THE two rusty cannons excavated beside Fort Cornwallis at the Esplanade, Penang, raise two major questions. How did they get there? Why are the cannons made of copper and iron instead of bronze?
Local historian Marcus Langdon said the find was an interesting one and would reveal more details of the 232-year-old star-shaped fort.
“There has been debate on whether Fort Cornwallis was a peaceful or defensive fort, but regardless, forts are designed to defend any settlement.
“That is probably why there are cannons in the area,” he said.
He pointed out that cannons made from bronze were preferred as it was durable and would never rust, unlike iron.
Bronze, an alloy of mainly copper and tin, was the hardest and most favoured working metal on Earth for over 2,000 years, an era historians call the Bronze Age.
Iron, by itself, is brittle, while primitive steel — an alloy of mainly iron and carbon — could not match the hardness of bronze during the fort’s heydays.
In a 2002 research paper titled ‘The Development and Design of Bronze Ordnance — 16th through 19th Centuries’ by Chuck Meide from College of William and Mary, the United States, it was stated that field armies preferred bronze cannons because the metal’s hardness allowed for lighter, more mobile cannons to be made.
Navies, however, were content to have cheaper but much larger wrought iron cannons, strapped down on ship decks and oiled to prevent rust.
Langdon speculated that the wrought iron cannons may have been of ‘old-technology’ and were kept in storage at the fort’s edge instead of mounted and ready to fire.
Penang chief archaeologist Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin said they must now identify whether the cannons were intentionally buried there or left in situ.
“We will have to continue with the excavation and look for more evidence before coming to conclusions.”
Dr Mokhtar, who is also Global Archaeological Research Centre director at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said they would also study the cannons and their connection to the fort.
On Feb 20, Dr Mokhtar revealed the findings to the public in a press conference with Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.
He said aside from the 2.2m and 2.35m long cannons buried 1.2m below the ground, his team found cannonballs.
The find, he added, could change the fort’s history from a peaceful fort to one that was ready for war.
The discovery was made during the excavation of a moat around Fort Cornwallis to restore the authenticity and heritage value of the site, an initiative by the Penang government.
It was covered with earth in the 1920s by the municipal council following a malaria outbreak.
The work was overseen by George Town Conservation and Development Corporation and endorsed by the National Heritage Department.
Heritage activist Khoo Salma Nasution said “the whole of George Town is an archaeological site”.
“In many other places, a lack of precaution when works are done on building sites, roads and drains may lead to destruction of significant artefacts.
“We are fortunate to have a professional archaeology team working on Fort Cornwallis and finding the two precious cannons.
“We are also pleased that the discoveries are announced as a matter of public interest,” she said.
Think City chairman Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal said that this discovery will create public interest in archaeology.
“This field is going to be one of Penang’s growing assets for scholars and visitors,” he said.
Fort Cornwallis was named after the then Governor-General of Bengal Charles Cornwallis.
The fort began as a palisade of palm tree trunks when Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang island from Kedah in 1786.
During Colonel R.T. Farquhar’s term as Governor of Penang, the fort was rebuilt into what it is now by Indian convict labourers and completed in 1810.
Though intended for military use, Fort Cornwallis never engaged combat and was used more as an administrative centre during its operational history.
It is the largest standing fort in Malaysia.