Friday, January 20, 2006

Fort Canning and its 9 Pound Guns

A short entry today on Singapore’s most famous hill, Fort Canning.

Even before the arrival of the British, the hill was regarded as Forbidden Hill (Bukit Larangan) by the local community – legend has it that many locals wouldn’t step foot on it for fear of spirits. A renegade prince from Palembang, Parameswara is said to have fled to Singapore. He converted to Islam and took on the name Iskandar Syah. His shrine (seemingly completely renovated) can still be seen near the base of the hill on the South side. In the early 1500s, the explorer Tome Pires that we have written of earlier, attributed Singapura to Parameswara.

Shortly after Singapore’s colonization in 1819, the hill became known as Government Hill and was the site of the Governor Stamford Raffles' notoriously ramshackle house, made in Malay style of attap palm and wood and incorporating a colonial style long verandah. The choice of materials made sense to keep the house as cool as possible. We’ve written previously of how sympathetic the Governor was to local traditions and the raised eye-brows some of his comments may have elicited from other members of stuffy colonial society (search our blog for other amusing entries). On the hill the Governor also developed Singapore’s first botanical gardens.

In the mid 1850s as entrepot trade took on a more significance, the need for defensive facilities became apparent and the Hill was the logical site for a fort and a few cannons. In 1860 it was re-named Fort Canning Hill, after the Governor-General of India, Viscount Canning. An imposing fort entrance was built (picture below) and a few 9-pound cannons were put into position. The cannons never saw any action and ended up taking on other roles: sounding off at 5 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. to let people know of the time and also being fired as a signal to announce fires in the city. A lighthouse that was operational until 1958 was also placed on the hill in 1903 (picture).

The closest Fort Canning Hill came to seeing military action was during WWII when the British Army used it as headquarters of the Singapore Base District. Following Japan’s quick defeat of the British, the fort was used by Japan until 1945. The fort then went from the British army to that of Malaysia (1963) to Singapore (1966).

Today it is one of Singapore’s most tranquil parks with great views of the city. In a previous entry we wrote about Macau’s Monte Fort, we mentioned China’s sensitivity to having any of the Fort’s defensive cannons facing towards China. Bearing this in mind, I was intrigued by the current positioning of one of the Fort Canning Hill's cannons that seems to be bearing directly onto Singapore’s new ‘flying saucer’ Supreme Court building. I wonder what Iskandar Syah, the renegade prince from Palembang would have thought about Norman Foster's contribution to Singapore?

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