Fort Margherita – Sarawak’s Bastion of Protection

The old Sarawak coat of arms at the entrance of Fort Margherita.
James Brooke—the Rajah who established the first Fort at Siniawan in Kuching in 1852.
The second white Rajah Charles Brooke established Fort Margherita in September 1879 and named it after his wife Margaret Alice Lili de Windt.

Few people know that Fort Margherita is just one of the many Forts that the Brooke dynasty built during their 100-year reign from 1841 till 1941.

The forts were established in almost every corner of Sarawak — from Kuching to Lawas, Marudi to Lio Mato and Sibu to Belaga — built to protect the towns or “key” villages they were initially established from the “enemies” of the nation.

It was manned by “Fortmen” — a handful of elite native policemen. Later Brooke created a more powerful force which evolved into an army of thousands and was called the Sarawak Rangers.

During and after the 2nd World War, the forts were used as jails by the Japanese and later administrative centers by British Colonial governments.

The first “Fortmen” were recruited in 1846 to guard James Brooke’s residence called the“Government House” near the site of present-day Astana.

Comprising 30 untrained Sea Dayaks (Iban) armed with “parangs” (machetes) and blowpipes, the barefoot Fortmen’s uniform consisted of a pale blue jacket with a red sash and a red fez as their headgear.

Sarawak’s first official fort at Belidah — named after the local Belida fish — was built by the Bau Chinese Gold Miners in 1852 on the orders of the first White Rajah James Brooke.

Colin Crisswell in “Rajah Charles Brooke — Monarch of all he surveyed” said that the Hakka miners resented Brooke’s attempt to tax them because they were illegally smuggling opium belonging to Triad Secret Society called “Kongsi” from across the border in the Sambas enclave to Bau.

Working closely with anti-Brooke elements in Brunei, the well-armed Bau miners continued to refuse to co-operate with the Sarawak government and continued with their criminal activities.

As punishment, Brooke then ordered the Kongsi leaders to build and maintain a fort at Belidah.

sarawak’s first Malaysian Commissioner of Police, Dato’ Sri John George Ritchie (left) with Speaker Tan Sri William Tan on his left and Federal Minister Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui (right).
The uniforms of Sarawak Police “Fortmen” over the years.

Eight miles above Lidah Tanah, Fort Belidah was built on the opposite side of Siniawan because the Land Dayaks living in the area in particular the village of Serembu (Peninjau) and upper Sarawak was also constantly being attacked by Saribas and Skrang “pirates”.

The fort was garrisoned by Sarawak Malays from Lidah Tanah, Brooke loyalists who ousted the Brunei Sultanate’s oppressive administrators in favour of a white Rajah.

Five years later in 1857 the gold miners rebelled against Brooke and burnt down Kuching before the “Tuan Muda” Charles Brooke led an army of 10,000 Iban warriors and defeated the Chinese.

During their retreat along the Sarawak River, the rebels who had at least 100 muskets were attacked by Malay and Peninjau Bidayuh loyalists, but not before they burnt down Fort Belidah.

However, the fort was rebuilt in 1861 and put under the command of a European officer with a small group of native Fortmen.

In 1871 the fort was moved to Paku near Bau town and to enable Brooke to keep an eye on the “Kongsis” operating the gold mines.

With the problems he faced in Kuching and bands of marauding Saribas Sea Dayak headhunters, Brooke was determined to build more forts and a trained armed force to meet the challenge of defending the people.

So he raised an army of “Balau” Iban who were arch enemies of the Saribas after decades of inter-tribal wars who formed the basis of the Sarawak Rangers.

After Belidah, several new forts were built, Fort James at Skrang manned by a young Brooke officer Lt William Brereton followed by another at Lingga near the mouth of Batang Lupar with Lt Alan Lee in charge.

In 1853 during a battle against Skrang warlord Rentap’s forces where Lt Alan Lee was killed and beheaded by Layang, the Warlord’s son-in-law.

As Brooke began to acquire new territories he built forts in Bintulu (Fort Keppel), Lubok Antu (Fort Arundel in 1868), Baleh (1873), Belaga (1884) and Trusan in Lawas.

Today, Kuching’s iconic Fort Margherita tops the list of 20 forts that I have compiled namely Lundu, Skrang, Simanggang, Baleh, Sarikei, Lingga, Kanowit, Sibu, Baleh, Betong, Kabong, Mukah, Bintulu, Marudi, Trusan, Akah, Lio Mato, Limbang, Belaga and Lawas.

Tower of the laughing skulls.
Fort Margherita as it stands today.
The old Sarawak coat of arms at the entrance of Fort Margherita.

Completed in 1879, the English-type Fort Margherita was built on the North Bank of the Sarawak River by the second Rajah Charles Brooke (1868-1917) and named after his wife Margaret de Winte.

Situated at a promontory opposite the present Kuching Main Bazaar, the Fort was designed as a look-out post for vessels entering Kuching town and to guard against “sneak attacks” from pirates or other intruders.

During the launching of the building, Charles Brooke said, “The position of the fort had been carefully chosen to command the long straight stretch of river approaching the town, this being the most advantageous point from which to defend it from any form of attack, which always came from the river in those days.”

During the initial attack of Japanese forces during the 2nd World War in December 1941, enemy bombs missed their target, Fort Margherita, but instead destroyed the shops at Main Bazaar road killing scores. Later the Japanese used Fort Margherita as a prison where executions were carried out at the courtyard by a firing squad.

After the war, a bungalow behind the Fort known as the “Commissioner’s Residence” became the home of all the Colonial Commissioners of Police. In 1967 when the first Malaysian commissioner of Police Dato’ Sri J.G.Ritchie succeeded Datuk Roy Henry, he occupied the Commissioner’s residence until his retirement in 1970.

Fort Margherita served as a Police Museum from 1971 which a list of Brooke and Colonial historical artefacts from the era or the Sarawak Rangers in mid 1860s to the formation of the Sarawak Constabulary in 1931. A favourite attraction, the “tower of laughing skulls” — human skulls taken by Brooke’s Fortmen during their many expeditions — was located within the courtyard.

The “Commissioner’s Residence” which was haunted, continued to be the residence of all most of the successive Sarawak’s Commissioners of Police for 30 years. The last commissioner to occupy the premises was Datuk Yusof Jaafar who retired in the early 2000s.

Several years later, the Commissioner’s bungalow was demolished to make way for a car park.

Gunung Serembu—habitat of Peninjau Bidayuh who helped James Brooke fight the Bau Rebels and Sea Dayak headhunters of Saribas and Skrang. About 100 yards on the left of the river is the site of Fort Belidah—Sarawak’s first fort.

By the mid-2000s Fort Margherita ceased to become a Police Museum and was handed over to the Sarawak government for a facelift and renovation. The Fort now houses the Brooke Gallery, an exhibition showcasing the history of Sarawak under the Brooke Dynasty.

The three-storey tower block’s battlement includes a lookout point on top of the Fort, a courtyard surrounded by a high wall with sharp glass shards and with windows from where the cannons were fired.

Apparently the “laughing skulls” have been removed from its iconic tower for safekeeping in an undisclosed location.