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The Esplanade, George Town, Penang

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Fort Cornwallis in Penang is the largest intact fortress in Malaysia. When Captain Francis Light landed in Penang in 1786, on the cape which today becomes George Town, he built a simple stockade out of nibong palms. The tip of Penang Island where Fort Cornwallis was located was called Fort Point. Fort Cornwallis was named after the Governor-General of Bengal, Charles Marquis Cornwallis. Since the late 19th century, a lighthouse stands on the northeast side of Fort Cornwallis, and is today known as the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse.

Reconstruction of the camp set up by the British upon landing in Penang, on the grounds of Fort Cornwallis.

Three years later, in 1789, with convict labour imported from India, Francis Light rebuilt Fort Cornwallis in bricks in the same star-shaped size and layout. The total cost of the reconstruction, completed in 1793, was 67,000 Spanish Dollars. Cannons were mounted along the perimeter.

The most famous cannon at Forn Cornwallis is the Seri Rambai. This particular cannon has a fascinating history. It was first presented by the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor in 1606. In 1613, the Portuguese took possession of Seri Rambai. Then it was taken to Java, where it stayed until 1795, when it was given to Acheh, and was brought to Kuala Selangor. Later, in 1871, the British seized the cannon and brought it over to Penang. It was installed on Forn Cornwallis, where it is still located, on the northwest bastion. Locals believe that Seri Rambai possesses magical powers, and that women who place flowers on the barrel will improve their fertility.

Forn Cornwallis was originally encircled by a 27-feet wide, 6-feet deep moat. It was filled up in the 1920s to prevent malaria (there was an epidemic which hit Penang then).

Fort Cornwallis was the first military and administrative base of the British East India Company. The East India Company was started in the early 17th century. On 31 December 1600, a group of British merchants were given monopoly privileges on all British trades with the East Indies, and the East India Company was started. Over the years, their business activities boomed.

The East India Company traded in spices such as cloves, nutmeg and peppercorns. In the later half of the 18th century, the East India Company managed to obtain a monopoly on the trade in silk, with Canton (Guangzhou), China. However, there was no refueling station between China and the British base in India. Hence there was a need to find a suitable port for the British vessels to stop over.

The East India Company first took steps to find a base in Southeast Asia in 1763, but the missions were unsuccessful. The Director of the East India Company sent a message to the Madras Council to try once again to secure a settlement in or near the Straits of Malacca. While the message was still in passage, something else happened to helped the British secure the settlement they were seeking.

Captain Francis Light, a seaman who has established a trading station in Kedah for the Madras firm of Jourdain, Sullivan and De Souza put together a plan that practically solved the problem. Light suggested that the island of Penang would be a suitable station for the East India Company. At the same time, Light reported to his superiors at the Madras firm that the King of Kedah had granted him Kuala Kedah as well as the entire coast including Penang Island, in return for protection against Selangor. However, after a few letters to his superiors and having been ignored in these negotiations, a bitter Francis Light withdrew to Phuket. He continued his trading activities and maintained his relationship with the ruler of Kedah. On 15 February 1786, he wrote to the acting Governor-General of India, on the success of his mission in getting Penang, and on 11 August 1786, Francis Light took formal possession of Penang Island.

For other mentions of Captain Francis Light in AsiaExplorers, refer to the following pages:
  • Francis Light Biography
  • Francis Light Statue
  • Suffolk House
  • Francis Light Memorial
  • Phuket

    Associated Site

  • Fort Cornwallis in Penang Travel Tips

  • Fort Cornwallis Photo Gallery

    Above: Entrance to Fort Cornwallis.
    Left: View of the Seri Rambai.
    Below: The Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse.

    Above: Statue of the Man. When a bronze statue of Captain Francis Light was cast in 1936, the sculptor F.J. Wilcoxson had no photograph or painting of Light to use as model, so he based it on the painting of Francis Light's son, William Light, the founder of Adelaide.

    Right: In an effort to create a living museum, staff in period costume is employed.

    Above and right: The store, on the southwest part of Fort Cornwallis.

    Above: Pillbox shape of the Gunpowder Magazine.
    Left: Entrance to the Gunpowder Magazine.

    Above: Fort Cornwallis Chapel.
    Below: Timothy Tye, the founder of AsiaExplorers, with the statue of Francis Light.

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