By Marc Servos
Fort Canning Hill rings in people’s minds as being a venue that hosts many events such as concerts and festive activities. Also located there is an array of reception halls accommodating newlyweds on their special day. It was previously named Government Hill in the early colonial era, reflecting its function until 1859 when plans for the military installation of its name bears were underway. A few centuries before Sir Stamford Raffles’ 1819 arrival, it was the location of a thriving settlement called Ban Zu with the location subsequently known as Bukit Larangan, Malay for “Forbidden Hill”, where kings were believed to be buried.
Early Malay and Javanese literature and writings of 14th century Chinese traveler Wang Dayua mention the settlement of Ban Zu. Ruins still visible during the 1820s are mentioned in Raffles’ writings and those of Second Resident John Crawfurd, giving more credence to Ban Zu’s existence. The pre-colonial writings mention Ban Zu and a second settlement, Long Ya Men located near present-day Labrador Park, on ‘Temasek’, later known as ‘Singapura’, both names of the island we now know as Singapore.
According to legendary tales found in the Malay Annals, composed during the 15th and 16th centuries, a Srivijayan prince from Sumatra named Sang Nila Utama was tossed off the ship during a storm as a gift to the sea to prevent the ship from sinking. He reached the shore at the present-day Singapore. While hunting on open ground where the Padang is located, he saw a strange but beautiful creature with a red body, black head and white breast disappear into the jungle, which he took to be a lion. This led him to name this location Singapura, Sanskrit for ‘Lion City’. Impressed and thinking it was a good omen, he founded the Kingdom of Singapura along with the settlement of Ban Zu in 1299 and ruled as its first raja, or king.
The events of this tale are seen as symbolic, as the historicity of even the existence of Sang Nila Utama has come into debate. This also includes the reality that lions have never existed in Singapore, although Sang Nila Utama could have seen a Malayan tiger. Nonetheless, it is accepted that he ruled Singapura until his death in 1347 and is buried in Fort Canning, although the exact location is not known.
Ban Zu is believed to have been attacked in 1398 by a naval force of the Javanese Majapahit Empire, although some think that it was instead the Siamese. Raja Iskandar Shah, a descendant of Sang Nila Utama more commonly known as Parameswara, fled Singapura around this time and founded the Malacca Sultanate where he ruled afterwards, and Ban Zu was abandoned around that time. Parameswara lived until 1414, and he is believed to be buried in Fort Canning among other possible locations.
Around 1330, Chinese traveler Wang Dayuan visited present-day Singapore, what he referred to as Dānmaxí. Wang described in his work Daoyi Zhilüe the settlements of Ban Zu and Long Ya Men. The latter location was said to be prone to piracy, but Ban Zu was a thriving community with honest inhabitants, according to Wang’s work. Wang’s accounts also suggest a moat and gate surrounding Ban Zu, and how a Siamese attack was successfully repelled a few years prior to his arrival.
The Portuguese took over the region during the 1500s and in 1613 destroyed the small trading settlement that had continued to exist by the Singapore River. This led Singapura into an obscurity lasting two centuries before Raffles’ arrival.
In addition to the ruins seen in the 1820s, pottery from the Ban Zu era and Chinese coins dating as early as the 10th century were found. Resident John Crawfurd, who held that position in 1823-1826, described some ruins as a 40 square foot terrace on top of the hill and likely being a temple and burial site. A century later, Javanese gold jewelry was discovered during excavation for the Fort Canning Reservoir in 1928. Further excavations in 1984 uncovered more artifacts indicating that the settlement was home of the elite. The artifacts included Chinese porcelain, some of which suggest settlement as early as the 12th century. On the grounds of the National Museum and adjacent to Fort Canning, a visitor can see painted on the pavement where Ban Zu’s wall used to be.
Most of the focus of Singapore’s history has been post-1819. But much of the 2019 Bicentennial included events prior to this. What later became the seat of Singapore’s colonial government and later a major fortification had earlier been the seat of power of an