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Ghosts of the Fort

Serendib Magazine (c) 2008.

Supernatural tales from a World Heritage Site.

Inside the fort Surrounded by Dutch ramparts, Life moves leisurely at dusk When offices and schools are closed And kindly ghosts Move up and down In Galle Fort town... Norah Roberts. Galle. As quiet as asleep.

The man with the walking stick As far as ghost stories go, this one's pretty sketchy. Though those who tell it, tell it with conviction.

It takes place on the hill by the Sun Bastion. The one with the clock-tower and the majestic views. The one that attracts lightning on occasion. It takes place on rainy nights or stormy afternoons. A man, elderly and European, garbed in a costume of the past, waves a walking stick at the Fort and shouts in anger. The man has appeared sporadically for the last 50 years and there is much speculation as to his identity.

He could be Dr. P. D. Anthonisz, former mayor of Galle, who argued successfully against the demolition of the ramparts in 1889. It is in his memory that the Galle clocktower was built. Perhaps he is issuing a warning to those looking to modernise the Fort.

It could be Willem Jacobsz Coster, rattling his sabre. The Dutchman, who captured the Fort from the Portugese, was betrayed by King Rajasingha and beheaded by his assassins in 1672. It could be the lighthouse-keeper who threw himself to the sea when the old light tower burned down.

Or, it could just be one of the Fort's many colourful visitors or residents, taking a stroll by the ramparts, annoyed at being caught in the rain without an umbrella.

City of ghosts On the surface the Fort is a quaint mix of antique houses, quirky shops, playing children and ambling goats. Quilted in a benign sea breeze that is warm and beguiling.

But walking these stone-paved lanes, where the architecture veers from Islamic to Dutch to Victorian to Ceylonese, it is entirely plausible that this Fort houses a rich community of ghosts. Indeed, history itself appears to peel from these walls and scent the air around the narrow pathways and spacious villas.

The past lurks in the high parapets where cannons once pointed at the ocean. In the drinking dens where mariners brawled; at the old seaport banks where merchants traded stories and fortunes; in the open courtyards where soldiers changed guard as the city changed hands.

The Fort is not without its romance. There are many tales of secret passions between Arab traders and Dutch damsels. Records of Prince Albert's visit at the height of Empire, amidst fanfare and cannon salutes. And anecdotes of Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, walking unrecognised amongst the locals.

There is the legend of the Malay and Kaffir riflemen of the ramparts and how the Portugese tried to weaken them with large servings of breadfruit, only to find that their opponents were made stronger and much harder to combat.

If indeed there are ghosts skulking in the corners of this World Heritage site, they would certainly be a multi-coloured, multi-cultural lot. Sharing a historical tapestry that stretches from the ancient world to the old world, right up to the one we now inhabit.

History's visitors English historian James Emerson Tennant asserts that Galle was the mythic city of Tarshish, from where King Solomon drew gems, peacocks and ivory. There is evidence of traders from Persia, China, Java exchanging cinnamon and sandalwood for gold and sapphire well before the birth of Christ.

Morroccan adventurer, Ibn Batuta made a stop here in 1334, as did General Cheng-ho in 1409 and Portugese sailor Lorenzo De Almeida in 1505. Batuta and Cheng-ho continued on their journeys; Almeida stayed and invited a hoard of gate-crashers.

For the next 500 years, the Portugese with crosses, the Dutch with cannons, and the British with cunning, fought and bartered with myopic Ceylonese rulers for the fate of the harbour, the surrounding fort and the ghosts within.

In 1640, fighting between the Dutch and the Portugese, armed with little more than fists and bayonets, left the streets of the Fort laden with the bloodied carcasses. While it is likely that many of these spirits lingered, it is uncertain how many of them carried walking sticks.

Headless horseman Today the Fort belongs to the descendents of Moor traders, Ceylonese civil servants and the great-great-great grandchildren of their colonisers. It also belongs to a community of artists and a vibrant group of expatriates attracted by the city's olde worlde charm and eager to embrace its magic and its mysteries.

It is from them that we obtain our ghost stories. Many are as sketchy as the man with the walking stick and some struggle to comply even to a supernatural sense of logic. Here's one. If the 16th of October falls on a Thursday, the tide will recede and a black horse with a headless rider will gallop through the Fort.

The story comes from many lips, but there is an unsurprising lack of eyewitness evidence. What this date signifies escapes many a teller and even with research has been difficult to uncover. It could mean anything or nothing. This Fort has seen many Octobers and many lost heads. Both literally and metaphorically.

A fourth generation Fort dweller, a charming and talkative aunty, recalls walking the ramparts at night with a neighbour many years ago, when the 16th fell on a Thursday. While the tide was unusually low, the horse and its rider failed to make an appearance. All they saw was a nanny goat sleepwalking along the turrets. Head very much intact.

The dungeon and the church The battlement next to the Star Bastian was once an impregnable lookout post, crucial to the defence of the city. Today it is the domain of lovers under umbrellas and, when the moon is blue, all-night raves for Colombo's party crowd.

Straddling the edge of the battlement, where rock meets water, is an open dungeon, L-shaped and over 50 feet deep. We are told that this was once a colonial prison, to which inmates were transported via a walled-up tunnel from the centre of the Fort. Today, unspoken of and unseen, it punishes rubbish and imprisons moss.

A confirmed house of the dead is the Dutch Reform Church or Groote Klerk, where the church is paved with grave stones and decorated with skeletons and skulls. Its patron, Adriana le Gaud, wife of a Dutch Commander Casperus De Jong, built it as thanks to the Lord for ending her years of childlessness.

The plaques on the walls are sinister etchings in marble, teak, satinwood and ebony. The basement is filled with crypts arranged like a colonial morgue. Each with its own cryptic tale. Abraham Samlant, killed in battle, buried with his sword in an iron coffin. A British admiral laid to rest with a treasure chest in 1835. Whereabouts of which are unfortunately unknown.

Outside in the churchyard, sturdy tunnels descend beneath the graves and have remained locked for the last few decades. The Dutch built intricate underground passageways throughout the Fort, not unlike the one in the dungeon by the ramparts. Late at night screams have been heard emanating from these secret corridors.

Many dismiss the noises, blaming trapped animals or hidden vagrants. Others recall that slaves from Mozambique and Indonesia were brought here to build these tunnels and that many suffocated here or died of fatigue. There is talk that this ancient labyrinth may be opened for tourists sometime soon. Let's hope the screaming stops by then.

Lady in white And from the macabre to the ubiquitous. More than one of these old buildings has a Lady in White story. It usually involves doors locking and unlocking. Long dark tresses and white dresses appearing at windows.

The Lady in White appears at twilight in the old Walker's building, at night in Room 25 of the New Orient Hotel or in the mornings at the Dutch Government House, depending on who you talk to or what you read. She is either the jilted wife of an English sailor, the disturbed niece of a famous hotelier or a Portuguese maiden awaiting her dead lover.

Many mistresses Before we dismiss what little truth there may be in these tales, let us examine what we know. Throughout the centuries, the Galle Fort has had many mistresses, but no one has truly been its master. And over its history, it has embraced many cultures and captured many hearts from many worlds.

If there are ghosts in this Fort, and I believe there to be plenty, it is likely, as Norah Roberts believes, that they are kindly ghosts, content to live in harmony with the dead and the living and the legacy that surrounds them.

And incidentally, next to my ghost hunter's handbook, is a calendar turned to the October page. This year the 16th falls on a Thursday. Maybe it'll be worth venturing down south again. To see a man about a horse.

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