Chapter 4, Part 17
The 19th century in South Asia. It was a period of time in history when the British consolidated their colonial possessions in the Indian subcontinent. What started out as mere trade missions in the early 17th century, became a vast colonial entity called British India, encompassing regions which now make up India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore and parts of Malaysia. At the easternmost reach of the British governance – where the sprawling Dutch East Indies began – were the Straits Settlements, a collective unit of colonial lands comprising Singapore, Malacca and a small island off the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia called Prince of Wales Island, which is today known as Penang.
The settlements – strategically located at the busy trade route connecting the Spice Islands and China to India, the Middle East and Europe – were established by the British East India Company (EIC) and remained administered from their office in India until the second half of the 19th century following the Sepoy Rebellion. The rebellion brought the demise of the EIC and spurred a reorganization of British colonial administration in India, where control of British India was transferred to the crown in London. As a prominent island at the Strait of Malacca, for centuries Penang had been used as an important landmark for navigation. Frequented by the Ming dynasty admiral, Zheng He, during his multiple voyages across the Indian Ocean, Penang became a regional entrepôt visited by merchants from foreign lands, including China and India.
Before the British set up a settlement on the island, the Minangkabau people – hailing from West Sumatra in modern-day Indonesia – had already settled and flourished there. In 1786, Captain Francis Light, a trader based out of Madras (at that time the seat of the EIC), on behalf of the company leased Penang from the sultan of Kedah. Similar to the strategy applied by the Dutch in Deli, the British gained control of Penang by promising to defend the island should Kedah’s rivals to the north – the Siamese and the Burmese – attack the Malay sultanate. Whenever rivalries between two parties arise, a third party is always ready to reap benefits for itself.
The new British colonial possession was named Prince of Wales Island, and the settlement Francis Light established at the northeastern corner of the island was called George Town, in honor of King George III of Great Britain and Ireland. For Light, Penang also served as a strategic stronghold to counter the growing French influence in what is today Vietnam, as well as to keep the Dutch activities across the strait in check.
As the first British colony in Southeast Asia, Penang grew rapidly thanks to its position as an important port along the lucrative trade route to and from the Indian Ocean. In the early 19th century, the island’s status was raised to presidency – an administrative division of British governance in India – making it equal to places like Bombay and Madras. Penang remained the capital of the Straits Settlements until administrative matters were transferred to fast-growing Singapore in 1837. The Lion City then propelled itself as the most prominent trading port in Southeast Asia, a status which remains unchallenged even after its expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 – probably the only country in the world to gain independence against its own will. Penang, on the other hand, became one of Malaysia’s 13 states.
The time when Singapore was still in the shadow of Penang has long gone. However, today the Malaysian state is driven to catch up with Singapore’s economic achievements, by becoming a regional electronic manufacturing hub for instance. On my way to George Town from the airport, I spotted several multinational companies’ factories, including Western Digital – a U.S.-based hard drive manufacturer – and Osram – a German lighting company.
Fortunately, unlike in many Asian cities where colonial buildings are often sacrificed to make way for new constructions, those in George Town are largely well-preserved. Together with the colonial sites in Malacca, they became Malaysia’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. George Town demonstrates how heritage preservation can actually bring benefits to the city, setting up a good example for governors and mayors in the region to favor conservation over rampant development. Tourism helps diversify the city’s economy, and in return promotes further efforts to keep the wrecking balls away from the island’s historical and cultural sites. As part of a campaign to make George Town even more appealing to everyone, beautiful murals and wrought-iron art pieces were installed at some of the city’s streets and alleys, making walks around its old quarter more enjoyable. Aside from written accounts, intriguing and funny anecdotes from George Town’s colonial past also inspired some of the artworks, bringing history to life in a delightful way.
Penang may still look up to Singapore, but it has its right to be proud of having invaluable colonial and cultural heritage while at the same time being an effortlessly fascinating place – something Singapore has always been aspiring to be.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.