Associate Professor Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad *

School of Housing, Building & Planning, Universiti Sains Malaysia,

11800 Penang  

(Extract from : Associate Prof. Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad & Dr.Badaruddin Mohamed, ďRestoration of the Historic Fort Cornwallis, Penang, MalaysiaĒ in Prof. Chris Page, et. al., eds.,  7th International Conference on Inspection Appraisal Repairs Maintenance of Buildings and Structures, United Kingdom: Nottingham Trent University, 2001, p. 355-362 )


1. Introduction

Being the biggest and the most intact fort in Malaysia, the Fort Cornwallis is considered as an important monument and landmark in the historical development of Malaysia, particularly the island of Penang. In 1977, the Malaysian Government had listed the fort under the Antiquities Act 1976 for the purposes of conservation and preservation. In March 2000, the Malaysian Government through the Department of Museums and Antiquity had granted a total sum of RM1.9 million for the restoration project of the Fort Cornwallis. Restoration works were carried out over a period of one year and was completed in March 2001. A team of consultants including structural engineer and conservation consultant were appointed by the government to assist and monitor the project progress. Other professionals including quantity surveyor, archaeologist, microbiologist, geologist and electrical engineer were also involved in providing expert advise on specific methods and techniques employed during the project.


2. Historical Background

Named after the late 18th century Governor-General of Bengal, India, the Fort Cornwallis was built by Captain Sir Francis Light at a site located at the northeastern tip of Penang Island after taking possession of the island from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. It was originally built with a nibong (palm trunk) stockade with no permanent structures, covering an area of 417.6 ft 2. In 1804, the fort was rebuilt with bricks and stones by Indian convict labour during Colonel R.T. Farquharís term as Governor of Penang. The Fort Cornwallis was later completed in 1810 during Norman Macalisterís term as Governor of Penang at the cost of $80,000. Today, the Fort Cornwallis covers an area of 332,859 ft 2 2. Early survey maps, old photographs and historical records of the Fort Cornwallis have shown that the star-shaped fort was packed with buildings and structures including military barracks and offices as well as a gunpowder magazine, a chapel, a harbour light, flagstaff, cannons, cell rooms, a store and guard houses; some of which still survived and are structurally sound.  A moat of 9m wide and 2m deep was built around the fort. However, due to the malaria epidemic in the 1920ís, the moat had been filled in.  The harbour light was used to signal incoming ships whilst the flagstaff was used to announce the arrival of mail ships or the decent of the Governor and other dignitaries from the Penang Hill.

Even though the fort was originally built for the Royal artillery troops and the military, its function historically was more administrative rather than defense. In its entire history, the fort had never been engaged in any battle. Apart from being used for the British Royal artillery troops, the fort was once occupied by the Sikh Police of the Straits Settlements during the 1920ís. Today, with its aged-old and rough characteristics, the fort has lost some of its structures except the gunpowder magazine, a Christian chapel, cell rooms, flagstaff, harbour light and several cannons. The fort originally has double walls (outer and inner walls) on all its 4 sides (north, east, south and west zones). However, the double walls on the west zone was demolished in the early 1970ís to give way for the city sewerage systems and electrical equipments. Instead, an iron fence was placed along the west zone. A modern amphitheatre was also built inside the fort in the early 1970ís to promote cultural activities and since then the fort has become a popular destination among the local and foreign tourists. In 1991, the government had privatised the management of the Fort Cornwallis in an effort to enhance its position as one of the prime tourist attractions in Penang.


3. Building Defect Diagnoses & Structural Analyses

Before the commencement of any restoration works, dilapidation surveys were carried out first in order to identify building defects and causes. Some of the building defects discovered at the fort were leaning walls, cracks, erosion of mortar joints, broken brickworks, harmful growths, poor drainage system, improper maintenance and poor electrical installations. All building defects were classified into five major categories that were later used as a based reference in the preparation of quantity bills and building documentations. 

Prior to any restoration works, all building defects were recorded systematically in pictorial documentation, fort plans and elevations. A specific coding system was established by the conservation consultant to keep track of the total numbers of building defects of the respective categories, locations of building defects and possible causes. The codes were transferred and recorded accordingly on the fort plans and elevations. 

Since most of the building defects involved structural rectifications and remedial measures, the restoration works required in-depth technical knowledge, particularly in architecture, building conservation, quantity surveying and structural engineering. However, other expertise and knowledge are also essential including archeology, microbiology and quantity survey. With the main objective of minimum intervention on the fortís surface and structures, the restoration works were based on a methodological system of recording of the fort conditions before, during and after restoration; scientific analyses of selected building materials as well as proven conservation methods to alleviate some common building problems. It was essential to conduct structural analyses prior to any restoration works. Most of the analyses involved testing of the existing building materials, structural rectifications and other remedial measures. Before restoration works began, samples of the existing building materials including old mortar joints, cement top and wall plaster were sent to the laboratories to analyze their components through the process of X-ray Fluorescence analysis (XRF).  

To ascertain the strengths of the existing red clay bricks, several compressive tests have been carried out on selected brick samples taken from the fort walls. The restoration project of the Fort Cornwallis required the use of thousands of new bricks, particularly in reconstructing the demolished walls on the west zone, replacing broken brickworks and restructuring the leaning and cracked walls. With respect to the age, texture, compressive strength and measurement of the fortís existing red clay bricks, salvaged red clay bricks from abandoned old shophouses in Penang built between 1892 and 1928 have also been used. Samples of the salvaged red clay bricks were first sent to the laboratories to determine their compressive strengths.


4. System of Recording and Archaeological Works

The restoration of the Fort Cornwallis involved a systematic method of recording and documentation based on the Historical Architectural Building Survey (HABS) introduced by the Museum and Antiquity Department of Malaysia. The HABS, which involved 3 major stages, was carried out throughout the entire project to record and document the conditions of the fort before, during and after restoration. Apart from the HABS, all archaeological works involved in the project were also recorded systematically for documentation purposes. Artifacts discovered during the excavation works including pottery, roof tiles, smoking pipes, coins and bottles were carefully registered and photographed.


5. Future Plans and Proposals

A mounting interest in heritage conservation among Malaysians, particularly the local Penangites; Fort Cornwallis restoration appearing in the local news; project presentations at heritage seminars and meetings have all placed the Fort Cornwallis in the public limelight. The restoration of the Fort Cornwallis has indeed received an overwhelming response from the local and foreign tourists who had visited the site during the restoration project. With the reconstruction of walls, the entrance gate and the exposure of the moat at the fortís west zone, the tourists now would be able to experience the Fort Cornwallis as it was in the old days.

The restoration of the Fort Cornwallis has posed a great challenge to many, particularly those directly involved in the conservation of this historical landmark of Penang. It has exemplified positive efforts by the Malaysian Government, particularly the Department of Museum and Antiquity in conserving heritage buildings and monuments for future posterity. The successful restoration of the Fort Cornwallis project has breathe new life and brings hope for the future of this historic fort. A proposal has been initiated to establish a Fort Cornwallis Research Centre within the fort vicinity to encourage research activities concerning the fort and heritage conservation as a whole. The centre could among others set up a display of various artifacts found during the restoration work; pictorial documentation of Fort Cornwallis, archeological surveys, old maps and photographs as well as other documentations related to the fort. Parts of the existing trial trench in the main compound of the Fort Cornwallis may also be open for tourist attraction. Further archaeological works should be carried out in the future to reveal the old structures and moat of the Fort. A cyclical maintenance programme should be established to monitor and maintain the conditions of the Fort. It is envisaged that the restoration of the Fort Cornwallis would rally more interest and support for heritage conservation within Penang and the country in the future.




*  Associate Professor Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad is the conservation consultant for the restoration project of the Fort Cornwallis.