Penang, also known as the Pearl of the Orient, is ideally located as a trading centre and transit point for commercial vessels from the east and west. In the past, the island had attracted the interest of competing colonial powers.
The British, who first occupied the island, exploited its strategic position to serve their vested interests as it lies at the entry point of the Straits of Malacca. The remains of British occupation are still evident today. One of the remains is Fort Cornwallis, which was built in 1786 by Francis Light who employed exiled persons from India as labourers for its construction.
Francis Light built Fort Cornwallis just four days after he set foot and settled in Penang. The fort was initially made of wood and nibong palm trunks with a built-up area covering 46.4 square metres. The fort was equipped with weapons and cannons and was given the name Fort Cornwallis in honour of Charles Earl Cornwallis II, an English nobleman who was also the Governor-General of British India then.
Until 1791, Fort Cornwallis had undergone very few changes. It was only in 1808 that the fort was reinforced with stonework to replace its wooden nibung structure.
The fort constantly faced threats from foreign forces and its location near the sea also made it vulnerable to enemy attacks. There was also the possibility of attacks from the Penang populace over their dissatisfaction with the construction of the fort for they feared that the British would drag them into their wars. Moreover, the British had reneged on their promise to protect Kedah from the Siamese, which was the condition made by Sultan Abdullah for surrendering Penang to the British.
The fort was left abandoned until 1815 when the Penang Town Council issued a directive to restore it. But three years on, the work ground to a halt due to complaints that the restoration was not worth the effort. After several failed attempts to have it restored, the administration of Penang decided to convert it into a centre for arts and cultural activities.
At present, the British fort has been gazetted as a historical structure under the Antiquities Act by the National Museum. The fort is a well preserved historical landmark and it retains several of its original cannons pointing out to the sea. These cannons were gifts from the Dutch to the state of Johore for its help in fighting the Portuguese. But when Johor was captured by Acheh in 1613, the cannons were taken to Acheh, after which the Sultan of Acheh presented them as gifts to Selangor and they were placed at the Kuala Selangor Fort. When the British captured the Kuala Selangor Fort in 1871, the cannons were brought back to Penang to be placed in Fort Cornwallis.
Currently, the well preserved Fort Cornwallis is famous not only for its historical structure but also as an attraction to tourists from within the country and abroad.