|The history of Penang meaningfully began when
a quick wit Francis Light discovered that this island off the northern
Malaya littoral was the seamless fit in the jigsaw of the British Empire's
eastern money puzzle. Then, the East India Company (EIC) had been pulling
in the Empire's 18th century bacon in Asia, from India particularly, with
profitable and uncompassionate finesse, but something was still missing.
When it caught Francis Light's fancy and imagination in 1771, Pulau (Malay
for island) Pinang (betel nut), as it was known, had a population of
roughly 50 and was owned by the Sultanate of Kedah. A deal was struck only
a decade later when the Sultan's heir, Abdullah, came to the throne.
"Take the island and take away my enemies," were the Sultanate's
terms, referring to northerly Siamese and Burmese threat, plus $30,000 a
year for rent.
1786 saw Light set up a port in Penang, but British occupation of Penang was not legally ratified until five years later when gunboat diplomacy forged a 1791 treaty that imposed on the Sultanate of Kedah a reduced annual rental of $,6000. In 1800, the adjacent mainland area, Province Wellesley, was also the British to keep. The stronghold of fishing folks then on Penang island gained a new kind of life under Light's founding zeal, and generous land grants attracted large number of settlers, particularly the Chinese. The first Chinese to establish themselves in Penang came from a Chinese community in Kedah, and the first Kapitan Cina was a baba named Koh Lay Huan.
In two years, a cosmopolitan population of largely Chinese, Indian, Sumatrans and Burmese of several thousand sprouted. Light was declared the Superintendent and Penang a free port. Light renamed Penang "Prince of Wales Island", while Georgetown was named after the reigning king, George III.
Light passed away in 1796, overworked and disillusioned, and was buried at the Protestants' Cemetery. His legacy abounds in Penang, from a street in his name, Lebuh Light'to a memorial at St George's Church, and a "Francis Light Well" at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, where his former residence, a handsome bungalow, remains in good condition.
Thus Penang was the first EIC settlement in Malaya, and was followed in quick succession by Singapore in 1819 and Malacca in 1824, leading to the formation of the Straits Settlements in 1826. The British Colonial Office took direct control in 1867 and Penang was officially a crown colony. From then on, Penang became as oriental as the Chinese coolies and merchants who settled on the island in increasing numbers. Chinese diasporas through the ages had sought protection and a sense of belonging in clans, which were largely organised along dialect groups or ancestral districts. Khoo Kongsi, Cheah Kongsi, Yeoh Kongsi, Chung Keng Kooi Temple, Carpenters, Guild, Ng Fook Thong Cantonese Districts Association and the numerous guilds and clans along Lebuh King are good illustrations.
An unsavoury mutation of these benevolent self-help formations and fronts of solidarity was the infiltration of triad or secret society operations in the thick of these patriotic and hot-blooded yellow-skinned thoroughbreds. The Penang Riots marked nine days of fighting and bloodshed among the big-name secret societies in the streets of Penang. The authorities, were helpless against the rout and the jails could not keep up with a surge of criminal demand.
But soon the Malay Peninsula was to enter a new phase of interventionist rule under the British from which a semblance of civility and order gradually developed. The Pangkor Agreement in 1874 gave rise to the appointment of Sir Frank Swettenham, who lent his name to the Frank Swettenham's Pier'the first British Resident-General of the Federated Malay States who would significantly improve British political control. A historian noted, "The economic development and the law and order brought about by the British served as a great stimulus to immigration, and hence the Chinese population in Singapore and Malaya increased substantially."
In addition, the Suez Canal had opened in 1869, which had the effect of quadrupling the volume of British trade with India alone by the end of that century. The first rail line in Malaysia, 8.5 miles from Weld Quay to Taiping, started service in 1885. Penang prospered and the nouveau riche towkays built themselves grand temples of wealth along Millionaire's Row, and even grander exhibits of success, like the Cheong Fat Tze Mansion with its accompanying servants' quarters across the road which had been converted into modern dining and entertainment outlets, such as 20 Leith Street and Jaipur Court. The legacy of the Chinese immigrants lives on in the heart of Chinatown, the riots a distant and forgotten memory and the most visible landmark along Lebuh Armenian today is 120 Armenian Street, once the office of Dr Sun Yet Sun's revolutionary campaign.
The cosmopolitan population of Light's time persisted to this day, though some communities like the Jews and the Armenians had moved on long ago. The proof is in the kaleidoscopic parade of religious monuments on the island, such as the Cathedral of the Assumption and Georgetown Baptist Church; the Taoist Tua Peh Kong Temple and Snake Temple; the Buddhist Dharmikara Temple and Wat Chayamangkalaram; the Hindu Ayira Vaisyar Sri Meenakshi Temple and the Sikh Gurdwara Temple; and finally, the State Mosque and Acheen Street Mosque.
Perhaps true to Kipling's "call to humility and warning that the proudest empire is ephemeral as a day's pageant", the British walked into a moment of weakness, a permanent one in retrospect, at the Second World War. The curtains came down for the white men and his phoney "white men's burden". Nevertheless, the island inherited the best samples of British colonial architecture in this country in buildings like the Town Hall, the State Legislative Building and many more along the commercial thoroughfare of Lebuh Pantai.
Penang, free to forge its own destiny, jumped onto the 1957 Independence bandwagon as the other states of Malaya and became an inseparable part of this country's nationhood.