On August 11, 1786, Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company established the British Settlement of Prince of Wales Island which later became the Colony of Penang in what is now Malaysia. The capital of the colony —George Town — was the first British colony in Southeast Asia. Captain Light had previously tried to convince the East India Company to establish a settlement on Phuket (then known as Jungceylon) in modern-day Thailand but sailed south when Burmese forces invaded that island. Penang formed part of the Straits Settlements in 1826, together with Singapore and Malacca, which became a British crown colony in 1867. Direct British rule was only briefly interrupted during World War II, when Japan occupied Penang before being recaptured by the British at war’s end. Penang was later merged with the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia), which gained independence from the British in 1957.
The present Malaysian state of Penang is located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Malacca Strait and consists of two parts: Penang Island, where the capital city, George Town, is located, and Seberang Perai (formerly Province Wellesley) on the Malay Peninsula. The second smallest Malaysian state by land mass, Penang is bordered by Kedah to the north and the east, and Perak to the south.
Due to the intermingling of the various ethnicities and religions that arrived on its shores, George Town acquired a large eclectic assortment of colonial and Asian architectural styles. It also gained a reputation as Malaysia’s gastronomic capital for its distinct and ubiquitous street food. Moreover, the city hosts unique cultural heritage, such as the Peranakans whose legacies are still visible on Penang’s architecture and cuisine. The historical core of George Town has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.
Following the decline of its entrepôt trade towards the 1970s, Penang’s economy was reoriented towards hi-tech manufacturing. Known as the Silicon Valley of the East for its industries, the state is currently one of Malaysia’s most vital economic powerhouses. Penang has the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita among all Malaysian states and is considered a high-income economy. In addition, Penang recorded the nation’s second highest Human Development Index, after Kuala Lumpur. Correspondingly, the state has a relatively well-educated population, with a youth literacy rate of 99.5% as of 2014.
Its heterogeneous population is highly diverse in ethnicity, culture, language and religion. Aside from the three main races, the Chinese, Malays and Indians, Penang is home to significant Eurasian, Siamese and expatriate communities. A resident of Penang is colloquially known as a Penangite or Penang Lâng (in Penang Hokkien).
Due to its proximity to my home of Phuket, Thailand, I’ve visited George Town on Penang Island numerous times. The historical area of the city is very similar to that of the Old Town area on Phuket (only much, much larger) with crossovers in food, clothing, architecture, and origins. Many of the early residents of my community were Straits Chinese — known as either Peranakan (峇峇娘惹) or Baba Nyonya (土生華人) — who had relocated from Penang in the late 19th century and close ties exist between the two locations to this day. Please see the stamp issuers article on the Malayan State of Penang for more details on the general and postal history of the colony and state up to its independence from the British Empire on August 31, 1957. The post-independence era as the Malaysian State of Pulau Pinang is covered in its own issuers article. This article covers Captain Light’s establishment of the settlement of George Town, the construction of Fort Cornwallis, and the earliest years of the colony until Singapore supplanted the island as the premier port of the region.
The modern history of Penang only began in the late 18th century. In the 1770s, Francis Light was instructed by the British East India Company (EIC) to form trade relations in the Malay Peninsula. Light subsequently landed in Kedah, which was by then a Siamese vassal state. Aware that the Sultanate was under external and internal threats, he promised British military protection to the then Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin II; in return, the Sultan offered Penang Island to the British.
At the time, Light resided on the Siamese island formerly known as Thalang (ถลาง — Tha-Laang, derived from the old Malay telong meaning “cape”). In Western sources and navigation charts, it was known as Jung Ceylon or Junkceylon (a corruption of the Malay Tanjung Salang, “Cape Salang”). The present name of Phuket is a relatively recent one, probably deriving from the Malay word bukit (بوكيت) meaning “hill” as this is what the island appears like from a distance. On several occasions, Light had attempted to convince his superiors in the British East India Company to settle Phuket as a British colony.
Early in 1785, Captain Light notified the local administration in Thalang that he had observed Burmese forces preparing to attack. Than Phu Ying Chan, the wife of the recently deceased governor, and her sister Mook (คุณมุก) assembled what local forces they could. After a month-long siege of the capital city, the Burmese were forced to retreat on March 13, 1785. The women became local heroines, receiving the royal titles Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Si Sunthon from the Siamese king, Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (พระบาทสมเด็จพระพุทธยอดฟ้าจุฬาโลก), known in the West as King Rama I.
In mid-1786, the British East India Company finally ordered Light to obtain the island from Kedah. The Ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah had asked for British protection and, in return, he agreed to lease out Penang for defensive protection and an annual payment of thirty thousand Spanish dollars. The offer of leasing the island was accepted by the Governor-General of India at Calcutta on July 2, 1786. However, the question of the quantum of defense aid and annual compensation was referred to the Court of Directors of the British East India Company in London.
Light was given the command of the ship Eliza with 30,000 rupees approved for the expedition to Penang . This consisted of of 100 native marines, 30 lascars, 15 artillery men, 5 British officers, and two escort ships, the Prince Henry and Speedwell. On July 9, Light met Sultan Abdullah who was not pleased with the vague nature of the agreement. Light convinced the Sultan to tentatively allow him to occupy Penang and also agreed to give half the profits of the sale of tin, opium and rattan to the Sultan as a temporary measure until an official reply came from London. A provisional agreement was signed by Captain Francis Light and Sultan Abdullah of Kedah on July 9, 1786.
After this agreement was ratified, Light and his entourage left Kuala Kedah on July 14, arriving at Pulau Tikus the following day. On July 17, marines landed at Penaga Point on Penang Island which was a virtual jungle at that time. To clear the jungle was going to be a formidable and time-consuming task. Light thought of a easy solution, loading his ships’ cannons with undated and unnamed Uniface 1 Pice (1 cent) coins and shot these into the jungle. The coins had been struck at the Calcutta Mint in readiness for Light’s expedition. No name was engraved on the coins as the name of the colony had not yet been decided. The obverse had the bale mark of the United East India Company (VEIC) within a double plain line circle. The marines who had accompanied him on the expedition, including some Chinese and Indian adventurers and fisherman, were all provided with machettes (parang) and told to clear the jungle and keep any coins they found for themselves. In the process, part of the jungle was cleared within a few days.
The jungle-covered swamp where Light first landed bordered what was later named Light Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street and now called the Esplanade. The cleared area became a parade ground known as the Padang. On August 10, the East India Company ships Vansittart and Valentine arrived with goods for the establishment of the new settlement on Penang Island. Once the area was cleared, a simple ceremony was held on August 11, 1786, during which the Union Jack was raised and Light took formal possession of the island “in the name of His Britannic Majesty, King George III and the Honourable East India Company”. The island was renamed Prince of Wales Island after the heir to the British throne (the future King George IV) as August 11 was his birthday. The new British settlement of George Town was established in honor of King George III.
Under the administration of Governor-General Sir John Macpherson, Light was entitled Superintendent and put in charge of the settlement; thus occasioning the beginning of British expansion into the Malay States, and into British colonization in Southeast Asia. Light founded George Town as a free port thus allowing merchants to trade without having to pay any form of tax or duties. The policy’s intent was to entice traders from the Dutch ports in the region. Simultaneously, spices were harvested on the island, turning it into a regional center for spice production. Consequently, maritime trade at the Port of Penang grew exponentially. The number of incoming vessels rose from 85 in 1786 to 3,569 in 1802; George Town’s population had also increased to 10,000 by 1792.
In 1786, Light built the original Fort Cornwallis, named after the then Governor-General of Bengal, Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, who had also been involved in the American War of Independence. It was a nibong (“palm trunk” in Malay) stockade with no permanent structures, covering an area of 417.6 square feet (38.80 m²). The fort’s purpose was to protect Penang from pirates and Kedah.
Northam Road Cemetery was the first cemetery to be consecrated after Captain Francis Light founded the Prince of Wales Island Settlement in 1786. The first recorded burial was of Lt. William Murray of the Bengal Artillery in 1787; the grave marker is no longer extant. The earliest surviving grave marker is that of one H.D.D. Cunningham from 1789 (the exact location of his/her grave within the grounds is unknown, though the plaque survives on a wall of the cemetery). The last person to be buried at the cemetery was Cornelia Josephine Van Someren in 1892. After that, the cemetery was closed and subsequent Christian burials have been carried out in the Western Road Cemetery.
The cemetery also contains 12 Chinese graves, refugees of the Taiping Rebellion, as well as the graves of some of Penang’s early German merchants and their relatives. There are at least two Armenian graves. Of around 500 graves, over 25% are not identifiable due to weathering and damage, the latter due in part to vandals and drug addicts who often hide out at the relatively secluded cemetery. The tablets of many tombs have fallen off; some, which could not be matched to their tombs, are mounted on the south wall. A remarkable portion of the graves are of people who died before reaching 50 years of age; many of the men and women buried are in their twenties and thirties. Several graves belong to infants — a poignant reminder of the harsh conditions the early settlers encountered in Penang.
Now known as the Old Protestant Cemetery, the cemetery lies in a grove of frangipani trees along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah near the historic core of George Town, only meters away from the beachfront and a short walk from the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. It is of significant historic interest and is older than many better-known burial grounds such as Père Lachaise in Paris, Powązki in Warsaw, the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, and Highgate Cemetery in London. It is also 35 years older than the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau. After more than a century of neglect, it is now listed as a Class 1 Heritage Site and is maintained by the Penang Heritage Trust.
The Sultan of Kedah was bound under the Southeast Asian mandala political model in fealty to the king of Siam. Light exceeded his authority with a promise of military aid should the Burmese or Siamese invaded. When the Sultan’s land were invaded and no aid was forthcoming, in April 1791, the Kedah Sultan assembled a fleet to recapture the Prince of Wales Island as a refuge. Light, who had been forewarned, attacked and defeated the Kedah fleet at Perai on April 12, 1791. On April 20, Sultan Abdullah reluctantly signed an agreement to allow the British East India Company to occupy Pulau Pinang in return for an annual payment of 6000 Spanish Dollars. He also had to agree not to allow any other foreign power , like the Dutch and the French, to set up a settlement on Prince of Wales Island. A legend arose that Light had been given a Princess of Kedah as a reward, or the island as her dowry, although other sources state that the Princess was sent to enlist Light’s aid on behalf of the Sultan.
Light died from malaria on October 21, 1794, and was buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery at Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) in George Town. A statue, which bears his name but has the facial features of his son William, stands at Fort Cornwallis in George Town. He had four daughters and two sons with Martina Rozells, who was said to be of Portuguese and Siamese lineage. Martina is occasionally referred to in the literature as the Princess of Kedah, as above. If they were legally married, he did not declare it. However, it was against East India Company rules to marry a Catholic and, as Martina was Catholic, Light may have tried to avoid dismissal by never declaring his marriage. He did leave her his considerable property.
Their son, Colonel William Light, was the first Surveyor General of the Colony of South Australia; William is famous for choosing the site of the colony’s capital, Adelaide, and designing the layout of the streets and parks in the Adelaide city center, North Adelaide and the Adelaide Park Lands.
The Chapel at Fort Cornwallis was built in 1799. The first recorded marriage here took place that same year when John Timmers married Martina Rozells, Light’s widow. The building in the southwest bastion is almost certainly not the chapel, but the main magazine; the massive roof and the surrounding buttresses are typical of magazine buildings of the period. The building is the earliest roofed structure surviving in Penang from the colonial era.
A committee of assessors was established at George Town in 1800, making it the first local council to be established in British Malaya. Also in 1800, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Leith secured a strip of hinterland across the Penang Strait and named it Province Wellesley (now Seberang Perai). Province Wellesley was then gradually expanded up to its present-day boundaries in 1874. In exchange for the acquisition, the annual payment to the Sultan of Kedah was increased to 10,000 Spanish dollars per annum. To this day, the Malaysian federal government still pays Kedah, on behalf of Penang, RM 10,000 annually as a symbolic gesture.
In 1804, after the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, and during Colonel R.T. Farquhar’s term as Governor of Penang, Indian convict laborer rebuilt the old fort at the northeastern tip of the island using brick and stone. Fort Cornwallis was completed in 1810, at the cost of $80,000, during Norman Macalister’s term as Governor of Penang. A moat 9 meters wide by 2 meters deep once surrounded the fort but it was filled in the 1920s due to a malaria outbreak in the area. Fort Cornwallis is currently the largest standing fort in Malaysia. Even though the fort was originally built for the British military, its function, historically, was more administrative than defensive. It never engaged in combat during its operational history.
In 1805, Penang became a separate presidency of British India, sharing similar status with Bombay and Madras. By 1808, a local government for George Town was in place, whilst the establishment of the Supreme Court of Penang marked the birth of Malaysia’s modern judiciary. The judge of the Supreme Court of Penang, Sir Edmond Stanley, was first housed at Fort Cornwallis when the court opened on May 31, 1808.
After the British East India Company took possession of Penang in 1786, the spiritual care of the colonists was effected by Church of England chaplains attached to the EIC. Early religious services were held at the chapel of Fort Cornwallis and later at the Court House. Proposals for the building of a permanent church were submitted as early as 1810 but was only acted upon after the passing of the East India Company Act 1813 (Charter Act) whereby the EIC received a 20-year extension of its charter. Approval was obtained in 1815 to build the church based on the architectural plans drawn up by Major Thomas Anburey but the church was eventually built on the plans drawn up by the Governor of Prince of Wales Island, William Petrie, and modified by Lieutenant Robert N. Smith of the Madras Engineers. Smith was a colleague of Colonel James Lillyman Caldwell, the chief architect of St. George’s Cathedral in Madras, and the architecture of St. George’s Church is believed to be based on the cathedral itself.
Amongst those consulted on the building of the church was the Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, the Colonial Chaplain of Prince of Wales Island. Hutchings would later be instrumental in setting up the Penang Free School. The building was completed in 1818 while Hutchings was still away in Bengal and church services were officiated by a Reverend Henderson. The first significant event that took place in the church after its completion was the wedding of the Governor, William Edward Philips to Janet Bannerman, the daughter of his predecessor, Colonel John Alexander Bannerman on June 30, 1818. The St. George’s Church was consecrated on May 11, 1819, by the Bishop of Calcutta, Thomas Fanshawe Middleton. It is the oldest purpose built Anglican church in Southeast Asia.
A memorial pavilion was erected at St. George’s Church in 1886 in memory of Captain Francis Light during the Centenary Celebrations of the founding of modern Penang. The church building was significantly damaged during the Japanese occupation of Malaya and a lot of her interior fittings were looted. Services were not to be held in the church until repairs concluded in 1948. In 2007, the church was declared one of the 50 National Treasures of Malaysia by the Malaysian federal government. It underwent a major restoration in 2009.
In 1826, Penang, Singapore and Malacca were incorporated into the Straits Settlements, with George Town as the capital. However, Penang’s importance was soon supplanted by Singapore, as the latter rapidly outstripped the Port of Penang as the region’s premier entrepôt. In 1832, Singapore replaced George Town as the capital of the Straits Settlements.
A 69-foot (21 m) skeletal steel lighthouse was erected in the northeast corner of Fort Cornwallis in 1882. It is the second oldest lighthouse in Malaysia, after the Cape Rachado Lighthouse at Tanjung Tuan, Malacca. Originally named Fort Point Lighthouse, it was renamed Penang Harbour Lighthouse after renovation in 1914 and 1925. The State Tourism Development Committee chairman claimed in 2006 that it was the only lighthouse in Malaysia that resembles a ship’s mast, and the only one in Peninsular Malaysia not serving any navigational purpose.
The oldest portion of George Town has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2008. Recognized as having a “unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia”, the city center contains one of the largest collections of pre-war buildings in Southeast Asia. The World Heritage Site covers nearly 260 ha (2.6 km²), roughly bounded by Transfer Road to the west and Prangin Road to the south.[ The zone includes the city’s administrative precinct, which is home to the most historic landmarks like Fort Cornwallis, City Hall and the Penang State Museum, as well as the main Central Business District along Beach Street. The zone also covers various places of worship, such as St. George’s Church, the Kapitan Keling Mosque and the Goddess of Mercy Temple, as well as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Among the restrictions in force within the World Heritage Site boundaries is a ban on the construction of any structure exceeding 59 feet (18 m) in height, and that any new building which is located adjacent to a historically important structure must not exceed the height of the latter.
The design portrayed on Malayan Penang Scott #64 also appeared on $1-denominated stamps issued by the Malayan states of Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Trengganu between with local Sultans or coats of arms of the different states replacing the original portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. The Penang version of the British monarch-portraited stamp was released in 1957 (Scott #53). Scott #64 was issued on March 15, 1960, with the Penang State Crest and an areca-nut palm tree replacing the Queen’s portrait. The engraved stamp bears the $1 denomination (called a ringgit in Malay) and was printed in ultramarine and plum, perforated 13½ on watermarked paper.
The stamps portray “Government Offices” which are now known as George Town’s Town Hall (to the left) and City Hall. Town Hall was completed in the 1880s and is the city’s oldest municipal building, as it once housed the Municipal Commission of George Town. It also functioned as a venue for social events for the European elites. However, its administrative function was taken over by the City Hall upon the latter’s completion. Originally completed in 1903 as the Municipal Offices, the building was erected at a cost of $100,000 to relieve the demand for office space at the adjacent Town Hall. The name City Hall dates back to the grant of city status to George Town in 1957. It now serves as the seat of the Penang Island City Council.
Both the City Hall and the Town Hall are located at Esplanade Road, overlooking the historic parade ground (the Padang) within the Esplanade. The buildings are also situated within George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Town Hall has been gazetted by the Malaysian National Museum as a historic monument since 1993. More recently, the building became one of the filming locations for the 1999 film, Anna and the King.
The history of George Town’s municipal accommodations began in 1873, when a proposal to build a Town Hall was first mooted. During a Straits Settlements Legislative Council session in Singapore on February 23, 1876, Penang’s representative, David Brown, brought forward a motion proposing the construction of the Town Hall next to the Esplanade in George Town, based on an earlier written agreement with George Town’s Municipal Commissioners. Brown argued that while “all the Singapore works which were provided for under the same Ordinance have been completed”, no such public works were being undertaken in George Town at the time.
While the motion was seconded by his fellow Assemblyman, Thomas Scott, it was opposed by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, the Colonial Secretary and the Colonial Engineer, and the motion was eventually withdrawn. Nonetheless, the Town Hall project went ahead. Tenders for the construction of the building were called for in 1878 and on January 1, 1879, the first foundation stone was laid by the then Lieutenant-Governor of Penang, Colonel Archibald Anson. The building was designed by British Army engineers, Captains Innes and Satterthwaite, while its construction cost amounted to $35,000 (Spanish dollars).
In 1880, the then Acting Lieutenant-Governor of Penang, Charles John Irving, who also simultaneously served as the President of the Municipal Commission of George Town, considered moving the offices of the Municipal Commission into the Town Hall, which was still under construction at that point. In August that year, the Town Hall was officially opened. The inauguration of the city’s first municipal building, held with much fanfare, was attended by the then Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Frederick Weld. A marching band from Johor was appointed by the then Maharajah of Johor, Sultan Sir Abu Bakar.
The Municipal Commission soon found the office space within the Town Hall to be insufficient. Tenders were called for the construction of the Municipal Offices in 1900. Lee Ah Chang, a local ethnic Chinese, won the contract with a bid amounting to $75,400 (Straits dollars). Plans were then drawn up for the construction of the new building right next door. The Municipal Offices was built in the Edwardian Baroque and Palladian styles, which were popular at the time.
By the time the Municipal Offices was completed in 1903, its construction cost had ballooned to $100,000 (Straits dollars). The Municipal Commission of George Town decided to covertly relocate from the Town Hall into the adjacent Municipal Offices, and that no inauguration ceremony was to be held. The Municipal Offices held the distinction of being one of the first buildings in Penang to be completely fitted with electric lights and fans.
Meanwhile, the Town Hall continued to function as a venue for social events reserved for the European elite; local Asians were often denied entry. As a result, the building was known as the ‘European Club’ (Ang Moh Kong Kuan in Penang Hokkien). The Town Hall was renovated several times, in 1890, 1903, 1938 and 1991. However, over time, the building became disused, while the more recent renovation works did not take into account the original building materials. In 1993, when it emerged that the Penang Island Municipal Council was considering the demolition of the Town Hall, the Malaysian National Museum intervened by gazetting the colonial building as a Grade 1 historical monument under the Antiquities Act. The Town Hall was subsequently renovated in 2004. Today, the Town Hall is mainly used for public events, art exhibitions and as part of the annual George Town Festival in August.
The Municipal Offices was renamed the City Hall in 1957, when George Town was declared a city by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, leading to its portrayal on the Malayan states pictorial definitive stamps. City Hall served as the seat of the George Town City Council until its eventual merger with the Penang Island Rural District Council to form the Penang Island Municipal Council in 1976. Even after this 1976 consolidation of Penang Island’s two local councils, Penangites still referred to the building as the City Hall. It has been listed as a national monument since 1982 under the Antiquities Act 1976. The building was last renovated between 2004 and 2005. Although the City Hall retains much of its original form, the original arcades or loggias on the ground floor have been enclosed with windows.