Fort Canning Park


Fort Canning Hill, previously known as Bukit Larangan and Government Hill,is 156 ft high and located at the junction of Canning Rise and Fort Canning Road. It has been a landmark since Singapore’s earliest recorded history. In the 14th century, it was likely the site of a palace whose ruins were still visible in 1821.2 Sir Stamford Raffles had a bungalow built on the hill which became the residence of subsequent colonial governors until Fort Canning was built on it in the 1850s.3 In the 1920s, the fort was vacated and a large covered service reservoir for the city was constructed.4 Key historic events had taken place on the hill, including the establishment of the Botanic Gardens and Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival’s decision to surrender to the Japanese. The hill was also known as Bukit Tuan Bonham, Bukit Bendera, and Singapore Hill.

Bukit Larangan
Prior to 1822, Fort Canning Hill was known as Bukit Larangan (meaning “Forbidden Hill”), where ancient kings were believed to be buried. The early colonials found sandstone foundation blocks dating back to the 14th century marking a large palatial building along its slope.6 Purportedly the resting place of the last king, Iskandar Shah, a keramat (Muslim shrine) dedicated to him was located on the hill. The site was considered holy and many made their annual pilgrimage there.7 Otherwise, few locals frequented the hill as stories abounded that it was haunted. Major William Farquhar had to climb up the hill himself, accompanied only by a few Malaccan Malays, soon after the founding of Singapore. It was Farquhar who drew up the first gun on the hill and set up the post to hoist the Union Jack.


A spring on the southwest side of the hill served as a watering hole for ships anchored at the harbour. It was also believed to be the bathing place of Malayan princesses in ancient times.9 The hill was rich with Chinese and ancient Malay artefacts even then. In January 1984, archaeological finds were uncovered under an excavation project commissioned by the National Museum, led by John Miksic, and sponsored by Shell.10 

Government Hill
In November 1822, a residence was built for Raffles and his sister’s family on the hill. It was a wooden bungalow 100 ft long and 50 ft wide, with venetians and an attap roof. It had two parallel halls with verandas at both the front and back, and two square wings that served as sleeping quarters. Raffles enjoyed the location so much that he suggested to be buried here, mixed with the ashes of the Malayan kings.11 His home was later renamed Government House.12 The first Botanic Gardens, extending across 19 ha, also began experimentally along the slopes of the hill.13 A flagstaff on the summit announced the arrival of ships, so merchants eager to do business could quickly make their way to the harbour. A time-ball was dropped from the yard-arm of the staff between 9 and 10 am daily, acting as a large alarm clock.14 This arrangement began in 1847 and continued until March 1850, when lightning splintered the flagstaff.15 A lighthouse was also built beside the flagstaff.16 


With the completion of Government House in 1822, the hill became known as Government Hill or Singapore Hill. To the Malays, however, it was Bukit Tuan Bonham (“Sir Bonham’s Hill”) after Sir Samuel George Bonham, who was governor from 1836 to 1848, or Bukit Bendera (“Flag Hill”). A sundial was sited at the original location of Government House, which was demolished in 1859 to make way for a fort.17 

Christian cemetery
Europeans were buried in a cemetery on the hill from 1819 to 1865. The original burial site was discontinued at the end of 1822 as it was too close to the Government House. The second burial site was built on the slopes of the hill. When it was declared full, the cemetery was moved lower down the hill and consecrated by the bishop of Calcutta in 1834.18 The only remnants of the old Christian cemetery are some headstones along the brick walls (although most of the headstones came from another cemetery), the 1846 gothic gateways built by Captain Charles Edward Faber, and two classical monuments believed to be designed by G. D. Coleman.19 The majority of the tombstones from the old Christian cemetery can be found at St Gregory’s Armenian Church, although the graves are not located there.20


Botanical gardens
Raffles initiated the establishment of the Botanical Gardens in November 1822. It was headed by surgeon Nathaniel Wallich, who had successfully set up botanical gardens in Calcutta.21 At least 48 acres of land were staked out, including the Government Gardens on the slopes of the hill, where nutmeg and cloves had been planted since 1819.22 Fruit trees, also abundant on the hill, were possible remnants of a royal garden under the ancient Malayan kings. 


Unfortunately, rising costs of maintenance and the lack of government support saw the closure of the experimental spice gardens in June 1829, but not before Wallich had produced a new strain of orchid, the Vanda Wallachii.23 The plot was sold to the Armenian church. In November 1994, the Spice Gardens, a 1,168-square-metre replica of the early Botanical Gardens, was established. The gardens hold seven species of spice plants such as clove and nutmeg, which were originally planted along these slopes.

Fort Canning
In 1859, Government House was demolished and the construction of an artillery fort was started despite protests from some quarters which believed it was a mistake to locate the fort on a hill so far removed from shore. Built on an excavated plateau, the fort was completed in 1861 by 400 Chinese coolies.24 It was named Fort Canning, after Viscount Charles John Canning, Governor-General and First Viceroy of India (1856–1862).25 


Seven 68-pounders were positioned at the fort to face the sea by May 1859. Another eight 8-inch shell guns, and two 13-inch mortars, were added in 1867, as well as a hospital for European artillerymen.26 A 68-pounder was fired at 5 am each morning, signalling the start of the day for those within a two-mile radius, enough for most residents around Fort Canning to take note. The cannons were also used until 1896 to signal the outbreak of fires.27  Unfortunately, when Fort Canning was completed, it was noticed that the fort at Pearl’s Hill was higher, prompting the government military engineer to order that the latter be shaved off to the right height.28 Fort Canning was demolished in 1907, never having been used in the defence of the country.29 Currently, only two nine-pound cannons and the gothic archway of its entrance (the Old Fort Gateway, 1859), designed by G. C. Collyer, still stand.30 

Fort Canning Park
In 1972, the greenery around Fort Canning was known as Central Park with the amalgamation of King George V Park (set up prior to World War II) and the land occupied by the British Armed Forces. The River Valley Road end of the park used to house the National Theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium. It also had a roller-skating rink, a playground, a Vietnamese restaurant and a squash centre.31 


The park was renamed Fort Canning Park with the planting of a fruit tree by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on 1 November 1981. Since then, Fort Canning had been converted into an historical park. Today, it is also a popular location for picnics and cultural performances.32



Author

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama




References
1. Tan, S. E. (2002, December 8). The pavilion on the hillThe Straits Times, p. 18; About Singapore. (1935, April 24). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Miksic, J. N. (2013). Singapore & the Silk Road of the sea, 1300-1800. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 7-11. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 MIK).
3. Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore: 1819-2005. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 39, 77. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR).
4. Singapore’s new reservoir. (1929, February 7). Malaya Tribune, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 361–362. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW)
6. McMurray, C. (2014, January/February). The history of Fort Canning Hill. Passage. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2014/01FortCanning.pdf
7. Miksic, J. (1990, November 7). The Lion’s soul; Fort findsThe Straits Times, p. 3; The pavilion on the hill. (2002, December 8). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 53. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); McMurray, C. (2014, January/February). The history of Fort Canning Hill. Passage. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2014/01FortCanning.pdf
9. Miksic, J. (1990, November 7). The Lion’s soul; Fort findsThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; McMurray, C. (2014, January/February). The history of Fort Canning Hill. Passage. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2014/01FortCanning.pdf
10. Life before Raffles. (1984, March 7). The Straits Times, p. 1; Digging for the past at Fort Canning. (1984, January 28). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 95. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
12. Historical central park renamed. (1981, November 2). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Historical central park renamed. (1981, November 2). The Straits Times, p. 9; Miksic, J. (1990, November 7). The Lion’s soul; Fort findsThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Miksic, J. (1990, November 7). The Lion’s soul; Fort findsThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 480. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
16. Miksic, J. (1990, November 7). The Lion’s soul; Fort findsThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 361–362. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW)
18. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 361. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW); Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 491. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Harfield, A. G. (1988). Early cemeteries in Singapore. London: British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, pp. 4–5, 9. (Call no.: RSING 929.5095957 HAR)
19. National Parks Board. (n.d.). Colonial history trail in Fort Canning Park. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from National Parks Board website: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/~/media/nparks-real-content/gardens-parks-and-nature/diy-walk/diy-walk-pdf-files/colonial-history-trail-at-fcp.pdf?la=en
20. Tombstones but no graves in this plot. (1997, December 25). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; McMurray, C. (2014, January/February). The history of Fort Canning Hill. Passage. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2014/01FortCanning.pdf
21. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 362. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW); McMurray, C. (2014, January/February). The history of Fort Canning Hill. Passage. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2014/01FortCanning.pdf
22. Botanic Gardens almost fails to survive. (1975, June 12). New Nation, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 362. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW); McMurray, C. (2014, January/February). The history of Fort Canning Hill. Passage. Retrieved 2016, October 10 from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2014/01FortCanning.pdf
24. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 675. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
25. Hills and the city. (2004, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 5; About Singapore. (1935, April 24). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 361. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW)
26. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 675, 769. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 489. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
27. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 338. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
28. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 675. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
29. Hills and the city. (2004, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 361. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW)
30. Historical central park renamed. (1981, November 2). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 361. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW)
32. Historical central park renamed. (1981, November 2). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

 

Subject
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Military Sites
Recreation>>Places of Interest
Historic parks--Singapore
Military facilities
Singapore--History
Arts>>Architecture>>Landscape architecture
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
Places of interest
Fort Canning Park (Singapore)