Introduction to Book One of “Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India”

Book one is entitled: “Ships for a Presidency”

(To read the entire introduction to Book One, as well as the book’s general Introduction, please click here)

It may appear unusual to begin a history of early Penang with a study of shipbuilding. However, in the days when slow, timber sailing vessels were the mainstays of international trade, a primary requirement was for regular and safe stopover points: sea ports with an ability to provide a facility for repair, refreshment and protection. From the early seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries trade between Britain and the Asia was tightly controlled by the East India Company. The principal motivation for the establishment of a settlement on Penang in 1786 was indeed to satisfy such a requirement, with the added rationale of providing a strategic toehold on the valuable trade route between Britain, India and China in a region long and increasingly dominated by the Dutch. Moreover, Penang’s location on the eastern side of the seasonally treacherous Bay of Bengal offered a port that was protected from monsoonal influences, thereby providing a year-round windward defensive position for the protection of India’s east coast.

These combined advantages convinced the East India Company’s Bengal government to experiment with a settlement there under the superintendence of one of the island’s greatest proponents, the ex-naval man and country trader Francis Light. Indeed once provisional permission to settle was granted by the Sultan of Kedah, it was not long before naval strategists were dispatched to the island to ascertain its potential. While they generally deemed Penang promising it was not until an escalation of hostilities recommenced between the French and British following the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803 that the idea emerged for promoting the island as a critical Admiralty base from which to protect the East Indies and eastern side of India, augmenting Bombay’s role on the western side. If naval ships could be built in Penang, then better still. This was the catalyst for elevating Penang to the status of the fourth presidency of India in 1805, and by default providing some long wished-for assurance of the island’s retention by the East India Company. After all, it was now important enough to have its own government as well as a resident naval commander-in-chief. Here we see a good example of interaction between the British government and the shareholder-owned East India Company: the Admiralty (representing the Royal Navy) on one side utilising a Company base and obliging the Company to lift the level of its administration, and consequent expense, on the other. 

Underlying this decision, however, was a common challenge: to find an alternative place to construct warships and ships of trade. Each year the Company would hire ships for a given number of trading voyages to various parts of the world. These vessels varied from around 500 to 800 tons for the India trade, right up to the largest for the China trade route of 1,200 tons or more in size in order to carry enough freight to justify the long voyages. The China-bound ships were generally contracted for one to eight return voyages, each of which took around two years to complete with stopovers and refits. A direct voyage could be completed in around 15 months. Generally leaving Britain in the first quarter of the year, the traditional course was via Bombay or Madras and Calcutta then on to Canton via the Sunda Strait. As the French wars extended to the eastern seas this route became highly risky…