When in Kuching, take a perahu tambang to visit the historical Fort Margherita

A more modern-looking perahu tambang at the Sarawak River. — Photos: DR OH SEONG POR

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Sarawak, the Land of the Hornbill, is the only state in Malaysia that was ruled by three generations of White Rajah for over 100 years (1841-1946, except during the period of Japanese occupation).

The first White Rajah was James Brooke, a British explorer who helped to quell the rebellion, opposing the Sultan of Brunei who demanded higher tax. As a reward, Pengeran Muda Hashim, a representative of the sultan, signed a treaty in 1841 surrendering the Kuching province to Brooke.

The last White Rajah was Charles Vyner Brooke. During the “Brooke Dynasty”, numerous forts were built to protect territories from invaders. The iconic one was Fort Margherita, built on a hill by the Sarawak River in Kuching. The fort was named after Charles’s wife.

In September, I went to Kuching on a special mission – as an assessor appointed by the Board of Engineers Malaysia. My wife came along with me, and we stayed at The Waterfront Hotel located beside the Kuching Waterfront. From our hotel, we could see the magnificent Fort Margherita which is still standing strong today.

There are two ways to get to the fort: By car and perahu tambang (or penambang), which is a water taxi that serves locals and visitors who wish to cross the river. The building has the design of an English castle with a watch post at the top. There’s also a semi-circle courtyard that’s surrounded by high brick walls. The bottom walls have openings from which cannons were once fired at enemies. We counted eight cannons positioned in these openings.

The semi-circle courtyard allowed the cannons to have at least 180° of firing range, covering the upstream and downstream of Sarawak River. It was a classic defensive strategy, making the fort impenetrable.

Fort Margherita in Kuching was built in 1879.Fort Margherita in Kuching was built in 1879.

Today, Fort Margherita is a museum that exhibits artefacts and items belonging to the Brooke family.Today, Fort Margherita is a museum that exhibits artefacts and items belonging to the Brooke family.

Inside the tower you can find a narrow spiral staircase connecting all the three floors, as well as the top watch post. When we read the information board, we discovered that each floor was originally made to be the living quarters and shelters for officers and guards who manned the fort.

However, when the fort was turned into a museum – the Brooke Gallery – in 2016, all the floors were refurbished and divided into compartments to display artefacts belonging to the Brooke family.

I carefully ascended the spiral staircase to each floor and spent time examining the artefacts and displays. There were numerous interesting items to see, like James’s sword, a sculpture of Charles, a well-illustrated family tree of the Brookes, a printed copy of the treaty stating the surrender of Kuching to James in 1841, some ancient weaponry, old furniture, models of ships, and even a cute stuffed badger.

The were many well-preserved old photos, too. Something that intrigued me was a plaque showing the Brooke family’s coat of arms. It had a red and black cross mounted on a shield with a gold crown in its centre, and a badger as the crest. Apparently, the Brooke family name was derived from the word “brock”, which is another name for badger.

The family motto was “Dum Spiro Spero”, literally translated as, “while I breathe, I hope”. I thought it was a well selected phrase, portraying the will of optimism and perseverance which were needed to survive back in the day.

The fort has a semi-circle courtyard surrounded by a high brick wall.The fort has a semi-circle courtyard surrounded by a high brick wall.

The guards at Fort Margherita were once known as Sarawak “rangers”. They were well trained and recruited from the local tribes and natives who were loyal to the Brooke family.

My wife and I checked out the front chamber of the fort, where we found the main door made of heavy wood. It was well preserved with original hinges, latch, and reinforced steel plates still intact.

After spending almost two hours at Fort Margherita, it was time to leave for another adventure. This time, we wanted to try the perahu tambang. We walked to the nearby traditional Malay village called Kampung Boyan. There was a jetty at the village where you can get on the perahu tambang for RM1 per passenger. The boat was made from belian wood, nicknamed ironwood, which is one of the hardest and toughest woods found in Sarawak.

It was fitted with a low roof for sheltering passengers from the rain or hot sun. My wife and I boarded a cute-looking perahu tambang. Because of the low roof, we had to bend down in order to step through the aisle, and find some seats. In the old days, propulsion was provided by manual paddling but it has now been replaced by a diesel engine. It took less than 10 minutes to ply across the river and get to the jetty at Kuching Waterfront.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Brooke administration in Sarawak, do check out Fort Margherita whenever you visit Kuching.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

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