The History Gallery

On the first floor of the Museum is The History Gallery, tracing the early history of Penang in a panoramic display. It begins with the establishment of the British East India Company, traces the career of Captain Francis Light and the subsequent British administration of the settlement until the Japanese Occupation in 1941. The cultural and religious observances of the various communities of Penang, the many landmarks and historic buildings and the general physical, social and educational developments that evolved, are illustrated.

As early as the first decade of the fifteenth century, the island of Penang had been charted as Ping Lang Yu in the navigational drawings used by Admiral Cheng Ho in his expedition to the South Seas.

Isolated Malay hamlets were believed to have existed on the island in the 1760s although the one at Datuk Keramat may have been in existence at the turn of the eighteenth century. The oldest mosque was built in 1734 at Batu Uban. While some villages were pioneered by Malays who had fled from Kedah on the mainland, others grew as a result of early trade activities on the island.

It was an Englishman, James Lancaster, who forecast the promise of Penang to the British. Lancaster visited Penang in 1591 as second-in-command of three small ships. He returned to England with a Portuguese booty. The voyage "marked an epoch in English commercial history" (Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, Its History, People, Commerce, and Resources, Singapore 1989). It led directly to the formation of the East India Company in 1600.

Eventually, the China trade became monopolised by the East India Company. This trade had developed out of the European desire for luxury articles from China, such as tea, silk and porcelain. The East India Company desired protection and further expansion of this trade which was both valuable in itself as well as the means to defray administrative expenditure of British rule of India.

In order to protect this trade, there was a need to establish a British port of call between China and India, somewhere in the Malay Archipelago. There their ships could harbour, refit and refill during the change of monsoons.

This base was also essential for the collection of Straits products. The British also hoped that with this base, Chinese traders could be attracted from Canton where there were many restrictions. Thus the stage was set for the founding of Penang by Francis Light.

Francis Light, an English “country” trader, arrived in India in the mid-1760s. Eventually, he chose Junk Ceylon (Phuket), an island off southern Siam (Thailand), as his base of operations for trade between India, southern Siam and the northern Malay Peninsula.

Light used his influence to persuade the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang to the British. The Sultan agreed to do so in return for monetary compensation and a promise of assistance against his enemies.

Early unrest in Penang

On 11 August 1786, Francis Light hoisted the Union Jack and took formal possession of the island of Penang “in the name of His Britannic Majesty and for the use of the Honourable East India Company”. (V.W.W.S. Purcell,Early Penang, Penang, 1928). He named it Prince of Wales Island. The local name of Pulau Pinang (betel-nut island) is derived from the tall slender betel-nut palms found abundantly on the island.

As a free port, the harbour was a busy place; ocean liners and coastal steamers docked at Swettenham Pier or anchored in the channel. Launchers andtongkang (lighters) were moored alongside merchant vessels for loading and unloading. More tongkang plied to and from Victoria Pier which jutted from the end of Downing Street. The waterfront along Weld Quay bustled with the maritime activities of European businesses like Boustead, Behn Meyer and Paterson Simons which had their offices facing the sea.

Soon after his arrival, Light began laying out the township of George Town, beginning with two streets, Beach Street and Light Street. By the 1790s, most of the other streets had already been laid out. Light himself served in various capacities and acted with foresight and diplomatic resourcefulness. Sir George Leith, Lieutenant - Governor of Penang in 1804, acknowledged that Light “had the satisfaction to see, before his death, the Settlement in a more flourishing state than his most sanguine hopes could have let him to expect, in so short a time” (Sir George Leith, A Short Account of the Settlement, Produce and Commerce of Prince of Wales Island in the Straits of Malacca, London, 1804).

A unique brass container used
 to boil water in the "kopi-tiams"

 Notes On My Native Land

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. . . from the early days

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The Museum Courtyard

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 The History Gallery

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The Captain Robert Smith Room &
 The William Daniell Room

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The Many Faces of Penang

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The Malays of Penang

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The Indians of Penang

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The Chinese of Penang

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The Baba Nyonya Culture

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The Streets of Penang

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European lady, coiffured and beautifully derssed, ready for her leisurely stroll

For enquiries and feedback regarding the Penang Museum & Art Gallery, kindly e-mail us at

STATE MUSEUM BOARD: 2nd Floor, Dewan Sri Pinang, 10200 Penang
(Tel. & Fax. No: 604-2613144)

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