The recently announced multi-faceted US$ 200 million plan to develop Galle harbor at the southern tip of Sri Lanka both as an enhanced commercial port and as a water sports and leisure hub hosting cruise ships, is an attractive proposition.

Indeed, the Public-Private sector project, envisaging domestic and foreign investment, promises to breathe life into a port which has been in the doldrums from the last decade of the 19 th. Century onwards, after having been Sri Lanka’s primary port for 500 years.

The details of the development plan outlined by the Minister of Ports Rohitha Abeygunawardena, are not yet available. However, from the broad contours of the plan revealed to the media, it appears that very drastic changes are envisaged – changes that could have an adverse impact on the port’s tangible heritage, warn marine and cultural archeologists.

They say that Galle harbor has to be seen as being part of the Galle “UNESCO Heritage Site” comprising Galle Fort and the old town. Any damage done to the port’s heritage could lead to UNESCO’s heritage appellation being withdrawn.

The massive ramparts, bastions, buildings, lighthouse, clock tower and magazine are the most visible features of Galle Harbor’s maritime landscape, that also includes underwater maritime archaeological sites and Sinhalese and Buddhist sites of significance.

It is well known that Galle bay is the resting place of a number of wrecked vessels of the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British era, and perhaps even of ships of the earlier Arab era. The rocks and reefs at the entrance of the harbor had been playing havoc with shipping for centuries. But the wreckage is invaluable for marine archeologists to whom it is part of Sri Lanka’s heritage, and therefore, worth preserving.

Marine archeologist Lt.Com (Rtd) Somasiri Devendra recalled that earlier, there was another plan to develop Galle port, along with a Marina. But there was opposition, first from UNESCO which said that the project would impact on the Galle World Heritage site and lead to its de-listing. An expert from Italy came and submitted a similar report to the Department of Archeology.

“As maritime archaeologists, we also objected. And the Department of Archeology insisted that, in terms of the Antiquities Act, an Archaeological Impact Assessment should be carried out by experts chosen by the Department. Any decision on the port should therefore be based on such studies and legal considerations,” Com.Devendra said.

In 2007, following discussions between the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology and the Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum (WAM), WAM was engaged as a consultant to undertake a maritime archaeological survey of Galle harbor as part of an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) process.

The scope of the consultancy was to outline the impact of the then proposed Galle port development on the underwater cultural heritage of Galle. The survey took place between 14 November and 2 December 2007. WAM staff were supported in Sri Lanka by the Department of Archaeology, the Sri Lankan Maritime Archaeological Unit (MAU), and the Central Cultural Fund.

It is noteworthy that WAM had been involved in maritime archaeological investigations in Galle Harbor since 1992.Remote sensing and diving search projects, undertaken in 1992, 1993 and 1996, had resulted in the location of a range of significant maritime heritage sites in the harbor including Arab-Indian stone anchors.

A number of VOC (Dutch East Indian Company) vessels are known to have been wrecked in or around Galle. The sunken Dutch ship Hercules (1661) is of particular interest. Then there are the wreck sites of Dolfijn (sunk in 1663); Barbestien (1735); Geinwens (1776). “These sites are an integral part of the values for which Galle harbor is perceived as significant i.e. as physical and archaeological evidence of Dutch colonial activity, port development and maritime trade in Galle, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia generally,” the WAM report said.

Further: “The European colonial fort and port infrastructure on the western shore is in juxtaposition to the virtually untouched eastern shore, with the Buddhist architecture of the Peace Dagoba and other Buddhist sites of significance, Jungle Beach and Watering Point. Other evidence of Galle Fort’s operations and construction is present in the quarries and likely archaeological remains of Dutch infrastructure at Watering Point.”

“Gibbet Island is likely to have human remains and possibly graves relating to executions and burials carried out during the Dutch occupation period. The name given to Gibbet Island in early Dutch records is ‘Hercules Kirkhof (trans graveyard)’.”

The WAM team had located 11 iron steamship wrecks (excluding the two modern wrecks). The following vessels are known to be wrecked in the vicinity of Galle Harbor: SS Phatti Allum; SS Rangoon (south-west of Galle Harbor). The WAM study says that two recent wrecks demonstrate possible impacts to the Galle fort and maritime archaeological sites.

“The modern wreck of a Singapore-owned dredger Scorpio lies in three parts. The main hull and machinery of the dredger lie on the western end of the Gibbet Island breakwater where it was carried by currents after running aground near the Hercules site in June 2007. A part of the dredger’s pontoon hull subsequently broke away and was carried by currents to a position just outside of the naval base entrance (this wreckage appears to lie directly on top of a wreck marked on Admiralty charts).”

“While it is fortunate that neither of these wrecks have directly impacted the highly significant VOC Hercules or Avondster sites, or damaged the fort walls, they do demonstrate the natural dangers of Galle Harbor, the potential for large modern wrecks to end up in the same places as historic shipwrecks, and the real potential for modern shipping accidents in Galle Harbor even with its current status as a minor port,” the WAM report warned.

If the port is expanded to take larger ships and increased shipping traffic, then the impact to the heritage landscape values and amenity of Galle Fort UNESCO heritage site caused by major port infrastructure, increased shipping movements and attendant increased risk of shipping-related incidents such as wrecks, marine oil spills, and dust and pollution from heavy road traffic must be taken into consideration, the report suggested.

“To preserve the heritage values of the harbor, as described above, our recommendation is to relocate shipping facilities to a less culturally sensitive region. The establishment of a port in Galle will have implications for the harbor’s proposed listing as a world heritage site. If Galle harbor is selected for redevelopment, all attempts should be made to minimize the impact of any built structure on the cultural and natural aesthetics of the harbor,” the WAM report recommended.

“Consideration for the heritage values of Galle UNESCO site should be extended to the wider maritime landscape of Galle Harbor, that under current plans will be significantly impacted by placing major modern port infrastructure between the ancient fort and eastern bay area, along with attendant risks from increased shipping movements,” the report said.

Finally, the WAM said that the Sri Lankan Ports Authority had better focus on Hambantota and Colombo as the sites for major port and infrastructure developments, and “limit development in Galle to upgrading and improving existing facilities in accordance with its current status as a minor port.”

But now having given China, control over the commercial Hambantota port for 99 years, it would not be practical to think of developing it as a leisure hub.

However, environmentalists and marine archeologists say that Galle bay could be developed as a yachting and water sports hub with enhanced facilities, while avoiding its development as a commercial port to attract big vessels.