"CONSERVATION works at Fort Cornwallis recently came up with quite a number of interesting historical artefacts. The Universiti Sains Malaysia archaeological team dug up cannons and mortar dating back to the reign of King George III. Can you believe it? That is around the time when Captain Francis Light first set foot on Penang Island!" my uncle exclaims excitedly when we cross paths at the Kedah State Museum.
Also an avid student of local history, my mother's third brother who retired three years ago, spends most of his time at museums and public libraries in pursuit of his interest. Judging from his demeanour today, it’s obvious that the developing news from Penang has caught his undivided attention.
My uncle proceeds to show a newspaper clipping highlighting the latest discovery of ammunition casings, live bullets, old laterite roads and Japanese lorry tracks. "These items prove that Fort Cornwallis not only has artefacts dating back centuries but also those that are much closer to our time. These newly found items are probably remnants from the Japanese Occupation between 1942 to 1945," he elaborates.
While expressing relief that the excavating team is carefully processing the different layers by employing the soil stratification technique, my uncle echoes my interest in wanting to know more about the origin of Fort Cornwallis and its subsequent function as the island's bastion of defence during those early days.
Keen to have our questions answered, we proceed to the museum's well-stocked library on the first floor and begin perusing many reference books and periodicals. Fortunately for us, many related references surface within a short search. Before long, the story of the largest standing fort still in existence in Malaysia begins to unfold right in front of our eyes.
THE STORY UNFOLDS
Hailing from Suffolk, Light left England after a brief career as a Royal Navy midshipman in the mid-1760s to seek his fortune in the colonies controlled by his new employer, the British East India Company (BEIC).
Light's interest in Penang began in 1771, when he proposed the idea of turning the island into a British settlement. The suggestion, which fell on deaf ears at that time, only came under serious consideration twelve years later when Britain struggled with France for naval superiority.
Upon receipt of blessings from his BEIC superiors, Light successfully secured a lease which involved an annual payment of six thousand Spanish dollars to the Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah.
Landing on July 17, 1786, Light named the new settlement Prince of Wales Island, a name that remained in BEIC records for the next 50 years. On that historic morning, Light together with a small group of European officers and a detachment of marines and lascars, stepped foot on a strip of sand which was fringed by dense jungle filled with an almost impenetrable undergrowth of shrubs and creepers.
Deciding on building a fort at that very spot, Light declared that, when ready, the bastion would serve as the main defence post for the island. In order to encourage land clearing, it was said that Light ordered a cannon to be loaded with silver coins and fired into the dense jungle, declaring to the local Malay population, who had been living on the island long before his arrival, that they would gain possession of the land cleared as well as coins retrieved.
With hardly any place to pitch camp, Light and his men returned to spend the night on-board their ships, the Prince Henry, Eliza and Speedwell. By the next day, enough of the dense tropical foliage had been cleared for Light and his men to set up a temporary tented camp.
Just a fortnight later, the settlement was already a picture of progress. The tents, which were rendered useless during heavy tropical storms that frequently lashed the island, had given way to studier wooden huts.
East Indiamen Vansittart and Valentine, en route for China, became the first two ships to call at the Prince of Wales Island on Aug 10, 1786. The following day, the captains from the two ships joined Light and 13 English officers by the shore to take part in the flag raising ceremony.
Among those present were Lieutenant James Gray (Marine Detachment Commandant), Captain Elisha Trapaud (Engineers Corps) and Captain George Howell (Artillery Regiment).
As echoes of the royal salute from the ships at sea and volleys by the marines on shore resonated in the air, few present at that time realised that the historic moment marking the formal British claim on the island on behalf of King George III and the BEIC had an even larger significance. On a broader front, it signalled the beginning of British expansion into the Malay States.
Just days later, Light gave orders for the construction of the fort. This first version was largely a timbered stockade made of nibong palm trunks with a ditch surrounding it and bastions strong enough six-pounder cannons sourced from the ships.
At that time, the fort served the purpose of protecting the settlement from pirates and Kedah warriors who were intent on ousting the British after Sultan Abdullah realising that Light had renegaded on his promise to provide him with military aid against his enemies.
Named after Lord Charles Cornwallis, the Governor-General of Bengal and commander-in-chief in India, Fort Cornwallis was reinforced in 1788 when the stockade size was doubled. Noticing a further need for fortifications during the early 1780s, Light trebled the stockade size and had cannons mounted, for the first time, to the seaward side.
At that time, the garrison strength at Fort Cornwallis consisted of an artillery detachment of 17 Europeans, 30 non-Europeans and a marine force of 100 sepoys, infantrymen who hailed from the Indian sub-continent.
Despite the numerous improvements, Fort Cornwallis started to show signs of disrepair by 1790. In a report to his BEIC superiors, Light mentioned that the fort was nothing more than a rotten stockade with decaying platforms that could no longer support cannons. With the fort in dire need of repair, Light appealed for permission in initiate repairs.
When no word came despite numerous requests, Light took matters into his own hands in early 1794 and rebuilt Fort Cornwallis, at a cost of about 67,000 Spanish dollars, into a sturdier stone structure.
Several months later, the administration and control of Prince of Wales Island received a serious setback when Light passed away after suffering from a brief bout of malaria on Oct 21, 1794.
Although Lord Cornwallis was largely displeased by Light's action in spending BEIC money to rebuild the fort without prior approval, the Governor-General had little choice but approve the expenditure.
By the turn of the 19th century, the Prince of Wales Island had become a staging post for naval vessels in the area and an important port of call for merchant ships plying the China trade routes.
PLANS FOR A SECOND FORT
In 1805, the Prince of Wales Island was granted status of a Presidency in recognition of its growing importance. During the transfer of power from BEIC headquarters in India, a suggestion was raised to construct a naval base at Pulau Jerejak, a sizeable island about 10 kilometres down the eastern coastline from Georgetown.
As it was not possible for Fort Cornwallis to protect Georgetown and the naval base, plans were put in place to construct a new fort at Pulau Jerejak. Unfortunately, costs outweighed necessity and approval for the fort's construction was never given.
The following two years saw the arrival and departure of many high ranking personalities, including numerous Admirals, and that resulted in an almost endless firing of ceremonial salutes. The constant vibrations from the cannons weakened a large section of the rampart so much that it had to be dismantled and rebuilt.
Soon after, a resulting joke began making its rounds in Georgetown with people laughing about the fact that, during such time of relative peace and abundant prosperity, the fort's own cannons had become its worst enemy!
In July 1808, a stone battery was added. Measuring 182m in length and 6m thick, they were capable of mounting seventeen heavy guns each. The work took six months and cost just over $4,500.
This period coincided with the demolition of the Melaka Fort after the Dutch temporarily handed over control to the British in view of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars in Europe. As large quantities of bricks, tiles and masonry saved from the ruins of the fort and other public buildings in Melaka were shipped to Penang in January 1808, it was highly probable that Fort Cornwallis and its nearby embankments were rebuilt with these materials.
The construction of an additional battery with seven 32 pounder cannons, that extended out over the northwest bastion of Fort Cornwallis in late 1809, gave artillery cover to the harbour and, together with a wide moat, made Georgetown one of the best defended ports in the Far East.
BEGINNING OF DECLINE
The mention of Sir Stamford Raffles in several texts covering this time period catches our attention. Pointing to Raffles' photograph, my uncle muses: "Raffles made a brief stopover in Penang in 1810 en route to Calcutta to persuade the Governor-General of India in sending an expedition to Java to forestall French ambitions there. A year later, his suggestions were set in motion."
My uncle echoes my thoughts on how the invasion of Java brought a great number of naval vessels and troop transports to the Prince of Wales Island before assembling in Melaka for the final stage of the overwhelmingly successful assault.
"Raffles gained much prestige in the eyes of his BEIC superiors when the British overran Java in just 45 days. Unfortunately, his success there and subsequent founding of Singapore in 1819 marked the gradual decline of the Prince of Wales Island," he adds.
The end of the war meant that the need to maintain Fort Cornwallis in a state of readiness for the defence of Georgetown ceased to exist and there was a clear reluctance on behalf of the BEIC to spend further funds on its defences. The fort was only kept in a state of necessary repair due to the continued use of its internal buildings such as the chapel.
Constructed close to the landward southwest bastion side, the chapel is today the earliest roofed colonial era structure that is still in existence. The first recorded marriage that took place here was between John Timmers and Martina Rozells, the widow of Francis Light, in 1799, the very same year the chapel was built.
The 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty saw the British regaining control of Melaka after returning it to the Dutch after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Two years later, the three British colonies of the Prince of Wales Island, Singapore and Melaka were administered as a single entity known as the Straits Settlements.
SINGAPORE OVERTAKES PENANG
Eight years later, the seat of the Straits Settlements government moved from the Prince of Wales Island to Singapore, whose importance both as an administrative and economic centre could no longer be ignored. By 1835, the emphasis of defence also moved south although by this time the Prince of Wales Island was, for the first time, being referred to in BEIC records as Penang.
Over the next two decades, from 1838 to 1858, when the Straits Settlements ceased to be under the BEIC rule and were placed directly under the Crown, little of note occurred in Penang. Fort Cornwallis became more of a storage area and ceased to be regarded as a major defence force.
The wall adjacent to the sea was strengthened merely to protect it against erosion but apart from that there is no other record of any expenditure on improvements made on Fort Cornwallis for the rest of the 19th century.
Fort Cornwallis was never again used as a defence position. By the time Penang was bombarded by the Japanese Imperial Army fighter planes in December 1941, it became a mere historic relic from the distant past that never actually engaged in battle throughout its entire operational history.
Apart from serving as one of Penang's major tourist attractions today, Fort Cornwallis also serves a useful function in the form of a white metal framework tower on its north eastern bastion. Built in 1882, this is considered the second oldest lighthouse in Malaysia, after the Cape Rachado Lighthouse at Tanjung Tuan, Melaka.
Originally named Fort Point Lighthouse, it was renamed Penang Harbour Lighthouse after renovations in 1925. The structure, constructed in a form that resembles a ship's mast, carries a navigational light which functions as a marker for ships heading towards Penang Harbour.
At the conclusion of our research, we hoped that the authorities will put in place plans to exhibit the recovered artefacts in an area within Fort Cornwallis itself as that would breathe new life into the antiquated building and renew interest in early Penang history among the general public.
Before parting ways, we make plans to visit Fort Cornwallis at the next available opportunity.
Hopefully, by that time, the excavation and archaeological works would have uncovered more artefacts to help researchers further their understanding of what life was like in Penang a long time ago.