Mount Erskine: Penang’s Forgotten Flagstaff Hill – Part 2: The Pulo Tecoose Boat Establishment

By Eugene Quah

August 2022 FEATURE
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Thomas Prinsep’s 1824 painting of Mount Erskine is possibly depicting a laskar guarding the Pulo Tecoose boarding boat that was reported damaged that same year. The EIC had been known to employ vessels “according to the Malay build” with an overhanging “poop deck” for official port use.[a] The one in the painting appears to be a Bugis-style padewakang vessel.[b] Photo by: Penang State Museum.

THE MOUNT ERSKINE signal station was built for “the purpose of obtaining earlier communication with vessels entering the harbour”. Previously, incoming ships could only be boarded and inspected when they had already sailed into the Penang harbour. With the signal station now fully operational, Governor William Petrie ordered a significant change to the handling of ships entering the port to take effect on 31 July 1815.[1]

For “greater efficiency”, the government would station a boarding boat, a “fast pulling Malacca boat”, crewed by 12 laskars (Indian sailors) at Pulo Tecoose (Pulau Tikus) and captained by a serang (non-European boatswain).[2] The huts for the boarding boat crew were built on the coast, probably at the extreme northwest of the Pulau Tikus district near Pantai Molek, closer to the hill, rather than at Kelawei.[3]

Captain John Baird, the Master Attendant (Harbourmaster), instructed his deputy to provide the serang “a set of Signals to communicate” with Mount Erskine. Immediately after inspecting a ship, the serang would communicate the ship’s port of origin and duration at sea to the station. Later, “on landing at the beach, the boat book”, also called the ship’s manifest[4], “will be forwarded to the Signal Post [at Mount Erskine]”. The journey to the summit, no more than 2km away, was probably done by riding a swift Batak pony.[5][6] Upon receiving the ship’s book, the signalman would send the details via optical telegraph to Fort Cornwallis.  (See feature in Penang Monthly July 2022) From there, the information was forwarded to the harbourmaster “for the purpose of filling up the Register and usual reports."[7]

With this new system in place, all the necessary paperwork would have already been completed when a ship entered port. Later, when the telegraph at the fort was completed, it became possible to relay information onwards to Penang Hill where the Governor usually resided. In the era before the electric telegraph, this arrangement would have been seen as astonishingly efficient and fast.[8]

Broken People and Broken Boats

Assistant Surgeon T.M. Ward was informed that the men employed in the Signal Department “were subject to attacks of Quotidian intermittent fever, of a dangerous kind. Four European superintendents were cut off by it after lingering 3 to 6 weeks".

The Signal Department usually hired a “steady European or Portuguese”[9] to be the signalman but given the hill’s reputation for being unhealthy, by 1824, no one wanted the dangerous job. The government had to revert to the initial method of selecting a signal sergeant from the garrison at Fort Cornwallis.[10] Unlucky Gunnery Sergeant Boyd had the dubious honour of being chosen to replace the recently deceased signalman.[11] That same year, the boarding boat that worked in tandem with Mount Erskine again became damaged.[12] Another mishap, just two years prior, needed expensive repairs amounting to nearly the original cost of the boat: Sp$90.[13]

The Company Bottomline

By the 1820s, Mount Erskine had been named after Erskine for nearly a decade. However, only in February 1821 did the government agree that “Mr Erskine be furnished with the usual Title to the Property” after the land was surveyed.[14] The following year, he returned to Britain after an illustrious 17-year stint serving the Penang Presidency. In 1825, Erskine, through his agent, Brown & Co., demanded rent from the government for occupying Mount Erskine. Governor Robert Fullerton refused to pay him rent, and his secretary, Edmund Blundell, informed Erskine’s agents that “your demand of rent for that portion of Mount Erskine occupied by [the] Government is inadmissible."[15] However, Erskine’s final will written in 1833 stated that the rent for his “signalpost mountain” was Sp$175 per month.[16] It is unknown if the government later acquiesced and paid him the rent.

That same year, the convict labourers taking care of the Mount Erskine station were withdrawn. This development also implied no signalman was posted at the station as the telegraph required at least three people to operate.[17] Town Marshall Edward Lake informed the government in August 1826 that the unmanned signal station was “completely decayed”. Governor Fullerton immediately ordered the station to be decommissioned as it was no longer required.[18] Two months later, a reportedly furious Governor, unhappy about the cost and “the utter uselessness of the Boat Establishment at Pulo Teecoos” led by a serang named Rogello (probably from Portuguese Goa), ordered “that the whole crew of the Boarding Boat” be dismissed.[19]

With shipping traffic and revenue rapidly rising in Singapore, the expensive Penang Presidency’s inability to turn a profit and the invention of the cheaper-to-operate electric telegraph, the Mount Erskine signal station was, by 1819, already living on borrowed time. And thus, Mount Erskine and its boat establishment ended; their fates determined not by politics, war or natural disaster but by the East India Company’s cost-cutting measures.

Castles in The Air

The signal establishment, entirely consumed by the jungle by the 1840s, quickly faded from memory. Mount Erskine only caught the government's attention, once again, when the drums of war began to rumble in the years leading to the Second World War. As early as 1935, the British War Department had correctly identified Japan as the most likely adversary in a future war in Malaya. The War Department devised an elaborate and costly plan to defend the Malay Peninsula that depended on the twin fortresses of Penang and Singapore. One fatal flaw of the scheme was the firmly held but erroneous belief that the Japanese would only attempt a naval and not land invasion. [20]

Fortress Penang took much longer to complete than anticipated. To defend the North Coast, the War Department built a Counter-Bombardment Battery at Fort Auchry at Batu Feringghi. Auchry was to be equipped with two large counter-bombardment guns, the BL 9.2-inch Mark X, as installed at Pulau Tekong and Fort Connaught in Singapore. This type of coastal artillery was meant to be used against battleships and cruisers.

Perched on a cliff on the western side of the hilly cape of Tanjung Huma, whose tip is the northernmost point of Penang, Fort Auchry was safely hidden from the sights of enemy ships in the Penang Strait. However, this sheltered location also meant that it could not see the very ships it was supposed to target. Thus, the guns needed to be controlled from a nearby location with an unobstructed view of the North Channel and bay, from Tanjung Tokong to the other battery at Fort Cornwallis. The perfect site for this artillery Fire Control Post (FCP) was none other than the summit of Mount Erskine.

Read also: Mount Erskine: Penang’s Forgotten Flagstaff Hill – Part 1

On 14 April 1941, as the war inched ever closer to Malaya, Father Marcel Rouhan, the Director of the College General, noted in his diary that works “for the realisation of the Penang Fortress”, including those “on top of Mount Erskine” began “more than a year ago”. The eastern side of Mount Erskine, known as Bukit Padri (Priest Hill), had been owned by the College General, the oldest Catholic seminary in Asia, since the late 1840s. [21]

The task of building Fortress Penang fell upon Major General C.A. Lyon, who was described as a “rather elderly, extremely friendly and affable” chap. In August 1941, just two months before the invasion, he gave American journalist Cecil Brown a tour of Fort Auchry. When his visitor asked why the emplacements for the big guns were empty, General Lyon laughed and said, “I have been waiting for them for a good many months.” He added, “They have been sent out three times but someone else always pinches them on the way.”[22] At this late hour, Fort Auchry was also missing a Fortress Plotting Room (FPR). The Mount Erskine control post, though completed and ready for operation, embarrassingly had no plotting room to report to nor guns to direct and thus would play no part in the upcoming war.

The Lookout

Overview of the existing and former structures at the summit of Mount Erskine. The water tank of the WW2-era Fire Control Post was built over the old signal station, and thus there is no trace of it left. Traces of the original dirt road depicted in Robert Smith’s painting can still be seen today near the Fortress Observation Post and the Chinese temple.

The Mount Erskine control post consists of nine structures. It was part of the Penang Fire Command, which included the forts of Auchry, Cornwallis and Batu Maung. The now crumbling Fortress Observation Post (FOP)[23] building, which once had a clear view of the North Channel and the Penang Strait, stands near the present-day Chinese temple.[24] It was probably built over the foundations of the old shutter telegraph. Two powerful carbon arc searchlights, called Defence Electric Lights (DEL), located at the nearby cape of Tanjung Tokong below, aided the artillerymen in finding enemy ships. The searchlight emplacements can still be seen today at the cape.[25]

The two-storey Fortress Observation Post (FOP) is now derelict with its lower roof caved in. While construction was completed before the Japanese invasion, due to the lack of guns at Fort Auchry, it was never used.

During the Japanese occupation, the military showed no interest in the Fire Control Post and just ignored it. However, the military administration built some trenches and tunnels at the eastern foothills on the grounds of the Catholic seminary they commandeered near the war’s end.[26]

At the summit, the War Department built a concrete water tank into a massive granite boulder that once served as the foundation of the old signal station. Below it, to the south, were the officer’s quarters and two barracks at a lower elevation. At the lowest terrace, just below the barracks, lay the generator room and probably a storeroom. Curiously, there appeared to have been a bathhouse with white tiles just east of the barracks and directly below the water tank, a surprising luxury for such a small establishment. The cook house was on a lower terrace, east of the bathhouse. On the southern foothills at Pepper Estate stands a Battery Observation Post, probably at the entrance of a road that once led to the summit. (Watch out for our feature on Pepper Estate in Penang Monthly September 2022). [27] [28]

Bathhouse (left) and the cook house (right) of the WW2 Fire Control Post with their original camouflage paintwork intact.

The peak now belongs to the Penang state government. There had been plans to turn the summit into a full-fledged recreational park with outdoor exercise equipment, a grove of Tecoma trees, a rest area and a visitor centre. [29] However, the plan did not seem to have been implemented. The Pearl Hill Recreational Park was opened to the public in March 2009 without the planned facilities. Renamed Pearl Hill View Point Park in 2012[30], the park comprises 6.07ha and currently only has a rest area and some paths leading to the abandoned outpost and the summit where the signal station once stood.[31]

Two architecturally significant mansions on the north-western side of Mount Erskine. Real estate on the hill was marketed as Mount Evergreen in the '70s. Locals started referring to Mount Erskine as Pearl Hill after the developer's name, and the name stuck.
The standalone 5.2m stupa, reportedly the only one of its kind in Penang, was designed by Tulku Rigdzin Pema from Tibet. It was erected in November 2009 at the urging of Nepalese abbot Phakchok Rinpoche who found an old 0.6m stupa at the site.[c]
The Pearl Hill Tua Pek Kong temple started as a small shrine between some large boulders in the late '70s. Around 1980, the current temple was built around it. There is a unique staircase-shaped altar that allows the resident deity to “walk” to the islet of Pulau Tikus which the temple directly faces.[d]

Read also: Mount Erskine: Penang’s Forgotten Flagstaff Hill – Part 1


[1]   William Bennett (1815), I19: Penang: Miscellaneous Letters (Out), Letter to Master Attendant  John Baird dated 26th October 1815, NAS Microfilm No. 2738

[2] A serang, usually Indian, acted as the intermediary between the European officers and the laskars (Indian sailors) under their charge.

[3] William Edward Philips (1816), B4: Penang: Letters to London, Letter dated 3rd April 1816, NAS Microfilm. 3211

[4] Parliament. House of Lords (1835), “The Sessional Papers”, Volume 26, Great Britain, pg. 171

[5] The Batak pony, also known as a Deli or Sumatran pony, imported from hilly Central Sumatra, was a speedy and hardy pony breed used by the British to access hill stations during the period.

[6] Donald Davies (1962), “Old Penang”, The Straits Times Annual for 1962, pg. 12

[7] William Bennett (1815), I19: Penang: Miscellaneous Letters (Out), Letter to Deputy Master Attendant Charles Wright dated 26th October 1815, NAS Microfilm No. 2738

[8] T.M. Ward (1830), “Contributions to the medical topography of Prince of Wales Island or Pulau Pinang”, Singapore Chronicle, published 18 July 1833

[9] A15: Penang Consultations, Meeting minutes for 12th July 1821, Singapore National Archives, Microfilm No. : 3218

[10] B8 Penang: Letters to London, Letter to the EIC Court of Directors dated 2nd June 1825, NAS Microfilm No. 3214

[11] A18: Penang Consultations, Letter from Town Major Edward Lake read on 29th July 1825, NAS, Microfilm No. 3225

[12] W. G. Cracroft (1825), A20: Penang Consultations, Government meeting minutes for 25th November 1824

[13] A16: Penang Consultations, Government meeting minutes for 17th October 1822

[14] William Edward Phillips (1813), Letter dated 8th February 1821), A15: Penang Consultations, NAS Microfilm No. 3218

[15] Edmund Augustus Blundell (1825), Letter to Brown & Co. dated 21st April 1825, H12: Penang: Letters & Orders-in-Council: General Orders, NAS Microfilm No. 2720

[16] John James Erskine (20th May 1833), “Will of John James Erskine, late of the East India Company's Service at Penang of Monzievaird, Perthshire”, UK National Archives: PROB 11/1815/326

[17] Constance Mary Turnbull (1970), “Convicts in the Straits Settlements 1826-1867” in JMBRAS Vol. 43, No. 1 (217) (1970), pg. 87-103 (17 pages)

[18] A24: Penang Consultations, Meeting minutes for 7th August 1826, NAS Microfilm No. 3228

[19] John Anderson (1826) I30: Penang: Miscellaneous Letters, Letter to Master Attendant Wright dated 23rd  September 1826

[20] Andrew Barber (2012), “Penang at War: A History of Penang during and between the First and Second Worlds Wards 1914-1945”

[21] Serge Jardin (2021), “Diary of a French Missionary: Penang During the Japanese Occupation”

[22] Cecil Brown (1942), “Suez to Singapore”

[23] Three Fortress Observation Posts were supposed relay the range and direction of enemy ships to the Fortress Plotting Room (FPR) at Fort Auchry which would fire the guns accordingly. Unfortunately, the FPR at Auchry was never completed and only the Mount Erskine FOP was ever built.

[24] F.W. Rice (1946) “Singapore and Penang Coast Artillery: report by Colonel FW Rice”, UK National Archives : WO 203/6034

[25] K.W. Maurice-Jones (1959), “The History of Coast Artillery in the British Army”, pg. 216

[26] According to the Rice report, there were supposed to be two more FOPs at Muka Head and at Tanjong Kalok near Pantai Acheh but they were never constructed.

[27] War Department, Design Branch (1936) “Secret Plan No. 479, Penang Harbour and Approaches (Latest Proposals, July 1936)”, Top secret map published on 18 July 1936 detailing the proposed defences for Penang. UK National Archives.

[28] War Department (1937), “Malaya: Penang defences”, UK National Archives : CO 323/1502/13

[29] Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang (2009), “Pelan Konsep : Pearl Hill-Hill Top Recreational Park”

[30] Kow Kwon Yee (8th February 2012), “Green Dream Taking Shape”, The Star, Community Section

[31] Jeremy Tan (9th March 2009), “Protect Pearl Hill”, The Star, Community Section

[a] N1: Singapore: Resident's Diary (1827), Letter to Resident Councillor John Prince dated 19th March 1827

[b] “Tekening van een inlands vaartuig uit de Oostindische Archipel een Paduakang” (c. 1821), Sketch of a padewakang. Het Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum), Netherlands.

[c] Andrea Filmer (2010), “Shrine to appease lost souls: Devotees act on Nepalese lama’s suggestion to rebuild ruins of a stupa on Pearl Hill”, The Star, Metro Section, 10th May 2010

[d] “Tanjong Bunga Video Documentary 2010 Part 3” (2010), Interview with Pearl Hill Tua Pek Kong temple caretaker.

Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher who is working on a book about Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad while on a hiatus from designing software.