Trincomalee: The Rotterdam of the Eastern Indian Ocean

Tuesday, 19 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Will we miss the bus – again?


A colleague, who calls himself an ‘Economic Historian,’ has confessed that his dream is to concoct a fictional economic history of Sri Lanka, based on the fiction that the European penetration of this island took place from the east coast and not from the west.

He firmly believes that if not for the historical accident of the Portuguese Captain General Francesco de Almeida at Goa, on India’s West coast, in 1505, deciding to send his son, Lorenzo, to the west of Sri Lanka, with a fleet of nine ships to chase down and destroy some Muslim pirates who were harassing the Portuguese ships sailing from Malacca to Goa, the history of our land would be different.

One could imagine the Captain General, having a young son and his band of friends, with spare time and money, chilling out in the small expatriate Portuguese community of Goa, using his father’s name and authority to terrify the populace, being a headache to the father’s strict administration (happens even today) racking his brains to find something useful for these young vagabonds with excess energy to be deployed on, instead on venting their exertions of the unfortunate people of Goa!

The repeated complaints of Portuguese ship captains of the activities of these Muslim pirates basing themselves in Male Atoll, on the Maldives Islands, would have given him an idea. The fool hardiness of young Lorenzo and his band of merry men to venture out into the Western Indian Ocean in the teeth of the South West Monsoon itself shows their immaturity and also may be the father’s intention of really putting them through an experiential learning opportunity, from which they will learn many lessons to temper their youthful energies. How Lorenzo’s fleet got caught in a vicious South West monsoon storm and strong currents , his flagship losing its main mast and limped into Galle harbour, seeking succour from the king at Kotte, is now a part of history.

The Economic Historian’s thesis is, what if the, the Muslim pirates had been based, say on the Andaman islands, to the east of Sri Lanka, harassing Portuguese ships in the Eastern Indian ocean, say sailing to and from the spice emporiums of Malacca on the Malay mainland and Lorenzo had been despatched to deal with them, his fleet getting caught to a North East monsoon storm, and limped into Trincomalee harbour, and the king in Kandy having to provide succour?

Then the colonial economic penetration of this island would have started from the east coast and moved inland, Trincomalee would have been the hub, as Galle was and Colombo is now. Given the later economic boom in East Asia – what even the World Bank called ‘The East Asian Miracle’ – which soon collapsed, based on unsustainable dictatorships and heavy international borrowing (sounds familiar!?) and today’s China boom, Trincomalee would have without doubt been a booming transhipment port and hub of economic activity.




Why Rotterdam?

Why the analogy to Rotterdam? Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands and one of the largest ports in the world. It is the largest port in Europe, with the rivers Meuse and the Rhine providing access to the European hinterland upstream reaching up to Basel in Switzerland and into France. In 2006 it was the world’s seventh largest container port in terms of twenty foot equivalent units (TEU) handled.

Rotterdam’s main activities are petrochemical, general cargo handling and transhipment. The harbour functions as an important transit point for bulk materials between Europe and the world. From Rotterdam goods are distributed Europe wide by ship, river barge, road and rail. In 2007 a new fast freight train railway from Rotterdam to Germany was completed.

Starting as a dam constructed in 1270 on the Rotte River, Rotterdam is today a globalised centre of commerce. It is called the Gateway to Europe. The combined urban area of Rotterdam and The Hague is the 206th largest urban area in the world. One of the world’s most vibrant multicultural cities, Rotterdam is famous for its Erasmus University, cutting edge architecture, lively cultural life, striking riverside setting and ancient maritime heritage.



Trincomalee is the world’s second largest and deepest natural harbour (the 10 metre depth contour comes right into Koddiar Bay. At the height of Rule Britannia and the British Raj, it could easily accommodate the huge British Far East Fleet. It is overlooking the Bay of Bengal and a beautiful natural harbour.

The entrance is guarded by two headlands as to be absolutely impregnable by any known methods of warfare. This the Japanese discovered to their cost during World War II, as did the French before them. To the north of the inner harbour of Trincomalee is the Dutch Bay, which has on one side of it a rocky peninsular with some magnificent cliffs running out onto the Bay of Bengal for the best part of a mile. This is Fort Frederick, a place of scared interest to Hindus and the object of countless legends.

The cliffs rise sheer from the blue water of China Bay to height of over 400 feet and are an object of veneration. They go by the name of Swami Rock, and this is the location of the famed Sivam Kovil of Koneswaram, one of the five famed and venerated Sivan temples located in Sri Lanka; the others being Munneswaram near Chilaw, Thiruketheswaram near Mannar, Naguleswaram near Keerimalai, and the one at Dondra, presently a temple dedicated to Vishnu.



Koneswaram was a colossal temple located here, called the Temple of a Thousand Columns destroyed by the Portuguese in 1622. Nothing remains on the site of this magnificent edifice, as the Portuguese with their ruthless savagery, inevitably linked to their name and driven by the evangelical conversion fury of promoting their faith, razed it to the ground, precisely as they did to that other said to be wonderful Sivan temple at Dondra, on Sri Lanka’s west coast.

However, the famous futurist, astronomer and deep sea diver Arthur C. Clarke diving off Swami Rock with his colleague Mike Wilson many years ago, has recorded the presence of a vast number of huge columns of stone on the sea bed just off the Rock, undoubtedly once belonging to the Temple of a Thousand Columns. Indeed historians record that the Portuguese in fact pushed off the columns into the deep sea, just below the rock. One hopes that someday technology would be available to bring these pillars for public display.

Other than the modern temple on the rock, one solitary historical pillar still stands on the headland; some claim that this is one of the pillars of the temple. On it is carved an inscription to Francina Van Reedee, a Dutch girl, whose father was employed by the VOC, at Trincomalee, who threw herself over the cliff, into the sea, in despair, watching a faithless lover’s ship sail out of the harbour. The spot is popularly called ‘Lover’s Leap’.

The harbour consists of the great Koddiyar Bay, Cod Bay, Yard Cove Bay, China Bay (where it is said the sea going to Sampans from East Asia docked), and Sober Islands, where it is said that European sailors, after time spent at sea who had enjoyed their liberty in town, too much and came back to base inebriated, or had to be collected from a ‘watering hole’ in town by the Navy’s Shore Patrol, after they had passed out, were quarantined, until they sobered up! Next to the larger Sober Island is French Pass, a narrow strait through which the French fleet escaped when a British fleet tried to trap them within the harbour.


Pivotal role

Trincomalee itself has played a pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s history. It is said that traders from East Asia arrived at the ancient port of Gokanna (the historical name of Trincomalee). The name ‘China’ Bay itself is derived from these merchants. They travelled overland from Gokanna to the ancient trading emporium of Anuradhapura, the capital city, where the King had decreed a separate foreign trader’s quarter, to trade goods with merchants who arrived from the Europe and West Asia.

Those traders landed at the Port of Mantai (modern Mannar) on our west coast and came to the capital city to trade with their counterparts from the East. Historians surmise that substantial revenues must have been generated by taxing these trade transactions; at Gokanna a customs house and a fort are said to have been erected by King Wijayabahu I, who ruled from Polonnaruwa and drove the Cholas out of Sri Lanka. The Cholas also used a harbour south of Trincomalee for their operations in Sri Lanka, Illankathurai (which was also a base for the LTTE’s Sea Tigers). The Portuguese also constructed a fort in 1624.

Ribeiro, a Portuguese writer, writes: “Trinquimale was a triangular fortress, with three bastions carrying 10 iron cannon, built on a hill at a point of land adjoining the sea close to the Bay Dos Acros. A captain was in charge with 50 soldiers, and there was a gunner, 16 inhabitants, a chaplain, a church and a magazine of stores and ammunition.”

The fort gradually fell into decay, it was attacked by the Dutch in 1639, and the Portuguese were forced to capitulate. The Dutch, who were interested in driving out the Portuguese from Sri Lanka’s western coastal areas to take over the trade in cinnamon, elephants and other local produce, sent their negotiators to meet the King of the Kandyan Kingdom, by ship to Trincomalee.

King Rajasinghe II, who with Dutch help ousted the Portuguese, later when the Dutch VOC consolidated its position and occupied the maritime areas, exclaimed that he had ‘exchanged chilli for pepper’! The Dutch occupied the fort in 1639. Admiral De La Haye of the French navy sailed into Trincomalee and the Dutch set fire to the fort and fled. The Dutch started building fortifications on what is now known as the Sober Islands. The French took possession of the fort for some time.

King Rajasinghe collaborated with the French too. Admiral de la Haye sent an emissary to the palace in Kandy. Ambassador Sieur Desfontaines was treated so well by the King that it is reported he decided to settle down in Kandy! Officials of the Kandyan court came to meet the French and a treaty was signed. But in 1672 the Dutch Governor of Ceylon’s Maritime Provinces arrived with a fleet but it was the Kandyan troops who took on the Dutch, as the French maintained that they were at peace with the Netherlands! The Admiral sailed away leaving just 100 French troops who soon surrendered.

The British captured the Fort in 1782. In 1778 the French were supporting the American revolutionaries against the British. The British captured Pondicherry, the French colony, in India. The French sent a fleet under Admiral D’Estinene-D’Orves, who died at sea and was succeeded by Admiral de Suffren to take Trincomalee. It engaged a British naval squadron commanded by Admiral Edward Hughes off Madras at the Battle of Safras.

The French followed the British to Trincomalee and attacked again near the island of Chailaitivi off Vakarai on Sri Lanka’s east coast south of Trincomalee. After the battle Hughes retreated to Trincomalee, while the French anchored off Batticaloa, where their allies the Dutch still held the fort.

In 1782 the French actually entered the Trincomalee harbour and landed troops. The British troops under Captain McDowell surrendered the fort. Admiral Hayes returned with his ships and the Battle of Trincomalee took place. The fleets broke away and took shelter due to the outbreak of the North East monsoon, Hughes in Madras and the French in Indonesia. The French and the British made peace soon after. In 1784 the French handed back Trincomalee to the Dutch VOC in terms of the Paris Peace treaty. In 1795 the British took over Trincomalee after the Dutch capitulated to Colonel Stuart of the British army.


Role in world history

Once the British had been ceded the Kandyan kingdom, they developed a naval base there. They built a fort there and named Fort Frederick. British ships circumnavigating India on their way to Bombay from Calcutta and back called in at Trincomalee.

Indeed there is a historical British era building within Fort Fredrick, which is called Wellington House. The Duke of Wellington, while serving as a young officer in India, with his regiment on attachment to the British Indian Army, had arrived with his men from Bombay en route to Calcutta. He contacted malaria while at Fort Frederick and the ship left without him. The ship sank with all hands before reaching Calcutta, due to a fierce North East monsoon storm. In later life the Duke, commanding the British and Prussian armies against Napoleon at the battle Waterloo, defeated the French.

Trincomalee therefore has a role in world history; if the Duke of Wellington had not contacted malaria and not missed his ship and drowned, the history of Europe and maybe of the world may have been different.

Trincomalee was a huge British naval base. Members of the Chinese community domiciled in Trincomalee today are said to be descendants of the laundry men the British Navy inducted from Hong Kong to service the base. This gives a contemporary relevance to ‘China’ Bay! The iconic Chinese-owned ABC café at the entrance to SLNS Tissa, and its speciality of iced lime juice soda, is an unforgettable experience.

During World War II, Japanese Admiral Nagumo sent his carrier based aircraft to bomb Colombo and Trincomalee. The target at Trincomalee was the British fleet. One bomb which dropped harmlessly into the sea in front of Fort Frederick blasted the coral in a semi circular natural swimming pool! The British Navy had prior intelligence of the attack and dispersed the fleet. HMS Hood was steaming southwards when the Japanese pilots in their Zeros spotted, bombed and sank her off Batticaloa. Today the wreck of the Hood is a popular diving spot for scuba divers off Batticaloa.

During the civil war, Trincomalee played a strategic role. When the road link to the north was cut, Jaffna and its environs was supplied by ships from Trincomalee. There are still large Army, Navy and Air Force bases at Trincomalee. Today the town is slowly slipping back to its sleepy status as a provincial capital and garrison town.

Post-war tourism is pumping resources into Trincomalee. The armed forces in their new-found victorious avatar in the leisure industry have developed holiday resorts, including a golf links. Industry-wise, only the Prima Flour mill is the iconic presence. A coal power plant, with all its negative environmental impacts, is scheduled for Sampur.


21st century importance of Trincomalee

Like when the mercantilist Moslem, Portuguese, Dutch VOC, British East India Company and the French were quarrelling over Trincomalee in the past, in 21st century geopolitics, Trincomalee is important.

The Indians consider it a part of their strategic defence of their very own eastern Indian Ocean. As the South Block Babu’s in Delhi are want to say: “Remember, it’s the Indian Ocean and not the South Asian Sea!”

In the Indo Lanka Accord of 1987, much conditionality was imposed on Sri Lanka’s discretionary use of Trincomalee. Just think if Trincomalee had been developed like Rotterdam, with a speed rail link to Talaimanar and onto Rameswaram, and the Indian sub continent – with the East Asian and Australasian and Chinese land mass on the East – what potential Trincomalee has?

An international airport expanding the SLAF base at China Bay would be an essential feature. Without developing godforsaken places like Oluvil and other ‘dugout’ ‘excavated’ harbours, the world’s second largest (2,030 hectares) and deepest natural harbour, with a 500 metre entrance channel, should have been developed.

A total of 80% of China’s raw material and energy resources are shipped East on the sea lanes South of the Dondra Head from Africa and the Gulf. Think of the havoc a couple of air craft carrier groups based in Trincomalee could wreck on this Southern shipping lifeline to China. A couple of war ships based in Hambantota would be a weak and impotent joke against such might!

On the strategic side, China is also developing a String of Pearls – potential naval bases – at Marao Atoll in the Maldives, Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe in Myanmar, Lamu in Kenya, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, in case her Navy is required to secure and defend the Southern sea route. These are possible alternatives to Trincomalee’s potential, however minuscule they seem in comparison.


Enterprise and business aspect

On the enterprise and business aspect, Trincomalee provides a land area of 5,261 hectares for development. A vast entrepot-based industrial and manufacturing base to serve the South Asian, East Asian, Chinese and Australasian markets could be developed. However, the timeframe for this option is limited; Myanmar is developing the Island of Ramree on its West coast near Cambermere Bay, approximately 93 degrees longitude and 17 degrees latitude. An international airport is under construction at Ramree’s capital city oof Kyaukpyu.

China has also entered into an agreement to build a 1,215 km railway and parallel highway linking the city of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province with Kyaukpyu. Off Ramree, Korea’s Daewoo International is developing Myanmar’s largest natural gas project, the Shwe gas pipeline and onshore terminal, owned by the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. A Special Economic and Industrial Zone is planned.

Once these investments take off, Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu, not Trincomalee, will be the cynosure of all investors’ eyes in the Eastern Indian Ocean. If we are not to miss these strategic and entrepreneurial opportunities for Trincomalee, we have to move now. Delay will once again mean we have missed the bus, and the potential will remain nothing but that – mere, nostalgic, potential.

The time is now.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)


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