Ancient Forts in Malaysia

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Due to its strategic position in South-east Asia, the Malay archipelago had traded extensively with merchants from Saudi Arabia, India and China even before the founding of Melaka in 1402. Later, when the Europeans expanded their influence in the 15th century in their quest to control the entreport trade as well as sources of spices, they built forts on several locations in the Malay peninsula to protect their territories. Though the Malay archipelago was never the scene of any epic battle, Malaysia today has several forts that have been left behind by both frontier adventurers and Malay sultans. So, let us take a stroll through history…

Arguably the most famous fort in Malaysia is Fort Cornwallis in George- town on Penang Island. Located at Jalan Kota and facing the Esplanade, it was built on the spot which Francis Light landed on the island in 1786. To clear away the jungle, Light loaded a cannon with silver coins and fired them into the jungle. In their attempts to retrieve the coins, Light’s men cleared away the undergrowth in record speed which allowed for a palm stockade to be hastily erected. Between 1808 to 1810, convict labour was used to erect a proper fort. A writer of Light’s era recorded: “Fort Cornwallis is in the form of a square each with a bastion at the corners, each side being 150 yards long. On each external face of the bastions, there are embrasure in the ramparts for three guns. The moat which ran round the fort was nine yards wide and about two yards deep.”

Today, the moat no longer exists, but several cannons still stand at the ramparts. Among them is the famous Seri Rembai cannon. Cast by the VOC (Dutch East India Company) in Holland, it was given by the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor in 1606. In 1616, the Sultan, including the Seri Rembai cannon, was captured by the Acehnese and taken to Aceh. In 1795, the cannon was shipped by the Acehnese to Kuala Selangor as a token of their alliance with the Bugis. In 1871, when the British attacked Kuala Selangor, they took the cannon by steamer to Georgetown. At the Esplanade, however, the crew threw the cannon into the sea as they considered it to be worthless. Several attempts to salvage it failed. According to folklore, in 1808, Tengku Kudin, the Viceroy of Selangor, who was a master of the black arts, ordered the cannon to rise and it surfaced. Today, it is believed that barren women who offers prayers to the cannon and put flowers in its barrel will conceive.

Apart from the British, the Portuguese had also left behind a famous fort as their legacy. Located in the historic city of Melaka, the Portuguese fort of A’Famosa was purportedly built in four months under the supervision of Admiral Alfonso d’Albuquerque in 1511. The original structure encircled St. Paul’s Hill but, today, its remnant is the De Santiago (Santiaga Gate) with the coat of arms of the VOC atop its archway. Amidst visitors clicking away with cameras, Portuguese Eurasians peddle souvenirs and artists sell paintings under the shade of flame-of-the-forest rrees.

Legendary Malay writer Munshi Abdullah gave a graphic description of its destruction in 1808 by the British when they occupied Melaka during the Napoleonic Wars. He wrote: After about ten minutes, the gunpowder exploded with a noise like thunder, and pieces of the Fort as large as elephants, and even some as large as houses, were blown into the air and cascaded into the sea. Some went right over the river and struck the houses on the other side…But what a pity that a building as fine as this should be brought low in an instant of time… For the Fort was the pride of Melaka and after its destruction the place lost its glory, like a women bereaved of her husband, the lustre gone from her face.

In the coastal town of Kuala Selangor, Fort Melawati stands as a testimony of the State’s glorious past. Perched atop Melawati Hill which provided a sweeping view of the mouth of the Selangor River, the fort was built during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim in 1782. The Dutch overran the fort in 1784, expanded it, and renamed it Fort Altingsburg. Dutch cannons still maintain a lonely vigil over the sea. The hill is crowned by Altingsburg Lighthouse dating back to 1907 which still perform its original function. A gruesome relic is an execution block within the fort, which was used to behead prisoners. There is also a poisoned well with a plaque explaining the legends behind it. A paved road leads up to Melawati Hill and round it. On weekends the road is closed to vehicular traffic and visitors have to walk up. Attractions in the vicinity include the Kuala Selangor Museum and the Royal Mausoleum – the final resting place of Selangor’s Bugis sultans.

Overlooking the bustle of Kuala Terengganu’s waterfront is Bukit Puteri (Princess Hill), which rises 200 metres high. Near the Post Office at Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidin, a flight of steps leads up to Princess Hill Fort which was the scene of a succession dispute for the throne of Terengganu. Built in 1830 and occupied by Sultan Mahmud, it was attacked by Baginda Omar in 1839 who overthrew the sultan. The new sultan rebuilt the fort – supposedly using honey to bind the bricks– and imported cannons from Spain and Portugal to defend it. Among the artifacts found in the fort are a large brass bell called a genta, a flagpole and ancient cannons. In olden days, the brass bell was rung to warn the populace of fires, of men running amok and to signal the breaking of fast during the month of Ramadan.

Johor’s most famous fort, unfortunately, is one of the least visited in the country as it is fairly inaccessible. Called Kota Johor Lama (Old Johor Fort), it sits on the banks of the Johor River and was built in 1540 by Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah. In 1587, during the reign of Sultan Ali Jalia Abdul Jalil, the Portuguese led by Dom Paolo de Lima attacked the fort, which was defended by 8,000 Malay warriors, but failed to take it. Two weeks later a second attempt by the Portuguese with reinforcements succeeded in destroying it after nine days of brutal fighting. What remains of the fort today are earthened ramparts covered with grass, which is located eight kilometres from the Desaru road amidst a sleepy village. To get to the fort, take the Kota-Tinggi-Desaru road and turn right down a laterite track at Kampung Teluk Sengat. Then follow the signposts through an oil palm plantation, which often has blue kingfishers flying among the trees.

In Kuching, capital of Sarawak, the impressive Fort Margherita resembling an English castle has never seen any battle. Built in 1879 by Charles Brooke, the first “White Rajah” of Sarawak, it commanded the river approach to Kuching from its locaiton at northern bank of the Kuching River. The fort was named after Margaret, Charles’ wife, and during their stay there, the Brookes maintained sentries who would shout “All’s Well” every hour from 8pm till dawn. In 1971, the fort was converted into the Police Museum. There is a good collection of weapons and armoury in the ground floor while the second floor displays police uniforms and communications equipment; the third floor is taken up with counterfeit currency, drugs and weapons seized from the Communists during the Emergency.

A humbler fort built by Charles Brooke is Fort Sylvia at Kapit. Dating back to 1880, it served to protect Kayan and Kenyah tribes of the Orang Ulu community from being attacked by Iban head-hunters. Made of ironwood, which is so dense that it does not float, the fort now houses the Kapit Museum. Its interesting ethnographic displays include totem poles, murals, burial huts and carvings.

On Pangkor Island in Perak State, the Kota Belanda (Dutch Fort) basks under the sun at Teluk Gadung. It was built in 1680 by the Dutch East India Company to store tin as well as to combat piracy. In 1690, discontentment with Dutch rule resulted in Malay warriors destroying it, but the Dutch re-captured and restored it in 1743. After three years, however, the fort abandoned as the Dutch withdrew from the Malay peninsula. Today, only the outer walls of the fort have survived the ravages of time. A short distance away stands a boulder with a carved picture depicting a tiger attacking a boy.

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