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History of Penang

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History of Penang

1810 engraving of the eastern side of Penang Island with Fort Cornwallis
1814 print of a view overlooking George Town

Penang was previously part of the sultanate of Kedah until it became a British possession in 1786. It later became part of the Federation of Malaya in 1957.

Part of a series on the
Malaysia portal


  • Early days 1
  • Straits Settlements 2
  • World War I 3
  • World War II 4
  • Postwar 5
  • Post-Independence 6
  • Colonial legacy 7
  • Diversity in Penang 8
    • Chinese immigration 8.1
    • Indian immigration 8.2
    • Socio-politics since independence 8.3
  • See also 9
  • Notes and references 10
  • Further reading 11

Early days

Fort Cornwallis, constructed by the British

The earliest name of Penang “Ping-lang-yu” (Island of Betel nut, Areca or Pinang) can be found in the reproduced chart based on Zheng He's (or Cheng Ho) voyages in a printed work entitled Wubei Zhi (Treatise on Military Preparations) compiled by Mao Yuanji about 1621. [Ref: "The Chart of Zheng He Grand Voyages Maritimes" was being used during 1405-1433, maps and information were collected before each of Zheng’s voyages.]

16th-century Portuguese traders from Goa, India sailing to the Far East in search of spices found a small island where they replenished their water supplies. They called it Pulo Pinaom. In the 17th century, Penang’s location at the northern entry to the Straits of Malacca provided a sheltered harbour for Chinese, Indian, Arabian and European ships during the monsoon months; this, in turn, inevitably made it fertile hunting ground for pirates.

One of the very first Englishmen to reach Penang was the merchant-navigator Sir James Lancaster who in 1588 served under Sir Francis Drake as commander of the Edward Bonadventure against the nemesis of the Spanish Armada. On 10 April 1591, commanding the same ship, he set sail from Plymouth for the East Indies, reaching Penang in June 1592, remaining on the island until September of the same year and pillaging every vessel he encountered. He returned to England in May 1594.

Originally part of the Malay sultanate of heir to the British throne. Penang was the first British possession in the Malay States and Southeast Asia.

The location of the island at the opening of the King George III of the United Kingdom.

Map of Penang 1799

Unbeknownst to the Sultan, Light had acted without the approval of the East India Company when he promised military protection. When the Company failed to aid Kedah when it was attacked by Siam (which renamed Penang Island "Koh Mak"[1]), the Sultan tried to retake the island in 1790. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the Sultan was forced to cede the island to the Company for an honorarium of 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum. This was later increased to 10,000 dollars, with Province Wellesley (Seberang Prai) being added to Penang in 1800. An annual honorarium of 18,800 ringgit continues to be paid by the Penang State Government to the Sultan of Kedah .

The settlement was first built around the harbour with Masjid Kapitan Keling Street) and Chulia Street, all of which still form the main thoroughfares of the modern city. Other early roads include Church Street, Bishop Street, China Street and Market Street, and by the early 19th century also Armenian Street and Acheen Street.

Light declared Prince of Wales Island a free port to attract trade away from the Dutch who were then the colonial rulers of the Dutch East Indies. This strategy drew many immigrant traders to Penang. Settlers were allowed to claim whatever land they could clear. By 1789, Penang had 5,000 residents and this doubled by the end of the following decade. The first Chinese settlers in Penang came from an existing community in Kedah, with their leader, called a Kapitan Cina, being Koh Lay Huan, a Baba.[2]

Light died of Province Wellesley, after Richard Colley Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, Governor-General of India[3]

Early in the 19th century, Penang was used as a staging post for the opium trade between India and China. The East India Company auctioned off licences to gambling dens, brothels and opium traders (this alone accounted for approximately 60% of colonial Penang's crimes)

In 1805, Penang's colonial status was elevated to that of a Residency. Stamford Raffles arrived in Penang to work as the Deputy Secretary to the Governor of Penang, Philip Dundas from 1805 to 1810.[4] and subsequently founded Singapore in 1819. John Crawfurd had earlier resided on the island for three years and, while embarked on a mission to the courts of Siam and Cochin China, moored there from 11 December until 5 January 1822. He found the settlement in a state of alarm, after an invasion of the territory of the King of Queda (Kedah) by the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat.) As this had a direct impact on his mission, his account goes into considerable detail about the state of the island, including a census of the population by land of origin and the total in revenues contributed by each group. He also criticises British administration policy on licences and taxation, both on the island and on the Continent.[5]:pp. 15–45

Straits Settlements

Map of British India and the Straits Settlements by English mapmaker W G Blackie, 1860
Map of Penang Island and Province Wellesley surveyed by Commander F C P Vereker, 1884
Cenotaph for those who fell in World War I, in George Town

In 1826, Penang, along with Straits Settlements but its status was soon supplanted by rapidly developing Singapore whose importance eclipsed Penang's.

See also List of Governors of the Straits Settlements

Penang was rocked by the Penang Riots of 1867, which were nine days of heavy street fighting and bloodshed among the secret societies of Penang. The fighting spiraled out of control, until the British were able bring in reinforcements from Singapore. The two principal Chinese secret societies – the Cantonese-speaking Ghee Hin and the Hakka-speaking Hai San (see Chung Keng Quee) – quarrelled over commercial interests, especially in the lucrative tin-mining industry. Today's Cannon Street was so named because of the hole made on the ground by a cannonball fired into the area from Khoo Kongsi.

The opening of Suez Canal in 1869 greatly expanded British trade with the Far East. Colonial Penang prospered through exports of tin and rubber, which fed the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Penang's prosperity attracted people from far and wide, making Penang truly a melting pot of diverse cultures. Among the ethnic groups found in Penang were Malays, Acehnese, Arabs, Armenians, British, Burmese, Germans, Jews, Chinese, Gujeratis, Bengalis, Japanese, Punjabis, Sindhis, Tamils, Thais, Malayalees, Rawas, Javanese, Mandailings, Portuguese, Eurasians and others. Though many of them no longer impose a felt presence today, their memory lives on in place names such as Burma Road, Rangoon Road, Siam Road, Armenian Street, Acheen Street, Gottlieb Road, and Katz Street, and the Jewish Cemetery.

Cosmopolitan Penang was already a thriving colony of the British Empire in the first decades of the 20th century, counting among its eminent visitors Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Noël Coward, Hermann Hesse, Karl May, Count Friedrich M. von Hochberg and Hans Sturzenegger. Generally distinguished visitors stayed at the venerable luxury Eastern & Oriental Hotel.

World War I

World War I there was a surprise naval attack on 28 October 1914 when the German cruiser SMS Emden attacked and sank Allied warships off the harbour of Penang, among them the Zhemchug. This incident aside, the war had relatively little effect on Penang. On the Esplanade there is war memorial commemorating the soldiers who fell in the war.

World War II

An A-class Japanese submarine at Penang Port around April 1942

World War II, on the other hand, unleashed unparalleled social upheaval on Penang. With news of the imminent attack of the Japanese, the European population was evacuated beforehand, leaving the rest of Penang's population to suffer under a brutal Japanese occupation, causing much disillusionment and injury to the British prestige and image of invincibility. The British withdrawal left the defenceless island in the hands of a State Committee which had to subdue a three-day civil unrest. Penang was captured by Japanese forces invading from the north through Thailand on 19 December 1941, one of the key stages of the Battle of Malaya, days after having neutralised American sea power at Pearl Harbor. Three and a half years of rule of terror ensued. Many of the local populace fled to the interior and plantations to escape from Japanese atrocities, of which many were reported and documented. During this occupation, Penang was governed by four successive Japanese governors, starting with Shotaro Katayama.

It is a little known fact that Penang served as a German U-boat base in the Far East. U-511, under the command of Kptlt. Fritz Schneewind, arrived in Penang, then under Japanese occupation in July 1943, followed by U-178 in August 1943.[6] This essentially started the U-boat campaign in the Indian Ocean and also provided the Germans with penetration into the Pacific for the first time, alongside their ally, Japan. Korvettenkapitän Wilhelm Dommes became the first commander of the U-boat base, located in the former British seaplane base in Penang.[7]


Japanese forces in Penang finally surrendered to British forces on 6 September 1945. Allied bombings. Before civilian rule returned to Penang, the state was administered by two successive British military governors from 1945–1946.

The political landscape had changed irreversibly in the aftermath of the war. The end of British imperialism seemed impendent, even inevitable. In 1946, the Straits Settlements were dissolved, with Sir Shenton Thomas being the last governor, and Penang became part of the Malayan Union, before becoming in 1948 a state of the Federation of Malaya, which gained independence in 1957. In 1963 it became one of the 13 states of Malaysia.

  • Sandhu, Kernial Singh (1969), Indians in Malaya-immigration and settlement, Cambridge University Press, p. 29 
  • Sinnappah, Anasanatnam (1979), Indians in Malaysia and Singapore, Kulala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 19 
  • Snider, Nancy (1968), "What Happened in Penang", Asian Survey 12: 960–975,  

Further reading

  1. ^ "Lands of Thailand (video)". Retrieved 15 January 2011. 
  2. ^ "World Facts Index > Malaysia > Penang". Facts US. Retrieved 9 December 2011. 
  3. ^ "Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley". Retrieved 9 December 2011. 
  4. ^ "Not found". 
  5. ^  
  6. ^ "3. Monsun boats". Retrieved 9 December 2011. 
  7. ^ "U-Boats in the Far East German Interest in the Far East". Retrieved 9 December 2011. 
  8. ^ "Not Found". Retrieved 9 December 2011. 
  9. ^ "Not found". 
  10. ^ "Not found". 
  11. ^ "Not found" (PDF). 
  12. ^ Looi Sue-Chern (24 March 2015). "George Town a city again".  

Notes and references

See also

In 1967, in response to an unpopular decision to devalue the currency, the opposition Labour Party called for a hartal or strike. This strike turned violent, with five people killed in Penang on its first day. Furthermore, although originally multiethnic in composition, the protest and ensuing violence quickly assumed interracial overtones, with politicians airing grievances and even calling for more violence. The tension spread to the coast and even to the capital, where timely intervention by the Army was required to prevent a more general spread of violence. When the national situation had calmed, the national government of Tunku Abdul Rahman imprisoned leaders charged with inciting violence, but declined to outlaw the Labour Party.

Penang entered independence with a tradition of multiethnic peace and cooperation amongst its residents. The British had separated ethnic communities into enclaves and in dealing with them. This legacy continued post-independence and incipient tensions have since grown amidst debate on how the economic pie should be divided. Today one can still see Malays in the government and civil service sector, and ethnic Chinese and Indians in trade and manufacturing, and this has led to significant divisions in the island's socio-politics.

Socio-politics since independence

Beginning with Light, Penang boasted a tradition of religious tolerance; all races could practice their respective religious faith and social stability in a multi-racial society was thus achieved.

Unlike the Tamil migrants, Telugu migrants from the northern Coromandel Coast came to Penang as families. For this reason, many did not leave when their work terms expired, but rather continued working on plantations or as merchants. Over 1,500,000 south Indians who worked in Malayan plantations, more than three-fourths returned to India, nearly all of them Tamil.

Another class of Indian migrants was a class of people hailing from the Kaveri delta areas (from the Ramnad district of Madras) known as ‘Nattukottai Chettiars’ who were by occupation money-lenders. Their presence in Penang and elsewhere where plantations sprang up aided merchants, miners, and planters, as these Chettiars were advancing required working capital in the absence of any effective banks. Light also encouraged migration by the Chettiar community as part of his plan to create a cash economy on Penang.

Already in the 1790s, Light mentions Chulias (that is, people from the Coromandel Coast of India) as shopkeepers and farm labourers in Penang. Light estimated that about two thousand men came to work in this manner each year; however, in contrast to the Chinese, these labourers did not settle permanently in Penang. They would, rather, work for long enough to save money and then return to their families in south India. This group of migrants comprised the ‘Adi Dravidas,’ a group of impoverished labourers originating in the hinterlands of the Tamil country and Andhra Desa who, facing insufficient work in their homeland, went abroad for survival.

The Mahamariamman Temple (also known as Sri Mariamman Temple), in George Town

Indian immigration

In a dispatch of 1794, Francis Light said that the Chinese constituted the most valuable and largest group acting as traders, carpenters, masons, smiths, shopkeepers and planters on the island. From an early date, the Chinese specialised in the production and trade of tin. Some emigrants from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian involved themselves in sugar-cane and pepper cultivation, in which the native Malays had shown no interest. Others acted as middlemen merchants (functioning more or less in the nature of agency house) for foreign traders engaged in export-import activities. Their contributions lay in shipping merchandise for various foreign destinations. Still other Chinese worked in the importation of ethnic foods which they cooked and sold to other recent settlers.

Chinese immigration

British control over Penang led to an increase in the size and the diversity of Penang's population. In addition to small numbers of Europeans, there were immigrants from other parts of Malaya, Borneo, Siam, Burma, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Southern India and Southern China. Post-independence, many Penangites migrated to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Australia, but today the diversity remains with many Malaysians coming to Penang from other parts of Malaysia.

Diversity in Penang

In all of these maintenance of colonial heritage, UNESCO awarded Malacca Town the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site(s).

Interestingly, in comparison to Kuala Lumpur (see list of roads in Kuala Lumpur), Penang still retains many colonial street names. These include King Street, Queen Street, Beach Street, Union Street, Light Street, Downing Street, Anson Road, Macalister Road, Magazine Road, Love Lane, Rope Walk, Gurney Drive, Weld Quay, Buckingham Street, Codrington Avenue, Gottlieb Road, Vermont Road and Western Avenue. Although many streets have been given 'Malaysian' names such as Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Kling, it is often better known locally by its former name – Pitt Street. Other notable names of suburbs and places are Fettes Park, Hillside, Island Glades, Brown Garden and Jesselton Heights.

Indeed, many public institutions and customs in Penang and Malaysia in general today are inherited and modified from the British such as formal education, use of English language, English loanwords, transportation systems – harbour, roads, railroads; form of government (Westminster system), English Common Law, and leisure – turf club, recreation clubs.

Owing to its long colonial history, many British colonial buildings can still be seen today. Such buildings include the City Hall, the Town Hall, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (popularly known as the E. & O., established 1884), The Mansion, the Old Court House, Suffolk House built upon the pepper estate established by the first lieutenant for the island Francis Light and built by W.E.Phillips and subsequently used by governors until 1836 when it fell into private hands. Governors of the Straits Settlements, Uplands International School building, Standard Chartered Bank building, ABN Bank building and the HSBC Bank building. Local conservationists are lobbying the state government to restore many other historical buildings but regrettably a number of them have dilapidated beyond repair.

The colonial Eastern & Oriental Hotel
St. George's Church, oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia

Colonial legacy

In 2015, British monarch, and later by the Malaysian government.

Penang suffered some damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, though nothing in the scale of neighbouring Acheh- incurring most of the 68 lives lost in Malaysia, mostly picnickers and fishermen. Some 1,600 people were evacuated. Economically, the fisheries and aquaculture were the worst-hit sectors, with losses in the order of tens of millions of ringgit.[11]

In 2004, widespread dissatisfaction with the decline of George Town which has seen population and commercial activities dwindling since the repeal of the Rent Control Act in 2000, as well as job creation.

Subsequent to Dr Lim's shock defeat in his Padang Kota constituency to DAP's Lim Kit Siang in the 1990 General Elections, he retired from politics but his party managed to hold on to power. He was succeeded by Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.

The island's free port status was revoked in 1969 which dealt a considerable blow to Penang's trading industry which was followed by massive unemployment as high as 14.5%.[9] Despite this, from the 1970s to the late 1990s the state built up one of the largest electronics manufacturing bases in Asia, in the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone (FIZ) around the airport in the south of the island. This move is now seen as monumental to the economic growth of modern Penang, today an economic powerhouse of Malaysia. The Penang Bridge was also built during Dr Lim's tenure, while the Penang Second Bridge has been completed in 2013.

On 31 August 1957, Penang formally became part of the newly independent Federation of Malaya (Persekutuan Tanah Melayu) and in 1963, also became a member state of Malaysia. From independence till 1969, Penang was administered by Chief Minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), one of the three principal political parties which made up the Alliance Party ruling coalition. In 1969, however, Penang was captured by the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia party which garnered 16 out of 24 seats in the State Assembly. Its founder, Tun Dato' Seri Dr Lim Chong Eu became Penang's second Chief Minister. Following the 13 May 1969 riots which ensued from the General Elections, parliamentary rule was suspended and the government was taken over by the National Operations Council. Only in April 1971 was the democratic government restored. Gerakan joined the ruling coalition on 13 February 1972 and continued to govern Penang until March 2008 when it was completely annihilated at both state and parliamentary levels.

View of the northeast coast of modern Penang Island.



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