Discovering the beauty of Fort Hammenhiel | Daily News

Discovering the beauty of Fort Hammenhiel

Aerial view of the Fort
Aerial view of the Fort

Driven by a desire to travel and explore this beautiful nation, I had begun a quest to visit every fort along our coastal belt. These amazing fortified structures have withstood time itself, and have a history of their own. The better-known forts are found in Galle, Matara, Jaffna, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee. I have visited all of them. Smaller forts and stockades were built by the Dutch in Negombo, Kelaniya, Colombo, Kalutara, Malwana, Hanwella, Seethawaka and Ruwanwella. Today, there are no traces of some of these magnificent buildings. But in the quiet fishing hamlet of Karainagar in the Northern Province stands a unique fort known as Fort Hammenhiel. It is the only fort surrounded on all sides by the ocean, and obviously has no landside access as some of the bigger forts. This would have been a vital defence strategy in that era.

We journeyed from Colombo in search of this beautiful fort. Having reached Jaffna as the sun was receding in the horizon, we stayed at Mandaithivu.

The view from a boat

The causeway that leads to Mandaithivu is dotted with green nets on either side as local fishermen have mastered the art of rearing prawns. Early next morning we began our journey towards Karainagar. This island is connected by a long causeway to the mainland. The view from either side of the causeway is refreshing, as small fishing boats meandered on the waterway. Marine birds flew about in their hundreds.

On reaching Karainagar, the dusty road was lined with fences made with palmyrah fronds. A few minutes later, we reached a section of the road where a Hindu kovil rose colourfully amidst a somewhat barren landscape dotted with clusters of palmyrah trees. To reach the small Naval Pier one has to enter through the main gate where Naval sentries stand guard.

After talking to a naval officer we walked towards the pier with much excitement. A Naval coxswain was ready at the boat and another sailor handed us lifejackets. I noticed two large cannons stationed on the right side of the pier.

There is a Navy-operated restaurant on the landside by the pier. On that clear morning, the sturdy rampart of the fort could be seen from the pier.

The sailor guided the boat towards Fort Hammenhiel. As we neared the fort, her defensive turrets zoomed into view. On either side of its entrance, two old cannons were mounted. The boat was moored and we jumped out with anticipation. The name of the Fort was inscribed on a white arch. We entered via the seven-foot gate which is the only entrance to the entire fort.

Entrance to the Naval Pier

The Portuguese had realized the strategic location of Karainagar. They built this fort using coral rocks and named it Fortaleza do Caes. It was built to supplement the coastal defence of the Mannar Fort (which is mostly in ruins today).

Both these smaller forts once augmented the security of the approach to the massive Jaffna Fort which was a trading hub and a military symbol of dominance. By March 1658, the Portuguese were in for a surprise when the aggressive Dutch forces laid siege to the fort. The Dutch executed a decisive battle tactic – they first fired their cannons on the wooden water storage tank of the fort.

History records that the tank was broken to pieces. Taking advantage, the troops led by the Dutch trio – Captains Cornelies Reb, Piester Waset and Van de Reede – attacked the fort with relentless rifle fire. Thereafter the thirsty Portuguese troops, weary from the counter attack surrendered their fort on April 28, 1658.

The jubilant Dutch began enhancing the defensive aspects and increased the gun turrets. As we climbed the flight of 12 steps to the second tier of the fort, we counted 18 gun turrets that covered the full 360-degree view where one basically had a ‘firewall’ to defend against an incoming attack.

The Dutch named the fort as Hammenhiel as the shape of the map (in that era) reminded them of a leg of smoked ham. The Dutch Navy considered Hammenheil as the key to the sea area of Jaffna. With time they realized the fort’s structure was not strong enough to bear the weight of their 18 guns and set about consolidating the structure with solid granite stones.

Inside the Fort

An ammunition storage dungeon was built. In addition, there were five lookout points where cement ‘pill boxes’ were erected and men kept guard on a watch system. At the topmost point of nearly 30 feet from shore level, an ancient telescopic device was mounted. Today, the glass has not been calibrated and the view is out of focus. However the sight to the naked eye is amazing.

To the right of Hammenhiel you see the island of Eluvaithivu. Kayts Island is visible along with a clear view of the Karainagar landmass. From this vantage point the fort resembles the lower part of a ship’s anchor. The Dutch used a wise system of collecting rainwater in a cement pond.

It is recorded that the Dutch had a garrison of 30 soldiers under the command of a Lieutenant. We saw the nine cells that were once used to hold prisoners. Today they are empty and remind us of those ancient times. Of the nine cells, one is large and has room for seven beds.

The beds are made of solid cement (one square block) and measure 68 inches in length, 30 inches by breadth and 18 inches in height.

A wooden box had been given to each prisoner where they kept their plate, water jug, and soap. The door to each cell is only five feet high. Four rooms once used by British officers have been restored by the Navy.

These British officers would have had a vacation every evening being posted on such a beautiful sea fort. During the British occupation of Hammenhiel they used the fort as a Naval detention barracks and later as an infectious disease quarantine clinic.

In September 2015, the Navy made great efforts to fully restore this fort to her former glory, maintaining its historic beauty. We also observed a wooden rack where six old rifles fixed with bayonets were on display. A Petty Officer took out a rifle and explained its firing mechanism. The bayonets were still sharp after centuries. On special occasions, sailors attired in replicate blue Dutch Naval uniforms present arms to welcome visitors in a fascinating ceremony laden with nostalgia. It was a beautiful moment to watch the changing of the guard.

The Sri Lanka Navy must be commended for restoring and maintaining this ancient maritime edifice, enabling us to get a lovely glimpse into the past. Fort Hammenhiel stands like a majestic sentinel in the serene Northern seas and is a glowing testament to Dutch engineering and architecture.

The view of the sunset with the fort in the backdrop is a travel bonus.

Naval sentry in Dutch era clothing
The ramparts
Old cell with beds