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
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
tightlyeight 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
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.
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 importantRaffles 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
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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