fort conwallis with Francis Light

Sultanate Of Kedah

Penang was part of the Sultanate of Kedah before the 18th century. Situated on the main trade routes between China and India, Kedah was then under the influence of the Hindu Sri Vijaya Empire (5th to 11th century) based in Sumatra. The 10th century AD saw the emergence of the Kedah Sultanate and her rapid growth attracted a cosmopolitan population of settlers and traders, including Indians, Chinese, Achehnese (from northern Sumatra), Burmese and Arabs. Towards the 17th century, Siamese dominance in the region grew and Kedah came loosely under the control of Siam. This period also saw an increase in piracy in the region with the island of Penang serving as a refuge and lair for these marauders.

Colonial Control

Between 1758 and 1777 when fighting erupted intermittently between Siam and Burma, Kedah was caught in between these two powerful kingdoms. Unwilling to provide material assistance to the Siamese, the Sultan of Kedah appealed to the British for protection and military assistance. As an inducement for this commitment, the Sultan of Kedah promised to lease Penang island to the East India Company for a sum of $30,000 (Spanish dollar) per annum. Captain Francis Light was appointed to present this proposal to the British Governor General in Calcutta. Before an agreement could be reached, Light landed on Penang island in 1786, hoisted the Union Jack and took formal possession of the island. The British then named the island ‘Prince of Wales Island’ in honour of King George IV and the settlement of George Town was named after the prince’s father, George III.

During this period, Kedah supported Burma against Siam and when Burma was defeated, she feared reprisal from the Siamese. The British did not live up to their promises in the agreement and when the financial settlement on Penang also failed to materialise, the Sultan recruited the help of pirates to take back the island in 1791. Kedah was defeated and Light attacked the shore opposite Penang island. The Sultan was forced to accept an agreement whereby the East India Company committed to pay a sum of $6,000 (Spanish dollar) annually, with no military protection. The Sultan of Kedah, in 1800, further ceded a strip of the mainland to the British. This strip of land was named Province Wellesley after the Governor General (Marquis Wellesley) of India and is today called Seberang Perai. During the 19th century, the East India Company opened Penang to settlers.

Asian immigrants, such as the Chinese, Indians, Siamese, Bugis, Burmese, Sumatrans, Armenians and others from the region and neighbouring Malay states flocked to the island to take advantage of the new opportunities. Penang was declared a free port and developed rapidly, serving as a safe stopover for British ships plying the Strait of Malacca on the China trade route. British control was further entrenched when in 1826 Penang, together with Melaka (Malacca) and Singapore, was formed into a single administrative unit called the Straits Settlements under the British colonial office in India. Penang flourished as a major trading post for trade in spices (the island is famous for her cloves and nutmeg), tea, china and others. However, Penang lost much of her importance with the opening of Singapore in later years. The years from 1941 to 1945 saw Penang under Japanese occupation until the British reoccupied Malaya. Penang remained under British colonial rule until 1957 when it became part of the Federation of Malaya.

Penang Today

Penang continued to grow steadily as a free port and shopping paradise in the 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, in the 1970s when the state came under the rule of an opposition party, the federal government withdrew her free port status (This party later became part of the ruling coalition party). This had detrimental consequences on her external trade. The island struggled to find a new source of income and turned to manufacturing. The industrialisation programme took off in 1972 with the establishment of the country’s first Free Trade Zone at Bayan Lepas on Penang island and later at Bayan Baru. The state’s sizeable English-speaking population coupled with special tax incentives for investors helped Penang to develop her manufacturing sector and provided needed employment. Today, the industrial hub at Bayan Baru is known as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of the island and has a large suburban population.

In the last few years Penang has grown into the top tourist destination of Malaysia. Tourists flock to the island of Penang for its delighful multi-cultural food and see the rich cultural heritage of George Town, a renowned world heritage site.

Waterfront George Town, Penang