Went down to the National Museum to check out The Image of Our Landscape exhibition; it’s a pretty engaging visual trip through 19th century Singapore through paintings, prints and photographs. There were over 130 original paintings, prints and photographs (yeah… nothing like the real thing!), albums and illustrated books – many displayed for the first time.
As is typical of this museum, way-finding the exhibitions is not so ‘in-your-face’. The first part of the exhibition, featuring the common sites through which travellers to 19th century Singapore traversed and made sense of the landscape is located at the Canyon – the basement of the new wing at back of the old museum; while the second part is located at The Balcony. This part of the exhibition explores the industry of print making and photography which catered to an essentially European audience.
Some of these images, especially those never seen before are so eye-boggling; a rare 1872 photograph of High Street (that was the place to shop in the 1960s, and not Orchard Road) and Boat Quay by Bourne & Shepherd of India, a 1890s oil painting by Dutch artist Hugo Vilfred Pedersen of Chinatown’s Trengganu Street as well as a photographic panorama of Singapore town in the 1880s.
In 19th century Singapore, anyone venturing out of Singapore town did so at the risk of losing his life. It was reported that the areas of Bukit Timah, Chua Chu Kang and Pulau Ubin were menaced by man-eating tigers. They were a menace when large areas of Singapore’s forests were cleared for roads and plantations.
Wrote Marsita Omar in a National Library Board article: “The first record of tigers is found in the first newspaper in Singapore, the Singapore Chronicle, dated 8 September 1831. There it was reported that a Chinaman was killed by a tiger and that probably the same tiger killed a native shortly after that. Singapore then was still covered by thick virgin jungle and it was home to pigs and deer which were food to tigers. The island formed part of a larger hunting ground for these tigers. Being good swimmers, tigers had been known to swim cross the Straits of Johore into Singapore.
When the cultivation of gambier and pepper took off in the 1840s, plantations extended beyond town and encroached on virgin jungle. By the late 1840s, the number of plantations peaked at 600. Chinese plantation coolies became easy targets for tigers. Reports of encounters with tigers increased in the 1830s and 1840s. In 1835, G. D. Coleman and his convict workers were laying out a new road through a swamp in the jungle near town when they were attacked though no one was killed.
Ravages by tigers grew so intense that it was said by the middle of the 19th century, tigers claimed one life a day. This could be doubted although not improbable. At first, estate owners tried to cover up the truth but by mid-1840s they gave up. In 1859, one village near Bukit Timah was abandoned due to too many attacks. Bukit Timah was nicknamed “A Tiger Resort”. It was reported that 390 lives were killed in 1857. It was likely that the actual number was more as many tiger attacks went unreported.
The government gave a reward of $20 for every tiger killed but the increasing number of casualties led to the reward being increased to $50 then to $100. Tiger hunting became a rewarding sport offering money and adventure. Pits of 4 to 4.5 m were dug and traps set. Tigers caught were hauled out alive and put into strong rattan baskets which the tigers could not bite through. Indian convicts who were experts in hunting tigers were also employed by the government. With so many tigers killed, their numbers dwindled and they eventually perished. One French Canadian named Carrol made tiger hunting a business for himself. Occasional reports of tiger attacks were still heard towards the end of the 19th century; a man was killed by a tiger in Thomson Road in 1890 and two tigers shot at Bukit Timah in 1896. The last wild tiger, roaming in Chua Chu Kang area, was killed in the 1930s.”
Travellers’ impressions of Singapore through paintings and prints are significantly important being the only surviving visual records of Singapore’s early development. This of course was way before photography became the dominant medium for recording images. The paintings and prints vividly captured the hilly topography of the landscape, the town, the lush vegetation, wildlife and the settlers.
This poignant image shows a Malay man in traditional dress looking across the foothills of Mount Faber towards Temenggong Abdul Rahman’s village at Telok Blangah ceded to him by the British in the 1820s.
In the 1820s, the Bugis people from Sulawesi established a village in the eastern part of Singapore beterrn the Rochor and Kallang rivers. Every year, Bugis traders traversed the Malay Archipelago between June and November, collecting local produce such as edible seaweed, bird’s nests, tortoiseshell, gambier, shark’s fins, rattan, spices and sandalwood. At the end of their voyage, they arrived in Singapore and sold their cargo to Chinese merchants, who would in turn store it in godowns along the river, awaiting shipment to other parts of the world.
South Bridge Road, constructed in 1833 by Indian convict labour was one of 19th century Singapore’s busiest streets. For almost a good decade, between 1885 till 1894, the steam tramway ran the full length of this bustling road lined with import and export businesses and goldsmith shops. Prominent landmarks were the Sri Mariamman Temple on the left and the Jamae Mosque, next to it.
Another view of the Sri Mariamman Temple and Jamae Mosque at South Bridge Road. The former was originally a wood and attap temple and rebuilt in brick by Indian convict labour in 1842-1843. The mosque with its distinctive twin minarets was a prominent South Bridge Road landmark