Fort Cornwallis is a bastion fort in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, built by the British East India Company in the late 18th century. Fort Cornwallis is the largest standing fort in Malaysia. The fort never engaged in combat during its operational history.
Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786 and built the original fort. It was a nibong (Malay: palm trunk) stockade with no permanent structures, covering an area of 417.6 square feet (38.80 m2). The fort’s purpose was to protect Penang from pirates and Kedah. Light died in 1794. In 1804, after the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, and during Colonel R.T. Farquhar’s term as Governor of Penang, Indian convict labourers rebuilt the fort using brick and stone. Fort Cornwallis was completed in 1810, at the cost of $80,000, during Norman Macalister’s term as Governor of Penang. A moat 9 metres wide by 2 metres deep once surrounded the fort but it was filled in the 1920s due to a malaria outbreak in the area.
Even though the fort was originally built for the British military, its function, historically, was more administrative than defensive. For example, the judge of the Supreme Court of Penang, Sir Edmond Stanley, was first housed at Fort Cornwallis when the court opened on 31 May 1808. During the 1920s Sikh police of the Straits Settlements occupied the fort.
Fort Cornwallis was regularly criticised by naval and military experts who deemed it far too small, too weak and too low to be of any real defence to the island. Built on a sandy ground, cracks regularly appeared in its walls. The ditch or moat was constructed in 1805 and added a degree of extra defence but a glacis on the two land-facing sides of the fort was deemed ineffective. With barely enough room on one side for a suitable Esplanade (parade ground: today’s green space) and the town close by on the other there was no room for expansion.
Inside the fort were barracks to house artillery regiments and officers, storerooms for armaments, gunpowder, gun carriages, clothing and foodstuffs, as well as kitchens, toilets and even a cell to house military prisoners. Access was via bridges leading to the two gateways seen today. Over each gateway was a building which served as officers’ quarters. The majority of cannons mounted on the fort’s ramparts were 9 and 18-pounders. Even when firing blanks they shook the walls and threatened the structure.
Fort Cornwallis, Penang (official website)