Sri Lanka is home to several Dutch forts found throughout the island in varying size; much of the Dutch forts have survived the ages and some being in the mint condition such as the massive Galle Fort which is a World Heritage Site. Another interesting fort known to many is the Jaffna fort situated in the heart of the Jaffna town bordering the lagoon; this beautiful piece of 17th-century military architecture was finally put to the test 300 years later in the 20th century when it defiled modern warfare during the civil war.

Out of the other Dutch forts, the Jaffna fort is the most geometrically perfect, being of an equal sided pentagon with five bastions in the corners and would have been the third largest Dutch fort in the island after Galle and Colombo. The relation between the above three forts was that the territories under the Dutch in 17th and 18th century Sri Lanka were divided into three administrative divisions; the territory to the west with Colombo as the center, the southern areas known as the Galle commandement and the north which included the island of Mannar, the regions of the Wanni and the islands and peninsula of Jaffna as the Jaffna commandement with Jaffna as the center. Thus the forts of Colombo, Galle and Jaffna served as the main military post of the respective commandement and the seat of the Dutch administration of that region. Thus these three forts were larger in size compared to the rest of the forts which were under their control in that region.

Painting of the Jaffna fort by C. Steiger in 1710. (image from

Jaffna was an important centre in trade due to its close proximity to the Dutch control areas of Southern India especially in the trade of Elephants and Pearls. Thus due to this important location, the heart of the old native Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna needed to be protected at all costs, and thus the most geometrically perfect artillery fortification in the island was constructed on the border of the Jaffna lagoon. The Jaffna Fort, identified by Sir James Emmerson Tennent as the most perfect little military work in Ceylon, also had under its command the forts of Hammenhiel, Pooneryn, Ply, Beschutter, Elephant Pass, Mannar and Arippu.

View of Gelderland Bastion from the south-east.

History of the Fort

The first European fort to be built in Jaffna was that of the Portuguese who conquered the Jaffna Kingdom in 1619. With the arrival of the Dutch onto the political stage of 17th century Sri Lanka the fortresses of the Portuguese were captured by the Dutch and the Kingdom of Kandy; after the fall of Colombo in 1656, all that remained of the Portuguese were the fortresses of Mannar and Jaffna. The Dutch advanced upon Mannar, which fell without much resistance and began the siege of Jaffna on 20th March 1658; after a bitter struggle, the Portuguese surrendered to the Dutch on the 22nd June 1658 ending the Portuguese rule in the island. Soon after its fall, the Dutch like in other places of the country began to erect their own fortifications on the site of the Portuguese Fort. The Dutch continued to use the four sided Portuguese fort till 1665 where they completely demolished it and redesigned it to the latest designs of the day- the bastion fort or the star fort design.

Thus the five sided Dutch fort was constructed by 1680. The construction of the Jaffna fort can be divided into two distinct stages, the first stage, the ramparts and five bastions with the moat from 1665 to 1710 and the second stage, the outer fortifications from 1765 to 1792.

Plan from 1698
The main entrance with the date 1680

During the first stage, although the main features were completed by 1680 as indicated on the main entrance to the fort, some of its features were still under construction, and it was completed in its entirety only by 1710. In 1697 it is recorded in the Memoir of Hendrick Zwaardecroon, the Commandeur of Jaffnapatam that the moat was still under construction and also that the bridge to the fort over the moat was made of Palmyra wood and that he has given orders to construct a drawbridge. He further gives deficiencies in the fortifications such as of the gun platforms, the slope of the curtains (rampart), and the embrasures and their recommended solutions.

The second stage of construction commences on the creation of outer defences as indicated on a map dated 1765. On the outer side of the moat was constructed a covered way, the glacis and four ravelins. These outer fortifications give an extra line of defence as well are extending the attack capabilities of the fort. The inner side of the main entrance contains the date 1780 and on the entrance ravelin up until recently was the date 1792 which could be stated as the final year of completion of the fortifications as the fort surrendered to the British three years later.

The plan from 1765 with the outer defences.

In 1795 France invaded the Dutch Republic and created the Batavian Republic, the former Stadholder who fled to the British for protection issued orders on the terms of the British to its colonies to surrender to Great Britain until peace was restored. The British eager to grab the opportunity and to prevent France from taking over the Dutch overseas possessions moved into occupy the colonies even if it meant using force. In September 1795 the British captured Trincomalee and Batticaloa forts and on the morning of the 28th September 1795 arrived at the Jaffna fort which surrendered without firing a single shot. At the time of its capitulation to the British, the Jaffna Fort was garrisoned by only 55 Europeans and 97 Native officers and men. This fine fortification designed to meet any European enemy but being poorly garrisoned in its last days, surrendered without a fight.

Features of the Fort

The Dutch fort of Jaffna was designed like all the other Dutch fortifications in the island on the bastion fort, which was the design for artillery fortifications from the 16th century to the mid-19th century. The designing of a complex bastion fort in Jaffna was due to the key position played by Jaffna in the region, Jaffna formed the key position of the Dutch facing the Coromandel coast and the controlling of the Palk strait and was thus designed to keep out other European nations such as the French and British who were by that time establishing themselves in the Indian Ocean.

BLUE indicates conserved sections, RED indicates not conserved, BROWN indicates destroyed sections (as at June 2017)


The entire fortress of Jaffna including most of the building within was built of coral stone which was found in abundance. The stone was also burnt and used as lime for the construction and used for the foundations or for the filling up of the walls which were then covered up on the outside with cut coral stone (Memoir of Hendrick Zwaardecroon, Commandeur of Jaffnapatam, 1697 for the guidance of the Council of Jaffnapatam, during his absence at the coast of Malabar, p.37).

Concerning the main fortifications of the fort, it was surrounded by five bastions named after cities in Holland. Starting from the south on the left of the main entrance and going clockwise was the bastion of Zeeland, from there ran the rampart along the lagoon to the next bastion of Friesland. The rampart between each bastion is approximately 137 meters. Early Dutch maps of the fort show the lagoon as bordering the rampart between these two bastions with the water gate in the centre of the rampart; now this area has been filled up and between the fort and the lagoon runs the Jaffna-Ponnalai-Point Pedro road. From Friesland bastion, the rampart runs to the bastion of Utrecht, from there to Gelderland and from here to the bastion of Holland to the right of the main entrance. Each bastion had six gun embrasures on each face and three on each flank giving a total of 18 guns on each bastion. Further, each bastion had a belfry, used as communication during a siege.

The Church before destruction. (image taken from The Architecture of an Island)

Within the fort was found the residence of the Lieutenant Governor, the Church, houses for the qualified servants, the hospital, warehouses, the prison, the smithy, ammunition stores, the judiciary the parade grounds and situated on the south just outside the main entrance during the first stage of construction before the creation of the outer defences, was the horse stables and carpentry yard. This fort had one main entrance from the south between the bastion of Zeeland and Holland and a minor entrance known as the Watergate between the bastions of Zeeland and Friesland facing the lagoon. The total area within the fort was 14 acres.

The outer defences comprising of the glacis, the covered way and the ravelins were constructed after 1765. The covered way was created outside the moat and protected Musketeers with a head high parapet formed by the inner edge of the glacis. This allowed the soldiers to check incoming troops from the outside. With this feature soldiers move effectively through the outer circuit of the moat undercover and act as a forward defence line. Another special feature in a covered way was the construction of small sockets jotting into the glacis from the parapet of the covered way; this enabled soldiers to fire parallel to the line of the covered way. The creation of the glacis which is an outward slope from the covered way was designed to prevent the direct fire from enemy cannons to the ramparts. Ravelins are triangular outer works fitted with guns which acted as an outer bastion and was placed between two bastions on the outer side of the moat. The Jaffna fort had four ravelins with the covered way connecting each. Each ravelin had 12 guns each and was connected to the fort with a bridge running from the centre of the ravelin across the moat to the rampart with an entrance in the centre. This allowed troops to enter each ravelin from the rampart situated behind it. To enter the fort, one needed to pass through the entrance ravelin in the south which was on the site of the former horse stables and carpentry yard during the first stage of the fort; the entry to this ravelin was through an ‘S’ shaped path cut through the glacis which prevented direct fire from the outside to the entrance and upon entering from here would have had to cross the moat through the draw bridge to the main entrance of the fort. These outer fortifications formed the first line of defence as well as extending the range of fire of the fort. The Jaffna Fort was the only fort in the island with such a complex system of outer defences. Being the second largest pure military fort in the island (Galle was a fortified town; Colombo was the largest pure military fort) the Jaffna fort, although it did not see any action during the Dutch period, it served its purpose almost 200 years later.

The War and present situation

No 17th-century fortification in the island was tested to the ultimate limit as that of the Jaffna fort, the real strength of this colonial fortification was only known when it survived modern warfare during the Sri Lankan civil war. From the time of the British until independence, the fort remained under the military and with the outbreak of the civil war in the north, was one of the only remaining military bases in Jaffna peninsula under the Government forces. In 1990 the garrison – a company of soldiers of the 6th Sri Lanka Singhe Regiment and the Police were under siege for several months from the terrorists with regular bombardment to the fort from artillery and mortar fire. Operation Thrividha Balaya was conducted in September 1990 to relieve the Jaffna Fort, and after severe fighting, the garrison was rescued, and the fort abandoned. The fort of Jaffna was finally recaptured during Operation Riviresa in 1995 with the capture of the entire Jaffna peninsula.

The main entrance with the guard house and Holland bastion in the background.


View of the main entrance from the inside with the date 1780.
On top of the rampart towards Zeeland bastion. Note the damaged bellfry


View of the face of Gelderland bastion from the covered way. Note the original stone in dark grey and the new reconstructed part in light grey.

The once most perfect fort in the island was left in ruins during the civil war, the ramparts and bastions although severely damaged remained fairly in shape but it was a tragic loss of heritage for the buildings inside the fort. After the end of the war, in 2010 an ambitious project to conserve the Dutch fort by the Department of Archaeology was begun. A visit by the writer in June 2017 to the fort found the bastions and ramparts completely restored using new coral stone. Almost all the gun embrasures and the top layer of the ramparts have been reconstructed; a view of the fort from the outside clearly would show the extent of the damage done to the fort as the original coral stones are of a darker grey compared to the new white stones. In this way, it could be seen that at least a good 50% of the ramparts and bastions have been damaged during the war. All the bastions are now in good order expect the bastion of Friesland; the entire northern section of this bastion including a section of the rampart towards Utrecht Bastion has been destroyed leaving only the foundations. The main entrance is well preserved and still bears the dates ‘1680’ and ‘1780’ on the exterior and interior respectively but in the entrance ravelin which is situated in front of main entrance to the fort has been reconstructed and does not bear the date ‘1792’ anymore. The water gate, situated between Zeeland and Friesland bastions is visible but has been sealed up in the recent past.

Concerning the buildings within, nothing has survived the war, all buildings including the British era Queens House (which was the former Governor’s residence) are in ruins with few standing walls and the magnificent Dutch Reform Church built in 1706 is a pile of rubble at present. This beautiful Church which stood parallel to the Wolvandaal Church and Galle Church was of exceptional beauty and is a national tragedy to have lost such a monument of history. Speaking to an Officer of the Central Cultural Fund at the fort, he said that CCF has taken over from 2016 in the conservation of the fort while the Department of Archaeology will be looking into excavations. He said that they have planned to excavate and conserve the Church. He said that a minor excavation there found Dutch VOC coins and pottery.

Part of the destroyed Church
Part of the Queens house.

Concerning the outer works, thus far only the entrance ravelin and the eastern ravelin and its adjoining covered way have been fully conserved. From the ravelin in the north between Gelderland and Utrecht bastions to the ravelin in the west between Utrecht and Friesland and its covered way remain in its unconserved state as it was during the time of the war showing the horrors of heritage destruction during the conflict. Also, the bridges connecting the ravelins to the ramparts too have vanished. When concerning the glacis, although the extent of the land which once comprised of the glacis is there, it has lost its slope over the years and only a small section on the south beside the entrance ravelin still maintains its slope.

Conserved section of the covered way.
The conserved ravelin with its Gun embrasures and fire steps.
The conserved ravelin from the covered way, the tunnel gives entrance to the ravelin.
A cross section of the entrance tunnel to one of the damaged ravelins, this gives a clear idea on how these were built.
The cross section of the damaged rampart with the damaged Friesland bastion in the background.

The Jaffna Fort is the only fortification in the island with exterior bastion fortification features such as ravelins, covered ways and a glacis and thus gives a unique experience to study and observe these features. In a positive outlook, the Jaffna fort in its present state with conserved and unconserved sections offers a valuable field of study to students of history on the construction and architecture of artillery fortifications of the 17th century. The destroyed section of the rampart between Utrecht and Friesland bastions gives an excellent cross sectional view of the rampart and how it was constructed, and also the un-conserved ravelins too gives a good idea on how the parapet and the gun embrasures were built. On standard contrast, the northern main fortifications of the Galle fort look more majestic but taking the Jaffna fort as a whole; it definitely is the grandest and best artillery fortification in Sri Lanka.


  • Nelson, W. A., The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, 1984
  • Brohier, R. L., & Paulusz, J. H. O., Land Maps & Surveys, 1951
  • Lewcock, R., Sansoni, B., & Senanayaka, L.,The Architecture of an Island,
  • Van Diessen, R., & Nelemans, B., Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV Ceylon,
  • De Silva, C. R., Ceylon Under the British Occupation,1953



Colonial Heritage

The Fortress of Colombo: What lies beneath the Navy Head Quarters

By Chryshane Mendis

The harbour of Kolon Thota or Colombo was a prominent port in ancient Sri Lanka and from the 15th century onwards it was the principle port of the country due to its proximity to the Capital city of Kotte. With the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, they made Colombo their main center establishing a large city over time. The succeeding European colonists, the Dutch and British too made Colombo their center. To protect their interests in the harbour the Portuguese fortified their city and the harbour creating the Fort of Colombo; the succeeding Dutch too erected their own fortifications on the site of the Portuguese ruins. The British after occupation maintained the Dutch fortifications till the mid-19th century where they were demolished for commercial expansion of the city. The Fort of Colombo has a colourful history of almost 500 years and the final fortifications; the Dutch Fort was demolished in the 1870s but not entirely as I found out.

Having read much about the Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, I was determined to explore the untold story of the Fort of Colombo beginning from its inception from the time of the Portuguese, for as common knowledge goes no remains exist. This journey took me on an adventure of a life time, I felt like a modern day Howard Charter to the surprises that awaited me in that busy city center called Colombo 01. There hidden amoung the crowded streets of Fort are the hardly known remains of the name-sake of Colombo 01, the very ruins of the Dutch Fort of Colombo. This is the remarkable story of their rediscovery.

Strolling through books of history I came across a picture which took me quite by surprise, in the book The Epic Struggle of the Kingdom of Kandy by Brendon Gooneratne was a picture somewhere from the 1970s of a wall of the Fort. Judging from the surroundings it seemed to be somewhere on the modern Chaitya road, so hopping on my trusty scooter one afternoon in 2015 I headed down Chaity road in Fort; traveling near the Light House Galley I noticed the building featured in the picture behind the old wall, this turned out to be the Office of the Navy Commander inside the Navy Head Quarters but there was no old wall insight but large trees, so climbing the lighthouse to gain elevation I scanned the tree lines and to my astonishment found through the branches glimpses of an old wall. I was speechless, if that picture was true; those are the ruins of the Dutch Fort. Now I needed a closer look, so I wrote to the Navy Commander seeking permission to visit the old wall inside. I was thrilled when I received a written reply from the Navy granting me and my friend Minol Peiris permission to visit the wall and after contacting the Commanding Officer Captain Suresh De Silva via telephone a date was fixed for the visit. I cried in amazement as to what wonders I would see for seeing ruins within the Commercial Capital of the country is thrilling and of something believed not to exist.

Arriving at the Navy Headquarters we were given passes and greeted by Lieutenant Commander Abeyrathna who escorted us to the site. This old wall faced the Galle Buck road and entering a small compound we came to the base of it. It was beyond words! It was not just a wall but an entire bastion with four cannons jutting out which have been sealed off. The walls were some fifteen feet high and were an odd shape rather than the known triangular bastions like those of the Galle Fort, it had five faces or sides and it was quite clear that it had gone through considerable alterations during the past century with a mix of red bricks and modern cement and concrete. At the base on the south side of the bastion were large boulders which seemed like a natural rock formation.  We documented and photographed this and then we were told that there was more, a gateway to the Fort!  Walking behind the bastion we reached the Flag Staff Street and turning left walked few meters down and to our left we turned with amazement, there flanked by two buildings was an entire gateway with the date still on it. It was in a ruinous condition with trees growing on it and was the dump site of construction material. It was a Postern gate, meaning a small secured entrance by the looks of it with the passageway sealed in the center. The date ‘1676’ was barely visible.

Exploring this we climbed a small portion of wall connected to it and peeping to the other side, I noticed something! We asked the Navy officer who accompanied us if we could go to the other side and he agreed to take us. This was the back garden of another building. My suspicion was right, there on the other side were parts of an old wall, and as they joined the small gateway it was quite clear that they were part of the ramparts of the Fort. The section from the bastion end to the Postern gate is about 30 meters and of about 4 feet in height and has a mix of stone and kabook masonry, along this stretch is a modern wall built upon the ruins. The behind of the Postern gate was a sad sight; it was fully covered with trees with large roots going deep into the masonry. Beyond that too were remains of the ramparts, it ran for about 20 meters with a varying height of about 5 feet, this section too was in a ruinous condition with trees growing on top of it. This part mainly consisted of kabook masonry. We were just taken away. These were definitely part of the fortifications of the Dutch Fort.

We inquired as to whether the Archaeology Department visits these ruins but they said that no one comes and asked us if we could help them identify the ruins. Roused by the fire of discovery I immediately set to work on identifying them. Digging through the maps in the National Archives, the memoirs of the Dutch Governors, various other sources and specially the book The Dutch forts of Sri Lankaby W.A.Nelson I was able to uncover the history of the ruins.

The Dutch Fort, built on the western end of the ruined Portuguese City after its fall in 1656 was constructed on the Bastion Fort design (i.e. Galle Fort) and consisted of 9 bastions and 2 gun batteries on the Habour arm. The Dutch Fort was totally completed by the 1690s. The bastions were named after cities in the Netherlands and from north clock wise, the bastions of Leyden, Delft, Hoorn, Rotterdam, Middleburg, Klippenburg, Enkhuysen, Dan Briel and Amsterdam. The gun batteries on the Habour arm were Battenburg and Water Pass.

The Dutch fort in 1756 (Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV)

The bastion in the Navy Head Quarters was the bastion Dan Briel, this was a modest bastion which protected the rocky beach along the west coast between Enkhuysen and the Battenburg battery. This bastion was situated on a hill, which was the highest point in the city hence the large rocks and the considerable elevation observed at the present site. This bastion’s apex or the pointed end where the two sides of the bastion meet seemed to have been cut sometime in the late 19th century probably in order to make way for the Galle Buck road, as is evident from a map of 1904; giving it its odd five sided shape today. The bastions where initially built of Kabook and only after 1751 were they built of proper lime and stone. Previously the old British lighthouse and the flag staff was located on this bastion and now built upon it is the office of the Navy Commander.

Dan Briel bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)
Dan Briel bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)
Dan Briel bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)
Dan Briel bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)
Dan Briel bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)
Dan Briel bastion (Author, 2015)

The Postern gate had a fascinating history; the Fort had three main entrances, one being the Delft gate on the eastern ramparts, the other the Galle gate on the south, and the third being the Water gate in the habour. In the old days this small secondary entrance was known as the Slave Port which led to the Kaffirs field which was the land area between the Fort and the sea on the western coast; this is where the Company’s slaves were kept. “Without the walls, between them and the sea are the Huts where near four thousand Slaves, belonging to the Company lye at night…their huts are little, made up with nothing but straw and leaves” is the description given by the German Christopher Schweitzer in the 1680s. Thus this was the small entrance from which the slaves of the VOC entered the Fort to work. The Kaffirs field would now correspond to the buildings of the Navy Head Quarters, Galle Buck road, Chaitya road to the coast (now vanished for the Port City), the slaves of the Dutch were first kept here till they were relocated in the 18th century to a small peninsula in the Beria lake now known as Slave island due to an incident, which is an interesting tale for another time.

The Postern gate or Slave Porte (Minol Peiris, 2016)


The date ‘1676’ (Minol Peiris, 2016)
The behind of the gate (Minol Peiris, 2016)


The walls on either side of the Slave Port were the ramparts of the Dutch Fort one, connecting Dan Briel to the Slave Port and the other from the gate to the Amsterdam bastion, but seemed to have lost their shape and size due to the alterations of its surroundings.

Part of the rampart adjoining Dan Briel bastion and the Slave port (Minol Peiris, 2016)
The rampart adjoining the Slave port and Amsterdam bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)
The rampart adjoining the Slave port and Amsterdam bastion (Minol Peiris, 2016)


We were speechless at what we had seen, ruins in the heart of Colombo! I was simply amazed to the fact that these ruins are hardly known and not properly conserved. I was overjoyed as to what I had discovered; the ruins of the Dutch Fort but there was more to it than meets the eye, my research further led me to locate more remains amounting to an astounding seven locations.

The next article would feature the rest of the remains of the Fort of Colombo.



Colonial Heritage

Breaking myths: uncovering the truth behind the ‘Old Dutch Stables’ of Pettah

By Chryshane Mendis

Program Coordinator,
Chryshane Mendis

The Pettah, located in the heart of Colombo bordering the Colombo harbor and the commercial hub Fort was once part of the colonial Dutch city of Colombo which was the center of administration of the Dutch. The Pettah during the Dutch period was known as the Oude Stad or Old City and formed the residential quarters of the city which bordered the Castle or the Dutch Fort of Colombo on the west. This once highly residential area during the Dutch occupation gradually transformed into a commercial hub during the British period and remains that way at present with its unique charm not felt elsewhere. The outline of the Pettah or the roads, are those laid out by the Dutch in the mid-17th century and has managed to maintain its form for over 300 years. Well into the British period the Pettah consisted of houses of various persons and is still scattered around with buildings of old, some preserved and some modified beyond recognition. Out of the surviving Dutch buildings, only the building of the present Dutch museum down Prince Street built in the late 17th century remains in the Pettah, the various other historic buildings such as the Town Hall and the Olcott building belong to the British period. Interestingly there is said of a building situated down Prince Street to be the ‘Old Dutch Stables’. Hunting down this mysterious building, it was found to be on Prince Street, few blocks before the Dutch museum.

This building which now houses a printing press and several other shops, can be found on the right of Prince Street before the Dutch museum when entering from 1st Cross Street but is unrecognizable from the outside as it is camouflaged to meet that of the rest of the Pettah. Through this outer entrance one would gaze in amazement at the massive door frame and its yellow walls instantly recognizing it to an old colonial building.

The front of the building facing Prince Street


The doorway which is about 6 feet from the outer entrance is made of think timber with a large lattice fanlight. Entering through here one comes to a long narrow corridor with tables and racks on either side used by the printing press. Immediately after entry there are two similar doorways on either side of the wall with large door frames but which are sealed off. About 10 feet in front one would find a massive masonry arch with elaborately decorated columns and a keystone in the center of the arch with a symbol of a horseshoe, this section contains a high ceiling. Passing this arch is an uneven corridor with an old two storied building running along the left side and a modern two storied building on the right.

The main entrance

Sealed doorway to the right
Sealed doorway to the left
The Horseshoe on the Keystone

The section on the left is about 20 feet in length and houses the printing press and a few other shops in the rooms. The upper floor looks abandoned and could be reached from the right wing. This upper floor contains an old wooden balcony  with railings which are almost falling apart. The doors and windows of this old section are typical of old 20th century buildings with  decorated oval arched fanlights.

The Upper section
Old wooden balcony with railings

The Old building on the left of the inner corridor
The new right wing in the inner corridor

This building is in a very bad state of preservation and only the strength of its original structure has made it to withstand the winds of time. The two sealed off doorways no doubt opened up to two side wings of this building which are sadly no more as two new buildings have come up on either side in recent times. The people there state that the new up stair building on the right of the inside corridor was built in the 1970s and that before there was an old single storied section with the tiled roof tilting inwards and this section was separated from the inner corridor which would have been an inner courtyard by a long lattice work.

The investigation

This building is thought to be a Dutch stables as claimed by the people around. Having studied the history of the Colombo Fort well, I was surprised to find such a claim. Deciding to find out the truth about this building I dug through the various sources of history and also went through old maps at the National Archives but found no indication of a Stable at the Pettah. When the Dutch took over Colombo from the Portuguese in 1656, they demolished the entire Portuguese city and built anew their own city. They concentrated their military fortifications to the west of the city forming the present Fort area and to the east; they built the residential quarters known as the Oude Stad or Old City forming the present Pettah. Within the Fort they housed the garrison and all high government officials including the Governor and other buildings of the Dutch East India Company which also included the Company stables. The Oude Stad was the residence of the Burghers and the other communities that served in the Company. Going through a map of 1733, there are mentioned 15 important buildings in the Oude Stad including the Siminarium (Seminary which is now the Dutch Museum) and the Nederlandse School on Prince Street known as De Prince Straat during the Dutch times, but no mention is made of a stables.

A Stable or not?

L. Brohier gives an interesting account of the Pettah during the Dutch times in his Changing Face of Colombo speaking on the life of the people during those times and interestingly mentions that residents who own horse carriages, the horses where brought in from the front door and stabled in the garden behind. Therefore this building could not have been a purpose built stables but an ordinary house. Alternately no source could be found as to when this building was constructed and who the original owner was. Digging through the National Archives no material was found on this. I was advised to check with the Colombo Municipal Council as they too have a wealth of documents on Colombo; meeting with the Municipal Assessor regarding this, she said that no such records were found and that the building has not been assessed. Speaking to researcher Mr. Dhanesh Wisumperuma, he stated that the Horseshoe is generally used as a symbol of Luck and was used in houses until recent times; the horseshoe found on the arch of this building could have been placed for this purpose. This might have led to people misinterpreting it as a Stable. Therefore it could be stated that this building was in no way a Stables but an ordinary house.

Dutch or British?

Now the question was its period of construction, was it really a Dutch era building or not? As no written evidence could be found on the date of construction of this building, only an analysis of the architectural features could reveal its most likely period. What mainly characterizes this building to the Dutch period is the large door frame. A study of the colonial architecture revealed that although by the first decades of the 1800s British style buildings were being built, the old Dutch traditions in-house design survived well into the 20th century; leaving to the opinion that what may look Dutch, could well be British. Further speaking to renowned architect Mr. Ismeth Raheem, he explained that the Pettah was remodeled several times and that very little remains of the work of the Dutch period. Looking at the architectural features of this building, he stated that the Keystone on the arch looks British and placed a date between 1880–1930; well into the British period.

A further comparison was made with the Olcott building, another late 19th century house down Maliban Street where Sir Henry Steel Olcott resided.  The column supporting the arch in the Olcott building drew much resemblance to the same found at the said Old building.  And further going through old building plans in the book The Architecture of an Island, I found the surviving sections of this Old House in resemblance to a plan of a Moslem trader house of the mid 19th century down Chekku Street, Pettah but an excursion down this said Street revealed no such house at present for a physical comparison. This building which has not come under the preview of the Department of Archaeology, although not Dutch and not a Stable is no doubt a unique component of Pettah’s once proud heritage and if preserved would be an appeasing sight for the wondering tourist to glimpse on a once bygone era of the Pettah.


  • Brohier, R.L., & J.H.O. Paulusz, Land Maps & Surveys, 1951
  • Lewcock, R., B. Sansoni, & L. Senanayaka, The Architecture of an Island,
  • Van Diessen, R., & B. Nelemans, Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV Ceylon,
  • Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon
  • Brohier, R.L., Changing Face of Colombo,
  • Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union Vol. 41, No. 2, 1951
  • Maps at the National Archives