Francis Light, as superintendent representing the British East India Company, first stepped ashore in Penang on 17 July 1786, with the conditional permission of the Sultan of Kedah to form a settlement. The point was then covered in trees and his men were immediately put to work clearing enough room to pitch tents. Protection in an uncertain region, where piracy and opportunism abounded, was his first concern.

On 3 August, just over two weeks after landing, he marked out space for a fort and eight days later hoisted a flag proclaiming possession and giving the island the official name, Prince of Wales Island. The fort was built on exactly the same spot and of the same outer dimensions as the fort we see today but was constructed using the long, straight trunks of the nibong palm, then very plentiful on the island. Unfortunately these rotted quite rapidly in the tropical climate and needed constant replacement. Despite this, the small fort was named Fort Cornwallis in honour of Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor General of Bengal in charge of the whole of India. Initially too, Light lived inside the fort.

When Light heard that war was declared between Britain and France in 1793, he immediately began to replace the already dilapidated fort with one constructed of brickwork, fearing an attack from French warships. A tall, timber flagstaff, in the same location as today’s, was erected to communicate with another on the top of Penang Hill. A system of flag semaphore was used to warn the fort of ships approaching around the northern tip of the island. Some of the lower walls of the fort we see today were those constructed under Light’s orders. At his death from malarial fever in October the following year, the fort had only been completed to the cordon, with no ramparts to house the gun emplacements.

It was not until 10 years later, under Lieutenant Governor Robert Townsend Farquhar, that the fort was finished to what we see today, complete with an outer ditch or moat crossed via two drawbridges. This was in response to Napoleon’s rise to power in France and the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803. The whole of the town was then isolated by digging a wide, water-filled defensive ditch from the eastern seafront to the northern seafront. This followed the path of what is now the Prangin Canal and Transfer Road – and today the limit of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Buffer Zone. But the fort never fired a gun in its own defence. Cannons instead fired blanks to celebrate the arrival of dignitaries and other important occasions, as well as firing a morning and evening gun to signal the start and end of the day. During the Penang Riots, when the red flag and white flag societies fought in the streets in 1867, women and children fled to the fort for safety. The same year, the British Government took over control of the Straits Settlements and Penang, Singapore and Malacca became Crown Colonies.

From the fort’s earliest days right up until 1881, military regiments from Calcutta (Kolkata), Madras (Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai) had regularly been sent to the island to serve as a protectionary force. Artillery companies were housed in the fort, always on the ready, while others were housed in the Sepoy Lines out of town. After that, the fort became a base for the Sikh and European police force. The first Sikh gurdwara in Penang was reputedly built in the fort, possibly in a building which once stood over the western gateway. A large building over the eastern gateway served as the office of the Governor of the Straits Settlements when visiting Penang. The first lighthouse in the fort was built in 1882 but dismantled two years later and relocated to Pulau Remo where it still stands today. In its place a tall iron flagstaff was erected, with a revolving light half way up. This can still be seen today on the northeast bastion. The 70-feet-high dedicated lighthouse next to the flagstaff was completed in 1914. During its military phase, the fort housed numerous buildings, including single and double-storey barracks, numerous storerooms including the arched ones seen today, kitchens and other ancillary structures. The peaked-roof building in one corner was constructed in 1814 to house 600 barrels of gunpowder, supplemented by small magazines on the ramparts. By the turn of the 20th century, a large drill hall and gymnasium occupied part of the centre of the fort and other buildings were constructed on the ramparts.

But plans to demolish the fort saw the moat filled in by early 1922. By late 1930 most of its internal buildings were demolished, followed by removal of the whole of the western wall. In 1934, however, Governor Sir Thomas Shenton Whitelegge Thomas stepped in and saved the fort from further destruction. A statue of Francis Light, sculpted by F.J. Wilcoxson, was commissioned from Britain and erected on a high plinth outside the fort, occupying part of today’s Light Street carpark. It was unveiled in October 1939, just as WWII broke out in Europe. Penang’s introduction to WWII came in December 1942, when the Japanese forces landed after a series of aerial bombing raids, resulting in the controversial evacuation of the island by the British. The Japanese utilised the fort and its adjoining Esplanade to construct rows of warehouses, supplied via a light railway that passed right through the fort. In the years following the end of WWII, efforts were made to retrieve some of the fort’s lost cannons and recognise its historical importance. By the early 1970s an amphitheatre and ancillary buildings had been constructed in the fort and in March 1976, Fort Cornwallis was declared a National Monument under the Antiquities Act. An extensive restoration programme was undertaken in 2000– 2001, including reconstruction of the demolished western wall. The long history of Fort Cornwallis and the critical role it played in attracting settlers to Penang played an integral role in UNESCO declaring George Town a World Heritage Site, in conjunction with Malacca, in 2008. Since 2014, management of the fort has been entrusted to Esplanade Park Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the Ewein Group.

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’.