Fort Cornwallis is a fort built by the British East India Company in 1786. It was built after Sir Francis Light took possession of Penang island after signing an agreement with the then reigning 20th Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah, offering military assistance in the case Kedah was ever to be attacked by The Kingdom of Siam.
The fort was built initially using palm trunks or ‘nibong’ but these were later replaced with bricks and stone, with works beginning in 1804 and only completed in 1810.
The fort, described as a ‘star fort’, was named after Charles Cornwallis, the 1st Marquess Cornwallis who also happened to be the Governor-General of Bengal, and what is a ‘star fort’, you might ask.
Well, apparently when Fort Cornwallis was first constructed, the forts back in Europe were constructed based on the concept of ‘trace italienne’ or ‘Italian outline’, which when viewed from up above, resembled ‘a star on a star’. Try drawing a star upon another star and you’ll get a rough idea what it would look like. Or even the Japanese ninja’s Shuriken, for that matter.
This style of fortifications began in the 16th century and was the design of choice for the next three centuries, when the use of gunpowder was becoming fashionable, and cannons began to dominate the battlefield.
Naturally and over time, cities and settlements were built within ‘star forts’ and as Fort Cornwallis was built to stave off attacks from pirates and other not-so-wanted-guests, it would not be surprising if Fort Cornwallis was no different.
Back to present day Fort Cornwallis, as we approached the fort’s main entrance, we were greeted with a station atop the main entrance. Remembering the scenes from those old period movies where anyone approaching the main gates of a fort would be challenged with a ‘Halt, who goes there?’, it does make sense for a challenge to come from a vantage point higher up.
Well, there’s no challenge this time around as we approached the main entrance, except to show proof of having paid our entrance fees. Having satisfied the ‘guard’ that we have done so, we formally and officially entered the grounds of Fort Cornwallis, an important landmark in the heritage trail of UNESCO-listed George Town.
It must be said that the sight of the grounds of Fort Cornwallis does impress upon you of its expansiveness, all points considering, with fortifications all around the grounds. Bar one, which was blocked off and hidden from view, for conservation purposes.
Making our way to the nearest fortification, we noticed that there were wide protected walkways all round where visitors to the fort can take a walk while viewing the grounds of the fort from the outside looking in.
And mind you, the view from the inside looking out is not so bad either, especially the ones facing the sea.
Walking around the walkways, there was a sensation of being suspended in time, Historical places do that to me. Either it’s this in-built passion for history kicking in or just a moment of weirdness, to add to all those moments of weirdness.
Walking around the walkways, at one corner of the fort facing the sea is the bronze cannon of Dutch origin named ‘Sri Rambai’. The big cannon was casted in 1603 and had changed hands quite a bit before ending up at Fort Cornwallis.
To enlighten us of those events, there is an info-board placed next to ‘Sri Rambai’ with a narration of the myths and legends connected with ‘Sri Rambai’.
One of them was the involvement of a Kedah prince named Tunku Dhiauddin, the son of the 22nd Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Zain-al-Rashid al-Mu’azzam Shah I.
More commonly known as Tengku Kudin, it’s already an interesting fact that his name was not even mentioned on the info-board, as this little piece of info was obtained when we chanced upon an accredited tourist guide, who passed on this little morsel of info.
Legend has it that the cannon, having sank to the bottom of the sea due to a mishap during its transfer from a transport ship to a waiting boat circa 1871, made its way, years later, to the surface at the ‘behest and exultations’ of one Tengku Kudin circa 1880.
Since this little piece of ‘behest and exultations’ cannot be verified scientifically, and furthermore it did happened a long, long time ago, this little episode got filed under ‘Legends’.
But what is also significant AND interesting, is that Tengku Kudin was earlier involved in the Klang Wars or The Civil War in the state of Selangor (1867-1874) during the reign of Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor (1857-1898), having authorized by Sultan Abdul Samad himself to administer the state.
What’s even more interesting is that Tengku Kudin was no ordinary prince out to carve his own little Kingdom but is also the son-in-law of Sultan Abdul Samad, having married one of Sultan Abdul Samad’s daughters, Raja Arfah as well as being the brother of the 23rd Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin al-Mukarram Shah.
All in all, a very interesting person and a very interesting little piece of trivia.
Not far from ‘Sri Rambai’ is the gunpowder magazine. In need of a new coat of paint, the structure is still standing strong, unemployed maybe, empty except for an unused wooden rack which has seen better days, no doubt.
Looking around the cramped spaces of the magazine and visualizing the many barrels of gunpowder stored does bring about a shudder, if ever anybody is in the magazine should a fire breakout somewhere in there. Thank God, its current employment status is ‘Unemployed’.
Walking on the grounds of the fort, you would not fail to come across a statue dedicated to the memory of Sir Francis Light. The irony is that the statue does not bear the image of Sir Francis Light but rather that of his son, William Light.
Why, you might ask. Cos apparently, there is no available image of Light Sr to refer to, and since an offspring does bear a semblance of his or her parent, voila! Problem solved.
For history buffs, William Light was also the Surveyor General of Southern Australia and the founder of Adelaide. Another piece of interesting trivia that.
Nestled to one corner not far from the memorial statue of Sir Francis Light, is the family chapel built by Sir Francis Light. Personally, upon learning that the first wedding conducted at the chapel that Sir Francis Light built, was the marriage of his reputedly very beautiful widow, Martina Rozells, to one John Timmers in 1799, I must say I do feel for the man, even though he may have died a few years earlier, in 1794.
One fun fact is that there is a disagreement when the chapel was actually built. No need for us to get involved cos that is best left to the historians to sort out.
Another corner of the fortifications offers a view of the memorial clock tower, erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Commissioned by a local millionaire (in 1897 mind you!), Cheah Chen Eok, it was completed in 1902 at a cost of 35,000 Straits Dollars.
The clock tower is slightly tilted due to the bombings to the surrounding areas, with the tilt clearly seen when viewed with the help of that little pole stuck in the grounds of Fort Cornwallis facing the clock tower.
Looking around the grounds of Fort Cornwallis, you can’t help but notice a skeletal steel ship mast at one corner of Fort Cornwallis. Believe it or not, it is the second oldest lighthouse in Malaysia, second only to the Cape Rachado Lighthouse at Tanjung Tuan in Melaka state. But its place in history is secured in it being the only lighthouse in the country that is in the shape of a ship’s mast.
All in all, a trip to Fort Cornwallis is worth a day’s trip. There is something for everyone : for the history buffs, the heritage trail travellers, the photo enthusiasts, the selfie and wefie crowd, and never forget the holiday crowd.
Not bad for a fort that has yet to see any combat action and I guess, it never will. But more is to come. Word is that there have been more archaeological finds in the fields just next to the fort and restoration works is also in progress.
Maybe, in a few years time, we’ll make a return trip to Fort Cornwallis with a view what else has been restored. Should be very interesting cos after all, history never dies.
For me at least.