Chilaw Fort of the Portuguese (හලාවත පෘතුගීසි බළකොටුව)

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The Portuguese were the first to introduce European forts in Ceylon. They fortified the major administrative, military and economic centres of Jaffna, Negombo, Colombo, Galle, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee. After the Dutch had captured these forts in the period 1638–1658, most were rebuilt or strengthened.

The earliest of the Portuguese forts were built during the period of revolts at Ruwanwella, Galle and Uduwara. The fort at Uduwara appears to have been built to counter Edirille Rala (Crowned King of Kotte in 1596 and given the kingdoms of Kotte and Sitawaka by King Vimala Dharma of Kandy around 1596) and after his death abandoned.

By 1597, there were twelve forts and stockades. de Albuquerque could report the completion of forts (fortes or fortalezas) at Galle, Matara, Kalutara, Negombo, Chilaw, Gurebewila, Batugedara, Ruwanwella and Kuruwita (really at Delgamuwa in Kuruwiti korale, according to Fr. S. G. Perera), two stockades (tranqueiras) at Malwana and Kaduwela and a castle at Sitawaka (Pieris,1929).

With the slow conquest of the Four and the Seven korales, other forts sprang up, at Menikkadawara, Damunugashinna, Mottappuliya, Diyasunnata, Attapitiya, Deewala, Alawwa, Etgaletota, Katugampola and Pentenigoda (Abeyasinghe, 1969). In 1657 the clay walls of Negombo were replaced by stone and van der Meyden, the Dutch Governor of Zeylan (Ceylon) recommended building another fort at Chilaw in order to protect the cinnamon in the Seven Korales as well as to control the port “where much shipping goes on” (Pieris,1929). However there is no indication that a second fort was built.

However the Chilaw, anciently called “Pitigal Korale” was under the possession of the Kandyan king until 1756 when it was captured by the Dutch (Chitty, 1834).

In 1796 Chilaw was surrendered to the British during the hostilities with the king of Kandy, In 1803 this fort was besieged by the Kandyan forces and was re-captured by British troops sent from Negombo.

Lord Valetia provides the below account of this siege ;

The Fort of Chilaw is the most trifling thing I ever beheld under that name, It consists of a ditch , in some parts three feet deep, with a rampart of earth that slopes equally both ways, and is about ten feet high on the top of which is a row of hedge stakes driven in close to each other. In the front of this, on the edge of the ditch is a range of trees with their branches placed outwards. This is a late addition; yet without this it stood a siege against a the Second Adigar and three thousand Cingalese. They carried their approaches very regularly and at length brought their batteries so near the fort that they conversed with the garrison. Mr Campbell, who commanded, though a Civil Servant, had with him but sixty Sepoys and Malays; yet the enemy who could see everything never attempted to storm the place. He had not shot, and only a barrel and half of powder. He was obliged to use pice, of which he had six thousand rix-dollars in the place, and to manage his fire sparingly, as he did not know when he might be relieved. He had not great occasion to fear in other respects for not a man was killed on his side, His havildar told him there was no use in loading with the ball: ‘Put in powder enough’ said he ‘and the noise will be sufficient to keep them off’ . Repeated offers of reward were made to the garrison if they would give him up, but without effort. At length Captain Blackwall with forty men came to his assistance by water from Negombo, and the Candy army retreated with the utmost expedition…….

There is not much information of this fort during the early periods of Portuguese and Dutch. However some details of the Chilaw Fort are given by Haafner in 1821,

Chilaw is a large village, very pleasantly situated in a grove of cocoa- trees . The river, from which the place takes its name, and on whose banks it is situated , separates it from the shore of the sea, from which it is about a mile distant. This river takes its rise among the mountains of Bocaul, and flows, as has been just observed, past Chilaw into the sea. There is here an old fort, small, and of a square form ; it was built by the Portuguese, the first conquerors of India, and has since been repaired and improved. In time of peace, the garrison consists of from thirty to fifty men , chiefy Topazes and Lascars, but on account of the war with the English , it has been reinforced with two hundred Europeans and Malays, which , from the strong situation of the place, was a force more than sufficient to defend it against an enemy twenty times more numerous…..

In 1834, Simon Casie Chitty provides another description of the fort;

The fort, which is constructed of mud, is situated in the Pettah on the north side of the river, and was formerly enclosed with strong palisades. It contains only a house for the residence of the commandant, a powder magazine, and a hospital, and is at present garrisoned by armed lascoreens. The dwelling house of the collector and the cutcherry offices stand close by the sea shore; they have been lately very much improved. The Pettah is composed of a number of low, ill-built houses, with a few exceptions constructed of clay, covered with thatch, and huddled up together in the midst of cocoanut topes. There are two places of public worship; one belonging to the Protestants, and the other to the Roman Catholics. The former is a handsome building, constructed through the generous aid and superintendence of F. J. TEMPLER, Esq. and called in compliment to him “St. James’s Church,”

There is no map of this fort found. Based on the thesis by Chryshane Mendis concerning its exact location, Ranjith Jayasena states that the present Police station is housed in part of the fort which retains a strongly built complex of masonry; however local tradition states the location of the fort as being of the present Court complex, which is about 850m to the east of the Police station. For this thesis, the location is considered as the Court complex due to the fact that it is more in the center of the town, which is where most Dutch posts were located (Mendis,2020).

According to the Archaeologist and the author of Halawatha Buddhist Heritage David Gayan Indika, the last written report about the fort is found in the year 1843 during the British rule, when they built a high court building in the fort. It is said that on January 9, 1952, a part of the gate was cut down and a part of the gate was broken to build the Municipal Council building.

The tunnel of Halawatha Fort, which has become a part of history, can be seen even today. The entrance to the tunnel from within the District Court building of Chilaw is about 5 feet high. The tunnel leading from the court building to Puttalam Road and leads to St. James Street. During the construction of buildings near Chilaw-Puttalam Road, the owners of the buildings who found the tunnel considered that it would interfere with the construction of their building and had closed it down. As a result of the repeated requests by the author, the tunnel is to be dug and built again.

References

  1. Abeyasinghe, T. (1966) Portuguese rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612. Colombo: Lake House Investments.
  2. Haafner, J. (1821) Travels on Foot Through the Island of Ceylon (translated from the Dutch). London, England: Sir Richard Phillips and Co.
  3. Chitty, S.C. (1834) The Ceylon Gazetteer : Containing an Accurate Account of the Districts, Provincesm Cities, Towns, Principal Villafes, Harbours, Rivers, Lakes &c of the Island of Ceylon. Cotta Church Mission Press.
  4. Mendis, C., 2020. FORTIFICATIONS AND THE LANDSCAPE : A GIS Inventory and Mapping of Kandyan and Dutch Fortifications in Sri Lanka. Master’s thesis. University of Amsterdam.
  5. Pieris, P.E. (1929) Dutch Power in Ceylon (1602-1670) : Some documents relating to the rise of the Dutch power in ceylon, 1602-1670: From the translation at the India Office. Colombo: C.A.C. Press.

Also See

Map of  Chilaw Fort

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Traveling Directions to Location of the Chilaw Fort

Route from Colombo to Location of the Chilaw Fort
Though : Katunayake Expressway – Negombo – Chilaw
Distance :81 km
Travel time : 2 hours
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