Despite its history, Fort Cornwallis is curiously devoid of any belligerence and might indeed qualify as one of the most peaceful, breeziest spots in all Penang. Its lawns are green; its wide ramparts undulate, dotted with benches, and planted with sweet smelling borders.
Its provenance stretches 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 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 a little general called Napoleon 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. His other hand grips the handle of a sword whose blade is curiously missing (the Japanese removed it, perhaps a little overzealous in their aim to eliminate all threats).
If he were able to turn around he would immediately recognise the star-like form of the walls and wide ramparts of his original fort. He would certainly approve the addition of a gunpowder magazine, barracks and a rather fabulous lighthouse with all the rigging of a tall ship, not forgetting a small chapel, though how he would take the news that the first recorded marriage on its completion was of his former wife is harder to wager. He might however raise a quizzical eyebrow at the addition of an amphitheatre for concerts and a small cafe. No slouch on the fashion front himself, he would probably admire the colonial knee-length khaki socks and hats of the attendants.
Old photos from the early twentieth century, spaced around the red brick walls, show Penang in all her glory and act as a reminder that without the Fort there would be no Georgetown; one has captured the Fort with its moat and drawbridges intact. From the southeast corner a wonderful vista of the Victoria clock tower beckons, while from the north the milky sea with views further up the coast to Straits Quay.
Before you get too cosy however, a reminder of the fort’s purpose is pointed out with the clutch of cannons facing seaward, the most beautiful and imposing of all 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.
Huge trees provide lots of shade; there is a welcome sense of space with little city noise besides the caw-caw of the ubiquitous crows. Kids can run freely, with a gunpowder magazine and storehouses to explore and cannons to sit on (although be careful, the ramparts near the Sri Rambai cannon are not fenced off).
Fort Cornwallis is in the midst of a revamp, with a new museum planned. The chapel already houses an exhibition on the men behind the names of famous streets and models of important buildings but rather unfortunately shows a film of general Penang sights, which somehow detracts from the austere, stoic feel of what was the first Christian church on the island. However, if done well, the Fort is sure to climb dramatically up the ranks of Penang must-dos.
But even in its present, rather sleepy state, 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. Just don’t forget to salute or make a small curtsy to Francis on the way out.
By Judith Atkinson
Last updated on 18th October, 2014.