History of Penang
Published on September 14, 2008 | by visitpenang.gov.my
In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders have been sailing to the Far East searching for spices. They came across a small uninhabited island where they could replenish fresh water supplies, which they then named it “Pulo Pinaom”.
The island was part of the Kedah Sultanate. Its strategic location at the northern entry to the Straits of Malacca has made it a natural harbour during the monsoon months for Arabian, Chinese, European and Indian ships. Inevitably, it became a hunting ground for pirates.
Since the 17th century, Kedah have been sending “Bunga Emas” (Gold Flowers) to Siam (Thailand) as an acknowledgement of the Siam King’s sovereignty. In the 18th century, the spice and opium trade between the East and West had become extremely lucrative. The Dutch dominated the Far East spice trade and the British too needed to establish themselves in the region. Thus, in 1765 Francis Light was instructed by his Company, Jourdain Sullivan and de Souza to establish better trade relations in this part of the world.
In 1771, the Sultan of Kedah offered Captain Francis Light the island of Penang in return for protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies who were constantly threatening Kedah. This treaty never materialised as Francis Light’s superiors refused to offer any aid.
Captain Francis Light left Kedah for Junk Ceylon (Phuket, an island off southern Thailand) in 1772 to setup trade activities with India, southern Siam and northern Malay Peninsula. At that time, the British were involved in the Napolean war in Europe. Light was asked by the East India Company based in Madras to obtain Pulau Pinang to setup a base to repair British navy ships and as a trading post for trade between China, India and the archipelago.
In 1786, Francis Light acted as middleman in securing Penang from Sultan Abdullah of Kedah in return for a promise of British protection from his enemies. The Sultan of Kedah was not aware that Light had acted without the approval of his superiors when making the promosi.
Light landed in that part of Penang now known as the Esplanade on July 17, 1786 with a small group of civilians and naval staff. On August 11, 1786, the Union Jack was hoisted as Captain Francis Light, known as founder of Penang officially took possession of the island for the Crown. The island was named “The Prince of Wales Island” as the acquisition date fell on the prince’s birthday. The settlement in the Eastern Cape of the island was called Georgetown named after the King of England, George III.
In 1790, Sultan Abdullah formed an army to get rid of the Dutch and English after the Company had failed to provide military protection when Kedah was attacked by Siam. He assembled his men at Seberang Prai (Province Wellesley) to retake Penang Island but was defeated by Captain Francis Light who had carried out night raids on the enemy’s fortress. The following year, Sultan Abdullah signed a treaty with the British, officially handing over Penang Island to the British. As part of the treaty, the Sultan of Kedah is paid 6,000 Spanish dollars annually. Captain Francis Light was appointed Superintendent of Prince of Wales Island.
The first settlement in Penang was at the present Esplanade area which was a swampy, malaria infected area at that time. Fort Cornwallis, the island’s main defense was located at the same area. In order to expedite clearing of thick undergrowth around that site, Light loaded the ship’s cannons with silver dollars and fired it deep into the jungle. The township was named George Town after King George III of Britain. Four original streets of George Town were Beach Street, Light Street, Pitt Street (now Masjid Kapitan Keling Street) and Chulia Street, all of which still form the main thoroughfares of the modern city.
When Light first took over the island, there were less than 1,000 Malay fishermen living on the island. To encourage settlers, Light introduced Penang as a free port in order to attract traders away from nearby Dutch trading post. In addition, new comers are allowed to claim as much land as they could clear.
Captain Light’s term as the first Superintendent of the Prince of Wales Island came to an end in 1794. He died of Malaria on October 21, 1794 at the age of 54 and was buried at the Protestant cemetery at the end of Northam Road (now known as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah). He was survived by Martina Rozells, a local Eurasian of Portuguese descent and son, William Light who later founded the city of Adelaide, Australia.
After Francis Light’s death, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wellesley arrived in Penang to coordinate the defenses of the island. In 1800, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Leith secured a strip of land across the channel from the island and named it Province Wellesley (Seberang Prai). This gave Penang control over the harbour and food supplies from the mainland. The annual payment to Sultan of Kedah was increased to 10,000 after the acquisition. Today, the Penang State comprises both Penang Island and Province Wellesley and, the State Government still pays RM 18,800.00 to the Sultan of Kedah annually.
In 1805, Penang was elevated from a colonial status to that of a Residency. A new Governor, the honourable Philip Dundas was appointed into office. His assistant secretary was Thomas Stamford Raffles, future founder of Singapore in 1819. In 1832, under the British administration in India, the Straits Settlements comprising the states of Malacca, Singapore and Penang was formed. Penang became its capital but in 1935 Singapore took over as capital of the Straits Settlements.
At the end of the 19th century, rich deposits of tin from neighbouring state and relentless demands of the Industrial Revolution in Britain saw Penang enjoying a trade boom. This also includes trading of rubber, nutmeg, clove, sugar, coconut and pepper. In time, Penang’s properity attracted immigrants from various parts of the world, especially those from Europe, China and India. European planters and Chinese towkays (business leaders) made their money in the plantations and mines in other northern states but built their mansions in George Town and sent their children to school here.
In 1905 the first hydro-electric scheme in Penang was completed, giving the island her first electricity. Penang got its first electric tramway in 1906. By mid 20th century, other modes of transport such as rickshaws, bullock carts and horse-carts gradually disappeared from the roads of Penang.
By the 1930s, Penang had become a busy port with ocean liners and coastal steamers docking at Swettenham Pier or anchoring in the waters of the channel. Penang became an entertainment centre, with cabarets, cinemas, amusement parks and gambling establishments. When Wall Street crashed, the economy of Penang suffered badly.
Before the people of Penang could recover from the depression, the Second World War broke out on December 8, 1941. Penang was attacked by the Japanese and the British fled to Singapore living the island defenceless. The people of Penang live in fear and fled to the interior to escape from ruthless Japanese army. The days of the Japanese Kempettai were the days of horror, torture and executions. On September 4, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the British Forces. Remarkably, many of George Town’s historic building were virtually unscathed by the allied bombings.
After World War II, the Straight Settlements were dissolved and Penang became part of Malayan Union, before it became part of Federation of Malaya in 1948. Malaya gained independence in August 31, 1957 and Penang was one of its 13 component states. Penang was officially known as Negeri Pulau Pinang. George Town, which has the oldest municipal history in the country, was accorded City status by Queen Elizabeth II on 1st January 1957.