In 1857, a 22 year old James Gibson would have seen Pointe de Galle (or simply, Galle, as it is now) for the first time some way off in the distance. He would have noticed the large, robust fort on the headland which indicated the harbour beyond. He would, at this stage of the journey, have been well used to the 35 degree temperatures and leaden humidity.
James was First Mate on the Robina and this was to be his only visit to Galle. The Robina was 746 tons, most likely barque rigged and about 41 metres long – imagine something two-thirds of the size of the Cutty Sark and you’d be just about there. James was working his way to the position of Master, which he would achieve in 1862. And he must have had very fond memories of this ship because in 1864, he named his daughter, born at sea, Robina Milford Gibson.
Robina was my great-great-grandmother.
So it’s been quite a personal visit for me. We’ve stayed inside the boundary of the fort itself, whose street layout James would recognise, only with the soldiers’ barracks replaced by small hotels, trinket shops and restaurants. Many of the churches would have been here, although I did note that the current lighthouse dates back only to 1938. James will remain the only member of my family to see its predecessor.
We walked around the ramparts this morning before it got too hot. They are, for me, in just the right level of ruination. They’ve been visibly touched by the harsh winds and storms of the tropics and yet the block houses, storerooms and gun emplacements are all easily recognisable.
The hospital, built by the Dutch in the 17th century, now has 20-something gap yearers, swapping tales of hostels and must-see spots over a beer in a bar. Maybe things haven’t changed that much. Although I suspect life was a bit tougher for James and his crew.
As we prepare ourselves for the next leg of our Sri Lankan adventure, I spare a final thought for my ancestor. I’ve liked having James by my side as we’ve wandered. He’s quite a guy.
With thanks to David Ridpath for the family history research. He’s Robina’s great-grandson.
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