Pleasantly located along the northeast coast of Penang, Fort Cornwallis is one of the most popular attractions in Georgetown.
A Short History of Fort Cornwallis
When the British government took possession of Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah, Sir Francis Light constructed star-shaped Fort Cornwallis from palm trunks in 1786. The fort was intended to protect Penang Harbor - a strategic port for trading spices from India - from pirates, the French, and even Kedah - an ally and the former owner of Penang!
When Britain failed to rally troops to help defend Kedah from Thailand - part of the agreement of taking ownership of Penang - the Sultan became angry and began enlisting the help of pirates from Sulu Island. Before the Sultan could organize his army and reclaim Penang, the British actually struck first by attacking Kedah Fort in April 1791. Kedah surrendered, however as a consolation, the British government agreed to pay 6,000 Spanish dollars a year to continue their occupation of Penang.
With the Napoleonic Wars in full swing in 1804 and the threat of attack by pirates looming, Francis Light decided to use convicts from India to reinforce the walls of Fort Cornwallis with brick. A 27-foot-wide moat was dug around the fort. The moat was later drained and filled with soil in the 1920s to stop a malaria outbreak.
Enhancements to Fort Cornwallis - including 17 cannons in fortified positions - were finished in 1809. The East India Company refused to fund the construction, so much of the cost was paid for by Sir Francis Light himself.
Fort Cornwallis later served as an important administration center and meeting place for Britain's interests in Penang. Although there were many close calls, Fort Cornwallis was never actually engaged in battle.
Visiting Fort Cornwallis
Open Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Entrance Fee: Adults: $1; children under 12 years old: 66 cents.
Performances: Cultural performances with costumes and reenactments take place for one hour every Saturday at 6 p.m.
Fort Cornwallis is not very large and can comfortably be explored in under one hour.
What to See
Only three original structures remain inside of Fort Cornwallis, although informative signboards will keep you busy learning about the history and impact the fort has had on Penang.
- Stockade Cell: These claustrophobic rooms become sweltering on hot afternoons. Originally constructed as a barracks to house artillerymen, the rooms were later converted into jail cells.
- Gunpowder Magazine: Constructed later in 1814, the reinforced bunker was used to store gunpowder. The location on the northwest corner of the fort meant sure that ammunition was close at hand for the seaside cannons - including the Seri Rambai Cannon.
- Chapel: The tiny chapel inside Fort Cornwallis is actually the first Christian chapel constructed on Penang Island. The chapel dates back to 1799 and is the oldest colonial structure on Penang.
Visitors to Fort Cornwallis wander between outdoor chambers, enjoying the air conditioning when it is working, and reading educational signboards. Artifacts found in the area are on display in glass cases. Sacks of cinnamon, anise, dried chili peppers, and other spices once traded are open; tourists are invited to touch or even take some samples home for free!
The Seri Rambai Cannon
Cannons of different ages and calibers line Fort Cornwallis' walls, however the most impressive is the Seri Rambai Cannon which faces out to sea in the northwest corner of the fort. Beautifully cast from brass in 1603, the Seri Rambai Cannon was a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor. The Portuguese took the legendary cannon to Indonesia where it remained for 182 years. In 1880 the cannon was shockingly found in the Straits of Melacca, raised to the surface, and returned to Fort Cornwallis by the British.
Local folklore claims that women would place flowers and offerings inside the cannon as a cure for infertility!
Other Sites Near Fort Cornwallis
- The seaside esplanade is a pleasant walking area as is the long lawn leading up to nearby City Hall.
- The Queen Victoria Clock Tower occupies the center of a major roundabout near the fort. The 60-foot-fall clock was constructed in 1897 by a wealthy Chinese businessman to honor Queen Victoria's 60-year reign.
- The Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse - now known as Penang Harbour Lighthouse - stands adjacent to the fort. The lighthouse is the second oldest in Malaysia.
Fort Cornwallis is located along Lebuh Light on the very northeastern tip of Georgetown. City buses #103, #204, and #502 pass by the fort during their circuits. Buses marked with "MPPP" are free and circulate through major stops in Georgetown including Fort Cornwallis.
For other transportation options, read more about getting around Georgetown.
Learn more interesting things to do in Penang.