Penang’s Treasure: Fort Cornwallis











When the island was first noticed for its economic value as an international port during the 18th century, the British government had taken steps to ensure the security of the island. The Fort Cornwallis, an old star-shaped fort situated at the north eastern coast of the island, is the largest standing fort in Malaysia.

The name Cornwallis was taken from the name of Charles Cornwallis, the 18th century Governor-General of Bengal, India. It was built by Captain Sir Francis Light when he took over the island from the Sultan of Kedah. The original fort stands without a permanent structure spanning a small area of just slightly more than 400 square feet.

When Colonel RT Farquhar became the Governor of Penang, Indian convict labour was used to rebuild the fort with bricks in 1804. The building works completed in 1810 when Norman Macalister was the Governor, and it was reported that the cost of the building was $80,000. That is a lot of money for that time, and a worthy investment to protect against pirates, neighbouring state Kedah, and the French. Originally, a moat 9 meters wide and 2 meters deep was created to surround the fort. However, a malaria outbreak in the 1920s made way for the decision to fill up the moat instead.

There is a chapel in the fort. It was built in 1799, and the first recorded marriage in this chapel took place in the same year when the widow of Sir Francis Light, Martina Rozells, remarried John Timmers. The chapel is not situated in the south west bastion; instead, it was the main magazine.  The structure of the main magazine was a typical one with massive roof and surrounding buttresses. It is said that this structure remains as one of the earliest roofed structure from the British colonial era that is still surviving in Penang.

Fort Cornwallis had never been really used in any battles. Originally, the fort was built for the Royal artillery troops and the military, as a defense against enemies. However, practically, the fort was used more for administrative reasons. For example, when the court in Penang opened for the first time in 31 May 1808, the judge of the Supreme Court of Penang, Sir Edmond Stanley, was first housed at the fort. For a while in the 1920s, the fort was also occupied by the Sikh Police of the Straits Settlements.

Visitors will be delighted to find old cannons decorating the fort. The Seri Rambai Cannon, the largest cannon, was cast in 1603. It was a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor in 1606, taken into possession by the Portuguese in 1613 and taken to Java. The cannon stayed in Java until 1795 when it was given to Acheh and transferred to Kuala Selangor. From there, the British seized the cannon and placed it in the fort in 1871.

Today, Fort Cornwallis becomes one of the main tourist attractions in Penang, a scenic place for photography. There is always a sense of adventure as one explores the various dungeons and rooms where the artillery were once kept, going down into what seemed like basements within cold, stone walls. There are also traders selling drinks and foods at the fort, and horse rides are also offered for the adventurous visitor. Most of the time, the horses are seen grazing the grass at the top of the fort, and they are not shy to visitors at all.

In the middle of the fort, there is a stage area where some performers take advantage of the vast area to hold some concerts during special occasions. Instead of building structures on the flat field of the Esplanade, some tour groups had been adventurous enough to conduct gala dinners at the center stage area, building canopies and decorating the stage for a night to be remembered. The acoustic can be pretty interesting as it is an open area within an enclosure surrounded by brick walls. Next to it at a corner is the lighthouse, which stands with full grandeur to tell the story of its duty to aid ships and boats to find their way in the dark.

Now too, the court area where it seems like some prison rooms are converted into mini museums, telling the stories about Penang with artifacts and texts. Much of the fort has been restored without spoiling its basic splendor, and visitors may also take a picture with the statue of Sir Francis Light right at the entrance of the fort. It will take approximately 2 hours to really appreciate the fort completely.

Everyone in Penang knows how to go to Fort Cornwallis. If you take a bus, you may stop at the main bus station at the jetty, and walk about 10 to 15 minutes to reach there. After visiting the fort, you have the option to board a local trishaw for an adventurous city ride.

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