Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fort Canning Park, a verdant hill full of stories

The Gate of Fort Canning is all that remains of the fort that was built here between 1859 and 61 - the creeping figs and the green mosses are slowly painting their own landscape on the old mortar... Earlier called both Singapore Hill and Government Hill, it was renamed Fort Canning Hill in 1860 after Lord Charles John Canning, then the Governor General of India.   
I've travelled past and around Fort Canning Park so many times, without ever taking time to stop there. But when I felt quite restless yesterday, I decided catch the bus there despite the oppressive heat. And I'm glad I did, as this old park proved to be a real pearl, with layers upon layers of history from pre-colonial to late 20th century folding up along the many pathways meandering up and down the hill.
What I loved best is the extreme greenery to typical to Singapore: huge trees and palms, completely covered in ferns, creepers and mosses, forming huge canopies that protect against the relentless equatorial sun. And the undergrowth, so lush and vibrantly green - I've heard Singaporeans sometimes mention how bored they are with ubiquitous green here, which makes them want but just that, and so fill their gardens with plants that have variegated or otherwise colored leaves - but I'm still in love with this tropical nature in all shades of green.
Wandering the pathways of Fort Canning Park is a trip into Singapore's past, all wrapped in luxurious greenery. Remnants of military and seafaring history tell about the colonial ambitions in this part of the world, the spice gardens about the rich trading heritage - the reason why so many (mostly) young men risked their lives by travelling here. Combined with a touch of 'Gothic' - old, mossy tombs and graves telling about the tough life of the early colonialists and especially their wives and children - Fort Canning Park really offers the perfect scene for some very pleasant time travelling.

View to the park through the gate, with the massive iron-forced double doors.
Fort Canning Center used to be the barracks of the British army; both European and Indian soldiers were housed here. Today, this handsome building houses Singapore Dance Theatre and several other different cultural functions are held here.
One of the many ginger lilies in the park, shining like a lantern in the shade of the huge, fern-covered trees...

The spice garden, with pandan on the left side and wild pepper on the right side of the path. Raffles came to Singapore to establish a trading post for the British East India Company, and some of the most important exports from here were spices like nutmeg, mace, cloves and pepper. Raffles was a keen botanist and wanted to explore further possibilities of crops that could be of economic importance, and so established a Botanic and Experimental Garden filled with plants like gambier, pepper, sugar cane, coffee, tea and other tropical herbs, spices and crops here in 1822. After Raffles death in 1826, the garden deteriorated fast and were finally closed. It was first in 1859 that the new Singapore Botanic gardens were established in their current site in Tanglin.

Raffles Terrace. The house above the little fountain and flagstaff is where Thomas Stamford Raffles build his house in 1820 (the original building was demolished when Fort Canning was built, and the house above serves only as a memorial).
In his days, Raffles could see the boats in the harbor from this terrace; now, skyscrapers and glitzy new buildings like the Marina Sands Casino fill the view... The flagstaff served an important function as a messaging system; the merchants followed it closely, as it informed about the incoming and outgoing ships. It also announced when ships needed to be quarantined because of contagious diseases on board, and warned about fires in the city.

 Raffles wrote in a letter to William Marsden in 1823: "We have lately built a small bungalow in Singapore Hill where, though the height is inconsiderable, we find great difference in climate. Nothing can be more interesting and beautiful than the view from this spot." When I stood in front of the house, the gentle breeze made the weather feel at least a couple of degrees cooler... a clear advantage in the humid heat of Singapore. Raffles House remained the resident of the Resident Councilor (later the Governor) until the military took over in 1858. 
The lighthouse, just down the hill from Raffles House. The first landmark for entering the Singapore harbor was only a lantern attached to the top of the flagstaff; in 1902, this was replaced by a proper lighthouse that could be seen from the sea 30 km away. The lighthouse was closed in 1958 when tall buildings in the city made it invisible from the sea. 

Some of the winding pathways leading though the luxurious greenery on the hill.

The Malaysian Banyan tree is also called 'strangler fig', as it slowly hugs to death the host tree it attaches to, forming a hollow strangle of aerial roots... This one was probably already around long before Sir Raffles first set his foot here in 1819.

Beautifully scented frangipani by the Raffles House. Europeans often planted (and still do) frangipani by their houses for their wonderful scent, which is unimaginable for the Asian population here, as they are commonly used as decoration in funerals and so are seen as an unlucky omen...
Keramat  Iskandar Shah is dedicated to Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of 14th century Singapore before he fled to Melaka to escape an attack from the Siamese (keramat means a sacred place). Although named after him, it is disputed that the keramat actually is Iskandar Shah's tomb, as he supposedly died in Melaka. The tomb was carefully tended by the Malays here even before the British set their feet on the hill, and it remains so even today.

The gates from 1846 in Neo-Gothic style leading to the graveyard, now converted into a park.

Over 600 burials took place in the Fort Canning Cemetery. After decades, the graves deteriorated, and in 1954, the Government converted the entire hill into a park. The gravestones that could be salvaged were embedded into the original Cemetery wall, and form now a touching document over the tough realities of life for the traders and other early settlers in Singapore.
A large proportion of the buried were young; many of the memorials are for infants and toddlers, often several from the same families. The white stone above carries the names of Emily Delphina and Annette Elizabeth, the 5 and 1 year old daughters of the Portuguese Consul-General Jose d'Almeida Carvalho, together with a line "These are they which follow the lamb whithersoever he goeth".

 To his and his wife Sophia's great grief, Sir Stamford Raffles lost four of his five children to dysentery and other tropical diseases while in the tropics. Raffles died when only 46 years old, again due to ill health mainly resulting from his years here.  

 Little Paula left this life on Saturday Morning, 15th of August 1834.

A group of gravestones were removed and placed here from the old Bukit Timah Cemetery when it was converted into a park in 1971.  

The two rather cute and small cupolas were designed by Architect George Drumgoole Coleman. They have no obvious purpose, but it is often said that they were meant as shady resting places for people visiting the cemetery - which sounds a bit odd, as they really are quite small and there is nowhere to sit... Today, this is a popular place for taking wedding photographies, and when I left, a young couple just arrived and started posing in the shade.

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