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Light Houses of Asia
by Harold Stephens

What is it about a lighthouse that spells romance? The fact that it booms out a signal inweather both fair and foul to ships at sea! That it symbolizes man's struggle to survive? Or is it the feeling that wells inside us when we think of that lonely, devoted lighthouse keeper constantly on the vigil?

Poets, writers, artists, they have all made use of lighthouses for their own ends. But what about the sailor on the tossing deck of a ship nearing land. What does a lighthouse mean to him?

As a yachtsman who sails Southeast Asian waters in a small boat, lighthouses have come to mean something very special to me. They have become intimate. Let me explain. It's one of those black evil nights, when there is no moon. It's impossible to tell where the sky and sea meet, except, when in the far distance streaks of lightening light up the skies in blinding flashes. Other than the flashes, the only light is the dim red glow of the binnacle reflecting on the face of the helmsman.

Tension builds. You know only a short distance ahead are some of the most dreaded rocks and shoals in the SouthChina Sea, and yet there is no wa of avoiding them. For some 5,000 years seafarers have feared this same passage, down the Malay coast and around the tip of the peninsula to Singapore and the Malacca Strait beyond. But unlike those early navigators who had to rely on chance and luck, you have an aid, a lighthouse somewhere out there in that black void. You search hard for that light, scanning the blackness and suddenly it appears, ever so brightly. Could it be a reflection! a glare! You wait, binoculars gripped tightly‹eight seconds, nine, ten. "That's it!" you shout almost jubilantly to the helmsman. "That's it, every 10 seconds. Horsburgh Light!" You and the helmsman relax; it's clear sailing now.

For more than a dozen years, as long as I have owned and operated my own sailing schooner in Southeast Asia, I have welcomed that glow of Horsburgh Light every time I sail down the Malay coast. It doesn't necessarily have to be a black fearsome night to make that glow a welcoming sight; even on still and calm nights when the seas are slight, the blinking of Horsburgh has a soothing effect on sailors.

But it wasn't always this way. A little more than 100 years ago neither Horsburgh nor any other light marked these treacherous shoals. Navigators before that time simply had to chance it. The odds were greatly stacked against them, as the bottom of the sea to this day will testify. On several occasions, when the weather was calm, I anchored my schooner off Horsburgh Light, put on snorkel and fins and explored the sea bottom. Only a few fathoms below the surface we found the bottom littered with endless pieces of broken pottery and chards, all from wrecked ships.
Few sea lanes of the world have seen more traffic than these waters. It was past Horsburgh early Arab traders had to make their way 2,000 years ago; it was Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho who managed to evade destruction by sailing his fleet of 62 ships with a force of 37,000 men around the point and through Singapore's Dragon Teeth Gate; and later came the early Portuguese and Spanish followed by the Dutch and the English. The number of ships that split open their sides and spilled their guts on the ocean floor around Horsburgh is anyone's guess.

The total amount of ships lost may never be known but records do show between 1824 and 1851 there were at least 16 large vessels wrecked at Horsburgh. Even during its construction a bark loaded with tea was shipwrecked on the rocks nearby. The crew survived by swimming to the construction site.

Four hundred years ago the Dutch realized the need for a light at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. They had named the rock Pedra Branca, "perfect whiteness," ss called for it was covered over the centuries with droppings of numerous sea birds. An early Dutch voyager spoke of the "white rock where the ships come and go to and from China and pass in great danger and some are left upon it."

With the formation of the Straits Settlement, the merchants in Singapore sent a letter to the governor residing then in Canton requesting that a lighthouse be built at the eastern approaches to Singapore. The governor sanctioned the erection of a lighthouse and gave it the name Horsburgh Light, as a lasting tribute to the late Captain James Horsburgh, for the great services he had performed for the cause of commerce and navigation. Horsburgh was an eminent hydrographer who had been active in Singapore waters in the year 1819.

Preliminary work on Singapore's first lighthouse began in 1847. The foundation stone was finally laid in 1850, and the lighthouse was completed and became operational in 1851. However, a great deal happened in that short span of four years.Although the Dutch considered installing a light of some sort at Pedra Branca, the construction of a permanent lighthouse was thought by most engineers at the time to be impossible. Pedra Branca was an exposed rock Iying some 34 miles from Singapore, and well out at sea. Building materials would have to be transported from Singapore. A suitable living area for workers on the rock was limited. Construction would further be hampered by heavy squalls that frequent the area, and during four months of the year when the northeast monsoon blows, heavy seas would prohibit landing on the rock altogether.

And there were pirates. Pirates were a source of constant trouble. Any ship that found itself stranded would have few survivors, for the pirates had no compunction about murdering the whole crews to destroy all evidence against them. Nevertheless, the work began. The monumental task of survey, design and construction was given to a young 25-year old English engineer, J.T. Thompson.A few years before, in 1841, Thompson was appointed Government surveyor for the Eastern Settlement, which was Singapore. Within a few years he proved his abilities. He surveyed the town, Singapore Island and the Straits of Singapore. He constructed a number of roads, bridges and buildings. He also surveyed and mapped the east coast of Malaysia.

Thompson's greatest achievement, however, was Horsburgh Light. His design called for the construction of a permanent building 29 meters high with a light that would radiate 15 nautical miles out to sea. The building would be made of granite, so that it couldn't be burned down, and it was to be stocked with enough food and water so that it could withstand a siege of six months. A light keeper's room at the top could only be entered by a single ladder.
Thompson made a few preliminary surveys and from aboard the steamer Hoogley landed 14 convict laborers and a number of Chinese masons, but all did not go well at first. No sooner were they ashore when the weather worsened and work commenced. Granite used for their supply of food and water could not be landed; nor could they be taken from the rock. Their lives were in jeopardy.

The rescuers made an attempt to land in the ship's cutter but could not and were forced to anchor off from the rocks. Thompson tells how a Malay youth from the Drang Laut tribe, whom they called Anjoot, tied a rope to his waist and swam toward shore. On two occasions he disappeared from sight for a considerable time but finally managed to reach the shore. He then pulled in a larger line to which he tied the marooned men. One by one they were safely hauled through the surf to the cutter. They returned to the Hoogley and waited eight days until the wind subsided.
Anjoot was a lad of 19 when he rescued the men. He had already served for six years aboard the Hoogley under the command of Captain Congalton. It seems he had been crew on a pirate boat that was taken by Captain Congalton in the waters off Penang. He and crewmates were brought to trial, found guilty and sentenced to the gallows. His life was spared, since he was only 13 years old at the time. Captain Congalton took him under his care and brought him aboard his vessel.

It took three months to effect a landing at Pedra Branca. The first barge towed by the steamer Hoogley finally arrived, loaded with a derrick crane, stone cutters and plummets, hammers, blasting tools and most everything needed to build a lighthouse. Shelters were eventually built and work commenced. Granite used for the construction was quarried at Pulau Ubin in the Johore Channel and transported 25 miles to the site. The work force consisted of 46 men, mostly Chinese carpenters and laborers, blacksmiths, 11 Indian quarry men, 6 lascars at any one time from one of the gunboats and a cook. In spite of the lascars, the workers feared their camp would be raided by pirates, and justly so, which meant a gunboat had to constantly stand by. There were in fact a number of pirate attacks, not on the building site but upon the barges that brought the granite. In the first two years of operation nine Chinese were killed resulting from pirate raids.

As the year 1851 passed the halfway mark, Horsburgh Light was nearing completion. The final piece of work that remained, and most important, was the installation of the lantern. The lantern, designed by Alan Stevenson, uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson the author, was shipped out from Great Britain. Under orders from Thompson it was immediately taken to Pedra Branca by lighter. We can understand Thompson's mounting excitement as he opened each package and assembled the pieces. The copper dome was hoisted up from outside by a fearless workman riding on top and staving it off the tower with a pole.

By September 21, the lantern was installed and ready for lighting, and on September 27, the Honorable Colonel Butterworth, governor of the Straits Settlement, steamed out from Singapore aboard the Hoogley to inspect the completed work. Thompson returned with him aboard the steamer and we can imagine his feeling of satisfaction as he watched 'his' tower light up the sea for the first time. He watched it until it finally faded below the horizon. The Horsburgh Lighthouse was lit up officially in October, 1851, and has continued to function, with the installation of modern equipment, to this day.

Just before the turn of the century, a second lighthouse at Lima Point at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, 10 nautical miles across the channel from Horsburgh Light, was completed and added another important aid to navigators in these waters. Horsburgh Lighthouse, however, isn't Singapore's only guardian of the waterways. The Port of Singapore Authority maintains in addition to Horsburgh four other lighthouses in Singapore waters and in the approaches to Singapore, plus~ a system of some 200 buoys and beacons. And for distress and safety services for ships at sea Sentosa Island maintains a satellite communications station.

While Horsburgh guards the eastern entrance to Singapore waters, at the opposite extreme of Horsburgh Light is another house no less important‹Raffles Light completed in 1855.
As early as 1838, Singapore merchants proposed that a lighthouse be built at the western entrance to the port. Three sites were considered. Coney Island, located 15 nautical miles to the southwest, was chosen. It marks the outer and southern channel around St John's Island to the Singapore roads.
Work on Raffles Light began in 1854, four years after Horsburgh Light was completed, and it was inaugurated in the true grand style of the British Raj. The Steamer Hoogley arrived at Coney Island with Colonel Butterworth and his aids and the consuls from a dozen nations aboard, all in full dress uniforms.
The assembly disembarked and as everyone gathered around the site, and a military band on board the Hoogley played "Rule Britannia," the cornerstone was lowered by a crane for Governor Butterworth to cement into place. Thus completed, cannons aboard the steamer roared with a gun salute and the governor made his speech. He claimed the lighthouse was not merely a light guiding the way to Singapore but a "monument to the memory of the eminent statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles."
Compared to Horsburgh, construction of Raffles Light was easy work. A year after the corner stone was laid, on December 1st, 1855 the lantern was lighted, and Raffles Light has been in operation ever since.
A few kilometers north of Raffles Light is another impressive light Sultan Shoal Light, perhaps the most attractive of all the lighthouses in Singapore waters. It was completed in 1896, and from the sea looks like a country estate rather than the guardian of the waterways that it is.
There are, of course, scores of other lighthouses that guide the way through the South China Sea. How often I have searched hard for the light far out at sea in the Gulf of Thailand that marks the way over the sand bar to the Chao Phrya, or the light at the southern tip of the Palawan Islands in the Philippines. And another, my favorite is the one at Cape Rochado, a 16th century lighthouse in the Malacca Straits. It is one of the few lights in Asia where visitors are allowed.
The light stands high on a rocky promontory jutting out into the Straits, 10 miles south of Port Dickson. A rutted road winds its way up through thick jungle where tail-less monkeys swoop low in the trees, and deadends at a small parking lot, and from here it's a climb of 63 steps to the summit. The lighthouse, with waves lapping at the rocks 500 feet below, was built by the Portuguese to guide sailing ships toward the historical port of Malacca, the the most important trading station in Southeast Asia.
Although a sign states that the lighthouse is closed to the general public, a pass from either the Harbor Master in Port Dickson or else from the Malacca Tourist office will always gain you entry. The lighthouse keeper leads you up a narrow spiral staircase to the light chamber above. It's an impressive room, with huge prisms and brass wheels and clogs, polished from age, and windows encompassing the room 360 degrees.
The view comes suddenly. It's striking! Below stretches the Malacca Straits where the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean meet, twice a day, when the tides change. They meet in a dramatic clashing of currents, and you realize that the seas, like the land, do meet
Across the 38-kilometre channel lies Sumatra. And in the busy waterway ships large and small leave their wakes upon the sea, while junks and other sailing ships beat upwind, and small fishing boats hug the coastline. The sea, from dawn to dusk, is seen in shades from bright greens to somber grays. And like tentacles reaching out to sea, precipices of land silhouette the coast.
Sailors today have over their ancestors the advantages of radar and satellite navigation, marked buoys, up-to-date charts, depth sounders and other modern-day navigational aids, but they still need lighthouses for that added assurance. And where would our world of art and literature, and romance, be without our lighthouses?


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