Fort Cornwallis is an example of a ‘star’ fort, so called because of its projecting bastions on each corner. By the time Light landed in Penang in 1786, the art of constructing defences based on geometry had been developing for nearly two centuries. Jean Errard’s La fortification réduicte en art et démonstrée, published in Paris in 1600, was perhaps the first work to advocate the use of polygonal designs based on geometric principles, but the person generally acknowledged as the main proponent of the bastion or star fort design, as used in Penang, was a Frenchman, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633– 1707).

Refining his theory during the second half of the seventeenth century, an English-language version of his work, The New Method of Fortification, As Practised by Monsieur de Vauban, Engineer-General of France, Together with a New Treatise of Geometry, was published in London in 1722. This became the engineer’s handbook for the construction of fortifications for both these warring nations. It was again refined and republished in 1748 with an updated explanation of the complex geometry employed in setting out the various angles required for efficient defence. This design allowed all exterior sections of a fortification to be covered by the fort’s own guns without firing upon the structure itself.

Vauban was responsible for the construction of some 60 forts in France and his designs were utilised extensively throughout Europe and North America during the eighteenth century. Although European fortifications were predominantly built using masonry, many North American fortifications were hastily constructed using timber, either laid horizontally or vertically, much as the fort Light first constructed in Penang, including a shallow, dry ditch and no outer defensive structures (outworks).

The design, layout and construction of fortifications were generally the domain of a military engineer. Although no such person was appointed to Penang for the first 10 years of its occupation by the East India Company, many engineers visited the island during this period. Among them were Elisha Trapaud, then captain of the Madras Engineers, and Major Alexander Kyd of the Bengal Engineers. Kyd, in particular, would have been considered the expert of the day and carried out two assessments of the island and its defences during these early years.

Given that Light’s experience was initially in the British Navy and then for nearly two decades as a country trader, it is highly unlikely that he stipulated the design of the first timber fort, which was named Fort Cornwallis. A more likely candidate might be Lieutenant James Gray or another of the European military personnel who accompanied him to Penang. By the time construction of the fort in brickwork started in 1793, numerous military personnel had served on the island and it is very likely that standard military plan books were consulted, not only for the design of the fort but also for other buildings constructed under Light’s orders, including his own official residence.

But Fort Cornwallis was regularly criticised by naval and military experts who deemed it far too small, too weak and too low to be of any real defence to the island. Built on a sandy ground, cracks regularly appeared in its walls. The ditch or moat was constructed in 1805 and added a degree of extra defence but a glacis on the two land-facing sides of the fort was deemed ineffective. With barely enough room on one side for a suitable Esplanade (parade ground: today’s green space) and the town close by on the other there was no room for expansion.

Inside the fort were barracks to house artillery regiments and officers, storerooms for armaments, gunpowder, gun carriages, clothing and foodstuffs, as well as kitchens, toilets and even a cell to house military prisoners. Access was via bridges leading to the two gateways seen today. Over each gateway was a building which served as officers’ quarters. The majority of cannons mounted on the fort’s ramparts were 9 and 18-pounders. Even when firing blanks they shook the walls and threatened the structure. For real defence against shipping in the days of muzzle-loaded cannons, 32-pounders were required. To this end, an additional defensive line was constructed outside of the two sea-facing sides of the fort, approximately where today’s road runs. By 1814 the fort’s arsenal comprised 110 cannons and 12 mortars over half of which were mounted on the outer defences. Today, Fort Cornwallis is not only a historic icon of Penang’s history but a unique and precious architectural gem to the world.

Information courtesy of Marcus Langdon Extracts from Marcus Langdon, Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805–1830, Volume Two, Fire, Spice and Edifice, Penang: George Town World Heritage Incorporated, 2015, ‘Fort Cornwallis’.