Fort Tanjong Katong, 10 years on

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Unearthed bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong. Source: Going Places Singapore.

A web feature on the Fort Tanjong Katong excavation in Singapore, featuring an interview with Lim Chen Sian of the Archaeology Unit at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre. I have a personal connection with this site as well, since Fort Tanjong Katong was one of the sites I volunteered at very early in my career.

Unearthed bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong. Source: Going Places Singapore.

Unearthed bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong. Source: Going Places Singapore.

Raising a forgotten fort
Going Places, 05 September 2014
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No plans for excavated fort

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Singapore’s National Heritage Board has no plans to gazette the foundations of the 100-year-old Fort Tanjong Katong for the time being. The fort was excavated in 2004 through a community grassroots effort and later reburied to prevent further deterioration to the stone foundations of the site.

Excavated bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong

Fort Tanjong Katong will not be gazetted
AsiaOne, 19 May 2010
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An archaeology for the people, by the people

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Vietnam’s Institute of Archaeology is set to explore a relatively new concept in archaeological practice: community-based archaeology, which is a grassroots-centred movement to get local people interested and preserving their own past. This interview with the vice-director of the Institute of Archaeology explains further.

Residents to help dig up the past [Link no longer active]
Viet Nam News, 15 September 2008
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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.

The Fort Furore

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FTK: under-used funds and over-hyped reburialThe Fort Tanjong Katong article by Jeremy Au Yong in 9 April’s Sunday Times gave an update-of-sorts on the status of the site, and it led to a couple of posts about it from the blogosphere, notably here , here and here. There’s a sense of indignation over how the excavation seems to have lost steam after huge publicity a year and a half ago. After all, it was one of the few local excavations with a good deal of publicity. More significant was that FTK was the third major archaeological excavation in Singapore, and it was supported through a community campaign. It was interesting to note from the Sunday Times article that out of $200,000 raised for the fort, $150,000 was “ploughed back into bursaries and scholarships for the constituency’s students and the PAP Community Foundation”. In effect, less than half of the money raised for the archaeological excavation of FTK was actually used for archaeological excavation. With that kind of money, surely something more than a temporary (and flimsy) barricade can be erected? And what about publishing the results of the excavation? Another recurrent theme was the need to preserve the fort. The reports make it seem as if there’s an intact fort around. This is not true. Only the bastions remain and the base of the main fortification wall, including what probably was the drawbridge section of the wall. Nope, there isn’t a lot of the fort left save the intact bastions. Much of the interior of the fort has also been replaced by what is now Katong Park and test pits excavated to uncover the turret areas came up dry. As you can see, the playground, fitness centre and the washroom sit squarely over where the guns would have been:

That’s the plan of the fort in 1885, when the guns were upgraded. The fort was built in 1879 and designed by Henry Edward McCallum, who was the Colonial Engineer and also architect of the Singapore History Museum on Stamford Road. The fort’s original intention was to fend off seaborne attacks on Singapore Town from the east. Unfortunately, this was a feeble attempt on the part of the British. The fort was largely seen as way of placating the merchant community – in reality, the guns that were outfitted on the fort were not standard British artillery issue which made acquiring ammunition a problem. On top of that, the land on which the fort was built was too sandy, which made it necessary to recalibrate the cannons after every shot. And, on the last day of 1890, one of the two 8-inch guns burst during training! Needless to say, FTK had a dubious reputation in its day as “The Wash-out Fort”. Eventually it was abandoned and demolished between 1901 – 1910 and then it disappears from historical record. It’s not an intact fort – and even when it was it didn’t do its job very well. So what is the historical significance of the fort? One important significance was FTK was the training ground of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery formed in 1888 with (the same) Major H.E. McCallum as its first commanding officer. The SVA is in fact the first local army unit, and the SAF artillery – which prides itself as the oldest formation of the SAF – recalls this connection through the shared motto, In Oriente Primus. What about its archaeological significance? Unfortunately, there isn’t much of the original fort left, save for the surrounding wall and bastions. The SE bastion was excavated but the SW one was left untouched, hopefully for future archaeologists to discover:

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the fort is nobody knows what it actually looks like! Besides the 1885 plans and some artist impressions at the park, New Paper and now the recent Straits Times there hasn’t been a picture of the actual fort when it was up. The biggest mystery involves the biggest finds: the bastions that have been uncovered don’t actually correspond to the plans!

Note the pointy bastion protrusions at the SW and SE corners. Very unlike the horseshoe-shaped structures that were excavated. So that’s another mystery that can be looked into for future generations of military architects and historical archaeologists. For now however, it’s really a good thing that the exposed pits have been reburied – they’ve survived for a hundred years, and they’ll probably survive another few hundred years if they’re protected from the elements.