Short descriptions: Dutch Forts of Colombo, Mannar and Katuwana

Extract from Chryshane Mendis's MA Thesis titled "Fortifications and the Landscape: A GIS Inventory and Mapping of Kandyan and Dutch Fortifications in Sri Lanka" , 2020, University of Amsterdam.


Fig. 11 “Representation of the Castle and the Town of Colombo with the situation in their environs” dated 1681 (Netherlands National Archives. Inventory no. 4.VEL 944).

Colombo served as the capital city of the Portuguese territories and was a large fortified city. It was taken by the Dutch after a lengthy siege in May 1656 and soon after garrisoned. By the end of the 1650s some of the Portuguese fortifications had been rebuilt however it later was decided to completely rebuild the city, restructuring the entire urban fabric. As such much of the Portuguese city, buildings and all were demolished between the 1660s and 1670s and by the end of that decade a completely new city had been built more or less within the urban space of the Portuguese city. Dutch Colombo was divided into two fortified entities, the main Castle (Casteel) on the west and a fortified town to the east known as the Old City (Oude Stad). The bastions and ramparts of the Old City were however demolished by them at the end of the century. The Castle functioned from then on as the sole defence work of Colombo. It comprised of an irregular polygon defined as Type 08 and comprised of nine bastions and was further linked to two gun batteries on the harbour arm by two lines of fortified warehouses. Colombo is classed as a Main fort category 01 functioning as the main administrative, economic and military center of the all the VOC territories of Sri Lanka as it was the seat of the Governor and main port. The Castle housed the garrison, the Governor’s residence, offices and residential buildings of senior company officers, a stables, a school, a hospital and a church. The buildings on the harbour arm functioned as warehouses and workshops relating to shipping. The Old City was designed into 16 blocks on a grid pattern and was sold for private ownership. It was chiefly a residential area and comprised of houses for the Burghers[1], an orphanage and seminary, a hospital, a school for the natives and the cemetery.

Colombo was taken over by the British who continued to maintain its fortifications until the mid-19th century where between 1869 and 1871 much of the eastern and southern works were taken down for the building of new military barracks. The northern and western defence works gradually became isolated amounting to eight locations at present.[2]

Fig. 12 Remains of the Slave gate, a postern gate located on the western ramparts (Author, 2016).

                        Fig. 13 Remains of the rampart south of Dan Briel bastion (Author, 2016).


Fig. 14 Plan of the fort of Mannar ca.1722 (Netherlands National Archives. 4.VEL 993)

Mannar is a medium sized fort classed as a Secondary fort category 01: to safeguard the trade monopoly and collection of goods. It is located on the vital island of Mannar in the northwest of the island falling under the Commandment of Jaffna. The Portuguese fort was captured in 1658 on the final campaign against them and garrisoned soon after. It appears that an external defence work was made around the smaller Portuguese fort but by the mid-1670s construction was begun on a new square fort (classified as a Type 04). Its primary material of construction is coral stone and was completed by 1686 as per the date above the gate.[1] This plan of Mannar (Fig. 14)dates to ca. 1722 and its annotations give an insight into its function. It comprised of houses for the Ensign, Surgeon, Storekeeper and married soldiers, it also had a hospital, a church, small stores for the smithy and firewood, a jail, a cistern, warehouse for cloth (trade items from India), and general warehouses; all aligned along the ramparts with a parade ground in the center.[2] This fort has survived in its entirety but has seen much damage during the decades of the Sri Lankan civil war including the destruction of most of the internal buildings and the entrance. It is currently under restoration.


Fig. 16 Plan of archaeological investigations at Katuvana fort, 2000 ((Jayasena, 2006).

Katuvana is a small inland frontier fort classed as a Secondary fort category 03: primarily to defend the VOC territory with the capacity for storage. It is a square stone fort with two diagonally opposite bastions and located on the eastern bank of the Urubokka Oya.[1] Katuvana is first mentioned as a field fortification in 1661 with the stone fort being built from 1679 to 1681.[2] The annotations on a plan of Katuvana in the map 4.VEL 1075 (Netherlands National Archives) and dated to ca. 1695, are listed as the guardroom, two sergeant’s rooms, a small house for the constable, an arsenal, a powder house, a provisions store, and a well.[3] Katuvana was abandoned in the early 19th century under the British but had managed to survive in its entirety and was the first VOC fort to be systematically excavated in 2000 by the Amsterdam Archaeological Center of the University of Amsterdam and the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) of the University of Kelaniya Sri Lanka.[4]

The aims of the excavation were to document the remains of the fort and its setting, and the impact of progressive erosion on the archaeological record including the remains of internal structures. Excavation trenches (see Fig.16) revealed internal buildings as marked on the plan and as well a layer of charcoal with artefacts typical of Kandyan period on top. This was speculated to be a pre or early colonial phase or the destruction in the siege of 1761. The artefacts revealed a high percentage of indigenous earthenware and reused European objects, indicating a limited supply of European goods from Galle. It is further hypothesized that the high percentage of indigenous artefacts may represent either a process of adaptation or a culturally mixed garrison. The walls of the fort were fully restored in 2007.                                                                                                                           
Fig, 17 General view of the excavation at Katuvana fort, looking west, 2000 (Jayasena, 2006)

Fig, 18 An external view of a bastion of the Katuvana fort (Dr. Ashan Geeganage, 2013).


[1] Oya - Sinhalese word for small river.

[2] Jayasena, R. M., 2006. The historical archaeology of Katuwana, a Dutch East India Company fort in Sri Lanka p.116

[3] Translations from Diessen, R. V. and Nelemans, B., 2008. Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. I p. 165

[4] Jayasena, R. M., 2006 p.117


[1] Based on photographic evidence. The gate has been completely destroyed possibly during the recent civil war.

[2] Translations from Dr. Lodewijk Wagenaar


[1] Burghers were the citizens of VOC territories – Europeans who were traders and businessmen.

[2] Based on the author’s research on Colombo in the upcoming book COLOMBO The History of its Fortifications.


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