Sentosa Cove
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Sentosa Cove

Sentosa, previously called Pulau Blakang Mati, is a resort island in Singapore. It was once a British military base and a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and many Chinese were found killed on its beach during the Japanese occupation.

The island was renamed Sentosa and turned into a tourist destination in 1972, and it is now home to a popular resort that receives some twenty million visitors per year. Attractions include a 2 km long sheltered beach, Fort Siloso, two golf courses, the Merlion, hotels, and the Resorts World Sentosa, featuring the theme park Universal Studios Singaporeand one of Singapore’s two casinos and many more new attractions always finding its way there.

The name Sentosa translates as “peace and tranquility” in Malay, which was in turn derived from the Sanskrit term Santosha, meaning “contentment, satisfaction”. Sentosa was formerly known as Pulau Blakang Mati which in Malay means the “Island of Death Behind”.

The name Blakang Mati is old; an island was identified as Blacan Mati in Manuel Godinho de Erédia’s 1604 map of Singapore. Other early references to the island of Blakang Mati include Burne Beard Island in Wilde’s 1780 MS map, Pulau Niry, Nirifa from 1690 to 1700, and the nineteenth century reference as Pulau Panjang (J.H. Moor). However, early maps did not separate Blakang Mati from the adjacent island of Pulau Brani, so it is uncertain to which island the seventeenth century place names referred.

The island has changed name several times. Up to 1830, it was called Pulau Panjang. In an 1828 sketch of Singapore Island, the island is referred to as Po. Panjang.

The Malay name for this island is literally translated as “dead back” or “behind the dead”; blakang means “at the back” or “behind” or “after”; mati means “dead”. It is also called the “dead island” or the “island of the dead” or perhaps “island of after death”.

Different versions of how the island came to acquire such an unpropitious name abound:

One account attributed the ominous name to murder and piracy in the island’s past.

A second claimed that the island is the material paradise for the spirits of warriors said to have been buried at Pulau Brani.

A third interpretation is that “dead back island” was so-called because of the lack of fertile soil on the hills. However, since the island creates an area of dead water behind it with no wind (hence “still behind” – still or stopped being an alternative translation of mati) it may be as simple as this — less romantic perhaps, but believable from a nautical viewpoint.

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