Pulau Blakang Mati, as Sentosa used to be known as, is the one of the oldest place names in Singapore. Translated literally as “Death from the Back Island” in Malay, the name appeared in a 17th century map by the Portuguese-Melakan cartographer Manuel Godinho de Erédia. The etymology of Blakang Mati may be drawn from oral traditions of the area, including stories told by locals of piracy and battles on the nearby islands of Pulau Brani and Pulau Tekukor.
After Pulau Blakang Mati (as Sentosa was formerly named) became a military outpost from 1878, the British built barracks and other infrastructure for troops stationed here. Completed in 1940, these former barrack blocks 9 and 10 were built on a military recreation ground before being adapted into hotel accommodations in the 2000s. The adjacent block 11 had been constructed as barracks in 1937 and housed the Rare Stone Museum from 1985 to 1995, before being turned into a meeting and events centre.
Among the oldest buildings in Sentosa are the former barracks along what is today Gunner Lane and Larkhill Road. In maps dating to the 1890s, these blocks appear as Soldiers Blocks and Married Soldiers Quarters, accommodating the non-officer ranks.
The former Royal Engineers’ Yard and the Power Station (blocks 37 and 39 respectively) are located along Artillery Avenue. The Royal Engineers were based on neighbouring Pulau Brani, but a small contingent here supported engineering and development works with its workshop, shed and stores. The building, thought to have been built in 1895, was later used as a station for SDC’s rangers.
From the late 19th century to the 1960s, accommodations for officers of the British military stood on this site, including four colonial bungalows that are today merged into a hotel development. Blocks 48 and 49 served as a mess and quarters for officers up to the rank of captain, while the manor-like blocks 50 and 51 were reserved for more senior officers.
This building was established as the military hospital for British and Indian troops serving on Pulau Blakang Mati (the former name of Sentosa). Completed by the 1890s, the building was accorded conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2004.
From 1878, Fort Siloso was constructed to defend the western entrance to Keppel Harbour and the straits around Singapore. Built on Mount Siloso, the fort includes artillery and antiaircraft emplacements, as well as machine gun, search light and command posts. There is also an extensive network of barracks, casemates, underground magazines and tunnels built into the hill.
For centuries, the straits around Singapore have been a key passage within global trade routes. Commanding these waters, the island of Pulau Blakang Mati (the former name of Sentosa) was regarded as strategically important by colonial powers since the 17th century.
This pier at Siloso Point was built in the late 19th century to service the nearby Fort Siloso. Before roads were laid in this area, the pier was the only access point and as used to transport guns, building materials, equipment and other supplies from mainland Singapore for the construction and maintenance of Fort Siloso.
imbiah battery
From the early 19th century, the hills of Siloso and Serapong, standing watch over the western and eastern approaches to Singapore respectively, had been identified as suitable sites for military fortifications. Mount Serapong was also the highest point on Blakang Mati, reaching 92 metres at its summit. An infantry redoubt thought to have been completed in the early 1880s was the first defensive work here. In the early 1880s, the British War Office approved a new battery on Serapong, which became operational in 1887.
Siloso Beach is one of three beaches with swimming lagoons created by Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) during the 1970s and 1980s.
Operating from 1982 to 2005, Sentosa’s monorail was both a transportation system and an attraction in itself. Along its 30-minute route around the island, the monorail afforded elevated views of Sentosa’s natural environment. The section of the monorail route curving around Sentosa’s western tip was said to be one of its most scenic, with views of nearby islands and the forested Mount Imbiah.
The Singapore Cable Car is a gondola lift system that connects the mainland of Singapore to Sentosa. Inaugurated on 15 February 1974 by former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, it was one of the earliest development projects of Sentosa to be completed.
Built in the 1980s, the Musical Fountain, Fountain Gardens and Ferry Terminal previously located in this area were among the second wave of Sentosa’s attractions and developments. This period saw Sentosa host an increasing number of concerts, talent shows and cultural events.

Since the 1970s, Sentosa has been a go-to leisure destination for its beaches and amusement joy-rides, parties and concerts, as well as theme parks and attractions. Before its modern incarnation as an island of fun however, it was known as Pulau Blakang Mati –literally, “Death from the Back Island” in Malay.

From at least the 1600s, Blakang Mati was coveted by colonial powers for its strategic location between the straits of Singapore, which were part of wider trading routes connecting east and west. Nearly 300 years before the British constructed Fort Siloso, the Flemish trader Jacques de Coutre advised the King of Spain and Portugal to build a fort here to command the region.

However, these plans did not pan out, and it was only from 1878 that Blakang Mati’s defence-strategic qualities were realised by the colonial British authorities. The island’s forts and batteries formed key components of what was known as “Fortress Singapore”, with supporting barracks and other infrastructure giving Blakang Mati a distinctly military character. Local communities that had predated the British arrival co-existed alongside the troops, growing to encompass a diverse range of settlers from sea-dwelling Orang Laut groups to those from what is today Malaysia, Indonesia, China and India.

After the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore in the late 1960s, Blakang Mati began its transformation into Sentosa. As a leisure and tourist island, Sentosa played its part in the economic, social and cultural development of independent Singapore, drawing visitors through popular attractions and the performing arts. Attractions such as the cable car, Underwater World and the Sentosa Monorail remain vivid in the memories of Singaporeans, as do the mat rock concerts of the 1980s and 1990s held at the Musical Fountain.

Today, Fort Siloso stands as a National Monument and heritage site, serving to educate and entertain visitors through its well-preserved infrastructure as well as its exhibitions. The barracks that dotted the island have been conserved and repurposed as hotels and restaurants. The modern story of Sentosa’s adaptation and reinvention is a continuing thread weaving together narratives of maritime, military and community heritage. We hope you enjoy this exploration of Sentosa and its multi-faceted heritage.

 

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