PULAU BLAKANG MATI'S COLOURFUL PAST
Did you know that the British were not the first foreigners to inhabit Pulau Blakang Mati?
When they first arrived in Singapore in 1819, they found well-established communities already settled in Singapore, and on neighbouring Pulau Blakang Mati, where locals served as navigators for ships, while selling produce and freshwater. There were extensive pineapple plantations on the island, and crops like sukue (foxtail millet) and the thorny durian fruit were also cultivated. In addition, there was a private reservoir supplying ships and a dynamite store opened by the Europeans in the 1800s.
The British Era
Map of all the forts built on Blakang Mati, including their dates of construction
Thanks to its strategic location protecting ships entering Keppel Harbour, colonial authorities were already eyeing Pulau Blakang Mati as a defence outpost from the early 1870s, constructing Fort Siloso, Fort Serapong, and Fort Connaught in the 1880s. These military facilities along with the batteries at Mount Imbiah and Berhala Reping were strategically positioned on the island’s high ground to protect Singapore’s harbour and coaling facilities, the shipping straits, and the town itself.
The island's ambulance service, 1928
The routine call and main parade, 1928. On the hill was the military hospital (now the Madame Tussauds building)
Alongside the forts, barracks were built to house the troops of the Royal Artillery and other units along with facilities like a hospital, bathing pagars (enclosures), beaches, playing fields, and military messes. Today, these colonial-era buildings have been restored and adapted into hotels and restaurants like The Barracks Hotel and Sentosa’s Mess Hall.
Prior to the Second World War, the fort was armed with two 6-inch BL guns, c 1920s.
While the forts and batteries had originally been positioned to defend against seaborne assaults, the guns were turned northward during World War II to fire on Japanese targets in Jurong, Bukit Timah, and elsewhere on mainland Singapore, despite having a lack of ammunition. Eventually, the guns were bombed by Japanese aircraft, and in the final days before the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Allied engineers disabled the guns to prevent them from being used by enemy forces.
Under The Japanese & Beyond
Kashima Jinja, undated
During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), Pulau Blakang Mati was renamed Kashima. The Japanese military used the island to house a munitions logistics unit, along with British and Australian prisoners-of-war. They also installed a Shinto shrine, known as Kashima-jinja, although it was destroyed before the end of the war in 1945. When the British re-occupied Pulau Blakang Mati post World War II, Gurkhas and troops from across Malaya were among those based on the island in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, the British phased out the use of fixed coastal artillery defences, ending an era of forts and batteries on Pulau Blakang Mati.
Military Units Stationed on Pulau Blakang Mati
Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer visiting the 2nd Battalion, 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles in Blakang Mati, 1960
Did You Know: The HKSRA and other non-European soldiers were often referred to by the British as "Native" or "Asiatic" troops and paid less than European soldiers despite performing similar duties.
With over 130 years (the 1880s to 1960s) as a military base, Pulau Blakang Mati was home for troops from across the British empire, Japan, and Singapore. Among the earliest military units were the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) assigned to coastal batteries on Pulau Blakang Mati. Formed in 1841, the unit's soldiers were recruited from the Punjab region in India and renamed the Hong Kong Asiatic Artillery in 1891, with an Asiatic Company formed in Singapore that same year. The Singapore Volunteer Artillery Corps (SVA) who trained on the guns on Blakang Mati were also based for short periods on the island, as did various units of the Royal Artillery. After World War II, Gurkhas who fought on the frontlines of the Malayan Emergency and the Konfrontasi conflict were also housed on Blakang Mati, as well as British Army recruits from across Malaya.