Penang Island, as of today, is synonymous with its delectable hawker fare and its trails of heritage buildings and walkway. Among the many infamous historical landmarks of Penang Island – the Fort Cornwallis, which has a rich history of more than two centuries, stands out in the forefront. It is today, the largest and most intact fort that can be found in Malaysia. Fort Cornwallis’ history dated back to the starting point when Sir Captain Francis Light from the British East India Company, first landed on the island with his crew in the year 1786.
He was to take possession of the island from the Sultan of Kedah back then, to serve as a base or stop-over for the British company’s spice and silk trading route. In order to protect the base from any foreign military forces, pirates and even Kedah itself, Francis Light decided to build a fort on the cape of the island’s north eastern coast, overlooking the sea -where he first set foot. The initial simple fort was made out of only ‘nibong’ palm trunks as stockades, without any concrete structures. Francis Light named the fort after the Governor General in Bengal at that time – Charles Cornwallis.
The fort was only reinforced with bricks years later again by Francis Light but under a different Governor, designing it as a star-shape, covering approximately 418 square feet. And though, the intention of the fort was built to withhold and defend attacks from enemy invasions, apparently no battles ever occurred throughout the headship of the British company at the fort. In the end, it is used more for administrative and storage base rather than a combat ground. When visiting the fort, the five major must-see artefacts are, first and foremost, the statue of the legendary Sir Captain Francis Light.
In fact, no visitors would be able to miss the statue of Francis Light as its positioned overlooking the fort entrance, greeting visitors. The bronze statue was sculpted by F. J. Wilcoxson in the year 1936 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Francis Light’s historic landing. Today, this statue, even though was sculptured based on his son, William Light’s picture, it is undeniably one of the famous icons associated with the history of the colonial era of Penang Island. The second must-see artefact would be the infamous Sri Rambai cannon, which as a history and folklore of its own standing. The cannon were originally a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor in 1606. The cannon was then seized by the Portuguese, taken to Java, then Acheh, before being seized by British in Kuala Selangor and brought to Penang to be placed in Fort Cornwallis. As for the folklore, it is believed that infertile women would be able to conceive if they were to place flowers on the barrel of the Sri Rambai cannon, as the cannon is believed to possess superior powers that can grant the wishes of the women asking.
As present, there are a total of seventeen cannons, the largest being Sri Rambai, alongside the fort’s northwest surrounding perimeters facing the sea. Next would be the gun powder magazine in which explosives were once stored during the British administration in anticipation for a battle. It was constructed in 1814. The structure of the bunker was built in the shape of a pill box with a thick wall to minimise damage should there be any explosions that may happen. The magazine is located at its origin place at the northwest corner of the fort.
It is strategically located at the spot whereby its ammunitions are near the surrounding cannons, especially the Sri Rambai. The ever first Christian chapel, as well as one of the earliest roofed structures in the history of Penang, can be found inside the fort. The small modest chapel was constructed in 1799 at the south west corner of the fort, just beside the jail cell. It was recorded that after Francis Light died, his widow, Martina Rozells, remarried to John Timmers in the chapel on the same year it was built.
Last but not least, beside the chapel, will be the row of barracks and a small jail cell that are still in its origin state which was built in 1811. The barracks were believed to be used as storage for artilleries. As for the small jail cell, it’s in between the barracks and the chapel. But now, instead of a jail, it is now a favourite photographing spot whereby visitors would get the feel of being in prison behind bars and be photographed from the outside, complete with the prisoner cell’s number.
For those who would want to get more insight on the extensive history of the fort, trade agreements of British East India Company, initial developments of Penang islands and much more, you can find the vast information on the history boards. The boards are placed in the barracks which temporary serves as gallery to visitors now. Archaeological findings, which were excavated in the fort’s ground many years ago, are also exhibited for visitors to marvel. As to add more photographing pleasure to visitors, two photo boards with colonial images are erected at the open field of the fort.
These photo boards are very much the favourite spot for visitors to capture pictures of themselves with the colonial image as the backdrop. For visitors who would like to bring a memento back home, there is a kiosk in the fort which sells small souvenirs and also some light refreshments. As a site which is rich in history, Fort Cornwallis is often chosen as the preferred venue for major cultural and festival celebrations of the Penang state. These events are conveniently held at the open air amphitheatre which is situated right in the middle of the fort’s ground.
Presently, Fort Cornwallis is a preserved historical landmark, and it’s in the core zone of the Georgetown UNESCO World Heritage site. Coincidently, the fort is also right in the Georgetown city hub itself. All the distinctive structures and artefacts in the fort are still very much as intact as in its authentic state. Hence, it’s a unique combination of old meets modern tourist attractions. With that, the Fort Cornwallis is definitely a must stop-over site for anyone who wishes to experience the colonial beginnings of Penang island. It would definitely be a worthwhile historical visit.