The Hidden Walls of Fort Malacca


A couple of weeks ago, I was in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Malacca for a short holiday – it’s a popular tourist spot for quick getways, a mere 2-3 hours away from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, great food and plenty of sights to see. With the new World Heritage listing, the town has spruced itself up pretty well. The last time I was there, which was two years ago, I narrowly missed out on the discovery of the ancient walls of Fort Malacca. This time round, I knew it had to be on my list of things to see.

Malacca, World Heritage City
Malacca, World Heritage City

 


Malacca’s had a long history. The last occupants of the fort were the British, who took it over from the Dutch in 1824, who wrested control of it from the Portuguese in 1641. The Portuguese were one of the first Europeans to arrive in Southeast Asia in the 16th century, arriving in Malacca in 1511, building the fortand  calling it A’ Famosa – The Famous . Prior to that, Malacca was the seat of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, which wielded considerable power owing to its control of the Straits of Malacca.

But back to the fort. The ancient walls that were unearthed in 2006 were discovered in the construction of a tourist tower. Remains of a laterite brick structure were later identified as the Middleburg Bastion.

Here’s a map of the fort, dated to 1792. The bastion and unearthed wall are highlighted.

Malacca, circa 1792. From Brian Harrison's Holding the Fort.
Malacca, circa 1792. From Holding the Fort by Brian Harrison

Here’s a map of the fort from one of the tourist signs outside the Santiago Gate.

Malacca map, located at the Santiago Gate
Malacca map, located at the Santiago Gate

For comparison, here’s a google-earth-eyed view of Malacca. The site is right in the middle of the historic (and touristy) district.

Malacca today - compared with the markings of the earlier two maps, can you make out the shape of the old fort?
Malacca today - compared with the markings of the earlier two maps, can you make out the shape of the old fort?

They’ve left the excavation site open for all to see, although I suspect it’s a temporary arrangement. Check out the different bricks used and the order they are placed. The larger laterite bricks are older, while the smaller clay bricks are newer. Some human skeletons were found in a layer underneath the laterite bricks, which means they were probably from the Malacca Sultanate or at least contemporary to the fort.

This is the Santiago gate, the only remnant of the original A Famosa left. Notice the laterite blocks that make up the superstructure.

They’re almost finished with the reconstruction of the bastion, something I’m a little ambivalent about. For one, the reconstruction seems to be based on old paintings which are not known to be accurate or to scale. The fact that the fort changed hands so much that even historians have had a hard time making out what the fort looked like based on the architectural plans. The subsequent Dutch, British and modern occupiers made their own alterations to the fort – I wonder what archaeologists 200 years from now will make of the reconstructed fort.

In any case, Malacca’s a pretty fascinating place to visit for its heritage value, and worth a visit for at least a couple of days. It’s truly a city with historic significance.
Further reading into Malacca’s past:
Old Malacca (Images of Asia)
Malacca Sketchbook
Holding the fort: Melaka under two flags, 1795-1845 (Monograph / Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society)
A stroll through ancient Malacca and a glimpse at her historical sites
The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, and His Viceroyalty: From the Legendas da India of Gaspar Correa. Accompanied by Original Documents
The seige and capture of Malacca from the Portugese in 1640-1641: Extracts from the archives of the Dutch East India Company
The lost archives of Dutch Malacca, 1641-1824
Trade And Society In The Straits Of Melaka: Dutch Melaka And English Penang, 1780-1830 (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Momograph Series)
Holding the fort: Melaka under two flags, 1795-1845 (Monograph / Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society)

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

1 thought on “The Hidden Walls of Fort Malacca”

  1. One of the most interesting places to explore is Malacca. There are numerous things to learn and some historical places of interest.
    In addition to knowing about the interesting historical locations, it is also helpful to know about places where you can get help in an emergency. The Malacca Map is filled with activities and plenty of sites to see. With its rich cultural heritage, there is much that you can learn when you visit this place.

    The main places in Malacca include:

    Alor Gajah – northern Malacca
    Ayer Keroh – central Malacca
    Masjid Tanah and Tg. Kelling – western Malacca
    Ayer Molekand and Malacca Town – southern Malacca
    Merlimau – located in the deep southeast
    Jasin – in the east

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