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rancis Light’s many years of experience as a trader in the eastern seas, together with his repeated personal recommendations for the utilisation of Penang as an East India Company port, led to his being charged with settlement and superintendence of the island in 1786. The position carried far more responsibility than he had known before. Although an arduous and steep learning curve, Light applied himself with conviction and determination to prove his own judgement, and that of his superiors, well founded. A common thread throughout the early history of Penang was the lack of financial support by the East India Company. This meant that most buildings were funded privately. If Light was to be effective as superintendent and hold sway over a rapidly increasing population of mixed origins, construction of a building to encourage respect for his authority, though imperative, would have to be at his own expense. Nevertheless, once the land was suitably cleared, a few streets formed and the necessary building materials obtained, he would have wasted no time in commencing construction. After the fort, this building would also become a symbol of the intended permanence of the settlement, something Light found himself having to prove to the inhabitants on several occasions. It was, however, not until after his death eight years later that there was any degree of certainty that the island would be retained. This book is concerned with the very building Light constructed, and documents its trials and tribulations as the seat of government for almost 30 years. It is not known exactly when Light began construction of an official residence, but it is likely to have been within the first two or three years after landing. Initially there was a dearth of building materials other than the timber of the island. Early structures were either limewashed using the traditional lath and plaster technique, or simply a basic timber framework enclosed with woven palm leaf as was traditional among many of the local settlers. The tall slender trunks of the nibong palm were often utilised as a quick solution for housing timbers, but many other species of local hardwoods were preferred for forming longer lasting posts and boards. Roofs were generally pitched and layered with attap, tightly woven palm frond thatching tiles which were principally imported by their thousands from Kedah. As the settlement developed, the risk of fire grew exponentially, and indeed the first major blaze occurred in April 1789 in lower Chulia Street, then called Malabar Street, destroying 56 Indian shops. Only a wind change prevented far larger losses.1 It was at this stage that Light advised Bengal he was constructing 10 brick shops and requested 20 bricklayers be sent from Bengal, as many other inhabitants also wished to construct brick buildings.2 Some six months earlier he had established brick kilns ‘near the sea’ employing Chinese and Indian workers who could produce white clay bricks of a satisfactory quality. Just prior to that, an expected delivery of nearly 100,000 bricks from China had failed when the transporting vessel sank en 1 2


For in-depth detail on all references in this book to fires at Penang see Langdon, Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India, Vol. 2, ‘Fires in George Town’. SSFR, Reel 3, Vol. 3, Fort William Council Proceedings, 21 August 1789; Light’s letter dated 18 July 1789.


route. In later years brickworks near the Pulau Tikus township and on the mainland in Province Wellesley would supply the majority of bricks for construction purposes on the island. A product called chunam was made by burning coral and seashells to form lime. Initially it was combined with a crumbly clay soil known locally as ‘red earth’ to form a mortar, but the latter ingredient was later blamed for attracting dampness and weakening the mortar. In its place, from around 1814 pounded bricks were used to make a product called soorky, which produced a far stronger mortar when combined with lime. Lime was also used to render brickwork, being mixed with ingredients such as sand, egg white and jaggery. Clay roofing tiles were attempted on the island but proved inferior to those produced in Malacca, which as a result appears to have been the principal source of supply for that product for many decades. When construction of substantial buildings did begin by the British in Penang they generally followed the form used in India, being adaptations of British styles modified to suit the climate. As such it was common to see somewhat cubist designs with flat ‘terraced’ roofs, embellished with porticos and verandahs sporting large columns. These designs often came from British architectural plan books, the local military engineers probably having been educated in their trade using such reference works. Unlike India, however, flat roofs were not as durable in the wetter climate of Penang and it was common to see these same buildings topped by steeply pitched attap roofs. Likewise the other communities applied the designs they were familiar with from their homelands, once again making adaptations to suit local conditions. Subsequent destructive fires in George Town led to planning regulations being implemented in 1814 which slowly saw timber buildings replaced by brick buildings with clay tiled roofs in the town area. No doubt design features specific to cultural identity were maintained, much as can be seen in the old part of George Town today, though these are generally of a later date. Although Light’s Government House would also suffer from these same structural issues, his foresight in constructing what would remain the largest building on the island for some years paid off handsomely in terms of providing a valuable venue, not only for the business and entertainment requirements of the government but also a place where Protestant church services could be held and indeed a temporary home for the Court of Judicature when no other buildings could be sourced for those purposes on the island.3

THE EARLY YEARS In the days immediately following their arrival in Penang on 16 July 1786, Light and his entourage initially lived in peaked tents, as shown in Elisha Trapaud’s sketch of the official ceremony of possession on 11 August, but he soon moved into slightly more comfortable accommodation inside the timber fort, the construction of which had been given top priority after landing. Light reported progress in a dispatch to 3

For in-depth detail on all references in this book to the church and law courts at Penang, see Langdon, Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India, Vol. 2, ‘St George’s Church’ and Vol. 3, ‘The Court of Judicature’. 351

"Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India" Book Three  

Introduction to Book Three: The Government House

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