Penang Harbour 1900 - Old Penang

The white buildings and red roofs, which house a hundred thousand people, crammed closely together on the flat tongue of land that stretches, from the foot of Pinang Hill, right out into the Strait which divides it from the mainland, just as though the island were ever trying to get its foot back on the opposite shore. And when the red roofs cease to catch the eye as a mass, they twinkle at you, here and there, from the foliage of garden and orchard, till all is merged in green and purple against the background of that great hill.”

Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, describing his arrival at Penang in 1907.

In the Beginning

A long, long, time ago, there was this little island which was largely deserted despite its strategic position on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal. Until the 18th century, it was under the dominion of the Sultan of Kedah (Muslim state sharing border with Siam). Portuguese sailors and traders called the island Pulo Pinaom, probably because of the ‘pinang’ or the betel-nut palm trees found there. In the early 17th century, the East India Company was formed by English merchants to safeguard their trade in the region, particularly for luxury articles such as tea, silk and porcelain with China. In order for trade to flourish, they needed to establish an English port between China and India. The stage was set for the opening of Penang.

And then ... there was light

It was the initiative of English trader and adventurer called Francis Light that led to the British acquisition of Penang. Light’s 15 years of experience in the Malay Archipelago, his fluency in speaking Thai and Malay, combined with his knowledge of the people and local culture, made him wise in regional politics. Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang to the British in return for $10,000 annually and a promise of military assistance against his enemies, namely the Siamese.

On 11 August 1786, Francis Light hoisted the Union Jack and took formal possession of the island. He named the island Prince of Wales Island in honour of the man who would eventually be crowned King George IV, and named the new settlement on the eastern cape Georgetown for the prince’s father, George III.

By 1790, the Sultan of Kedah felt betrayed by the British.The Company was only paying $6,000 annually, as opposed to Light’s suggestion of $10,000; but more importantly, they had refused to give military protection from the Siamese forces. The Sultan’s effort to recapture Penang was easily defeated, and as a result, a treaty was signed. The Sultan would receive the annual payment of $10,000, but Kedah had to surrender the strip of land opposite Penang island, which was named Seberang Prai by the Malays. The British named it Province Wellesley, after the governor-general in India at the time.

Under Light’s resourceful administration, Penang was declared a free port to attract traders and their businesses. To facilitate growth, Light brought in labourers and settlers. Labour came in the form of people from all parts of the Malay Archipelago, and later from south China and India. Together, they formed the backbone of Penang and gave birth to a multi-cultural cosmopolitan township.

When the Second World War broke out, Penang fell promptly into the hands of the Japanese Armed Forces in 1941. After more than three years of terror, the Japanese surrendered to the British Forces in 1941. In 1957, Malaya secured her independence from the British. A new nation was born in 1963 and Penang became one of its 13 component states.

15th century Charted as “PingLang Yu” in the navigational drawings used by Admiral Cheng Ho in his expedition to the South Seas.Early Malays call it “Pulau Ka Satu” or “Single Island”

“Pulau Pinang” is the Malay name for Penang. Literally translated, Pulau Pinang means “Island of the Betel Nut Tree”.

The Pinang Tree

The British renamed it “Prince of Wales’ Island” and its township “Georgetown” (after King George III).

After Malaysia’s independence, the name reverted to “Penang” and “Pulau Pinang”. George Town still stands as the city’s name, but Malays refer to it as “Tanjung (Headland)”.

To further complicate matters, locals commonly refer to the city and island simply as “Penang”.

The strip of land on the mainland is still called “Province Wellesley” and “Seberang Prai”.

Many places and street names are still undergoing change as colonial names are being exchanged for Malay ones.

Penang is also attached with such romantic titles by its admirers: “Pearl of the Orient”, Gateway to the East”, and “Isle ofTemples”.

Francis Light, Founder of Penang

The man responsible for opening  and developing Penang island into a thriving port. Together with Stamford Raffles in Singapore, they established the British presence in this region with their experience and unique style of diplomacy.

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