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

Book Three is entitled: “Government House”

(To read the entire introduction to Book Three, please click here)

Francis Light’s many years of experience as a trader in the eastern seas, together with his repeated personal recommendations for the utilization of Penang as an East India Company port, led to his being charged with settlement and superintendence of the island in 1786. The position carrie far more responsibility than he had known before. Although an arduous and steep learning curve, Light applied himself with conviction and determination to prove his own judgement, and that of his superiors, well founded.

A common thread throughout the early history of Penang was the lack of financial support by the East India Company. This meant that most buildings were funded privately. If Light was to be effective as superintendent and hold sway over a rapidly increasing population of mixed origins, construction of a building to encourage respect for his authority, though imperative, would have to be at his own expense. Nevertheless, once the land was suitably cleared, a few streets formed and the necessary building materials obtained, he would have wasted no time in commencing construction. After the fort, this building would also become a symbol of the intended permanence of the settlement, something Light found himself having to prove to the inhabitants on several occasions. It was, however, not until after his death eight years later that there was any degree of certainty that the island would be retained. This book is concerned with the very building Light constructed, and documents its trials and tribulations as the seat of government for almost 30 years.

It is not known exactly when Light began construction of an official residence, but it is likely to have been within the first two or three years after landing. Initially there was a dearth of building materials other than the timber of the island. Early structures were either limewashed using the traditional lath and plaster technique, or simply a basic timber framework enclosed with woven palm leaf as was traditional among many of the local settlers. The tall slender trunks of the nibong palm were often utilised as a quick solution for housing timbers, but many other species of local hardwoods were preferred for forming longer lasting posts and boards. Roofs were generally pitched and layered with attap, tightly woven palm frond thatching tiles which were principally imported by their thousands from Kedah. As the settlement developed, the risk of fire grew exponentially, and indeed the first major blaze occurred in April 1789 in lower Chulia Street, then called Malabar Street, destroying 56 Indian shops. Only a wind change prevented far larger losses…