A rare photograph of Fort Tanjong Katong

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Last month, The Wellcome Trust released their image archives for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license in a new website, Wellcome Images. While this online picture library primarily specialises in medical history and the biomedical sciences, there are also a few gems from its historical collection, such as this, a picture of Fort Tanjong Katong, highlighted to me by acroamatic.

This is quite an exciting find because until now, there hasn’t been a photograph of Fort Tanjong Katong available, particularly since the site was excavated a few years ago.

Fort Tanjong Katong was built in Singapore in 1879 as a response to perceived gap in the defence grid on the eastern part of Singapore Town. By erecting a battery at the mouth of the Kallang River, Fort Tanjong Katong placated the fears of the local merchant community fearful of an enemy ship sailing into the Kallang River and lobbying shells into the city.

Initially armed with three 7-inch cannons, these were soon rendered obsolete because of improvements in ship armour. Later in 1886, the fort was refitted with two 8-inch breach-loading guns, better than its predecessors, but far below the two 9-inch and one 10-inch cannon that were initially requested for the upgrade. Worse still, the land on which the fort was built was sandy and unstable, making it necessary for the gunners to reclibrate their weapons after every shot. Needless to say, the fort was not effective as a weapons platform as much as it was a psychological placation to the local community. In the early 1900s, it was decided that the fort was to be abandoned, presumably razed, and the site was converted into a public park.

In 2002, the fort was “rediscovered” by a local who lived opposite the park who noticed a difference in the colour of grass, showing the outline of a structure underneath. Excavations of the fort in 2004 and 2005 revealed portions of the moat, fortification wall, drawbridge structure and bastions. (You can download a copy of the Fort Tanjong Katong site report here.) Excavations were aided by copies of the fort’s 1886 plan that were available at the Public Records Office in the UK, but were hampered by the a lack of any photograph of what the fort looked like when it was sanding. In fact, most modern artists impressions of the fort looked like this:

NParks artist’s impression

Which brings us back to the Wellcome Trust picture, which was taken by John Edmund Taylor in 1880. The picture throws up more questions than answers:

What part of the fort is shown in the picture?
According to the Wellcome Trust, the picture was taken in 1880, which was a year after the fort was erected and would be armed with the three 7-inch guns. Judging from the walls, it would look like this picture was taken from the interior of the fort which would lead us to question 2…

Which angle was the picture taken from?
While the prospect of the cannons resting atop the two “hills” are tantalisingly intriguing, the lack of cannons and the palm trees in the background would seem to imply that we are facing inland. The bent wall structure also betrays no clues about which part of the fort this could be – it does not match any of the shape of the walls that were unearthed during the 2004-2005 excavation.

So what did Fort Tanjong Katong really look like?
Taylor’s picture certainly throws an interesting light to what (part of) the fort looked like in its heyday and it has thrown some assumptions out of the window. Perhaps it is too early to say “we’ll never know…” and some other photographic archive might shed some more light to this issue.

13 July 2007 update: After speaking with archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, he agrees that the layout looks like the interior of the fort, with the doorway to the left probably leading to the shell store, while the other door leading to the artillery store. He believes that the sand ramp in the middle of the two “hills” leads to the gun emplacement, which would mean that this picture was taken facing the sea, although it still doesn’t explain the coconut trees in the background.