A Grand Monument of Dutch Rule in Sri Lanka: The Dutch Reformed Church

Mahil Wijesinghe in  Sunday Observer, 11 June 2017, which is entitled “Dutch Reformed Church of Galle:  Dutch Period’s Finest Monument”

The Dutch Reformed Church stands inside the Galle Fort.

The capital of the Southern Province, Galle is home to a population of around 100,000. Easily reached via the Southern Expressway, the A2 Highway or the coastal rail line, Galle is indeed a place worth a stop. A quick walk through the chip-stone laid busy streets and you will discover the rich history of the colonial period and the natural beauty of the seascape. Galle’s major and oldest landmark is the massive Portuguese and Dutch Fort in which the central city is contained and its geographical location on world sea routes certainly made it an important port of call for centuries, between the Middle East and Orient. This is a ‘living’ fort unlike the one in Colombo which was torn down long ago, leaving only the name “Colombo Fort”.

‘De Groote Kerk’

Today, the 90-acre Galle Fort almost shows no evidence of its Portuguese founders. The Dutch incorporated the Portuguese northern wall in a great rampart in 1663. The Dutch also installed a sophisticated drainage system, complete with brick-lined underground sewers that were flushed twice a day by the tides. The original gate to the fort was by the harbour. It is still there, marked by the old Dutch V.O.C. (for “Vereenigde OostIndische Compagnie”) arms with a rooster crest.

The Main Gate was opened in the wall by the British in 1873. Not far from the gate is the old Government House, dating from 1683. A few yards away from this gate on the eastern side on a higher elevation inside the Galle Fort is the ‘De Groote Kerk’ or the Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest Protestant church in Sri Lanka. During my brief visit to the Galle Fort, while driving down on my way to Matara last month, I visited this church one late morning.

Originally, constructed on the site of a Portuguese Capuchin convent upon the Dutch conquest in 1640, the present church was raised in 1755. The interred remains of Dutch were moved here in 1853, their gravestones from Dutch cemeteries pave the floor, and coats-of- arms coat the walls. Outside the fort walls is the ‘Kerkhopf’ (1786). On the gates of its cemetery are the Latin words: memento mori, “Remember Death.”

It was a holiday and I entered the church after climbing a very short flight of steps to its floor full of gravestones with smooth surface carved letters and floral motifs. There were some prayers and also some foreign visitors. At the site, I thought of the Wolvendaal Church in Colombo where I saw massive gravestones. In fact, this was used for memorial services and burials. R.L. Brohier, an explorer and surveyor and one of the Dutch descendants extensively researched this church. He has explained that such burial chambers had been known to exist, to hold the embalmed remains of eminent personages in Dutch times.

Burial chambers

It is said, the Galle church was such a chamber for the body of General Hulft, the Dutch Commander who was killed during the siege of Colombo. It is on record that “the body of General Hulft received in Galle three days after his untimely death” and placed within a masonry catalogue in De Groot Kerk for a year. Thereafter, it was lowered into a grave on the right of the pulpit within the Church. The General’s arms and spurs were hung on the wall, over the grave. The following year, 1658, with the Dutch conquest of coastal Ceylon, the body of Hulft was removed to the State Dutch Church, within the Colombo Fort, where it was placed in a tomb. The pews are well maintained and the original stained-glass still adorns the windows while other impressive features include the organ in a decorated gallery above the entrance and an imposing pulpit made from calamander wood and topped by a grand hexagonal canopy.

On the walls on left, I saw a peculiar mural tablet bearing a plaque commemorating the deaths of Commandeurs Abraham Samland, a well-known Commandeur of Galle in the 18th century (1766) and Casparus de Jong (1758). It is said that the church was a gift from de Jong in gratitude for the birth of a long awaited daughter in 1752.

Another striking feature of the Church is carved wooden memorial dedicated to a former Commander of Galle. Coming out from the church, I gazed around the grass compound and came across a large number of elaborately carved stone gravestones erected around the outside walls of the church. Unlike the churches in Colombo and Jaffna, the Galle church has no central tower. The two gables on the front and the back walls make this the most distinctive Dutch building in the island.

Brohier alluded to a two chambered vault underneath the church floor. One of these was opened in 1908. Today, the burial chambers- two adjacent to each other- in the north garden of the Church can be seen. The chambers as well as the interior of the Church have been restored with funds provided by the Royal Netherlands Government. Brohier has also described in his book of ‘Dutch Ceylon’ that when the vault was opened it was found to have been in good preservation- though much smaller than expected, a mere 6×9 by 5 ½ feet.

The remains of the last coffin were there, the lid covering the bones. On one side there were fragments of other old bones and bits of coffins scattered around. The vault can still be seen on the right side of the Church’s grass compound.

It is said that during the repairs in 1925, the church was without a roof. The heavy rains made the flooring sink in certain places. There was a fear that one of the vaults believed to be under the floor had collapsed. In mid-2004, this beautiful church was re-dedicated for the benefit of visitors from near and far who come to see the amazing history of colonial legacy of Galle Fort. This is a must-see place. However, there are reports that Galle Fort could be de-listed from the UNESCO world heritage sites in Sri Lanka. The danger to these valuable artifacts had been highlighted earlier too and it’s disheartening to know that illegal constructions have still not stopped.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Considering its antiquity of maritime archaeology, international recognition was gained in 1988 when the fort became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has led to conservation work on the fort’s main feature, the huge rampart wall which has been restored with funds from the government of Netherlands. The former architectural style of the Dutch houses has also been conserved painstakingly.

Galle and its Dutch Fort have experienced many positive changes since 1990. A large number of foreigners began to purchase the Fort’s old Dutch houses and lands and restored them to their former glory. Some of these old buildings have been converted into boutiques, hotels, guesthouses and villas due to the increased tourist influx into the fort making the fort a special place to stay.

The picturesque Galle International Cricket Stadium situated at the base of the fort’s tallest rampart, became a venue for Test cricket in 1998.With an increased need for lavish accommodation, cricket fans have been flocking to upmarket hotels such as Amangalla on playing days.

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Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, politIcal discourse, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, world events & processes

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