Meeting the Residents of Sri Lanka's 16th Century Galle Fort

The stone-lined clock tower struck noon, looming over the walls of Sri Lanka's old Galle Fort. Initially constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th ...

The stone-lined clock tower struck noon, looming over the walls of Sri Lanka's old Galle Fort. Initially constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, then fortified and utilized by the Dutch and British later, the Fort stood as one of few forts in the world still inhabited by people. The original structure, built by the Portuguese, still remains behind the walls later constructed by the British.
Walking along the paved streets, I paused in front of the National Maritime Museum to watch the multiple brides in white and beige saris take their classic fort wedding picture. Long before the colonial times, the Fort had been used as a trading port. A private collection located in Galle’s Historical Mansion holds evidence of this historical trade, visible in the Chinese porcelain dishes mixed among old Sinhalese swords, East India Company plates and European mugs. The owner of the collection, Al-haj Abdul Gaffar Senior, was the descendent of Moroccan traders who had settled in Sri Lanka several generations ago.
Business owner and story-teller Mohamed Farzal Geffrey Badulage is a seventh-generation resident, of Moroccan descent, who has lived within the Fort’s walls his whole life. His little café on Leyn Baan street proclaimed to sell the best tea in town, and Badulage paid homage to his roots by including Moroccan tea on the menu. The Moroccans used to come to Serendib — a former name of Sri Lanka — to sell ammunition and spices, he told me. “Once the King [here] was ill, and the Moroccans were able to provide medicine that cured him. In return for their help, the King gifted them some land and the Moroccans were allowed to settle here and get married.”
Leyn Baan street got its name from the Dutch word for ropery, linjbaan, which had long ago been sold by tradesmen on the street. Juliet Coombe, who came to the Galle Fort to live, had been residing there for ten years. She is the author of the book Around the Galle Fort in 80 Lives, and she said she feels like a merchant running her publishing house on Leyn Baan. As someone who had explored the Fort thoroughly, Coombe claimed that the pits where slaves were kept were her favorite place, describing them as “beautifully tragic” with “a powerful sense of history.”  
African slaves had been bought during Imperial rule to build the fort. “History is usually written by winners,” she said, but the slave-pits reminded her of the people who had been a hidden part of the Fort's history. People whose stories built the walls and made them what they were today: strong enough to survive the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in 2004 and protect the communities living inside.
A foreigner, Coombe loved the welcome she would get from people inside the Fort who told her, “We are different sweets that come from the same sugar.” For her, quote defined the Fort perfectly: a mixed community reflected through its architecture and people.
Covered in a growing sheath of moss, the Fort's old Portuguese gate still held its ground while an old British coat of arms stood proudly above its entrance. The emblem had yet to be invaded by moss, which didn't touch the lion and white horse that fiercely framed the motto “Dieu et mon droit," or God and my right. On the opposite side, the Dutch East India Company’s coat of arms, sandwiched between two lions above a Latin motto, had been carved out of a stone different from that of the original gate.
One of my favorite things about the Fort is its lighthouse. Built in 1938, it now rose on the perimeter of the Fort walls and, despite its age, painted the night with a light halo. The Fort had many stories, told in its spicy gram vendors, ginger tea sellers, lace weavers, Keep Calm and Curry On aprons, painted electricity poles, old coats of arms, Latin inscriptions and wedding ceremonies. As I sat in a restaurant, eating Chinese fried rice in front of the old Fort’s only wood oven, I realized the Fort still thrived in its unique cultural identity.
Thirangie Jayatilake is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo