A review of “Penang, the Fourth Presidency of India”

by Looi Sue-Chern

PTFP edited

IMPORTANCE: Penang was more than just one of the Straits Settlement states under British rule, learns Looi Sue-Chern from an Australian author researching the history of Melbourne

Driven by his ancestral links, Australian author Marcus Langdon began a search into Melbourne’s early history in the mid-1990s but his quest eventually took him  to Penang.

While researching the history of the second largest Australian city, Langdon, 58, discovered that an early Melbourne pioneer made his fortune in Penang during the 1820s and early 1830s. 

The find marked the beginning of the first volume of Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India, 1805-1830 — Langdon’s new book, said to be the most detailed account ever written on the Penang settlement during its first 50 years under the British.

British-born Langdon, who is now based in Penang, said his fascination on the subject was fuelled by Penang having had the unusual distinction of being “the fourth presidency of India” alongside Calcutta, Madras and Bombay from 1805 to 1830.

“The East India Company (EIC) was the private trading company monopolising all of Britain’s trades with nations east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. When its presence in India grew, the main centres of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were elevated to self-governing entities called presidencies.

“Interestingly, Penang’s status as the fourth presidency was driven by the British government, not the EIC,” he said.

It was decided that Penang, or Prince of Wales Island, would become a base for the British navy to protect the eastern seas, particularly the east coast of India, from the French and their allies during the Napoleonic wars following the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803 that led to growing hostilities between Britain and its French neighbour.

The decision meant that Penang, which had previously gone through years of uncertainty as to whether it should be kept as an EIC settlement, got its own governor and council that reported to the court of directors of the EIC in London while being placed under the auspices of the governor-general of India in Calcutta.

“A period of growth and consolidation began. Many iconic institutions such as the Penang Free School, St George’s Church, Suffolk House, the court system, a public library, extensive road and bridge works were established during this time.

This development may not have occurred without Penang being bestowed the fourth presidency status. The fact that Penang played such an important role in the region is little understood,” Langdon said.

The first volume features four parts. The first, Ships for the Presidency, examines the reason behind making Penang a presidency; the expectations, successes and failures in attempts to build large timber ships on the island; and the fact that a ship was made for each admiralty and the EIC here.

The other three are The Administrators, that tells of the various personalities in power during the first 50 years of the settlement, Government House and Suffolk House, which detail the roles of the two buildings that housed the island’s leading authority.

“This book is not a light general history of early Penang. It will give readers facts on its formative years in an easily read style and hopefully it will serve as an enduring resource for decades to come,” Langdon said.

The almost 2kg volume one of three will also offer readers many previously unknown illustrative and cartographic materials like maps, sketches and paintings, as well as information on events.

Among the fascinating stories, Langdon said, was that large vessels were built in front of the fort and the extraordinary measures taken to source correct timber for the ships.

“The background of some of the administrators reveals many interesting personal facts, too. There is proof that Francis Light built a house which still stands in the Convent Light Street school grounds.

“Suffolk House was built by (acting governor of Prince of Wales’ Island) William Edward Phillips, who was also the owner of Strawberry Hill on Penang Hill and not David Brown,” he said.

To write the book, Langdon spent a decade working on the project, poring over EIC records and various resources about the first British settlement on Malay soil.

Much of his research was done at Monash University in Melbourne. He also spent time at the British Library and National Archives in Britain and Singapore. 

Penang, Langdon said, had few resources but the information was available at the National Archives in Kuala Lumpur.

“Resources on early Penang history were few but the situation is improving because of the dedication of heritage advocates here.

Once I discovered that early handwritten EIC records were available, and that the information contained within them conflicted with some of the later historical accounts, I decided that I would compile an easily read and accessible resource.”

Langdon, who left the corporate world years ago to focus on researching and writing, said the project involved piecing together primary source information and clues like a jigsaw puzzle — a task that took him years.

However, it easily became an obsession even when the search for facts was endless and new information kept turning up while he was editing the first volume and writing the two subsequent volumes.

“The biggest challenge, apart from finding missing information, was deciphering the original records which were in bad condition.

Scanning thousands of pages of records on microfilm also strained my eyes.”

Due to the time spent writing about Penang, Langdon’s original mission to pen down Melbourne’s history was suspended.

“The Melbourne history remains uncompleted!” said the man who has loved history since his childhood.

Review originally posted in the New Straits Times, 31 March 2013