Visitors today can see Dutch era buildings, Stadthuys and Christ Church located at the heart of the city's historic quarter.

“Napoleon Bonaparte caused the destruction of this once-magnificent fort”. This attention-grabbing statement stops me in my tracks. Curious to learn more, I inch closer to the group of foreigners standing just a few feet away.

Our presence in front of the famous Porta De Santiago or A Famosa in Melaka’s historic quarter further compounds the effect. Listening to their conversation gives me a totally different perspective about what actually transpired on this very spot more than two centuries ago.

A ruckus from a newly-arrived bus load of tourists prompts me to inch even closer to the group. My interest is definitely piqued and I want to know how the rest of this story unravels! Despite the fact that neither the French Emperor at that time nor his Grande Armee ever stepped foot on Melaka, they appeared to have played an indirect but yet crucial role here.

The execution of Louis XVI and France’s subsequent declaration of war on the Dutch Republic made the latter worried about its overseas territories. Holland realised that it would be extremely expensive to maintain her colonies while staving off Napoleon’s ambitions. This realisation was compounded by the fact that all Dutch-controlled lands abroad would fall into Napoleon’s hands should it be overrun by the militarily superior French forces.

These circumstances prompted William Prince of Orange to temporarily transfer Dutch colonial possessions to the British in 1795. This move resulted in Melaka going under the direct purview of the Penang administration. The British, however, never had the intention of developing Melaka knowing that it would return to the Dutch once Napoleon’s forces were crushed.

In fact, British officials in Penang began toying with the idea of weakening Melaka. Plans were put in place to reduce the Melaka fort to rubble. The Dutch would be vulnerable to attacks once this impregnable bastion was taken out of the equation. Like all foreign forces at that time, the British knew that taking possession of Melaka meant having total control over the lucrative spice traffic and China trade.

Hikayat Abdullah gives a vivid account of the destruction of A Famosa by the British.

Strategic importance

The Melaka fort was built by the Portuguese soon after they gained power in 1511. Alfonso de Albuquerque commissioned skilled Chinese masons to cut huge granite blocks measuring up to 1.8m for the walls. For extra protection, the Portuguese general included long ramparts and four commanding guard towers in the blueprint.

Although the fort was large enough to accommodate the town’s entire population at the time of construction, nonetheless extensions had to be built in 1586 when Melaka’s population increased dramatically due to the rapid growth in trade and the continuous arrival of traders from all over the region.

Inevitably, Melaka became a victim of its own success. Portuguese rule came to an end some 130 years after Albuquerque’s arrival. By the time the battle was over, volleys of Dutch cannon fire had caused extensive damage to the fort. Melaka’s new masters realised the strategic importance of the fort. They not only set about repairing it but also made innumerable improvements to make the bastion significantly stronger than before.

No expense was spared in this endeavour. The Dutch even dug up old Portuguese grave stones to increase the thickness of the fort’s walls. Their plans were so far sighted that the improved fortification could accommodate projected population increases for many decades ahead.

A Malay family visiting St John’s Fort in 1954.

Demolishing the fort

The narration stops abruptly when the group suddenly realises that they’re late for a lunch appointment. Left in the lurch and curious to learn more about the fort’s fate, I decide to head over to the nearby History and Ethnography Museum.

Coincidentally, the museum is housed inside the imposing Stadthuys, a remnant of the 17th century Dutch administration. It’s not surprising to find the galleries full of visitors. Like me, they’re in this historic city to celebrate its 10th anniversary of being recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Navigating the sea of people, I soon find myself in the section dedicated to the time after the fort was rebuilt. The easy to read information boards soon shed light on Dutch era Melaka.

Security was tight at that time. The fort was off limits after 6pm. By 8pm, a gun would be fired to signal the raising of the drawbridges. Anyone caught walking outside the perimeter without carrying a light after that would be arrested while those not answering to a challenge were immediately shot.

The beginning of the end for this great fort happened in August 1807. A letter from Penang gave the-then Melaka Resident, William Farquhar, the green light to commence demolition.

That communique gave instructions to dismantle the entire fortification including its military arsenals, storehouses as well as public buildings within the compound. In order to prevent the Dutch from rebuilding the fort, valuable teak wood, iron and stone works salvaged after the demolition had to be shipped directly to Penang.

The events leading up to this obliteration were witnessed and carefully recorded by a young and intelligent Malay scribe named Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir. Abdullah was born in 1786, just a year after the Dutch transferred temporary control to the British. His father, Sheikh Abdul Kadir, gave him a strict Muslim upbringing and extensive scholarly education. Abdullah spent his early years at Kampong Pali Koran School learning to write and translate the Holy Quran from Arabic into Malay.

Visitors can still see tombstones of prominent Portuguese traders in the ruins of St Paul’s Church.

Abdullah was just 11 when Farquhar received the demolition orders. He spent most of his time copying Quranie texts and selling them. He also taught Malay to the Indian Muslim soldiers stationed at the fort. Impressed with the young man’s abilities, the soldiers called him Munshi, a title reserved for a person with knowledge or a great teacher. Abdullah gained fame as the first local Malay to publish his work. This profound achievement gained him the title ‘Father of modern Malay Literature’.

In his book Hikayat Abdullah, Abdullah mentioned that the locals were divided over plans to demolish the fort. Some thought that it was impossible to bring down such a sturdy structure while others said countless men would perish as there were many evil spirits residing within its walls. Protests from wealthy Dutch merchants still residing in Melaka were also ignored.

Farquhar’s initial attempt to smash a section of the fort facing Bukit China failed miserably. The walls were too strong and to make things worse, rumours of roaming evil spirits terrified the workers. News about devils slapping the workers and causing them to vomit blood soon became the talk of the town. Even the promise of wage increases failed to entice the labourers to pick up their tools.

Unperturbed, Farquhar gave instructions to dig to the fort’s foundations. This attempt failed when the workers couldn’t locate the under structure even after digging to a depth equal to the height of the fort.

In his third attempt, Farquhar ordered the workers to bring down the wall facing the sea thinking that the section was weaker after withstanding centuries of naval bombardments. This plan was soon abandoned when equipment broke and many workers fell ill. In desperation, Farquhar doubled the wages to attract fresh labour but there were no takers. By then, the locals were convinced that the fort would never be demolished.

Only the old gateway, Porta de Santiago, is left standing today.

Beginning of the end

Three months later, news spread like wild fire about Farquhar’s latest effort to harness the force of gunpowder. Everyone, including Abdullah, turned up to see a large hole in the wall filled with gunpowder. A 18m long fuse made of cloth filled with gunpowder was put in place before the cavity was sealed with rocks and earth. The people were told to vacate the area as demolition was scheduled at eight o’clock the next day.

The next morning, Farquhar arrived on horseback with a slow match in his hand. He lit the fuse and rode away. Ten minutes later there was a tremendous explosion. Abdullah said it sounded like thunder and noted that pieces of the wall, some as large as elephants and houses, were blown into the air and fell into the sea.

The swift fall of the once indestructible fort took some the British officers by surprise. Among them was Stamford Raffles who was in Melaka on sick leave in 1808. Raffles appealed to Farquhar, arguing that enough damage had been done and whatever was left should be preserved.

About two thirds of the fort could have been saved if Farquhar had listened but instead, the Melaka Governor asked Raffles to seek a halt order from Penang before he could rescind his actions. By the time instructions came from Colonel Norman Macalister, the British Governor in Penang at that time, it was already too late. Only the old gateway, Porta de Santiago was left standing.

Most of the ships laden with spices in the past came up the Melaka River to trade.

Secrets best left uncovered

With some time to spare, I spend the remaining hours in this historic city visiting the many Dutch buildings scattered around this heritage enclave. Among my favourites is St Paul’s Church which is located on a small hill directly behind Porta de Santiago. The church sits on the site of a former Portuguese chapel built in 1521.

It was said that Father Francis Xavier preached here in 1545 and after his death, the Pope asked for his right arm. Robert Tan Sin Nyen’s book, Historic Melaka Pot-Pourri, mentioned about a strange phenomenon that happened soon after St Francis Xavier’s statue was unveiled on March 22, 1953 to commemorate the church’s fourth centenary celebrations. On a calm windless night, a huge casuarina tree fell on the statue. The statue was left intact except for its broken right hand. Many saw this as an uncanny relation to the Pope’s request.

I end my Melaka visit at another notable Dutch era fort located on St John’s Hill. Aware of rumours about an underground tunnel that was used to facilitate clandestine troop movements between this 18th century bastion and A Famosa, I tried my level best to find the entrance but failed miserably.

Strangely, I actually find myself revelling in my disappointment. This undiscovered secret tunnel, together with many other interesting unsolved mysteries, add to the allure of Melaka as a major tourist destination and also reinforces its image as Malaysia’s historic state. With many more interesting attractions in the pipeline, I’m sure visitors from within the country as well as abroad will keep on coming to Melaka for many, many more years to come.

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