Fort Cornwallis
Georgetown, Malaysia

Constructed: 1791 - 1793
Used by: Great Britain
Conflict in which it participated: None

The glowing light of western civilization first reached Malaysia in 1511, when the Portuguese showed up and conquered Malacca, the seat of the Malacca Sultanate, which had been ruling Malaysia since the start of the 15th century. The busybody Dutch then wrenched it from Portugal's grasp in 1641.

British adventurer Captain Sir Francis Light (1740-1794) landed at the town of Penang (on the island of Palau Penang) on August 11, 1786, representing the good ole British East India Company. Light arranged to lease Penang and its environs from the Sultan of Kedah and founded Georgetown, a British colony logically named for Britain's King George III (1738-1820).

Light immediately oversaw the construction of a fort made of nibong, local palm trunks, to protect the settlement from pirates - and the Sultan, who was already miffed at Light for renegeing on a promise to raise an army for the Sultan from Thailand. This despite the princess that the Sultan had provided to Light, who was busily producing babies with her.

The Seri Rambai, a gun that dates back to 1604. This particular starfort corner is looking a bit diminished today, but a moat surrounded the fort until the 1920's.
Fort Cornwallis was named for His Excellency The Most Honourable General The Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), better known to American history as Lord Cornwallis, the British general who had surrendered his army at Yorktown in October of 1781, leading to the end of the American Revolution (1775-1783). The King still held Cornwallis in high regard after the war, however, and by the time Captain Light was diddling about in Malaysia, Cornwallis was Governor-General of Bengal. It was Cornwallis who helped Light arrange for Georgetown to be built at Penang.

In 1789 the first batch of convict laborers from India were dragged to Penang, where they were immediately put to work turning Fort Cornwallis the log-fort into an actual fort.

The Seri Rambai, the relatively unimpressive-looking cannon pictured above, is the most famous gun at Fort Cornwallis. This gun was presented to Alauddin Riayat Shah III, the Sultan of Johor, by the Dutch in 1604. The Portuguese swiped it in 1613, brought it to Java where they clung to it until 1795, then presented it to the Sultan of Aceh. The British grabbed the thing in 1871, and it eventually found its way to Fort Cornwallis. Just what was so great about the Seri Rambai, you may well ask? Well, y'see, the gun possesses magical powers: Women who place flowers on its barrel experience "improved fertility." So you can certainly understand why three otherwise unsilly European powers valued it so highly (?!?).

Fort Cornwallis was visited by Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852) in 1797. Wellesley's professional opinion was that the fort sucked, in fact the whole settlement sucked, in that it was placed on the island in such a location as to make it impossible to defend if attacked. (Wellesley would go on to be named the First Duke of Wellington, after kicking Napoleon (1769-1821)'s undersized butt all over Europe.)

A study was undertaken as to how to improve Georgetown's defensibility were the French to show up, and it was determined that the entire settlement would need to be moved to the southern end of Palau Penang island. Planning for this event got underway, but the residents of Georgetown just yawned and whined that it would be too much trouble to pack up and move.

Instead, Fort Cornwallis was improved. More Indian convict laborers were dispatched to the scene, and from 1804 to 1810 the fort took on the pointily wond'rous appearance that we see today.

For the next 150 years Fort Cornwallis was used as an administrative center and police barracks.
Francis Light, as he appears today at the fort. When this statue was cast in 1936, Francis had a sword on his hip. The Japanese wrenched it off during the Second World War, apparently unwilling to leave even a single Englishman in Malaysia armed.

Part of the fort's convict-laborer-prepared defenses was a 27-foot wide, 6-foot deep moat, which may or may not have prevented the fort's capture by the French had they ever attacked, but sure worked great as a mosquito-producing body of water. A particularly deadly outbreak of malaria in the 1920's prompted the filling in of the moat. Little did the British know that the Japanese were just waiting for that moat to be declawed, so that they could take possession of the fort two decades later. Thousands of little Japanese hands rubbed together in conspiratorial glee.

All of Fort Cornwallis' guns have been kept in excellent shape, ever ready to deflect the enemies of the British crown.

Well, the moat probably wouldn't have made much difference had it been there or not when, in 1941, Japan invaded Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and anything else they could reasonably invade, as part of the ongoing Second World War (1939-1945). The only instance of an attacker coming after Fort Cornwallis was met with instant surrender - not that the Seri Rambai was likely to use its magical fertility-granting powers to effectively defend the fort from a 20th-century adversary.

The Japanese left at the end of the war, and Malaysia remained British until 1957. Fort Cornwallis was named an Ancient Monument and Historic Site in 1977. It is the largest and most intact fort remaining in Malaysia.

Today, entrance to Fort Cornwallis may be gained for RM3, about $2.70 American. On display are plenty of artifacts from the days of British rule, plus a handicraft and souvenir shop and a modern, open-air amphitheater, where local music and cultural festivals are frequently staged. Insert final humorous jab at the Seri Rambai here.