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Dutch Agency for Monuments eager to preserve remnants of Dutch colonial rule

Galle first ‘Dutch’ city on World Heritage list

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GALLE, Sri Lanka - The first ‘Dutch’ city that made it onto the World Cultural Heritage List in 1988 is nowhere near the Netherlands, had not had Dutch rule for nearly two hundred years and was nominated by a third world country. The southern Sri Lankan harbour city of Galle, one of the ten largest towns of the island nation, still displays traces of 140 years of Dutch presence. If it was up to the Dutch agency charged with care for monuments at home, the Sri Lankans would be far more active to preserve Dutch colonial history in their country.

Once Dutch traders replaced the Portugese on the island in 1658, the East Indies Company (VOC) proceeded to strenghten its new Indian Ocean stronghold on the route to the Dutch East Indies. The wooden fortifications were upgraded, and where possible replaced by masonry. The harbour soon was its second largest stop-over in Southeast Asia (Batavia remained the largest). Galle became the Dutch administrative centre for the island then known as Ceylon. Colombo, further north toward the Indian coast, took over that function in the course of the 18th century.

Among the remnants of Dutch rule are Galle’s three forts: Zwarte Bastion, Akersloot Bastion and Punt Utrecht Bastion (they still carry Dutch names). The street leading to one of the VOC forts, is known by its Anglicized name of Leynbaan Street. Also the Groote Kerk or Dutch church, built in 1755, is a reminder of the Dutch presence. The local architect who has taken an interest in the ties with the Netherlands could fit his family name right in a Dutch telephone book: De Vos.

Galle no longer earns its living from trade however. Ocean fishing along with tourism now are the economic mainstays although the economic climate on the island in general has suffered from the uncertaincy created by the warfare between the indiginous Sinhalese and the Tamil minority (originally from Southern India) which has scared away much needed foreign investment.

Dutch architecture continents away

The Dutch Agency for the Preservation of Monuments has maintained ties with Sri Lanka, ever since a conference was held in the island’s capital of Colombo in 1993 to discuss the care of monuments on an international level. Two years later, another conference was held in that city to discuss “European architecture and town planning outside Europe - the Dutch Period.” In attendance as well were representatives from India, Indonesia, Maylasia, South Africa, Surinam, all countries which have in common they had a Dutch period and still have monuments to remind everyone of that history. (Taiwan also has traces of a Dutch colonial past but did not attend the meeting.)

Since then, some young Sri Lankan professionals have taken a course at home in aspects of urban development, which later was concluded at the Institute of Housing in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Sri Lankan plans for the conservation of the Galle forts and their environs have been on hold for some years now. One of the problems is a total lack of interest for heritage preservation initiatives among Galle’s citizenry, hence the plan to generate public support through various activities. Meanwhile, economic feasibility studies are being conducted to evaluate revitalization plans for Galle. The Dutch agency is eager to take its expertise to the Sri Lankan town and so renew the ties that were severed in 1796 when Ceylon came under English rule.

The Dutch government also realizes now that ties going back to the colonial era offer opportunities to renew long neglected relationships. Forgotten monuments could be the clearest reminders of such histories and Asia has plenty of them.