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December tsunami destroyed Sri Lankan VOC archeological finds

Old Dutch fortress a safe haven

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GALLE, Sri Lanka - The tsunami which hit Sri Lanka, the island formerly known as Ceylon, on December 26, 2004 and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Sri Lankans, also destroyed precious archeological finds that were traced to the VOC, the Dutch East Indies Company. Much of the offices and shops of the Maritime Archeological Unit were swept away and with them most of the historical treasures found in the wreck of a 17th century VOC ship.

Although much of the work of the unit of underwater researchers was lost in the disaster, another part of the VOC heritage in Galle survived. In fact, the extensive fortress built by the Dutch mercantile company withstood the onslaught of the tsunami waves, thereby protecting the lives of all of its 3,500 inhabitants. The ramparts of the structure at places are 15 metres (50 foot) thick and more than 10 metres high. The fort was built on a promontory in 1663 on top of a smaller one built by the Portuguese, and sprawls over 36 hectares (90 acres).


Since 1993, a group of Dutch, Australian, Mexican and Sri Lankan archeologists has been mapping and exploring the ocean floor in the Bay of Galle. One of the most important finds was the wreck of the Avondster (Evening Star), a VOC freighter, which in the early hours of July 2, 1659 sank in the Bay but without any casualties.

Funds raised in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster - in the Netherlands well over $150 million was collected - will amply cover the costs of rebuilding the sheds, offices, storerooms and laboratories of the Maritime Archeologial Unit. Funds are available as well to create a museum in the 17th century warehouse of the VOC, and for repairs to the fortress. Soon, divers of the unit will be able to check the extent of the underwater damage in the bay. Researchers fear that the wreck of the Avondster may have been silted over again. They hope that the devastating waves have unveiled possible other wrecks dating from a time when Galle and Ceylon were important stopovers for Dutch and other ships on the way to and from the Indies.

Other tsunami damage to the area around Galle include the sinking of the Dutch-owned dredger ‘Diya Kovula’ which had been working to deepen the port system and shipping lanes. A team of Dutch engineers already visited Sri Lanka to assess if they could assist in re-floating the dredger.

The long-standing twinning between Galle and the Dutch town of Velsen will be very effective in channeling Dutch private funds to re-build Galle City.


Among VOC’s Asian ports, Galle rated second behind Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital in the Dutch East Indies. Galle was controlled by the VOC from 1640 until 1796. Its natural harbour was the main entry and exit point for Ceylon trade, until a new harbour was built in Colombo in 1873.

The first Dutch ships to arrive off Ceylon were part of a small fleet commanded by famed Admiral Joris van Spilbergen. In May 1602, they dropped anchors off the port of Batticaloa on the island’s east coast.

In 1640, the Dutch, after a battle in the Bay of Galle, wrestled control of the island, and the important cinnamon trade, from the Portuguese. The Dutch then reinforced Galle, and built fourteen bastions as well a number of houses, a church and bell tower, Government House, and a museum.

With several VOC shipwrecks known to have sunk in the harbour, Galle now perhaps is the most actively studied port for VOC shipwrecks.

The old town of Galle, with its fortifications, in 1988 was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site.