Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka

Banners of the exhibition

The banner exhibition ‘Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka’ was developed in cooperation with the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka, the Galle Heritage Foundation and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Colombo, with the support of the Foundation Netherlands-Sri Lanka, The Hague, and the Foundation Documentation Monuments VOC, Amsterdam.

The exhibition is authored and compiled by Lodewijk Wagenaar, Amsterdam.

The official opening of the exhibition by Her Excellency Tanja Gonggrijp, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka was on Tuesday 22 March 2022 at the Jaffna Fort.

To view the banners please click here.

Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka

A banner exhibition:

The banner exhibition ‘Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka’ has been developed in cooperation with the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka, the Galle Heritage Foundation and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Colombo, with the support of the Foundation Netherlands-Sri Lanka, The Hague, and the Foundation Documentation Monuments VOC, Amsterdam.
The exhibition is authored and compiled by Lodewijk Wagenaar, Amsterdam.

The official opening of the exhibition by Her Excellency Tanja Gonggrijp, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka will on Tuesday 22 March 2022. The opening venue will be the Jaffna Fort.

The main banners:

1. Dutch forts in Sri Lanka

2. Ally against the Portuguese, 1638-1658

3. An occupied coastal area with many forts

4. Construction and maintenance

5. Administration and exploitation of a colony

6. Batteries and sentry boxes

And special banners on: Galle, Matara, Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Colombo (Sri Lanka)

For additional information in English text please click here

For additional information in Sinhala text please click here

For additional information in Tamil text please click here

Event: PhD defense Niels Terpstra

Niels Terpstra (@nielsterpstra) | Twitter
Niels Terpstra (@nielsterpstra) | Twitter

On 23 April 2021 Niels Terpstra will defend his dissertation on the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Niels wrote his dissertation at the History of International Relations and Conflict Studies section of the Faculty of Humanities at Utrecht University. The PhD thesis was supervised by prof. Georg Frerks and dr. Nora Stel. The title of his dissertation is: Rebel Governance and Legitimacy in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In this social-historical research project, Niels explored the role of non-state armed actors, service provision, and civilian compliance during the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Invented Heritage: The Last Sri Lankan King’s Prison Cell in Colombo, by Chryshane Mendis

A stroll down the old streets of Colombo’s Fort district would no doubt remind one of the city’s colonial past, with many of its buildings giving out their European descent through their architecture. Amidst this cluster of British and even Dutch heritage buildings and monuments is a small curious monument in the carpark of the Ceylinco House building in the shape of a prison cell. Tradition has it that it once held the last king of Kandy, the last independent native kingdom of Sri Lanka, and indeed so reads the inscriptions on the monument, which is also a protected monument by the Department of Archaeology.

While exploring tidbits of Colombo’s past, my curious mind noticed an inconsistency in this narrative, that academically it was known that the king was not imprisoned here, but placed in a large house and well looked after until his deportation. Then which narrative is true? And then what exactly is this monument? In 2018 I decided to investigate this and produced a research article with a surprising conclusion which I disseminated in online and print media. It turned out that the academic narrative was right and that the present monument was constructed in the 1950s! I attempt here to give a summary of this and take a step further by exploring on a question I ended with in the previously published article; why the conception of such a narrative and monument?

The present monument (Author, 2018)

The popular narrative goes that the king was kept in a cell within the fort of Colombo before his departure, but is it the actual story? In the February 1815 British campaign to oust King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha from the throne; the king who fled the capital was captured on the 18th February 1815 and transferred to Colombo. Arriving in Colombo on the 6th of March the king and his family remained there till the 24th of January 1816 when he was deported to Vellore in South India.

My research showed that 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”

Dr. Henry Marshall, a contemporary to the event gives a detailed account of the last King, his appearance, his character and a very impartial look at his rise and fall. In his book 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”

The writings of Dr. Marshall further confirm beyond doubt, of the king being placed within a house in the fort and not in a prison cell.

Then where was this house? Here is where the site of the monument and the narrative of the housing of the king comes together. R. L. Brohier states that the king was housed in a Dutch house which was later occupied by the Darley Butler building, and later by the present Ceylinco House – the current site of the monument. My historical survey showed the present location indeed used to be a block of houses during the Dutch period which would have no doubt been there in 1815, just 19 years after the takeover of Colombo by the British.

If the king was in a house, then what is this present monument? The Darley Butler building was established on the site of the house prior to 1860 and was later demolished in about 1960 when the Ceylinco House was being built between 1955 and 1962. A significant change to the built landscape around the Darley Butler building occurred in the mid-19th century, where the ramparts of the fort were taken down and a military barracks complex termed the Echelon barracks was built  in 1875 – just adjoining the Darley Butler building. A study of a detailed plan of 1904 at the National Archives showed a small box shaped structure just bordering the Darley Butler building to the south which appears to have been a guardroom with an entrance to the barracks facing Queen’s Street. This was confirmed by an old photograph of around the 1920s, which clearly shows the guardroom as square shaped with a tiled roof. Suspecting a relationship between the guardroom and the present monument, further comparative analysis was done with maps and aerial images, which identified the site of this guardroom and the present monument as the same.

Photograph of Queens Street, ca.1920s. RED circle clearly shows the Guard house with entrance (Extract from Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, 2005)             

As both the guardroom and the present monument fit to the same location, there appears to have been a modification or complete remodeling made to the guardroom by 1960, as a photograph of that year clearly shows the present monument next to the Darley Butler building together with a still-under-construction Ceylinco House.

Photograph from Baurs building, 1960. RED circle shows the present monument (The Faithful Foreigner, 2015)

Then comes the big question, why? Why create this structure and associate it with the false narrative of the king in a prison? Since its appearance from 1960, it has consistently been associated as a monument of heritage; an authentic prison cell from 1815 where the king was purportedly held. Was this a case of mistaken identity? No. The results clearly showed the narrative of the imprisonment as false and the monument as a reconstruction of a much later guardroom. Hence it could be considered a case of invented heritage; a deliberately ascribed narrative to a ‘new’ structure.

While I wasn’t able to find out why and by whom such a monument was created, it is interesting to explore this question through a socio-ideological lens, not in a sense to find an answer but to explore the possibilities.

Taking an overview of the built heritage of Colombo fort, it is a space of colonial heritage, with built heritage sites from the Dutch period through to the British; however with this present monument being the only indigenous heritage monument in Colombo Fort. If a question is asked of representation in the heritage space, it fits in quite well; it is a monument associated with a Tamil king of a Sinhala kingdom, a representation of the two dominant ethnic cultures of Sri Lanka within the predominantly European space.

If looked at from this perspective of indigenous-colonial representation in heritage space, was this a part of a larger process of decolonization in a post-colonial nationalism-oriented Sri Lanka? Or was it simply a personal whim for a hoax or an adding of extra value to real-estate?

The change from guardroom to prison cell appears to have been made in the late 1950s when the Ceylinco House was being built. This falls within the first decade after independence from the British in 1948, a time of active nationalism and decolonization by indigenizing colonial space. Colombo being the center of colonialism was actively being decolonized; Victoria Park was renamed Viharamahadevi Park in 1958, Queens House renamed to Janadhipathi Mandiraya (Presidents house) and its adjoining Queens Street to Janadhipathi Mawatha, and Gordon Gardens renamed to Republic Square, to name a few. It is therefore tempting to ponder if this ‘prison cell of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’ was  a monumental reproduction of the last Kandyan king for a post-colonial Sinhalese identity project amidst colonial European heritage monuments; a form of re-appropriation of heritage space.

Key References:

Brohier, R. L., 1984. Changing Face of Colombo. Colombo: Lake House Investments.

Diessen, R. V., Nelemans, B., 2008. Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV. Cakovec: Zrinksi Printing & Publishing House.

Macmillan, A., Extract from Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, 2005.

Marshall, H., 1846. Ceylon, a general description of the island and its inhabitants. Tisara Prakasakayo (reprint 1969).

Mendis, H.M.C., 2018. Truth behind the Prison cell of the last King in Colombo Fort. Archaeology.lk [online] Available at: Truth behind the Prison cell of the last King in Colombo Fort

Perera, N.,1999. Decolonizing Ceylon: Colonialism, nationalism, and the politics of space in SriLanka. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ranasinghe, D., The Faithful Foreigner, Thilo Hoffmann, The Man Who Saved Sinharaja, 2015


Chryshane Mendis

Chryshane is a Sri Lankan graduate student residing in Amsterdam. He has just completed his MA Archaeology in Landscape and Heritage from the University of Amsterdam with a thesis on a GIS inventorying and mapping of Dutch and Kandyan fortifications. He has conducted a comprehensive survey on the archaeological remains of the Fort of Colombo and has since been invited to and delivered lectures to numerous organizations including the Sri Lanka Navy and published both locally and internationally. He is also the author of an upcoming book documenting the history of Colombo’s fortifications which will be published through The National Trust Sri Lanka. His academic interests are on Sinhalese warfare, military history & architecture, military landscape heritage and plans to pursue doctoral studies in Conflict Archaeology. He was also researcher and coordinator of Archaeology.lk through which he has published numerous articles.

New Research Project: ‘Towards a Virtual Slave Island’

by Alicia Schrikker & Bente de Leede

Figure 1: Slave Island 19th century, origin unknown

A project that connects history to the present by studying colonial heritage, is the recently started, titled: Towards a Virtual Slave Island. Contested Space and Everyday Life in Colombo, ca. 1700 – present.

This one year project aims to support ongoing activities of heritage and social activist concerned with the demolition of Colombo’s historic Slave Island (Kompannavidiya). Its goal is to unearth and visualise the area’s socio-cultural history and heritage. It is a collaborative project between Sri Lankan professionals in the field of architecture, history and sociology and historians in the Netherlands.  In the past decades, the Colombo Metropolitan area has become of the fastest-growing cities in South Asia. The ongoing developments might herald modernity for some, they also change the spatial and social fabric of downtown Colombo. In Slave Island – despite heritage initiatives and activism – countless historical buildings are demolished to make way for a new high rise, and families that have lived there for generations on Slave Island are dislocated to the city’s outskirts.

Figure 2 View of Beira Lake and Slave Island, © Creative Commons License

The main objective of the project is to document and visualise the forgotten, multicultural and -religious history of Slave Island, which houses a multi-ethnic community whose collective genealogies trace back to seventeenth and eighteenth-century Colombo. The end result of Towards a Virtual Slave Island will consist of an online interactive map of Slave Island’s current and historical transformations. The map will have five layers of ‘snapshots’ of Slave Island’s daily life and allows visitors to travel back in time: from the present-day evictions via early days of Independence over the industrialisation under the British, to the settlements of Indian Ocean slaves, soldiers and exiles during Dutch rule. The goal of the map is to go beyond architecture, as it puts life stories of past and present inhabitants of the suburb on the foreground.

The project will digitally preserve a city that is rapidly changing, but the team also wants to raise awareness. By producing new historical narratives accessible to a broader audience, it hopes to generate curiosity and foster new projects, both from Sri Lankan heritage organisations and professional historians. Towards that goal, the narratives on the website will be made available in English and Dutch, and will be translated in Sinhala and Tamil.

Project members and advisors in Sri Lanka: Iromi Perera (Right to the city) Varuna De Silva (University of Moratuwa) Ramla Wahab Salman (AISLS) and Vagisha Gunesekera (AISLS)

Project members in the Netherlands: Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) and Dries Lyna (Radboud University)


The project is funded by:

A new beginning

After a very long pause the Netherlands Sri Lanka foundation revives its newsletter. Nothing to do with COVID19 but thanks to our young ambassadors, who introduce themselves further in this newsletter. At our event on 5 November 2019, “Who Owns Heritage?” held at the National Archives of the Netherlands we announced that the foundation plans to continue and engage further, with interested people and organizations, on this fascinating and important theme and more general issues of interest with regard to Sri Lanka.  At the November event, Martine Gosselink (formally at Rijksmuseum now at Mauritshuis) presented the story of a blue cannon from Kandy, Sri Lanka. The study into the provenance of this cannon is continuing but the research activities related to the cannon in Sri Lanka is slowed slightly for a reason that needs no mentioning. The renovation of the Dutch Period Museum in Colombo is progressing to plan.
COVID19 has not prevented us from reflecting and discussing how we should proceed further with our activities in 2020 and beyond. Being optimistic, we intend to maintain communications, hopefully in two ways, via our newsletters; and by other means of course. Our objective is to widen our reach and scope of activities. So please do let us know if there are topics or issues that you wish to share with us or for us to address in strengthening the relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.
Georg Frerks, Chairman and Dilip Tambyrajah, Member of the Board