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Memories of Galle 70 years ago

by Cecil V. Wikramanayake

I was just five years old, and my younger brother Ian was still an infant in his mother’s arms, when Dad who worked in the Civil Hospital, Badulla, was transferred to his home town, Galle.

We first lived in a little house in Mahamodera, by the sea, and the only memories that still remain clear are the evenings spent on the beach, playing with other children and listening to tales of far off lands, narrated to us kids by Uncle Eddie.

Edward Sumanasekera was my paternal grandmother’s elder brother who, as a young man had ‘run away to sea’ and as a merchant seaman had travelled round the world. His stories of Shanghai, of the quicksands on the river Hoogley, and of fishes that flew were eagerly lapped up by the several children who gathered around him when he made his appearance on the beach of an evening.

From Mahamodera, we moved into the Galle Fort to an enormous house in Lighthouse Street. The house was once a hotel in the days when ships called at Galle. Its rooms upstairs were numerous and its hall enormous. So big that Dad often played host to those holding meetings there, like the newly formed Suriya-mal campaign.

Frequent visitors were Bevis Bawa, a close friend of Uncle Guy, Wijayananda Dahanayake, a teacher, Jimmy de Livera, an Excise Inspector, Edgar Ephraums a businessman - the father of the lovely Sylvia who a few years later became the pulse of my heart when we studied together at Richmond College.

There were also the Abeywickramas and the Amarasuriyas, Rick Abeywardena, who we called "Lower Bar Uncle Eric" to distinguish him from Dad’s elder brother Eric. Around the time of the Suriya Mal Campaign, another visitor was Dicky Jayewardene, who had just returned from England.

About the time of the Suriya Mal campaign, Dad and his younger brother Ivon Mark, started a shop in Galle town called "Swadeshi stores". It stocked only "Lanka made goods" like Fonseka’s buttons, made of coconut wood. I still have in my possession a shoe brush made circa 1930, which was on sale at this shop for just fifty cents. I still use it to polish my shoes.

At about this time, I remember, almost everything was imported from England and other European countries. There were cake, like Canterbury cake, fruit cake and so on which came in tins.

The Canterbury cake, we called "Canta-bari" cake, but gobbled it up with alacrity. Toffees and other sweets too came in tins, or little buckets with a tin lid. A box of matches, ‘3 diamonds’, ‘3 globes’ and such brands, which came from Sweden, were only three cents a box. There were also ‘Lucifers’ — matches which came in cardboard packets. You could strike them against anything like the sole of your shoe, and they would light.

But in the nineteen thirties, patriotism was at a low ebb, and the "Swadeshi stores" was closed down within one year. The British had countered this by sticking labels on all its products. The label carried the Union Jack with the words "Buy British". And so the Swadeshi Stores went bankrupt.

It was during this time that Dad bought a Standard two-seater car, with a ‘dickey’, for just two hundred rupees. It bore the registration number D 721, and eventually Dad raffled it at a rupee a ticket , when, in 1932 he was transferred from Galle to Colombo. The winner was a little baby by the name Asoka Siriwardena, of "The Castle", Buthgamuwa, who in later life became Deputy Director of Agriculture.

This car was a strange one, with the hand-brake placed outside, on the footboard. On the steering wheel were two levers which controlled the starting — an advance-retard lever, and an accelerator lever. To start it, you had to adjust these two levers. Then go round to the front of the car and crank it up. It often back-fired with disastrous results to one’s right hand.

To give you an indication of the cost of living at that time, I must tell you that one day, Dad came home, when we were living at Osanagoda road, with a huge seer fish, about five feet long, tied on to the outside of the standard two-seater. He had bought it on the beach as he was coming home. He had paid just two rupees for the entire fish! Mother gave slices of seer to her neighbours and we all enjoyed fried seer, cooked seer, and Dad had his favourite curry of "Thora-olu".

It was while we were in Galle that I began school, first at the Sacred Heart Convent, Galle, under Rev. Sister Cuthbert, who used to give us Bulls-eye sweets at the end of each lesson — to those who had a Good or a Very Good written on their book.

It was at Sacred Heart that I had my introduction to the stage, starring in a little item called "Ten Little Sailor Boys". I was the tenth little sailor boy "living all alone, he got married and then there were none" My ‘bride’ was a sweet little girl, Denia Jansen, who had lost her front teeth and had three elder brothers Hantley, Royle and Barney. She also had a younger sister Leona who later married my schoolmate and colleague in journalism, Markie Gerreyn, and a younger brother Thorald, with whom, in later years at St. Benedict’s College, I used to box.

But the convent would not have boys who had passed the Upper Kindergarten, and from the convent I was admitted to Richmond College, Galle. Dad had meanwhile moved to a house we used to call "Appuhamy’s house" at the foot of Richmond College, and beside the railway line. That was the house where my sister Rita Hyacinth, who later married Jaya Pathirana, was born.

She was not the first Wikramanayake girl in two generations. Uncle Eric, - who was so disappointed when Ian, in 1929 turned out to be another boy, returned to Colombo from Badulla and sent Dad a postcard which tersely said "Family traditions can never be broken, Eric". But he broke the tradition himself by producing Erica Bird, who grew up and married a civil servant name of Upali Gooneratne. So my sister had to be the second Wikramanayake girl in two generations.

Galle by Capt. Elmo Jayewardena - December 6, 2004
Records show that the old port of Galle dates back to the times when Arab traders in their dhows sailed to China in search of eastern riches. Galle was their last haven before crossing the Bay of Bengal. The ancient mariners lingered in the port of Galle till the trade winds changed to swell their sails in the direction they needed to sail. For centuries the Galle Port was where east and west met when trading ships docked at its protected harbour. Then came the Europeans led by the Portuguese who in the 16th century built the first fort of Galle and named it Santa Crusz.

 The Dutch followed the Portuguese. The coastal areas of the island changed rulers and the Hollanders became proud creators of the magnificent Galle Fort (Picture) in the year 1635. The British replacing the Dutch at the end of the 18th century were the last military occupants of the Galle Fort.

The fort ramparts are there, tall, massive and well preserved, black and awesome against the serpent green of the grass, thick walls of enormous granite dotted with little holes for the cannons to peep through.  Lovers walk here, on the rampart top, holding hands and talking sweet nothings oblivious to the spray of the sea which dashes its waves against the western wall. The north side of the fort is the newly renovated Galle Cricket ground where they play international cricket matches. The entire locality dazzles in picture postcard perfection. The evenings here are beautiful, especially if you were to sit on the old Dutch ramparts and watch the sunsets on fire in the midst of a marmalade Paul McCartney sky. You can imagine that a Dutch soldier from Rotterdam may have stood guard on the same rampart where you stand, eyes alert and long musket in hand, watching the same sun go down five centuries ago.
The Galle Dutch Fort today is declared a World Heritage Site, the qualification establishing the city of Galle as a “Main Stream” entry in the agenda of any visitor who steps on the shores of Sri Lanka. 
The fort itself has six sides and the walls are connected together through 14 bastions. The main entrance to the Galle Fort is from the north. (have a map here – similar to G/T and L/P books ) This is called the New Gate as the British added it to the fort in the late 19th century. Walking clock-wise from the main entrance, the path goes past the Sun Bastion to the “Old Gate” where the British had their Court of Arms engraved on the top of the entrance. Inside the ‘Old Gate” the Dutch era of the East India Company is clearly visible with the words VOC engraved in the inner wall. These initials stand for “Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie”.

 Next comes the Black Fort marked as the Zwart Bastion, built perhaps by the Portuguese and hence being the oldest of the Galle Fort Bastions. The walk along the ramparts takes you past the Akersloot Bastion and the Aurora Bastion and brings you to the Galle Fort (Picture) Light House. The southernmost point of the fort is the Flag Rock and then the ramparts angle to the north to reach the Triton Bastion followed by the Neptune Bastion, Clippenberg Bastion and Aeolis Bastion ending at the strong north wall in which stands the Star Bastion and the Moon Bastion.

 Inside the Fort there are two museums, the Dutch Museum and the Maritime Museum. Both are disappointments as museums go, specially considering that you would expect a treasure trove of historical information and documents. The Groote Kerk or Great Church (Picture) still stands as it did from Dutch times. The original church has been refurbished through the years. Today it is more a memento of the British times than the Dutch.

The oldest inn in the island, still called the New Oriental Hotel (Picture) is functional, though dilapidated to a point of sadness. The old bar and the pool are presently remnants, relics of what it would have been. The building itself, once a mansion of majesty, is now decayed. This was once the Office of the Dutch Governor. Then in the mid 18th century it changed into an inn for the visiting Dutch, thus becoming the oldest recorded hotel in the island. Subsequently the place took prominence as the residence for the Air Crew of Qantas Imperial Airways who rested here after their record-breaking flights from Perth in Western Australian to Koggala Lake near Galle. These are the longest commercial flights in the history of aviation and came to be known as the “Flights of the Double Sunrise”. 
The showpiece of Galle is the Dutch Fort. It is the main attraction here for the visitor. The ramparts are there to walk along and view the city and the sea – a magnificent sight on any given day.  On weekends, sitting on the granite from where the cannons peeped, you can watch the cricket games being played on the esplanade sitting on the granite from where the cannons peeped. The southern side of the fort is the Galle Harbour, fast becoming popular as a marina for yachts that sail the Bay of Bengal on their way to western destinations. The Galle town itself is bustling and is a worthwhile walk to mingle with locals.

4 kilometres south of Galle is the beach of Unawatuna, a crescent moon shaped, palm-shaded paradisiacal haven (Picture) for beach lovers and sun worshippers. The reef of Unawatuna protects the bathers and the waves slap on the golden sand and recede, mild and mindful of the swimmers snorkelling in the placid blue waters.

On the western side of the beach is the rock escarpment known as Rumassala. It is a pleasant walk. Legend has it that Hanuman of Valmiki’s Ramayanaya was asked to bring medicinal plants from the Himalayan Hills. Having forgotten what was asked he carried a whole jungle area of which one part fell down over Rumassala. Hence, the area is famous for medicinal herbs. True? False? Folklore? It is all in the mind of the visitor.
The small town of Koggala lies further south. It is the birthplace of renowned Sinhala author Martin Wickremasinghe. There is a small airstrip here, lying at most times dormant without the noise of revving engines and taxing aeroplanes. The runway is beside the beautiful Koggala Lake (Picture) where historical aviation records were made.
Ahangama lies next to Koggala and is home to the Stilt Fishermen (Picture) who are depicted in any tourist brochure that advertises Sri Lanka to the outside world.

Flight of the Double Sunrise

It was 1942; the Japanese were occupying the Malayan peninsula. The Qantas Imperial Airways flight from London to Sydney had lost its refuelling point of Singapore between Karachi and Perth. The flight had to be kept, the link maintained at any cost. An alternate route had to be found. Sri Lanka was the best bet and that too if possible the southernmost tip, to minimise the distance from the Australian coast. The mapmakers took their protractors and their slide rule callipers and made their calculations, Perth to Koggala, long and dangerous, but possible.

There were five Qantas aeroplanes that flew this route. They were all named after the stars; Antares, Rigel, Spica, Vega and Altair, magnificent luminaries of the Milky Way. The names were apt as these were the main stars by which the aeroplanes deduced their celestial navigation. That was the only form of directional guidance available as radio silence had to be maintained from Perth to Koggala. Japanese fighters were dominating the skies over the Indian Ocean.
The Qantas machines were Catalina Flying boats. They cruised at 98 knots per hour and were fitted with extra fuel tanks to last the impossibly long leg. The 5652 kilometre journey lasted an average of 28 hours and when winds were unfavourable it dragged on to more than 30 hours, the longest being an astounding 32 hours and 9 minutes. This is the longest ever non-stop regular passenger flight on record. 

It was at the New Oriental Hotel inside the Galle Fort that the Qantas Crews took their rest awaiting the next long flight. 
The first flight came from Swan Lake Perth and landed in the Koggala Lake on the 30th of June 1943 under the command of Captain Russell Tapp. The last flight was on 18th July 1945. The aeroplanes carried in average 3 passengers and 69 kg of mail. 271 crossings were made carrying 648 passengers; each passenger was given a certificate endorsing and confirming their membership to “The Rare and Secret Order of the double Sunrise”.

 The placid Koggala Lake now sleeps, home to the dugout canoe fisherman. But once Koggala too had its day, when it paid host to an unbreakable record in aviation as the co-sharer of the longest journeys made by commercial aeroplanes.
Justine lives in Katuluwa Walauwa near the Ahangama station. 
Justine’s father was the headman of Koggala when all this happened and he knows to tell the whole story. To Contact Justine – pls call Waruni Bibile – his niece 2400565 – Waruni is from AFLAC