I often think that I’d have been a Portuguese explorer.
This isn’t because of an unquenchable thirst for boot, a penchant for ending up chewed by unfriendly natives, or an interest in being consumed by hideous tropical diseases; rather, it’s because a fair share of those places that I find most aesthetically pleasing, or well placed in the wider landscape, turn out to have been either established, discovered or colonised by those enterprising seafarers. Think Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, Muscat, Zanzibar, Goa.
It’s a mere klick from the train station to the guesthouse, past the isthmus that leads into the Fort and through the gate, but by the time I get to the coveted entrance I’ve turned into a fountain of sweat. Rivulets flow happily down my back, hard-pressed against the rucksack, and many more are flowing happily down my forehead, above the brows and straight into my eyes. It’s murderously hot in Galle and I’ve chosen to do my walk smack in the middle of the day. Only mad dogs, Englishmen and Italians with backpacks, said Noël Coward.
Heat notwithstanding, Galle welcomes us with its best clothes. The earthworks of Rampart street, built by the Dutch once they’d chased the Portuguese away, are hemming with life. Local families gather on the grassy hills to raise multitude of kites in the warm air, driving the hand-made rhomboids of wood and plastic to vertiginous heights, sustained by the trade winds. Youths in their school uniforms – the girls’ Buddhist school, the boys’, the Methodists, the Madrasah – run around holding the rolls of twine, or mingle on the watchtowers where, for centuries, the VOC men stood watch. A large water monitor strolls in the grass, prehistoric in his aplomb.
Walking the streets of Galle feels like drifting slowly into the warm pool of history. There’s almost nothing – a Buddhist school and shrine, the habit of collecting frangipani flowers in water bowls – to rekindle the Asian past of this city. The Chinese eunuch general Zeng He dropped anchor here, leading in 1409 a fleet whose ships were longer than Columbus’ three caravels combined, but of his passage nothing remains, its commemorative stele now resting behind a glass in a Colombo museum.
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The next visitors were more persistent, and left a legacy made of flesh and bone as well as of faith. Arab traders lived for long in the city that Ibn Battuta called Qali, making good business shifting India’s riches and Africa’s slaves. Their permanence left behind a community of Sri Lankan Moors, ascetic in their white dishdashs, of mosques and madrasahs standing next to statues of the Buddha and reformed churches.
Those who built Protestant temples were the flag-bearers of modernity. They didn’t represent a king, a religion or an ethnicity. The drape they unfurled above the city and that they chiselled over the Fort’s entrance wasn’t a nation’s, it was a company’s. The Dutch men of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie didn’t make landfall in 1640 to claim Galle for king and country, but for their shareholders in Amsterdam.
The VOC men built a massive fort to ensure that no one did to them what they did to the Portuguese and, within the safety of these ramparts, begun laying down a neat grid of streets, harmonious mansions, churches and stocky warehouses that stand to this day with their porticoes, verandas and wide windows.
They were, however, catastrophically ill suited for the tropical climate of the island. Unlike Calcutta, there’s no neoclassical cemetery where to read their names and stories, but the very fact that their largest building is a hospital speaks volumes. It’s hard to say how effective this place, where now I sit before a plate of shrimp and a beer, must’ve been in an age that predated antibiotics, sterilization or the mere understanding of bacterial infections.
Fort or no fort, eventually the VOC were driven out, here as elsewhere. In true Darwinist fashion they were given the boot by something bigger and, ultimately, more successful than them: the British Empire.
A building, empty but for a chair left in the doorway for a long-gone guardian, is a window on that past, with a brass Lloyd’s plaque and a blackboard used to track the comings and goings of merchant vessels in this old outpost of the age of commerce. I fantasize about that time, a time of clippers and steamboats, a time of lonely Company reps, the time when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of enterprising youths seeking free deck passage to the tropics in exchange for labour on board. It feels long gone and the empty board confirms it; the present, with the KPMG office open and active well after sunset, doesn’t seem as enticing at all.
Sun falls behind the ramparts. The kites have gone, minus a handful that must’ve escaped their owners. The sky is turning the sort of crimson that I’d only seen on glossy magazines, expertly enhanced with some post-production software. Here, instead, it is real and everything – the sea, the ramparts, the whitewashed villas, frangipani flowers – is bathed in an unreal purple light, as if somebody had sprayed potassium permanganate on every surface.
Tourists and locals sit on the earthworks, witnesses of the spectacular end of yet another day in Galle. Amongst those posing for selfies or indulging in a last dip, and between contemplative dogs a group of men stands still, towering in their caftans and skullcaps. The horizon is a violet of almost painful beauty now, whilst – higher up – the vault of the sky is already a succession of indigo and blue. Standing against this backdrop the men are eerily strange and mysterious, all facing towards the sunset as if they were waiting for someone, or something, to come out of the horizon. In the quiet of the evening I can only hear one of them speaking – leading some sort of ancestral prayer, perhaps – but it’s only when I get closer that I notice the telescopes, and I understand that he’s teaching astronomy.
Enraptured, his students follow his lead, raising their left hands to their eyes, fingers arranged as if they wished to show a dog in a spectacle of Chinese shadows, but in reality gauging the elevation of some celestial object – Venus, I think – that has just risen into the night sky. Not unlike, I realise as the sun finally disappears behind the Earth’s curvature and a warm night descends on Galle, their ancestors and Ibn Battuta did seven centuries ago.