A peaceful piece of history
In keeping with its history as a fort devoid of battles, a state of inertia seems to penetrate the very walls of peaceful Fort Cornwallis.
Its lawns are green; its wide ramparts undulate, dotted with benches, and planted with sweet smelling borders and the sea breeze gently cools the topical sultriness. If it weren’t for the gunpowder magazine, barracks and a rather fabulous lighthouse with all the rigging of a tall ship, not to mention the assemblage of cannons facing the all but non-exiting plunderers, the contemporary fort isn’t remarkably impressive.
Even our guide couldn’t be bothered walking around and sat on a bench as she threw light on its past: stretching back to 17 July 1786, just three years before the French Revolution, when Captain Francis Light landed on the northeastern tip of Penang. A few weeks later the Union Flag was hoisted and a timber fort laid out, mirroring the same position and size as today’s incarnation with a star-like form and wide ramparts.
With the onset of war between Britain and France in 1793, Light hurried to rebuild the structure in brick but died the following year before its completion. A further escalation of danger from Napoleon and his cohorts drove Lieutenant Governor Farquhar to complete the work, with the addition of a moat and drawbridges.
The French never did arrive but in 1941 the Japanese did, using the area for military workshops and storehouses. Despite occupation and the even greater threat of demolition in the 1920s, Captain Francis Light, his statue at least, is back on home turf, standing proudly, hand on hip, surveying visitors at the west entrance of the fort.
Even in its present rather sleepy state, Fort Cornwallis is a welcome green space within the city, huge trees provide lots of shade and kids can run freely (although be careful, the ramparts are not fenced off). Attempts at making the site historically compelling were in a state of disrepair when we visited in July 2017, with a hodgepodge of peeling signage and a seeming lack of direction. A Ferrari car show was being set up in the grounds which didn’t help matters.
However of interest, the small chapel tells of its first recorded marriage—the widow of Francis Light, and the tale of the Sri Rambai cannon presented to the Sultan of Johor in 1606 by the Dutch East India Company, seized by the Portuguese, attacked by pirates, shipwrecked, only to magically resurface and fall into the hands of the British, its mythical status is literally cast in brass with the legend that an offering of flowers and a prayer to this most phallic of cannons will assure fertility.
An ongoing archaeological project outside the western wall of the fort may literally unearth other stories but in the meantime, if magical cannons and a shady park don’t pique your interest, fancy Kota restaurant on the grounds may entice and for history buffs, Fort Cornwallis retains the air of an important icon, a place to be pondered as a vital connection with Penang’s settlement by the East India Company and for better or worse, all the changes this colonial pact would bring.
Wander along Lebuh Light to where it connects to Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and visit Francis Light in his final resting place at the atmospheric Protestant Cemetery.
Address: Lebuh Light, Georgetown
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º20'38.28" E, 5º25'14.39" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 20 ringgit for adults, 10 ringgit for kids. Half fare for local citizens.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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