AS02: Lighthouses of Sri Lanka

This island is located just off the southeastern tip of India and was once joined to it in days when the sea level was lower. Europeans first visited it in 1505 when the Portuguese built a fort at Colombo. In 1658 they were ousted by the Dutch who failed to take over the centre of the island and so did not gain total control. The British commenced their occupation in 1795, and built a network of roads that assisted them in establishing control over the entire island. The colony of Ceylon was created in 1802 and remained British until 1948 when Ceylon was given independence. The republic of Sri Lanka dates from 1972.

At an early stage in the establishment of lights in the Indian sub-continent, lighthouses were built in the main ports, first at Trincomalee (1845) in the east and then Columbo (1860) on the west coast. Originally they were part of the fortifications, but in Columbo the light was removed to the clock tower from the West Bastion of the fort. Its visibility of 16 miles (25.7 km) was due largely to its height of 132 feet (40.2 m).

The British naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, described Trincomalee as the greatest harbour in the world and it is hardly surprising that the Europeans were to fight for it on many occasions. At various times, it was held by Dutch, French and Portuguese, who in 1662 rather typically destroyed ruins left from a civilisation thought to date from the third century BC. Trincomalee fell finally under British control in 1795. The light had been established at Flagstaff Point in Fort Frederick at the considerable elevation of 206 feet (62.8 m). The light was discontinued when new lighthouses were built on Foul Point and Round Island, both locations being situated at the entrance to the natural harbour, rather than in the harbour itself. Foul Point is the spit of land marking the southern entrance. The Round Island lighthouse is important for it shows how red and green lights were starting to be adopted, not just for marking hazards, but for leading lights at the entrance to ports. Findlay records that it was being built in 1861 and, when finished, the lighthouse would show a red light between southwest and west by south ¼ south where there was a hazard. A green light would be shown as a lead into the harbour.

In the southwest of the island, the Portuguese first took Galle from the local inhabitants in 1587. They turned it into a fortified settlement, known as the Point de Galle and it was the island’s major port until the rise of Colombo in 1875. In 1848 the British administration built the Point de Galle lighthouse on the south Bastion of the fort at 6o1.4’N 80o11.2’E. Visible for 12 miles (16.1 km) it was 100 feet (30.5 m) above sea level.

James Douglass was a very busy man. In the late 1860s, his greatest achievements were yet to come at home in England where he was Engineer-in-Chief to Trinity House. As assistant to the great lighthouse engineer, James Walker, he was perfectly placed to succeed Walker after his death in 18XX. Douglass completed his first great work at the Wolf Rock in 1868, although, oddly, this was not reported in the Engineer until 1872 [3] He would not start to tackle the new project on the Eddystone until the mid 1870s, but in these years he was very actively engaged in the building of lighthouses of the southern tip of Sri Lanka. There had always been a considerable amount of passing ships, even before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, for all ships had to sail around the tip of the Indian continent. Only those in passage to Australia passed a long way to the south, so the importance of marking the two reefs known as the Great and Little Basses had been well recognised. Douglass was given the task of building lighthouses on both rocks and his project involved the construction of almost identical structures. Both lighthouses are still active today, identified as J0840 and J0842, respectively. He began at the Great Basses Reef in 1869 [4].

Messrs. Shearer, Smith and Co. of the Dalbeattie Granite Quarries, have obtained the contract from the Trinity House Corporation for the granite for this lighthouse.

The lighthouse was completed in 1872, only for work on the Little Basses Rock, to begin almost at once. In the issue of the Engineer for 30th August 1872 [5], the following notice appeared.

Messrs. Shearer, Smith and Co. of the Dalbeattie Granite Quarries, have lately completed the supply of the worked granite for the Great Basses lighthouse, have been entrusted with the supply of worked material for the sister lighthouse about to be erected on the Little Basses Rocks