Monday, November 08, 2010

History: A Must Visit Historical Site, A Famosa

A Famosa also known as Kota A Famosa in Malay means "The Famous" in Portuguese is a fortress located in Banda Hilir, Melaka. It is among the oldest surviving historical architectural remains in Asia. The name is often mispronounced as A (Eh) Famosa, even among Malaysians, as though the Portuguese definite article a were the English letter ‘A’. A more authentic pronunciation would be A (Ah) Famosa.

A Famosa is one of the most valuable historical ruins built by the Portuguese centuries ago. This place is another sought after attraction in Melaka that you should not miss if you are visiting Melaka.

Also known as Porta de Santiago, this structure is one of the four main gates of the famous Portuguese fortress. The fortress was built by Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1512, one year after the Portuguese invaded Melaka. They used materials from they ruins of Melaka Palace, fortress, mausoleums and tombs, mosques, Melaka ports and so on. A Famosa was intended to fence off the attack from Sultan Mahmud of the Melaka Sultanate Era and the continuous attack from Acheh and Johor empires. I believe that the fortress was built in the readiness of Melaka Sultanate Fortress (Kota Awang) because the Portuguese only take ‘a year’ to build the fortress.

My friends and me during the Foundation of Tourism assignment trip, 2007
A Famosa Fort, 2007

A Famosa picture, Arkib Negara

Albuquerque believed that Malacca would become an important port linking Portugal to the Spice Route in China. At this time other Portuguese were establishing outposts in such places as Macau, China and Goa, India in order to create a string of friendly ports for ships heading to China and returning home to Portugal.

The A’ Famosa fortress with 3-meter thick walls and a 40-meter watchtower had played a major role in protecting the Portuguese from their enemies. It was also the most well-known and symbolic fortress that the Portuguese had ever built. It was the biggest one ever built and was aptly named A Famosa, which means famous in Portuguese language.

The fortress consisted of long ramparts and four major towers. One was a four-story keep, while the others held an ammunition storage room, the residence of the captain, and an officers' quarters. Most of the village clustered in town houses inside the fortress walls. As Melaka's population expanded it outgrew the original fort and extensions were added around 1586. The fort changed hands in 1641 when the Dutch successfully drove the Portuguese out of Melaka. The Dutch renovated the gate in 1670, which explains the logo "ANNO 1670" inscribed on the gate's arch. Above the arch is a bas-relief logo of the Dutch East India Company.

Three different old Portuguese maps of A Famosa, 'Fortaleza De Malaca' (Portuguese) means Melaka Ramparts (Benteng Melaka)

The Dutch town planning map (Hoop d plan Stad & Kasteel Malacca Map), Harapan Rencana Bandar dan Benteng Melaka

New Melaka town with buildings and residential area, brown line mark are supposed to be the original place for Fortaleza de Malacca

The fortress changed hands again in the early 19th century when the Dutch handed it over to the British to prevent it from falling into the hands of Napoleon's expansionist France. The English were wary of maintaining the fortification and ordered its destruction in 1806. The fort was almost totally demolished but for the timely intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, who happened to visit Malacca in 1810. Because of his passion for history, this small gate was spared from destruction.

Similar to St. Paul Church, this old fortress had also undergone different stages of change by various colonial powers that landed in Melaka centuries ago.

Many years after the Dutch landed in Melaka, A’ Famosa underwent another huge transformation due to some reformations in Europe. Melaka, at that time was being handed to the British by King William of Orange from the Netherlands. This was because the European government was overthrown by Napoleon at that time. King William thus decided to give the Dutch territories (including Melaka at that time) to the British for a temporary term to avoid it from being seized by the French government.

When British took over Melaka from the hand of the Dutch, Captain William Farquhar of the English East India Company decided to destroy the fort in 1795. This was because the British had an intention to invade Melaka after their temporary possession allowed by the Dutch government came to an end.

Fearing that the strong defense of A’ Famosa fortress will make the British invasion to Melaka more difficult, Captain William decided to demolish it.

A Famosa at night

View from the back

At first, Captain Farquhar used slaves and labourers to dig the fortress manually in order to destroy it by using human strength. However, he later realized that this method was not able to destroy the fortress. Thus, in 1807, he decided to blast the fortress by using gun powder.

There were people who tried to stop this devastation – Sir Stamford Raffles and Lord Minto interfered in this matter. As a result, A’ Famosa fortress was not totally destroyed. However, three out of the four main portals were demolished by the blast. The only one remaining was the portal facing Bukit Cina, and that is the Porta de Santiago that you can still see with your eyes today.

In late November 2006, a structure part of the fort, believed to be the Middelsburgh Bastion was accidentally uncovered during the construction of 110 meter revolving tower in Melaka Town. The construction of the tower has been postponed indefinitely following the discovery. Melaka Museums Corporation (PERZIM) suspects the structure was built by the Dutch during the Dutch occupation of Melaka from 1641 to 1824.

Earlier in June 2003, a watchtower named Santiago Bastion was discovered during the construction of Dataran Pahlawan.