The Fort of Hammenhiel was built by the Potuguese in mid 17th century of quarried coral and was named Fortaleza Real (Fort Royal). The Dutch named it as Hammenhiel (Heel of the Ham) and was rebuilt by them in 1680. The Fort is built around a small island between the island of Kayts and Karaitivu of Jaffna Peninsula.
The April 1940 Journal of the Dutch Burger Union of Ceylon has a detail description of the fort.
The strange serenity of the little Dutch water-fort, Hammenhiel, invests this memorial with a sense of departed usefulness which is most striking. It stands on a rock at the entrance to Jaffna lagoon, and is surrounded on all sides by the sea. In those forgotten days of tumult, Hammanhiel served on the north, like Mannar Fort in the south, to guard the passage by water to the Castle or Key Fort at Jaffna.
The fort is octagonal in shape and the base of the ramparts is washed by the surf. It would appear that the walls were originally raised and the place was fortified on the orders of the Portuguese Governor of Jaffna, Antonio do Amaralde Menezes, a few years before the arrival of the Dutch. The historian Baldaeus, who accompanied the Dutch army to the assault on Jaffna, gives a brief description of the blockade, and the attack on Hammenhiel by the fleet, before Jaffna captured two hundred and eighty-two years ago. The Portuguese only held out for a fortnight and were obliged to surrender for want of water.
When the Dutch occupied the water-fort they found that the sand bank on which it was built had been undermined by the storms of the north-east monsoon. They remedied this by piling up a breakwater of stones. The Portuguese had built the ramparts hollow, and had roofed them with beams which supported a floor of stone and chunam, with a view to the space being utilized for storing provisions and ammunition.
Since the beams were liable to decay, and the floor had to support the weight of the cannon without fear of its giving way when the guns were moved about and turned round, the Dutch considered this a mistake and they replaced the roof by an entire stone vault.
Finally, profiting by the error of their predecessors, the Dutch took special pains to ensure a satisfactory water supply. On the northern side of the fortress they built a huge reservoir, paved with “Dutch Bricks” to collect and preserve the rain water. This reservoir had, however, been built so high that it reached above the parapets and was, therefore, exposed to the fire and possibility of ruin by the enemy. The defect was pointed out time and again at subsequent inspections of the fortress, but since it was a new work, it was allowed to remain until such time as alterations could be effected. It nevertheless stands as originally constructed and to this day conserves a supply of clear, fresh water.
A low vaulted gateway, not more than seven feet in height, is the only entrance to this water-fort. The living quarters consist of three or four rooms in the courtyard. The vaults under the ramparts were doubtless used as store rooms. The Dutch invariably maintained a garrison of thirty men under the charge of a Lieutenant or Ensign on the spot, and the early Dutch Governors make very special mention in their memoirs that Hammenhiel must be carefully guarded, “non but Dutch being stationed there”
Not the least of, the many appealing features of Fort Hammenhiel and its pleasant surroundings, is the popular theory how it got its name. The Dutch, when they pictured the shape of Ceylon, saw in it a resemblance to a smoked ham. Hammenhiel means “the hell of the ham”, and with a little imagination the picturesque little water-fort might very well be placed at the point where the shank bone projects.
How strangely are place-names derived! In more recent years the sea-girthed spot, about half a mile from Karitivu and one mile from Kayts, was used as an infectious diseases hospital. Its isolation and breeziness could hardly have been put to better purpose. Thus, on these ramparts, where in the past Dutch sentries scanned the horiaon for’ hostile craft or private vessels which had to be searched before they were permitted to proceed down the fairway, convalescents from plague or small-pox, drawn from that stream of humanity which crossed over from India to open Central Ceylon in Tea, bemoaned a fate which had stalled their efforts to brave the perils of their long journey.