Fort Canning Park
by _People:Cornelius, Vernon
Fort Canning Hill, previously known as Bukit Larangan and Government Hill,1 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.5
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.8
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
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
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
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 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.24
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.25 It was named Fort Canning, after Viscount Charles John Canning, Governor-General and First Viceroy of India (1856–1862).26
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.27 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.28 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.29 Fort Canning was demolished in 1907, never having been used in the defence of the country.30 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.31
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.32
The park was renamed Fort Canning Park with the planting of a fruit tree by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on 1 November 1981.33
Today, the park is a venue for celebrations and events, having hosted concerts, theatre productions, festivals and also serve as a social and recreational space with weddings, parties and gatherings frequently seen at the park’s venue spaces.34
Developments in Fort Canning Park
In February 2018, it was announced by the Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong that Fort Canning Park would be designated as the venue of the bicentennial showcase in 2019. Led by the Prime Minister’s Office, the bicentennial commemoration will be a year-long event at the park.35
New and permanent features will be introduced to Fort Canning Park by the National Parks Board (NParks) as part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to liven up the site that will coincide with the bicentennial celebrations. Plans include recreating three historical gardens, a new heritage gallery and a creative reproduction of an ancient spring. These new features will pay homage to the historical landscapes of the past.36
The Royal Garden
Facing Stamford Road, the Royal Garden will feature plants such as jackfruit and rambutan. These were previously observed by John Crawfurd, the second British resident in Singapore, on the hill in 1822 as evidence of a 14th century palace garden.37
The original and Singapore’s first botanic garden, which Sir Stamford Raffles had established on the eastern slope of the hill in 1822 will be recreated in Armenian Street. It will showcase plant spices such as clove and nutmeg introduced to Singapore between the 1820s and 1840s. Trees and shrubs will also be planted along Hill Street, Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, Handy Road and Canning Rise, forming the boundaries of the original Botanic Garden.38
Sited within the park at the junction of River Valley Road and Clemenceau Avenue, Jubilee Park will feature play areas for children, cafes and an outdoor theatre space and an event lawn for art installations, artists markets and performances.39 The area used to be called “King George the Fifth Jubilee Park”, named to mark the 1935 silver jubilee of King George the Fifth and Queen Mary.40
Recreation of the ‘Forbidden Spring’ (Pancur Lanrangan)41
A water feature and stone murals will also be erected on the western part of the hill. The spot is likely where a forbidden spring, where royal women once bathed, used to be located. The objective of the spring structure is to create a focal point to depict the significance of water to the Fort Canning site in the past.42
A new heritage gallery covering the history and natural history of the Fort Canning area since the 14th to the 19th and 20th centuries will be opened at the Fort Canning Centre. The highlight of the gallery includes artefacts such as jewellery, ceramics and coins dug up from various archaeological excavations at the Fort Canning site.43
To improve accessibility of the area especially for the elderly and disabled, two sets of sheltered escalators from Fort Canning MRT station to the hill’s peak will also be constructed.44
The works are done progressively and scheduled for completion from June 2019.45
A six-week excavation at Fort Canning Park co-led by veteran archeologist John Miksic and Associate Professor Goh Geok Yian started on 1 September 2018. Miksic was invited by NParks to conduct the dig as part of the restoration work which hopes to uncover more materials from the Temasek period. The dig also marks Miksic’s 13th excavation attempt in the park.46
1. Tan Shrz Ee, “The Pavilion on the Hill,” Straits Times, 8 December 2002, 18; “About Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 24 April 1935, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. John N. Miksic, Singapore & the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013), 7–11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 MIK-[HIS])
3. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819-2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 39, 77. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
4. “Singapore’s New Reservoir,” Malaya Tribune, 7 February 1929, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 361–62415, 451. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
6. C. McMurray, “The History of Fort Canning Hill,” Passage (January–February 2014).
7. John Miksic, “The Lion’s Soul; Fort Finds,” Straits Times, 7 November 1990, 3; Tan, “Pavilion on the Hill.”
8. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 53 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); McMurray, “History of Fort Canning Hill.”
9. Miksic, “Lion’s Soul”; McMurray, “History of Fort Canning Hill.”
10. “Life Before Raffles,” Straits Times, 7 March 1984, 1; “Digging for the Past at Fort Canning,” Business Times, 28 January 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 95.
12. “Historical Central Park Renamed,” Straits Times, 2 November 1981, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Historical Central Park Renamed”; Miksic, “Lion’s Soul.”
14. Miksic, “Lion’s Soul.”
15. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 480. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
16. Miksic, “Lion’s Soul.”
17. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 361–62.
18. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 361; Makepeace, Gilbert Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 491; Alan Harfield, Early Cemeteries in Singapore (London: British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 1988), 4–5, 9. (Call no. RSING 929.5095957 HAR)
19. “Colonial History Trail in Fort Canning Park,” National Parks Board, accessed 10 October 2016.
20. “Tombstones But No Graves in This Plot,” Straits Times, 25 December 1997, 4 (From NewspaperSG); McMurray, “History of Fort Canning Hill.”
21. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 362; McMurray, “History of Fort Canning Hill.”
22. “Botanic Gardens Almost Fails to Survive,” New Nation, 12 June 1975, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 362; McMurray, “History of Fort Canning Hill.”
24. “Replica of Spice Garden Recreated at Fort Canning,” Straits Times, 12 November 1994, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 675.
26. “Hills and the City,” Straits Times, 27 June 2004, 5; “About Singapore”; Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 361.
27. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 675, 769; Makepeace, Gilbert Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 489.
28. Makepeace, Gilbert Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 338.
29. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 675.
30. “Hills and the City”; Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 361.
31. “Historical Central Park Renamed.”
32. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 361.
33. Historical Central Park Renamed.”
34. “Fort Canning Park,” National Parks Board, 2018.
35. Melody Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host Bicentennial Showcase Next Year,” Straits Times, 4 February 2018; “Speech by Minister Lawrence Wong at the Launch of Festival at the Fort,” Singapore Government News, 3 February 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
36. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
37. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
38. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
39. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
40. “Launch of Festival at the Fort.”
41. “Launch of Festival at the Fort.”
42. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
43. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
44. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
45. Zaccheus, “Fort Canning Park to Host.”
46. Melody Zaccheus, “Veteran Archaeologist to Conduct Six-Week Dig at Fort Canning,” Straits Times, 1 September 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
The information in this article is valid as at October 2018 and correct as far as we can 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.