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very beginning creates a journey. When Francis Light was finally given approval by the British East India Company to negotiate the settlement of Penang in 1786 it began a journey of social, political and economic development of that island which continues to this day. At the time there were no thoughts of colonialism in the strict sense of the word. This was not an empire-building exercise. Rather the settlement of Penang was driven simply by the necessity of finding a suitable port of refreshment and repair along the valuable trade route to China – ‘for as long as is required’ and before the Dutch could exclude the British from the region. The first 72 years of Penang’s history after Light’s landing was indeed that of an outpost of a private trading company, albeit a company so large that the British government kept it under close surveillance and supported it financially in the interests of international trade. Numerous respected authors have covered this unique period of history in fairly broad brushstrokes. But to date there has been no in-depth presentation of the dayto-day workings of the settlement in Penang. This volume and those that follow provide the missing details of that story, drawn verbatim from the original minutes of council meetings, department meetings, correspondence to and from the Londonbased Court of Directors and other Company administrative centres, personal and private correspondence and records, newspapers, journals and other published or unpublished manuscripts of the day. The very nature of these records means they are not easily accessible to the interested reader who may not have the time or patience to look for needles in an immense haystack. This work offers easy access to this information, organised in a topical form, and creates a reliable and credible reference source. The technique of utilising extracted transcriptions is employed extensively throughout in order to have the story revealed by those who created it. We begin with a brief background to the East India Company and its activities in the region. The English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 broke the trading monopolies enjoyed until then by Spain and Portugal for the East Indian spice trade, particularly from the lucrative Spice Islands (Moluccas, now Maluku). Nutmeg, then found only on these islands, became the El Dorado of the day after it was touted as a cure for the plague, and pound for pound became more valuable than gold. A group of London-based merchants pooled their capital in 1599 and formed a company to tap this tantalising source of potential wealth. This company was first known as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East-Indies’, and was incorporated on 31 December 1600 after being granted a royal 1


charter by Queen Elizabeth I. But it was pepper and not nutmeg and cloves which produced the large profits from early voyages and funded an expansion of the Company’s fleet. A trading post, known as a ‘station’ or ‘factory’, was established in Bantam, Java in 1603. However, the Moluccas proved to be not as accessible as hoped, its bounty being jealously guarded by the Dutch. In 1623 these tensions led to the torture and murder of several Englishmen there, an incident which became known infamously as the Amboyna massacre.1 By then the Company merchants had turned their attention to India from where goods such as cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre and spices were imported. Their first trading post was set up in Surat on the west coast around 1612 after defeating the Portuguese, and the second in Madras (Chennai) in 1640 where Fort St George was constructed. In 1684 this became the first presidency of India, meaning it was selfgoverning with reference to the Court of Directors in London. Charles II, who had acquired it as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry in 1662, leased Bombay (Mumbai) to the Company in 1668 for an annual payment of £10 and it would also become a presidency in its own right. On India’s northeast coast a factory was first established in Hugli (Hooghly) in 1651 and by the end of the seventeenth century Calcutta (Kolkata) was established on the banks of the great Ganges. Fort William was constructed there and grew into the last of the three presidencies of British India. In 1698 a rival trading company, the English Company Trading to the East Indies, was incorporated but a decade later was amalgamated with the existing one. This combined entity was appropriately named the United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies, also known as the Honorable East India Company or, more colloquially, John Company. To protect and control the rapidly increasing administrative network throughout India the Company developed a large private army. Robert Clive’s victory over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies in 1757 at the Battle of Plassey during the Seven Years War (1756–1763) effectively installed the East India Company as a territorial empire in large parts of India. The lucrative China trade was also nurtured and developed throughout the 1700s with a temporary factory in Canton being manned by supercargoes (individuals empowered to conduct trade on behalf of the Company) as permanent residence was not permitted by the Chinese authorities. By the end of the eighteenth century, then, the East India Company emerged as the sole survivor of the private international trading companies formed early in the seventeenth century to trade to the East Indies. The Dutch first founded the Company of Far Lands in 1594 which successfully sent two trading voyages to the Spice Islands. This led to the founding in 1602 of the Dutch United East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) which collapsed in debt in 1795 and was taken over by the state, with its charter being revoked on 1 January 1801. The French East India Company (Compagnie française des Indes orientales) had been founded in 1664 to compete with the British and Dutch, but it too ran into financial difficulties by 1769 and its assets were taken over by the state. A Danish East India Company 1


An informative book dealing with this period is Giles Milton, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History, New York: Penguin Books, 2000.


1 The East India Company Coat of Arms wood, painted and gilded, originally produced/published in c. 1730. Originally hung above the chairman’s seat in the Directors Court Room at East India House, Leadenhall Street. © The British Library Board. c1280009/Foster 887.

(Dansk Østindisk Kompagni) was founded in 1616 but ran out of steam by 1729. Only the smaller Swedish East India Company (Svenska Ostindiska Companiet), founded two years after the dissolution of the Danish company, managed to successfully trade into the nineteenth century, finally folding in 1813. Even the British East India Company did not survive the vicissitudes of the eighteenth century completely unscathed. Apart from financing an unwieldy administration, conflicts such as the First Maratha War (1775–1782) drained the coffers and more than once the Company required financial assistance from the British government. Inevitably its very size demanded further intervention. Following diminution of its independence – firstly by the Regulating Act of 1773 when the post of governor general of India was created, then by William Pitt’s revised India Bill of 1784 – the Company had in essence become a useful instrument of the British government. Despite this, its Court of Directors resolutely maintained a high degree of independence and its policies inevitably influenced British government thinking and strategy. But the trade privileges the Company enjoyed came at an increasingly heavy price. Maintaining the lucrative eastern trade routes, especially to China, was crucial to the financial interests of both the Company and the British government and they needed protecting at all costs. Although the Company had its own form of administration, an army and even a small navy known as the Bombay Marine, the British government also had its own army and navy in the region (and 3


2 ‘Bay of Bengal from Ceylon to Malacca’ attributed to William Herbert, engraving, 1758. On this map Penang is clearly identified as ‘Po. Pinang’. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. F0025. 4


when trying to untangle the history of the British in Asia, it is important to understand the distinction between these two entities). Ostensibly the British Army and Royal Navy were there to support the East India Company’s forces, and overall the relationship was satisfactory.

By the late eighteenth century private ‘country’ traders such as Light and James Scott had become very familiar with the nations, customs and political character of the region collectively known as the East Indies. Their letters to Company officials based in Calcutta, Madras and London were certainly taken notice of, particularly as both had previously served in the British Navy. This interaction is clear in the following letter Light wrote to the governor general, Charles, Earl Cornwallis, on 18 June 1787 summarising events leading to the settlement of Penang in July 1786. The letter also reveals that the motives and urgency were driven by the same reasons that compelled Stamford Raffles to settle Singapore some 33 years later: the dominance of the Dutch in the region. Cornwallis was not convinced that his predecessor, Sir John Macpherson, had made a prudent decision regarding the settlement of Penang and sent Major Alexander Kyd to report his opinion on the matter. Kyd’s arrival in Penang prompted the following response from Light: I now do myself the honor to transmit to your Lordship a description of the Island Salang [Phuket], I had formerly given an Account of this Island to Mr. Stratton Mr. Rumbold and Mr. Hastings and so long ago as the year 71 I wrote Mr. Hastings particularly concerning the country of Quedah and the utility of Pooloo Pinang as a commercial Port recommending it as a convenient Magazine for Eastern Trade. I had then an Idea of a Naval Port being necessary on this side of India, and before the commencement of the last War was convinced of the Jealousy of the Dutch and their endeavours to exclude the British entirely from any part of the Eastern commerce. Their Letters to the Kings of Rheo and Salengore forbad their Princes from having any Trade with the English, I read their letter to the King of Salengore, on my return to Bengal in the Year 80 I represented these circumstances to Mr. Hastings and to facilitate the obtaining a Settlement on Salang proposed the doing it by subscription. A Plan was formed the subscription made and presented to the Hon’ble Board who gave it their sanction in a public Letter [but] before the Vessells and Troops could be made ready a War with France was become certain, Government at this time could afford no supplies and the Merchants were unwilling to trust their property on the eve of a War thus it was for this time neglected. At the conclusion of the War Mr. Hastings endeavoured to procure some place to the Eastward and employed Captain Forest [sic] to enter into Treaty with any of the Malay Princes. While these Negotiations were carrying on in a very languid manner, the Dutch had time to blockade the Port of Rheo for six Months, to suffer a siege at Malacca for six Months more, and then 5


with the Assistance of their Fleet from Holland to take both Rheo and Salengore. It was at this time I formed the resolution of obtaining this Island [Penang] as a barrier to the Dutch encroachments. I had still the same influence with the Governor of Salang and had he lived would have secured a possession of the Island. His Death which happened in December 85 altered the certainty of Success to a dubious point. His Widow the only Person of estimation would willingly have given up her power, Her Sons and Nephews beseeched me to take the Government of the Island, could I have had assurance of support from Government, I should have embraced the offer and secured both these Islands. I requested they would wait two Months and if I did not return with Troops to provide for themselves. On my Arrival at Calcutta I found Mr. Macpherson in the Chair who readily accepted the King of Queda’s offer, but declined taking Salang as it would have required a greater Force than could with any degree of convenience have been sent. As Government require a Naval Port with a Port of Commerce Pinang is more favorable than Salang its situation affording a safe and easy passage to all Prows in all Seasons, an advantage Salang cannot possess. From May to December strong S. W. and N. W. Gales with a heavy Sea render the navigation too difficult and dangerous for Malay Vessells, neither is the situation of Salang so convenient for Ships passing to, or returning from, China, not only the Commanders of the British Vessells but Foreigners continually complained of their being no place of safety East of the Bay of Bengal for ships to take shelter in and refit at, every one seemed to think it a duty incumbent on the English East India Company, they enjoying the greatest possessions and the readiest means for effecting it.2

3 Warren Hastings by Sir Thomas Lawrence, pastel on vellum, 1786 © National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG 3823.

During Light’s visit to Calcutta in early 1786 alluded to above, he had written to Macpherson, signing himself ‘Master of the Speedwell Snow’, where he provides us 2


SSFR, Reel 3, Vol. 2, Fort William Public Consultations, 27 July 1787. Light’s date of 1771 is interesting as Warren Hastings (1732–1818) was still in Madras at that time. Hastings had first arrived in Calcutta in October 1750 as a writer, rising to hold a seat on the Bengal council before returning to Britain in 1765. He returned to India in 1769 as second member of council in Madras before being again appointed to Calcutta. He arrived there on 20 February 1772 and was sworn in as president of the council on 13 April 1772. By the British government’s Regulating Act of 1773, the post of governor general was created, essentially to enable first-hand parliamentary input into the Company’s government of India. Hastings was appointed the first governor general of India with a new council comprising four members, three of whom were politicians, and the first meeting under this new format was held on 20 October 1774. Following the passage of William Pitt’s India Act in 1784 Hastings resigned in protest at the increasing interference of the British government in Company affairs and returned to Britain in 1785. He was impeached by parliament in 1786, but was acquitted after a trial lasting seven years. He died in Daylesford on 22 August 1818.


with first-hand information on the preliminaries leading to the settlement of Penang by the Company: I take the liberty of acquainting you that I am just arrived from the Streights of Malacca, and agreeable to your request at my departure from hence, have during the course of my voyage, made enquiries and procured every possible intelligence relative to the State of those Countries, which I now lay before you. The Dutch have built a Fort at Rheo and placed a strong Garrison, they are now sensible of the great importance of this Place and will by no means deliver it up, they have lost Salengore again, but continue to block up the Port with two of their large Ships and several smaller ones, that no English vessel may enter; the Dutch now possess both sides of the Streights of Malacca from Point Romania to the latitude 5° North, nothing is left but the small Kingdoms of Queda and Acheen. They have expelled the King of Rheo and all his Dependants and have entirely cut off all communication between Borneo and the Streights of Malacca…. As I understood from you that it was the wish of this Government to obtain some useful and convenient Port for the protection of the Merchants who trade to China, and for the Service of His Majesty’s Fleet in the time of War in either Monsoon, I made use of the influence and friendship I had with the King of Queda and his Minister to obtain a Grant of the Island Pinang lying between the 5th and 6th degree north latitude, 12 Leagues from the port of Queda, and 1½ mile from the Continent; it is about 14 miles long, and has a good Harbour, a safe entrance and water for the largest ships. The Island is uncultivated [but] produces in its present state, Timber, Dammer, Rattans, Wood oil, and Tin, abounds with Wild Cattle, Deer and Hogs, has excellent Water, a dry healthy Soil, and the Harbour well stocked with Fish, the Continent (commonly called Old Queda) opposite the Island, is uninhabited, produces great plenty of Rice, is well stocked with Cattle and Poultry, an advantage that Malacca is greatly in want of. The King has sent by me a Grant of this Island to the Honorable Company, under some small restrictions, and appointed me his Agent in this business. By taking possession of this Island you acquire a Port at which all Vessels bound to China may procure refreshments and those articles of Trade, which best suits the China Markets, the Malays and Buggesses will have a place of Safety to come and purchase Opium, Piece Goods, and Europe Manufactures, you will likewise in a short time obtain a more exact knowledge of the state and utility of the Eastern Commerce, and be enabled to form such alliances as may prove beneficial to the Honorable Company both in Peace and War.... I am at all times ready to execute any Commands this Government may have to the best of my abilities, and in the sixteen years traffic, and experience among the Malays & Siamese, I have been so fortunate as to acquire their confidence and esteem, and may presume to know something of their Politics, Government, and Commerce, and you may be assured I will on no 7


account mislead you by false or idly supported Representations of Matters and Things.3 After Warren Hastings resigned as governor general of India in 1785 he handed the reins to Macpherson to act in the role until a successor could be sent out from London. All the lobbying and a renewed offer of Penang by Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah of Kedah transmitted by Light finally resulted in resolutions being passed at a meeting of the Bengal council on 2 March 1786 to accept the sultan’s offer. This, perhaps, was Macpherson’s chance to make his mark, as indeed he would only hold the position until 12 September that year when Hastings’ appointed replacement, Cornwallis, arrived. Though careful not to commit the British government or the East India Company to any promises they could not keep, the Bengal government authorised negotiations and recognised Light as the person best suited to implement the plan he had so earnestly recommended: Resolved in consideration of the Board’s favorable opinion of Captain Francis Light, his knowledge of the Malay Language and the High Esteem in which he stands with the King of Queda & other Malay Chiefs that he be vested with the Charge and Superintendance of the Island of Pinang on the part of the Company until their pleasure be known or until further Orders. – and that he be furnished with a proper Commission as Commander of the Eliza and Superintendant of the Island & Harbour of Pinang.4 Two months later the Bengal government was making known its decision to enable Light to take possession of Penang: To the Presidencies of Fort St George and Bombay the Residency of Fort Marlboro’ and the Super Cargoes at Canton – Gentlemen We beg leave to inform you that in Consequence of a Grant from the King of Queda of the Island of Pinang to the East India Company We have deputed Captain Francis Light to take Possession of that Island and have vested him with the Charge of Superintendance thereof. Our Object in accepting the King of Queda’s Grant is to procure a convenient Place of refreshment for the Kings the Companys and the Country Ships as well as to connect the Bengal Trade with that of China by providing a Port where Ships of our Nation may meet the Eastern Merchants, the Conduct of the Dutch evinces the necessity of this Measure. The Situation of the Island of Pinang renders it more eligible for the Establishment We propose than any other as it lies in the Track of the China Ships from Bombay, Madras and Bengal. Captain Light has been furnished with a Commission as Captain on our Marine Establishment and Commander of the Eliza Snow and we direct 3 4


SSFR, Reel 1, Vol. 2, Miscellaneous Correspondence; Light’s letter dated 25 January 1786. SSFR, Reel 1, Vol. 2, Fort William Proceedings in Council, 2 March 1786.


that you will correspond with him and afford him on every occasion such assistance as he may require for the Purposes intended by the Expedition.5 As a result Penang officially began its era under East India Company administration when Light took possession on 11 August 1786 on behalf of the Company, naming it Prince of Wales’s Island. When Cornwallis arrived in Calcutta in September the same year he made it clear he was not altogether enamoured with the arrangement: I will not go so far as to say that in the present embarrassed state of the Company’s finances, I would have recommended the undertaking. Before any advantages can be expected, expenditures to a large amount must be made, which cannot be supplied without encroaching upon funds already appropriated to answer a variety of urgent demands. What in a more prosperous state of the Company’s Finances might have been highly advantageous, may from the reverse prove burthensome, if not prejudicial. My objections, as the Board will perceive, go rather to the time in which this measure has been resolved upon, than to the measure itself. The Plan has however now, in my opinion, gone too far to be hastily retracted. I shall therefore think it my duty to promote its success as far as I can, consistently with the rigid economy which our present circumstances so loudly call for.6 These sentiments would indeed prove prophetic and Penang’s development would be heavily impeded for decades to come. In fact the Company had occupied Penang under somewhat misleading circumstances. Hoping the British presence would deter would-be invaders of Kedah – in particular the Siamese and Burmese – the sultan had proposed that if such a threat were to materialise the British should come to his aid. This was a key consideration for occupation. In fact it was described by Light as ‘the principal and almost only reason’. But the politics of the region was such that the British were averse to becoming embroiled in local disputes. They did not want to upset the Burmese, with whom significant trade was undertaken, or the powerful Siamese kingdom, with whom they wished to establish trade. King George III overruled the Company and declined to ratify this condition. This of course not only placed Light in a delicate situation but potentially threatened the British occupation of the island itself, as the aggrieved Sultan of Kedah would happily have accepted a better offer from the Dutch or French, a possibility Light was all too aware of. The other condition had been that as a British settlement would adversely affect the monopoly previously enjoyed by the sultan over trade in articles such as tin and rattan, compensation for the loss of an estimated Sp$30,000 per year was requested. After a standoff by both sides lasting nearly five years, which culminated in a show of force, compensation in the form of an annual payment to Kedah of Sp$6,000 was accepted by the vanquished sultan, although later augmented with a further annual payment of Sp$4,000 upon Light’s urging, dependent on the sultan’s ‘good behaviour’. 5 6

SSFR, Reel 1, Vol. 2, Fort William Proceedings in Council, 2 May 1786. SSFR, Reel 1, Vol. 1, Fort William Proceedings in Council, 13 December 1786. 9


In 1800 a strip of land on the Kedah coast was ceded to the East India Company and a completely new treaty superseded the original, granting full cession of Penang and the new territory subject to continuation of the annual payment of Sp$10,000. This area, named Province Wellesley by Sir George Leith after his great friend and ardent supporter the governor general, Richard Colley Wellesley (1st Marquess Wellesley), was not only expedient militarily in controlling both sides of the narrow strait between Penang and the mainland, but also economically by protecting and providing supplies of agricultural produce, especially rice. For Kedah it offered a degree of the protection originally sought by placing Company land between the sea and its own territory. Remarkably, an annual payment continues to this day. During Light’s tenure he was regularly called upon to reassure the Bengal government that the settlement was a viable proposition. He doggedly pursued his vision for the island despite poor remuneration and little assistance or encouragement from India: On my first appointment to the charge of settling this Colony, I made no stipulation with Government for any Salary or future provision. I was requested to charge my expences; on your Lordship’s arrival I was honoured with a Salary of 1,000 Rupees pr. Month this with the emoluments arising from Trade enabled me to support the Office of Superintendant without incurring any distress, my expences have amounted Monthly to 1,500 Dollars including buildings, and I know not of one emolument appertaining to the Office except the Influence in having the opportunity of being the first Purchaser of every commodity that comes to the Port, this power tho’ never exacted by me yet is supposed to be done, and occasions many Malicious reports, with much uneasiness and vexation to myself. I must frequently give judgement against myself without reason to avoid the imputation of partiality, and suffer many oblique reflections which in any other situation I should either escape or resent.… [M]y petition is therefore to your Lordship that you would not only free me from these accusations but deprive me of the Power of deserving them, by such increase of Salary as will support the Office with decency and enable me to make a small provision for an approaching old Age.7 Light died on 21 October 1794 without ever receiving an increase in salary, and without the satisfaction of being vindicated in his judgement of Penang’s strategic importance. That would come the following year after the annexation of the Netherlands by France which resulted in an increased French presence in the region. This was particularly so in Java where the generals refused to accede to orders by the exiled stadtholder of the Netherlands, William V, Prince of Orange, to hand over control to the British in order to keep the Dutch East Indies territories out of 7


SSFR, Reel 3, Vol. 4, Fort William Proceedings in Council, 18 June 1790; Light’s letter dated 19 May 1790. There were approximately 2.1 sicca rupees to a Spanish dollar, which meant that Light’s expenses were over three times his salary. When Philip Manington succeeded Light in 1794 the salary was doubled to Rs2,000.


French hands. Malacca, however, did fall under British control in 1795 and its possession would greatly benefit the growth of Penang for nearly two decades. Likewise, occupation of the Dutch-controlled Moluccas the following year provided an unprecedented opportunity to break the long-held Dutch monopoly on the highly valuable nutmeg and clove trade. When the fragile peace created by the Treaty of Amiens broke down in 1803 and led to the reemergence of war between Britain and Napoleonic France, the British Admiralty, under the indomitable Lord Melville (Henry Dundas), was swayed to the notion that Penang was indeed a judicious location for a naval base and shipbuilding dockyard to augment that of Bombay, and to protect not only the trade route to China but also, strategically, the east coast of India. To facilitate this, and despite heated opposition in both parliament and among the Company’s Court of Directors themselves, the vote narrowly swung Melville’s way. In 1805 Penang was granted its own government and raised to the exalted rank of the fourth presidency of India, in company with those of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Answerable directly to the Court of Directors, but subservient to the governor general of India, there was an acceptance that although the settlement would continue to be a financial burden to the East India Company, it was necessary for British national interests. No sooner had the new government arrived in Penang than the war turned in Britain’s favour following the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Defeat of the Franco–Dutch government in Java and the capitulation of French naval strongholds on Île Bourbon (Réunion) and Île de France (Mauritius) followed within a few years. As a result, the British Admiralty had no further motive to pursue a naval base in Penang. Without this support, and coupled with the rising dominance of Singapore after 1819, it became a tough but losing battle for Penang to justify its illustrious designation. The subordinate territories of Malacca and Singapore were attached to the Penang presidency in 1826. But in 1830 the three settlements were reduced to residencies, once again falling under the direct authority of the Bengal government. The seat of this reduced form of government was then relocated to Singapore upon the departure of Governor Robert Fullerton in October 1831. The East India Company’s trading history of some 235 years came to an abrupt end when the British parliament’s Government of India Act of 1833 abolished the Company’s trade monopoly with China as of 22 April 1834. Significantly, the Company was ordered to sell all its merchandise and commercial assets ‘at home and abroad’. Instead it was vested with the unenviable task of administering its

4 ‘William V, Prince of Orange’ by Caroline Watson, after Ozias Humphry, stipple engraving, published by Anthony Molteno, 21 May 1798 © National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG D15931.



territories under the stern gaze of the Crown for a further twenty years, encumbered with burgeoning debt and insufficient revenue to offset it. Opening up the China trade had huge ramifications. The highly profitable though illicit opium trade to China had previously been monopolised by the Company, but with the floodgates open, private traders brought a tidal wave of opium smuggling to Chinese shores. The Chinese government’s objections to the trade resulted in the outbreak of war between Britain and China in 1840. As it involved a commodity so profitable to India, the Company, as administrator, was also drawn into the conflict. The end result was the Treaty of Nanking of 29 August 1842 whereby Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and restrictions on trade and residence at the vital ports of Shanghai and Canton were lifted. In deference to the Company’s needs the opium trade was not abolished, but nevertheless remained illicit. By the Government of India Act of 1853 the East India Company’s administrative role was extended indefinitely but was soon to fall. Chinese resistance to the terms of the Treaty of Nanking led to a second war in 1856, a second defeat and the Treaty of Tientsin, first signed on 28 June 1858 but not ratified until 18 October 1860. China succumbed to greater foreign access with some 11 ports now opened to Western trade and, worst of all, the legitimisation of the opium trade. This would come too late for the East India Company, however, as it was abolished with the passing of the Government of India Act on 2 August 1858. This final act was precipitated by the horrors of the Indian mutiny and the associated popular uprising the year before. The British Crown absorbed all the possessions and assets of the Company.

The analysis of the Company’s administration of Penang until the cessation of the China trade is dealt with here as individual histories denominated as ‘books’ to indicate that each has its own story to tell. Volume One deals primarily with the administrative history of the island and is organised into four parts. Book One, ‘Ships for a Presidency’, examines the reasons behind the elevation of Penang to presidency status and the expectations, difficulties, successes and failures encountered in attempting to construct large timber ships – the backbone of international trade and maritime defence – on the island. Book Two, ‘The Administrators’, introduces the various personalities who held the reins of power during the first 50 years of the settlement and provides an overview of key events that occurred during their tenure. Book Three, ‘Government House’, and Book Four, ‘Suffolk House’, deal with the private and public roles these two most significant residential buildings played while housing Penang’s leading authority, as well as providing detailed descriptions of the buildings themselves and associated problems which arose. These two buildings still stand today, the latter due mainly to a recent extensive restoration. It is hoped that this volume of Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India will offer the reader a thorough understanding of these important aspects of Penang’s early history before moving on to Volume Two, which will explore other significant buildings and military structures, public institutions and facilities and natural disasters. 12







t may appear unusual to begin a history of early Penang with a study of shipbuilding. However, in the days when slow, timber sailing vessels were the mainstays of international trade, a primary requirement was for regular and safe stopover points: sea ports with an ability to provide a facility for repair, refreshment and protection. From the early seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries trade between Britain and the Asia was tightly controlled by the East India Company. The principal motivation for the establishment of a settlement on Penang in 1786 was indeed to satisfy such a requirement, with the added rationale of providing a strategic toehold on the valuable trade route between Britain, India and China in a region long and increasingly dominated by the Dutch. Moreover, Penang’s location on the eastern side of the seasonally treacherous Bay of Bengal offered a port that was protected from monsoonal influences, thereby providing a year-round windward defensive position for the protection of India’s east coast. These combined advantages convinced the East India Company’s Bengal government to experiment with a settlement there under the superintendence of one of the island’s greatest proponents, the ex-naval man and country trader Francis Light. Indeed once provisional permission to settle was granted by the Sultan of Kedah, it was not long before naval strategists were dispatched to the island to ascertain its potential. While they generally deemed Penang promising it was not until an escalation of hostilities recommenced between the French and British following the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803 that the idea emerged for promoting the island as a critical Admiralty base from which to protect the East Indies and eastern side of India, augmenting Bombay’s role on the western side. If naval ships could be built in Penang, then better still. This was the catalyst for elevating Penang to the status of the fourth presidency of India in 1805, and by default providing some long wished-for assurance of the island’s retention by the East India Company. After all, it was now important enough to have its own government as well as a resident naval commander-in-chief. Here we see a good example of interaction between the British government and the shareholder-owned East India Company: the Admiralty (representing the Royal Navy) on one side utilising a Company base and obliging the Company to lift the level of its administration, and consequent expense, on the other. Underlying this decision, however, was a common challenge: to find an alternative place to construct warships and ships of trade. Each year the Company would hire ships for a given number of trading voyages to various parts of the world. These vessels varied from around 500 to 800 tons for the India trade, right up to the largest for the China trade route of 1,200 tons or more in size in order to carry enough freight to justify the long voyages. The China-bound ships were generally contracted for one to eight return voyages, each of which took around two years to complete with stopovers and refits. A direct voyage could be completed in around 15 months. Generally leaving Britain in the first quarter of the year, the traditional course was via Bombay or Madras and Calcutta then on to Canton via the Sunda Strait. As the French wars extended to the eastern seas this route became highly risky.



A British port in Penang thus offered a safer alternative route down the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and on to China. The ships generally travelled in convoys escorted by an armed naval vessel and arrived in China around the third quarter of the year. They would then reload and leave Canton around December with the northeast monsoon winds, arriving back in Britain anywhere from April to September, depending on stopovers. A voyage between London and Penang typically took five months. With the politics of the region dictating the trade routes it is not surprising that the number of Company ships sailing via Penang fluctuated according to the level of safety or otherwise. For example, as French intimidation receded, particularly after the British took Java in 1811, more vessels passed through the Sunda Strait and the Penang authorities had to plead with the Court of Directors to order ships to travel via the island in the interests of propping up the economy. In 1698 the Company had been granted an extension of its exclusive trade to Asia in perpetuity, but in 1781 the British government passed an Act reducing the privilege to ten years with a further three years grace while a further extension was discussed. This monopolistic ‘charter’ agreement, among other things, restricted private trade goods from being carried to or from Britain from India, the East Indies and China by anyone not licensed by the Company. In fact this monopoly extended to all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan (the southern tip of South America). Private individuals were also required to obtain a permit to travel to or stay at Company-controlled settlements. In 1793 the charter was renewed for 20 years, at the end of which the monopoly of trade between India and Britain was opened up to competition. With the 1833 charter the Company’s China trade monopoly was also abolished.

5 A View of the European Factories at Canton by William Daniell, oil on canvas, late 18th–early 19th centuries © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. E0074.



Most vessels serving the East India Company were built of oak in Britain for favoured ‘managing owners’ who then leased them to the Company at lucrative rates. During the Napoleonic Wars demand for shipbuilding timber resulted in a severe depletion of oak forests, which is not surprising when one considers it could take up to 2,000 trees to construct the largest ships of the line. As a result, the Company was banned from constructing ships larger than 800 tons in Britain and the Admiralty was also forced to look offshore for new sources of timber and shipbuilding. Much to the chagrin of the British shipbuilders, Indian-built teak ships began to appear in their harbours. Although private experiments in constructing ships had taken place in Calcutta, and a substantial dockyard had been proposed further down the Ganges many years before Penang was settled, most early shipbuilding in India took place on the west coast, where construction of sailing ships has a history dating back nearly 2,000 years. The East India Company had also established a dockyard in Bombay in the early eighteenth century employing the expertise of Parsi shipbuilders from Surat and numerous substantial vessels had been constructed there. Along with the proposal for Penang to host a naval arsenal and dockyard, the potential for building Company trading vessels there as well was obvious. Despite high hopes, two principal factors militated against Penang’s success as a shipbuilding centre: first, Britain’s growing success over the French following the Battle of Trafalgar and the subsequent reluctance by the Admiralty or the Company to spend money they really did not have on the project; and second, the difficulties encountered in obtaining the vast quantities of the right sort of timber required to build large warships, combined with the inherent economic challenges in transporting it to Penang. Without money the relevant infrastructure, equipment and personnel could not be procured; and without a supply of timber the whole exercise was impractical. Nevertheless, in the course of time, two substantial vessels were constructed – one for the Admiralty and one for the Company. This little known achievement in Penang’s history represents not only a monumental feat of perseverance but also a demonstration of the regional and international dealings and diplomacy required in order to reach that goal. The discussion here elaborates on these scenarios and explores shipbuilding developments that took place prior to and following Penang’s elevation to presidency status, as well as identifying the reasons why the industry failed to live up to expectations. It also provides an understanding of what it meant for Penang to become a presidency of India.

EARLY DELIBERATIONS Storms, lightning strikes, adversarial attacks and groundings were all potential sources of injury to vessels. Sacrificing a mast or two overboard in order to keep a ship afloat preserved many a mariner’s life. It follows then that replacement masts were a commonly sought commodity. Perhaps the first British visitors to recognise Penang’s potential for such timbers were Captain James Lancaster and his crew in the Edward Bonaventure who sheltered in Penang from June to August 1592, as 16

"Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India" General introduction and Intro to Book One  
"Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India" General introduction and Intro to Book One  

Book One of "The Fourth Presidency" is entitled "Ships for a Presidency"