Fort of Saint John the Baptist

Fort of Saint John the Baptist

Ternate, North Maluku, Indonesia

Military Architecture

Just four months after the Victoria and the Trindad of Fernão de Magalhães’ armada passed through the Moluccas, António de Brito founded the fort of Saint John the Baptist on Ternate on 24 June 1522 with the aim of preventing the Spanish from gaining a foothold in these islands. Its construction was simultaneously in reply to a wish expressed by Abu Lais (c. 1501-1522), Sultan of Ternate, to Portugal’s King Manuel I. The exact location and the architectural features of the original Portuguese fort are known through documentary and iconographic evidence and the ruins of the former Manueline tower and the perimeter walls. Near the court of the sultan, the site was previously chosen by Tristão de Meneses, commander of the third Portuguese expedition sent to the Moluccas in May 1518. The fort lies five kilometres from Talangame, the usual anchorage for Portuguese ships coming from Malacca since 1516 as a result of the friendly relations between Francisco Serrão, resident on Ternate since 1512, and the local sultan. António de Brito had the task of “erecting a fort” and “a trading post”, which were the two articulating entities, besides the Church, that should be built inside the fort. Skilled tradesmen brought by Brito from Portugal executed the work. Without the help of the labour promised by the sultan, recently deceased, however, the construction, carried out by a hundred and twenty Portuguese soldiers, came up against difficulties, especially on the stretch of the walls and the tower facing the sea, which had been given priority. Trapezoidal in shape, the fort was initially composed of a two-storey stone tower with cornerstones and stone window frames that overlooked a fortified, quadrangular perimeter. The walls, thoses facing the sea measuring between twenty-seven and twenty-four braças by twelve and the upper ones facing the volcano being eight braças high, were very weak defensively as they were made of rammed earth and had little resistance to the equatorial climate. They had no battlements because they were very low, oscillating between eight hands high where the land was higher and twelve where it was lower. The weakness of the fort was felt both militarily and in the poor support for the administrative organs and the cloves trading post, both the barracks and the warehouses being inside the walls with a covering of palm fibres. In fact, the fortress – or “stone castle that, in a square, and not less strong than that that surrounds the beehives”, in the ironic description of Gabriel Rebelo – was constructed to withstand an eventual naval attack by Spanish armadas and those of their regional allies. The concern was to build it where it could not be hit by artillery fired from ships, but, on the other hand, the possibility of a land-based attack was not taken into account. The fort was successively improved and enlarged. Captain Gonçalo Pereira (1530-1531) began the construction of two bulwarks which until then had been“a primitive wall”.According to João de Barros in his Década Quarta (Fourth Volume), António Galvão (1536-1539) “reconstructed the fortress with the necessary buildings and workshops in stone and mortar, which before, following local custom, were of canes and weak materials and everything surrounded the walls”,in other words,heerected a new wall that encompassed a part of the Portuguese settlement, which until then had lain outside the walls. The need to reinforce the sea defences led to its enlargement and the construction of new bulwarks on the angles facing the sea. Fernão de Sousa, military engineer and superintendent of Portuguese fortification work in the Orient, visi- ted the Moluccas during the captaincy of Jorge de Castro (1539-1544) and the construction of the first of these bulwarks, which according to the captain replaced another in wood, was probably due to him. Despite the improvements, Baltazar Veloso stated in 1547 that the fortress was nothing more than a “pigsty”. It was in a state of dilapidation five years later, with “all the buildings roofless”, the buildings inside the walls and the bulwark later rebuilt by captain Duarte d’Eça (1555-1558) in ruins. Both bulwarks fell into disrepair between 1570 and 1575, during the prolonged siege that Sultan Baab Ullah (1570-1583) subjected the fortress to and which ended with the surrender of the garrison. Gabriel Rebelo, the resident chronicler on Ternate, wrote the best description of the fortress. Adjoined to the “Moorish city” where the sultan had his permanent residence and served as the capital, the fortress was built on a high reef that overlooked the “well” or “small creek” where ships with a shallow draught could find a safe haven, less than half a kilometre from the fortress. The chapel or heritage of Our Lady of the Bar stood near this anchorage. The strong offshore winds prevented attacking vessels from bombarding the fortress. It was also impossible for them to anchor due to the abysmal volcanic depths of the sea and the powerful currents that that swept between the islands of Ternate and Tidore. The Portuguese settlement adjoining the walls of the fortress was initially surrounded by a wooden palisade. After it had been burned down several times, António Galvão replaced it with a rammed earth wall and strengthened it with bulwarks and trenches. He also endowed the trading post with rammed earth walls and had a bangsal (warehouse) for the cloves built inside it. The Jesuits’ houses, built to be their residence and headquarters of their mission, were built on to the walls of the fortress. Lords of the stronghold from 1575, the Ternatese, assisted by Javanese soldiers, made profound alterations in the layout of the fortress and transformed it into a military complex with accentuated local features. They dug a ditch and erected a stone wall all round the Portuguese and Muslim settlements, which were thus converted into an almost impregnable citadel that also served as the sultan’s residence. The fortress itself, which Pedro de Acuña (1602-1606), the governor of the Philippines who conquered it in 1606 and considered it to be too small to billet troops and install means of defence, remained inside this complex. The description made by Juan Esquivel, first Spanish governor of the Moluccas, reveals that the bulwark system inherited from the Portuguese was maintained by Sultan Said al-din Berkat Syah (r. 1583-1606), despite the fact that the characteristics recorded by Esquivel are similar to what we can see today in the Fort of Toluco, constructed by Said’s successor, Sultan Muzaffar (r. 1606-1627), to replace the former Portuguese fort that had fallen into the hands of the Spanish. It probably acquired a new trapezoidal shape, with the longer base facing the sea and the narrower one facing inland, that supposedly represented a feminine figure, a feature that local people like to emphasise even today. This symbolic outline is not exclusive to the Moluccas and can be found in other parts of the eastern Malay Peninsula, namely on Timor. Its passive, terrestrial feminine character was considered suitable for a construction that encompassed the residence of the sultan, who embodied the usual active and celestial (or solar) masculine attributes appropriate to royalty. At the request of the Dominicans that accompanied him on his journey to Ternate, the governor of the Philippines, Pedro de Acuña, renamed the fort and the small, surrounding township the Fortress of Our Lady of the Rosary and Ciudad del Rosario respectively. As can be seen, it is not a name of Portuguese origin as the erudite Dutchman François Valentijn (1666-1727) stated. Local people preferred, as they still do today, the names of Gamalama (Gamlamo), which designated the different places scattered around the island that served as the sultans’ residence, and Kastela, a corruption of castelo (castle), a word that Gabriel Rebelo used in the middle of the 16th century and which certainly echoed generalised local use. After falling into Spanish hands Rosario was transformed into a walled complex with the former fort as the central nucleus, which the Spanish called the ‘cube’ and where the organs of government (casas reales) – the governors’ residence, the warehouses and the parish church – were housed. This fortified nucleus was in turn surrounded by an extensive second, exterior wall with six bulwarks, each one armed with twenty pieces of artillery. The Spanish township of Ciudad de Rosario, which had two monasteries – Saint Francis and Saint Augustine – the Jesuit College and a hospital, lay in the space between the two walls. The city of the mardika, or free men, mostly Christian Portuguese-Asian mestizos, the Chinese quarter, the houses of the Philippine papanga infantry and the Spanish guard lay outside the walls. When this new configuration was concluded in 1619, the township had about two thousand inhabitants. This situation lasted until 1663, the year it was decided to abandon the place. The fact that the former Portuguese fort is in ruins is not only due to the ravages of time and the negligence of man. It is quite possible that it was partially demolished in 1663 if the last Spanish governor of the Moluccas, Francisco de Atienza (1659-1660 and 1663), carried out his orders to demolish all Spanish forts when evacuating the islands. Despite the fact that the Spanish accused the Dutch of razing what was left of the fortifications and reusing the materials for their own constructions, Dutch records and archaeological evidence contradict this. According to the Daghregister 1663, the Dutch East India Company stationed a small garrison at Gamalama, the ruins of which – parts of the ramps, the quadrangular central building that was once the keep and, outside the fort, the walls of the hospital, the foundations of the church and a water cistern - can still be seen today. The local inhabitants probably scattered a lot of material around the place while using it to build their own houses.

Manuel Lobato