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April 15, 2008

Dalhousie Obelisk: When Cleopatra Landed In Singapore

Dalhousie Obelisk: When Cleopatra Landed In Singapore

The Dalhousie Obelisk, built 37 years before the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles was erected, is an obscure national monument that few Singaporeans notice and even fewer can appreciate its significance. Not many will recognize that the inspiration for its design was derived from Cleopatra’s Needle, a term coined to describe an upright needle-like stone pillar that ancient Egyptians used to build in their hey days.

For the uninformed, the Dalhousie Obelisk can be found at Empress Place near the stature of Sir Stamford Raffles in front of Victoria Theatre. Designed by John Turnbull Thomson, then Government Architect and Surveyor (who also designed the Lighthouse on Horsburg Island), this tall four-sided tapering narrow column that stands with a pyramid at its vertex was modeled after Cleopatra's Needle, an ancient Egyptian rock pillar built by Pharaoh Thutmose III. While this pillar was not built by Queen Cleopatra based on her sewing needle or such similar devices, the catchy name struck a chord throughout history and remained unaltered.

Above Source = Picture Archives of Singapore PICA

The original Egyptian obelisk was made from a single block of stone, whereas Singapore's version was layered with bricks and then plastered over with cement. Construction of the Dalhousie Obelisk was completed in 1850 at its initial site on the river end of High Street, Dalhousie Pier (now no longer present) before it was moved to the Cenotaph site off Connaught Drive and later shifted again in 1911 to its present location.

Historical Significance
Local merchants built the Dalhousie Obelisk, which cost $1305. The purpose, as recorded in the archives, was to commemorate the visit of Lord James Andrew, the Marquise of Dalhousie, then Governor-General of India (1848-1856). In that period of history, the Governor of the Straits Settlement (of which Singapore was a part of) was directly answerable to Lord James Andrew.

Marquise Dalhousie and his wife arrived in Singapore on 17 February 1850 and left on 20 February 1850 after a three-day stay. After his return to India, the Marquise took over control of the Straits Settlements as Governor-General, from the Bengal Presidency. This was because since 1840, the Straits Settlements were dissatisfied with the rule of the East India Company in Calcutta.

The Dalhousie Obelisk thus served to remind merchants of the importance and benefits of free trade in Singapore at that time, and now as a lifetime reminder to Singaporeans that the East India Company through the Governor General in India once administered Singapore.

Inscription on the Obelisk plaque
“Inhabited by the European, Chinese and native inhabitants of Singapore to commemorate the visit in the month of February 1850 of the most noble The Marquis of Dalhousie, Governor General of British India, on which occasion he emphatically recognized the wisdom of liberating commerce from all restraints. Under which enlightened policy this settlement has proudly attained its present rank among British possessions and with which future prospects must ever be identified. “

Personal Impressions
The Dalhousie Obelisk Monument was an eye-opening architectural design statement of that period in Singapore’s history. Personally the resemblance to a tombstone with wreaths laid around its base was much too uncanny for my liking. The multiple steps leading up to the obelisk also reminded me of the Cenotaph Memorial and the Lim Bo Seng Memorial at the Esplanade park, haunting reminders of a by-gone era. For Singaporeans out to impress visitors from overseas, a word-of-mouth interest on the Dalhousie Obelisk that you could use would be the amusing fact that Queen Cleopatra landed in Singapore at this location, at least architecture-wise with regards to its genesis.

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