Fort Canning, The Forbidden Hill

Steeped in history, Fort Canning Hill was once known as “Forbidden Hill”. This is because Malays in the 19th century believed that it was the seat of royalty for rulers of Temasek (or “Sea Town”, an old name for Singapore) in the 1300s. Later, Singapore’s colonial leaders made their residences there, and the hill became a military base during the Second World War. Established way back in 1859 as an arms store, barracks and hospital, Fort Canning contains precious memorials of Singapore’s early history dating back to the 14th century and Sir Stamford Raffles’ personal bungalow. 

Today, ancient relics dating back to the 14th century have been unearthed and the Fort Gate, remnant of the fortress built in the 1860s, is a reminder of Singapore’s colonial past.

The Fort Canning Centre used to be the barracks of the British Army. The British Army chose Fort Canning as its headquarters of its defence bases in the 1920s to protect British interests in Southeast Asia. It is now the home of the Singapore Dance Theatre.

It is strongly believed that the ‘Keramat’ (the tomb of a holy person) found after the hill was cleared soon after the founding of Singapore in 1819 is that of Iskandar Shah, a King of Temasek. According to Malay tradition the last of the five kings who ruled Singapore during its golden age in the 14th century was Iskandar Shah. 

Singapore was invaded and Bukit Larangan was burnt by the Hindu Majapahits from Java and all the followers of Iskandar Shah perished. The ruler managed to flee. Two years later, he founded the new kingdom of Melaka on the west coast of Malaya. Chinese sources indicate that he died about 1420.

It is believed that the first Malay king of Temasek Sri Tri Buana and his chief minister Demang Labar Daun are buried on the Hill. It is unfortunate that their graves have not been discovered. Raffles wrote to his friend William Marsden in 1823: ‘ The Tombs of the Malay Kings are, however, close at hand, and I have settled that if it is my fate to die here, I shall take my place among them’. 

In 1819 soon after the founding of Singapore the Malays refused to ascend the Hill for fear of disturbing the dead. By 1822 the ‘keramat’ was venerated by Muslims, Chinese and Hindus. It is maintained by a particular Muslim family and their descendants; they have kept the incense burning at the ‘keramat’.

The Fort Canning Service Reservoir is located on top of Fort Canning Hill in Singapore. The reservoir was constructed in 1926 on the former site of a large artillery barracks and parade ground to help supplement the large impounding reservoirs. Water is pumped from the large reservoirs into the service reservoirs, thus enabling water to flow down the hill into houses.

The Gate, the adjoining wall and the Sally Port are all that remain of the fortress which occupied this hill from 1861 to 1926 when it was demolished to make way for the reservoir. Some 400 coolies were mobilised in leveling 3 hectares of hilltop and constructing the elaborate fort complex of barrack blocks, hospital, gunpowder magazines and supporting artillery.

In 1867, the fort had seven 68-pounder guns, eight 8-inch guns, two 13-inch mortars and some 14-pounder cannonades. A cannon was fired 3 times a day (at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 9 p.m.) in colonial times to announce the hour. Be sure to look behind the Fort Gate’s massive wooden door for the narrow stairway leading to the roof.

Sally ports are small doors which lead in and out of forts. They are meant to help defenders enter or exit the fort undetected, and to be used in case of attack. The word “sally” means to make a sudden, vigorous exit. If an enemy is besieging a fort, the defenders can try to make a sudden attack through a sally port and surprise the enemy outside. Here’s one of the at least three sally ports on Fort Canning Hill.

Fort Canning Lighthouse also known as Fort Canning Light is located on top of Fort Canning Hill and was formerly one of the 13 important lighthouses in the Straits of Malacca. Located nearby with The Flagstaff and the Time Ball, the three navigation structures played an essential role during the early maritime history of Singapore. More information about the lighthouse can be found on the information board next to it.

The Battle Box is located some 9 metres underground, in one of the bunkers in Fort Canning Park. It was the largest military operations complex in Singapore and was part of the Malaya Command Headquarters during World War II. The facility is now managed by The Legends Fort Canning Park.

Raffles built his house on Government Hill on his third and last visit to Singapore. “We have lately built a small bungalow on Singapore Hill where, though the height is inconsiderable, we find a great difference in climate. Nothing can be more interesting and beautiful than the view from this spot. The tombs of the Malay Kings are close at hand, and I have settled that if it is my fate to die here I shall take my place amongst them: this will at any rate be better than leaving my bones at Bencoolen…” – Raffles in a letter to William Marsden in 1823.

Fort Canning Centre was originally constructed in  1926 as a British army barracks. In the 1970s, the building was converted into squash courts and offices. The lawn in front of the building, Fort Canning Green, is a popular venue for concerts and music festivals.

The frequent outdoor concerts and carnivals now held at Fort Canning Green belie the fact that the area was once a graveyard for some 600 Christian graves. It was the site of Singapore’s first Christian cemetery, a burial ground used from 1822 to 1865.

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