The island that hosted the Trump-Kim nuclear summit has a dark past

The Capella hotel in Sentosa, Singapore.

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The Capella hotel in Sentosa, Singapore.
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Capella Singapore/Handout via Reuters

  • US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a summit Tuesday in Sentosa, a resort town frequented by the wealthy in Singapore.
  • Sentosa translates to “tranquility” in Malay. Before Singapore changed the island’s name in 1970, it was called Blakang Mati, which means “Behind Death.”
  • Sentosa has a past plagued by piracy, widespread disease, and bloodshed. Today, the island is a popular vacation spot with golf courses, theme parks, and luxury hotels.

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for a summit in Sentosa, a Singapore resort island frequented by the wealthy. The two leaders met at the Capella, a ritzy hotel known for its colonial-style facade.

Trump and Kim agreed to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which could eventually lead to a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War. (Details of how they plan to do that are scarce.)

Holding the summit on the island of Sentosa – which translates to “peace and tranquility” in Malay – was a bit poetic.

As Quartz notes, peacocks are known to freely roam the island.The Capella hotel says the birds are a symbol of new beginnings, which could serve as a nod to the historic meeting that occurred.

But Sentosa has a history filled with anything but tranquility. Before the resort town became a millionaire’s paradise, explorers recounted piracy, bloodshed, and widespread disease. The island was formerly called Blakang Mati – meaning “Behind Death” – a name that points to this dark history.

Blakang Mati, Singapore in 1956.

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Blakang Mati, Singapore in 1956.
source
History SG

For roughly 500 years, starting as early as the 14th century, Sentosa was a hangout spot for groups of indigenous pirates. The men would wait for ships returning to the island before ambushing, robbing, and slaughtering the vessels’ crews.

Later, in the early colonial period, a mysterious disease (now thought to be malaria) killed most of Sentosa’s inhabitants, according to Time. By 1848, only two households remained, down from a population of about 60.

During World War II, when the Japanese overtook Singapore, Sentosa was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Japanese forces used one of the beaches to perform mass executions of Chinese civilians – part of a plan to eradicate any Chinese people living in Singapore. Another part of the island served as a Japanese Air Force unit base, which housed a number of Korean prostitutes.

Efforts to transform the island into a tourist destination began in 1969 after Singapore’s independence. It was renamed “Sentosa,” and a cable car and monorail system connecting it to the mainland was built. But in 1983, an oil drilling ship crashed into the cableway, plunging several cars into the sea and killing seven people. Visitor numbers declined following the accident, prompting the Singaporean government to conduct a $2.2 billion revamp of Sentosa in the early 2000s.

Today, Sentosa is a popular vacation spot featuring golf courses, theme parks, and luxury hotels. In 2009, London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners repurposed some of the island’s 19th century mansions to create the Capella resort with a spa, golf course, four restaurants, and pools surrounded by a rainforest on 30 acres of land.

The island seems to have put its deathly past behind it.