Dalhousie Obelisk

Singapore Infopedia


The Dalhousie Obelisk commemorates the visit of then governor-general of India (1848–1856), the Marquis of Dalhousie, James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, to Singapore between 17 and 19 February 1850. Singapore, as part of the Straits Settlements, was administered under the Bengal government of British India at the time of his visit. The monument, erected by 1851, was the first public statue in Singapore. It was a symbol of the mercantile community’s hope that his visit would benefit local commercial interests, especially pertaining to the establishment of free trade in Singapore.1

History and background
Dalhousie had taken the position as governor-general of India only two years prior to his arrival in Singapore, but was said to be influential in extending British government rule in India. While on a convalescent sea voyage, he chose to visit colonial outposts under his jurisdiction, which included Singapore. The leaders of Singapore took his three-day hiatus between 17 and 19 February 1850 as an opportunity to showcase the economic potential of the town in the hope that he would initiate changes to benefit the mercantile community.2

The marquis was accompanied by his wife and a significant entourage from the British government in India. Both expatriate and local community leaders received them with an impressive show. Two lines of sampan carrying the temenggong’s followers formed a sealane, while gaily dressed locals lined the streets to welcome them.3

During their visit, the Dalhousies resided at Government House on Government Hill (now known as Fort Canning). The marquis was taken to see key public institutions and buildings, and listened to speeches by masonic leaders, representatives from the Singapore Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese merchant community. He and his wife also visited community locations such as the Thian Hock Keng temple and a gambier plantation beyond town before departing Singapore on the steamer Feroze. As a parting gift, the marquis donated 1,000 rupees to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital.4

Dalhousie’s visit was a positive contrast to the first-ever visit by a governor-general to Singapore, in 1829. Then, Governor-General of India William Bentinck had sought to reduce expenditure and proposed that the governor of the Straits Settlements be retrenched.5 The following year, the Straits Settlements was downgraded from its status as a presidency to that of a residency under the Bengal government in Calcutta, India.6

In 1851, within a year of his return to India, the marquis brought the Straits Settlements directly under his control as governor-general. He also raised the salary of the Straits Settlements governor, with the expectation that his authority would also be extended.7

To recognise the visit and in anticipation of positive changes, a committee was formed to erect a monument in honour of Dalhousie. The committee for the Dalhousie testimonial included Joaquim d’Almeida, Ang Choon Seng, M. F. Davidson, J. Guthrie, G. G. Nicol, Seah Eu Chin and Tan Kim Seng.8 Their names are engraved on the monument as a testament to their contributions.9

Prior to its erection, there was a series of letters published in the press from February 1850 to January 1851 arguing against the value of setting up a monument commemorating Dalhousie’s visit, particularly in view that a monument honouring the founder of Singapore, Stamford Raffles, had not yet existed at the time. Besides the intense questioning over the purpose of constructing the Dalhousie monument, later the aesthetics of the monument’s design were also disparaged.10 Despite the objections, the proposal was approved by then Governor William. J. Butterworth in May 1850; at the same time, a bid to name the jetty from which Dalhousie had disembarked “Dalhousie Ghaut” (also known as Dalhousie Pier) was also passed.11 Funds were quickly raised and the Dalhousie monument was erected sometime between the end of 1850 and early 1851, thus making it the first public monument in Singapore.12

During discussions, it was proposed that two monuments be built – on or near St John’s Island and Pulau Satumu (referred to as “Tree Island”). It was also planned that one would be called Raffles and the other, Dalhousie Light.13 Others suggested that the testimonials be disbursed as scholarships instead of a brick-and-mortar icon.14 The approved monument – an obelisk – was designed by colonial architect and surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, who drew his inspiration from the famed Cleopatra’s Needle that stands by the Thames in London.15

The Dalhousie Obelisk was placed at Dalhousie Ghaut, which was located near the mouth of the Singapore River, at the intersection of Beach Road and High Street.16 The monument is built out of bricks that have been plastered over to look like a single monolith. It stands on a stone plinth with steps leading up to it. The original plaque has since been removed and replaced with an inscription in Jawi, Chinese, Tamil and English respectively on each side stating:17

Erected 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, K. T., Governor-General of British India on which occasion he emphatically recognised the wisdom of liberating commerce from all restraints under which enlightened policy this Settlement has rapidly attained its present rank among British Possessions and with which its future prosperity must ever be identified.

The obelisk cost $1,305 to build, with funds raised through $5 subscriptions contributed by at least 200 residents of Singapore.18 In October 1851, the remaining funds from the Dalhousie subscription were used to buy special lamps imported from England to light the monument. A railing had by then been placed around the monument. In 1862, the obelisk was said to be in a deteriorated state, its surface streaked with black stains. A “Mr H. Oldfield” offered to paint it with a mixture that would ensure the stains would not recur.19 By the 1930s, the lamps, though still standing, were never lit.20

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945), the Japanese removed the railing surrounding the obelisk.21

By the 1880s, the monument was seen as a white elephant. Calls were made in 1885 to demolish the monument, but then Governor Cecil Clementi Smith advocated for memorials built by past generations to be retained for heritage purposes.22

The Dalhousie Obelisk was moved several times. It was first relocated in 1886 further down the embankment to make way for the construction of Connaught Drive.23 Four years later, on 9 July 1890, it was moved yet further down, closer to the actual spot where Dalhousie landed.24

It was moved again in 1910 to the northern side of Anderson Bridge before being placed the following year at its present location, by the former Empress Place Building (now the Asian Civilisations Museum), just 300 ft from its former position.25


Bonny Tan

1. Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 66. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
2. H. T. Sutton, “The Dalhousie Obelisk,” Straits Times, 2 May 1959, 11; “Singaporeana,” Straits Times, 27 May 1950, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Singapore Friday, 22nd February, 1850,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 22 February 1850, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Colony Cavalcade,” Straits Times, 22 March 1936, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Friday”; Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 80. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
5. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 21–22 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); “Colony Cavalcade.”
6. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 206. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
7. C. M. Turnbull, The Straits Settlements, 1826–67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony (London: Athlone Press, 1972), 325 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Untitled,” Straits Times, 16 September 1851, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore…, vol. 2 ((Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1902), 532. (From BookSG)
9. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 33. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
10. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 27 August 1850, 4; “Correspondence,” Straits Times, 8 October 1850, 3; “To the Editor of the Straits Times,” Straits Times, 21 January 1851, 4; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 26 February 1850, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times, 531–2.
12. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 65.
13. “Public Meeting to Commemorate the Visit of the Governor General,” Straits Times, 26 February 1850, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Singapore, Friday, Augt. 23rd 1850,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 23 August 1850, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 65.
16. “Untitled”; Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times, 531.
17. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 66.
18. “List of Subscribers to the Dalhousie Testimonial,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 28 June 1850, 3; Sutton, “Dalhousie Obelisk.” 
19. “Municipal Council,” Straits Times, 6 December 1862, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “The Two Cenotaphs,” Straits Times, 16 November 1933, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Imports,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 31 October 1851, 4; S. Ramachandra, “Is Our Obelisk Ugly?” Singapore Free Press, 12 December 1953, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 68.
23. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 380. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
24. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 68; Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 33; “Editorials,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 11 February 1890, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Peter Keys, “This Great Heritage,” Straits Times, 12 July 1981, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Dalhousie Obelisk, Singapore, 1910, photograph, Arshak C Galstaun Collection, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 19980005502 – 0091); “Untitled,” Straits Times, 16 May 1911, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
A Neglected Obelisk – to Free Trade,” Straits Times, 25 September 1951, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Dalhousie Obelisk, c1880s, 1880, photograph, Morgan Betty Bassett Collection, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 20090000101 – 0036)

Dalhousie: Much Ado about Nothing,” New Nation, 12 December 1974, 11. (From NewspaperSG)

Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 121–3. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])

Festival at the Singapore Cricket Club at the Padang, Showing Malay Food Peddlers on the Right, the Dalhousie Obelisk in the Background, 1890, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 20060000340 – 0085)

G. R. Lambert, Mouth of Singapore River: General View, 1890, photograph, Lee Kip Lin Collection, National Library Board. 

Local,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 5 March 1850, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 29 September 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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