Account of an Early Transit in Penang By Ooi Kee Beng

The following text is from a report written and submitted in 1796 by Captain Walter Caulfield Lennon. It is about his impressions of “Pulo Penang”, which he visited in November the year before on the way from Madras to the “Molucca Islands”.

The article was titled “Journal of a voyage through the Straits of Malacca on an expedition to the Molucca Islands under the command of Admiral Rainier with some account of those islands at the time of their falling into our hands, and likewise suggestions relative to their future better management in case of being retained in our permanent possession”. Lennon was serving as Principal Engineer and Secretary to the Expedition. [First published in Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 7 (June 1881), pp. 51-74].

Those were globally eventful times. The Great French War was raging in Europe, which would culminate in Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The Netherlands was being turned into a satellite state by the French, which encouraged British occupation of Dutch colonies throughout the world. These were however subsequently returned after the fall of Napoleon.

Malacca was surrendered by the Dutch to the English in August 1795, and the once-mighty declining Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) was soon to be nationalised as it continued its descent into bankruptcy and dissolution by 1800. In 1796 Napoleon gained hero status among his countrymen following his successful military campaign against Austria in northern Italy.

Admiral Peter Rainier was England’s senior naval officer in the Far East from 1794 to 1805, whose mandate was simply “the Protection of the Trade and Settlements of His Majesty’s Subjects and…Allies” (see “Peter Augustus Ward: Admiral Peter Rainier and the Command of the East Indies Station 1794-1805”: bitstream/handle/10036/3028/WardP. pdf?sequence=5).

In Penang, Francis Light had passed away on October 21, 1794, and his position as Superintendent (of the British East India Company) had been taken over by Philip Mannington. Mannington held the position for only a year, passing away in November 1795. The mention of the tree with the “elastic gum” abundant in Penang is of special interest, since Lennon’s note is from 1796 and accounts of the transfer of rubber seeds from South America to Kew Gardens tend to date the event to the 1870s – seven decades later.

Pulo Penang

15th [November 1795] – Went ashore this day with the Admiral, who introduced me to Mr. Mannington, the Chief, and other gentlemen of the Island. This day received information of the whole state of affairs at Malacca, and the chief objects of our present expedition. Dined and spent the evening with Captain Glass.

16th – We this day had a large party at Mr. Scott’s. This gentleman has lived here since the first establishment of the Island. He had formerly been a Captain in the country trade, but being unfortunate, was obliged to live chiefly amongst the Malays, on the Island Junkceylon [Phuket]. He has since made a handsome fortune, and very honourably discharged all his former debts. His house is built of wood in the Malay fashion upon posts raised about five feet from the ground. Several of the houses here are built in the same way which, however well adapted to the situation Malays in general are fond of, over swamps, or water, and always near it, does not appear to be the most secure or convenient for Europeans.

22nd. – Finding my time likely to be short here, I spent the last five or six days in riding about the Island to see every part of it that was accessible, but was unable to accomplish as much as I wished, from the weak state of my health. Received notice from the Admiral of his intention to proceed to Malacca on Tuesday next in the Orpheus with direction to hold myself in readiness to attend him.

23rd. – This morning went to see the waterfall, which is about six miles from the town, with a road for carriages for about four of the way, the rest I walked, and after climbing the latter part of it up a very steep and jungly path, at last arrived at the foot of the waterfall, and was exceedingly struck with the grandeur and magnificence it exhibited; It is above 300 feet high and falls in a broken cataract from an opening in the hill about half way up according to the view. The scenery round is true nature in its most sublime aspect, and with the expense of a little labour in clearing away some of the trees about it, would afford one of the most beautiful views possible. At present to get a sight of it you are obliged to come so near that the effect is almost lost.

I am informed by Mr. Mannington that the population of Pulo Penang exceeds 20,000 souls, consisting of Chulears, Chinese, Malays, Bengallies, Portuguese, and Europeans; the first bear the greatest proportion in number and are chiefly the boatmen and fishers, and some of the richest traders are of this cast; they are originally all from the Malabar and Coromandel coasts. The artificers and most of the shop-keepers are Chinese, whose daily hire in the former capacity is very dear, being half a Spanish dollar per day. The persons who are generally employed in clearing the ground and cutting down trees for timber are Malays, who work by contract, and with their little axes with long handles, cut down or sit idle at their pleasure. Their manner of cutting differs from what is generally practised; if the lower part of the trunk of a tree be much thicker, as it for the most part is, than at the height of 6 or 8 feet, they erect a stage and cut it that height where it is least trouble, then clearing away the underwood they take advantage of the wind and cutting nearly through several trees in its direction, they fairly fell the first which in its fall brings down all the others to leeward of it. After the trees are somewhat dry, they are set fire to, but seldom that I could perceive, were entirely consumed: very large timbers still lying in the direction they chanced to fall. This and the quantity of ground lost by the stumps still remaining, if left to nature to decay, as is usually the case, impedes the cultivation for not less than six years and sometimes ten. I am, therefore, of opinion that it would be more advantageous to dig the trees at first fairly out of the ground, at least to cut all the roots that spread, and then ropes fixed to the top could easily bring down the trees by tackles attached to the bases of the adjoining trees, and when this was insufficient the aid of the axe and mamooty could soon effect it. Rice is generally cultivated after the wood is cut down, but from the ground not being effectually cleared there is full a third part of it lost, for at least six years, and the standing stumps give it the most barbarous appearance possible. The first expense and trouble is greater in the way that I conceive best, but the surface gained must more than counterbalance it; for in the present manner there is the profit of two entire years' cultivation of the whole lost in the first six years. The variety and luxuriance of the trees over this island, as over all the Malay islands, is very great, timber very plenty and good; but they have no teak, which is the best wood in India; Poon grows to an immense size, and one tree large enough for the Suffolk’s main mast, for which I am told it was intended, now lays upon the beach.

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(Source: Penang Monthly)

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