Chapter 4, Part 12
For thousands of years the island of Sri Lanka – known to the ancient Greeks as Taprobana, to the Persians and Arabs as Sarandib, to the Portuguese as Ceilão, to the British as Ceylon, and mentioned in the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata as Lanka – has been renowned as the source of one of the most exotic spices: cinnamon. Its deep harbors, fertile soil and strategic location in the Indian Ocean contributed to the island’s importance in ancient maritime trade routes, inevitably making it one of the Old World’s melting pots. Merchants from Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia were attracted by the plethora of opportunities the island had to offer.
Galle, today a city on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, played a major role in trade activities between the local populace and the rest of the world. The early 15th-century Ming dynasty admiral, Zheng He, visited Galle on multiple occasions during the seven expeditions of the treasure voyages spanning nearly three decades. During one of his visits, he erected a trilingual inscription written in Chinese, Tamil and Persian, praising the Buddha as Buddhism was the dominant belief of the Sinhalese as well as one of the most prominent religions in China.
In the time when European explorers set sail around the globe, found direct sea routes to India and the Spice Islands, and started dominating the spice trade, the Portuguese were the first to arrive in the island they later called Ceilão. Their presence in Sri Lanka began in the early 16th century, and on a promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean (which is part of modern-day Galle) they built a fort called Santa Cruz de Gale to strengthen their control of the spice trade to and from the island.
A century later, in a period when the Portuguese were facing deep opposition in the Spice Islands, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) posed a serious threat to the existence of Ceilão Português. The VOC, whose growing influence in the spice trade would propel them into a powerful multinational company in the decades that followed, entered an alliance with the Kingdom of Kandy – the only Sri Lankan kingdom the Portuguese never conquered. In the mid-17th century the Dutch-Kandyan alliance stormed Portuguese strongholds one after another, and months later the Dutch forces eventually captured Galle after sustaining heavy casualties.
As the Portuguese withdrew from the island, the Dutch rebuilt and reinforced what remained of Santa Cruz de Gale. Palisades were replaced by impregnable walls, more than a dozen of new bastions were built, and a Dutch church as well as administration buildings were constructed. The Dutch remained in Galle until their archrival, the British, successfully took over Sri Lanka 150 years later toward the end of the 18th century.
Under British rule, Galle’s significance gradually diminished for the new colonial power preferred to develop Colombo, some 100 km to the north. Colombo flourished, even after Ceylon’s independence from the British in 1948, as it became the economic center of the nation. Nevertheless, Galle’s decreasing importance was redeemed in 1988 when Galle Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and South-East Asia, showing the interaction between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions.” Galleans must have been really proud on the day it was announced.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.