Re-living Sarawak’s heritage forts

Dr Elena Chai

KUCHING: Forts are distinctive features of Sarawak’s tangible assets, and the memories shared are the ‘Crème de la crème’ on heritage of Sarawak.

What is needed now is for heritage forts to be alive again through social history, aside from their restoration and preservation.

Dr Elena Chai, a senior lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) is conducting a research on heritage forts around the state, wanting to put ‘life’ into them.

According to her, the memory of a place, a site, a monument, a person — is an event that is passed on by older generations to serve as invaluable asset of the community, and the memory is transmitted from one generation to another because it is important to the community.

“The forts are already a tangible asset, now the most important part is the intangible one — the memories and stories of the forts.

“We want the local people to talk from their collective memories on what happened and their life with these forts and during the White Rajahs regime —especially the State Administrative Officer (SAO) who worked in the forts for the colonial masters,” she said in an exclusive interview with New Sarawak Tribune on Heritage Forts around Sarawak.

Dr Elena stressed that it is important to have social history on these forts as it was the place where people from different ethnic backgrounds gather together in various activities.

“It is important that each fort has its own memories and stories. For example, Kanowit people have their own memories of Fort Emma.

“This study envisages to capture the social history of Sarawakians through their connection with the forts — as it aspires to supplement the ‘official’ history of the state through collection and documentation of ‘lived’ experiences of the people,” she explained.

Dr Elena added that the collective memory and stories serve as a conduit to the time when Sarawak was expanding under the White Rajahs.

“Stories told by the older generation will provide meaningful insights into how lives were lived, how battles were fought and how trades were negotiated among other things,” she said.

Fort Hose in Marudi was a place in the 1980s to 1990s, for people to enjoy their leisure time over the weekends — as they took a walk along the fort, and it still is a place of gathering for the locals.

“Especially during Baram Regatta, the people would walk up to the fort to have a clearer view of the river. Some even stroll along Fort Hose as a daily ritual.

“This is also the same for Fort Sylvia in Kapit, as it is strategically located in the middle of the town,” she stated.

Sadly, some forts didn’t survive, such as Fort Burdett in Mukah and Fort Keppel in Bintulu that was burned down, and this includes an unknown fort located in Tanjung Datu, Lundu.

Dr Elena highlighted that the fort in Lundu could have been the scene of early trading and negotiation — as the area was associated with the Sambas and the Brunei sultanates.

“Maybe at that time, the Malays built a kubu (fort) there, as a centre of trading network between Indonesia and Brunei,” she said.

Dr Elena pointed out that this is why stories and memories play a crucial role as without it, the heritage of these forts would be forgotten.

“These forts are very important buildings for communities back then as they served as one-stop stations. Due to the mixture of communities, some were multilingual — such as the Kenyahs in Belaga.

“Without the fort, the bazaar, the towns would not be built. It is sad that we lost Fort Vyner but the bazaar remains — a place in the past known for activities from different ethnic groups — the culture, heritage and traditions can still be highlighted before it is too late,” she stated.

Moreover, Dr Elena also highlighted that the study will help to fill in the lacuna in social history of Sarawak through the collection of stories and memories of the people, as it could help to furnish the content of the forts, especially those which have been identified as regional museums.

“Such information will make the forts more appealing and attractive for tourists to understand the people and culture of Sarawak,” she said.

Dr Elena and her team would like to call out to the people who have or heard any stories about the forts and the communities, including photos of the forts.

Acknowledgement will be made to the stories, memories, photo contributors in reports submitted to Ministry of Tourism, Art and Culture, and also Sarawak tourism authorities.

Individuals with stories and memories can contact Dr Elena Chai via email at