“Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India” Geoff Wade’s Foreword

(please click here to find more excerpts from the book)

Geoff Wade is from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore 

The island of Penang has long attracted – through its fascinating streetscapes and scenery, its diverse populace, cultural heterogeneity and its vibrant history – quite an amount of attention from writers, popular and academic. Historians have been no exception to this and a wide selection of studies has been published examining diverse aspects of the Penang past. The book which lies before you, however, while also a study of the Penang past, is something special in that it is the most detailed account ever to be written of the settlement of Penang over the first 50 years of its existence. The story of Penang over this period is intense and filled with political and human drama. But some longer background is perhaps in order to provide the context for the age during which Penang rose. The arrival of Portuguese warships in Southeast Asia in the early sixteenth century, and their subsequent capture of Melaka, was to usher in a new age of global interactions whereby European port polities across the Indian Ocean were to provide new avenues by which the two ends of Eurasia interacted. This is not of course to say that there had been no prior interactions across this great expanse. Merchants from the Middle East had been trading to Southeast Asia and into the southern ports of China from at least the ninth century, and indirect maritime trade between Europe, West Asia and East Asia extended probably 1,000 years before that. When the Portuguese and subsequently the Spanish, Dutch and English arrived in Southeast Asia they entered a maritime system which already involved many of the cultures of Asia. Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian ships plied regularly between the regional ports, and it was these existing networks which the European newcomers tapped into and utilised. The Spanish, however, who established themselves in Manila in the mid-sixteenth century created new links, connecting Southeast Asia and southern China across the Pacific to New Spain – the Americas – from whence large volumes of silver would flow alongside a wide variety of new agricultural products: maize, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and peanuts. The ports of Asia were thereby tied from this time into a network which extended around the globe. The ships of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, the Dutch United East India Company) were the next to appear in this maritime tableau. The Asian headquarters of this company was established in Batavia (later Jakarta) in Java in the early seventeenth century and it was from there that they began their East Asian ventures.[1] After defeating the Portuguese in the Moluccas, at Deshima in Japan and in Melaka, the Dutch became the foremost European power in Asia by 1641. Through their base on Taiwan, they were able to engage in triangular trade with Japan, China and Southeast Asia, but after their defeat on that island by Zheng Chenggong they lost their lucrative trade with Japan and Ayudhya. This in turn resulted in a steep decline in the China Sea-based shipping of the VOC and eventually lost them the China market. It was under such pressures that the Dutch began to operate more intensely in the Indian Ocean and consolidate their control over the trade ports of the archipelago. In a study of the eighteenth century as a ‘Chinese century’[2] in Southeast Asia, Leonard Blussé notes the expanded scale of overseas Chinese enterprises during this period, and the connection between that phenomenon and state formation in the Southeast Asian littoral regions.[3] Blussé records ‘the growth, intensification, and diversification of maritime trade within the region following an unprecedented increase in demand for tropical goods from outside the region’, a theme Jim Warren has pursued in his study of the economic vitality of the Sulu sultanate and its ascendancy after 1768 as a result of the China trade. None of these changes was unrelated to the emergence and development of the port of Penang from 1786. But it was not only trade patterns that were changing. Migration was also accelerating. Carl Trocki has examined the movement of Chinese people into Southeast Asia during the eighteenth century and suggests a major change in their settlement patterns due to the arrival of sizeable communities of Chinese labourers. Trocki distinguishes between urban merchant settlements and labourers’ settlements, the latter generally to serve plantations or mines and located in population-poor areas. He concludes that ‘[b]y the 1780s, it can be said that an entirely new economy had been created in Southeast Asia and that, to a large extent, it was bankrolling a commercial revolution in the region’. He avers that through the extractive industries developed and the populations imported, ‘Asians had created their own capitalist economy in the area’ and suggests that this provided the foundation for subsequent European colonial economies. [4] On the other side of the Bay of Bengal, great changes had also been occurring. The East India Company, established by royal charter in 1600, had been expanding its commercial and political power in the Indian subcontinent from the early seventeenth century, and by 1647 the Company had 23 factories spread across South and Southeast Asia. The Madras presidency was established in 1640 and the Bombay presidency in 1687. In 1692 the Company obtained a trading licence in the area which is today Calcutta and there established another presidency city in 1699 and the fortified Fort William in the early eighteenth century. In 1772, the Company established its capital in Calcutta and appointed its first governor general, Warren Hastings, to administer its Indian operations from Fort William. While the East India Company nominally held a monopoly of British trade east of the Cape of Good Hope, it had also in the eighteenth century begun to recognize the value of private traders. By the middle of that century, most of the external trade of India was being conducted by these ‘country traders’ who operated privately but under the aegis of the Company. These traders were either Company officials trading on their own account or India-based private individuals operating under licence. Initially trading around and across the Bay of Bengal, these maritime merchants were quick to realise the importance of the China trade and began to consider ways in which to exploit the products of China. Jungle products and later opium were to prove exceptionally viable products for these traders in their China coast activities, a story told better elsewhere.[5] The voyage from India to China was a long one though and the need for a transit port en route presented itself regularly. It was a Madras-based country trader named Francis Light who was to eventually in 1786 secure Penang from the Sultan of Kedah for the East India Company, to serve as a port and a potential shipbuilding centre. The background to this story and the process by which Penang was to subsequently become the fourth presidency of India are provided in vivid detail within the pages of the present volume. It should be observed that the period in which Penang emerged and developed into a presidency was a key global age in the creation of the modern world. It would be remiss in this introduction not to try to locate the emergence of Penang within this global process. The importance of the transitional period from the 1780s to the 1830s has been underlined by both Christopher Bayly[6]  and more recently by Leonard Blussé.[7] Blussé notes that, by William Pitt’s India Act (1784), the British parliament gained control of the Company’s overseas territories, while the VOC collapsed altogether and was replaced by the colonial rule of the Batavian Republic in 1795, initiating a long sequence of institutional reform. ‘In other words, the fifty years that bridged the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century constituted a watershed in the history of Europe as well as of the maritime regions of Southeast Asia’.[8] Bayly also traces the massive expansion of British imperial power during this time – a period he sees as the coming of age of British imperialism. ‘During this period, commercial aims and the need for financial stability were assimilated into, and supercharged by an altogether sharper sense of national identity, expressed in the need to override class and regional divisions in Britain and to subordinate subject races overseas’. As an element of this, Lord Minto’s aim was ‘to purge the eastern side of the globe of every hostile or rival European establishment’ and ‘with patriotic zeal’ to bring wisdom and reason to Asia’s people.[9] Trade was also to undergo change as it was during this period that global economies and polities came increasingly together, partly as a result of the two European revolutions which occurred in the latter decades of the eighteenth century and which had effects around the globe. The French Revolution (1789–1795) shook the foundations of the ancien régime in Europe, giving rise to the Napoleonic age ‘while the Industrial Revolution also brought forth the factory with its power-driven machinery which enabled Europe, with its low-cost products, to turn the intercontinental trade with Asia from “bullion for goods” into “industrial products for tropical goods” transactions, dramatically revising the rules of the capitalist game’. As Blussé puts it: By the end of the eighteenth century, new opportunities of international trade emerged in the Malay archipelago. American shipping, the country traders, local interlopers, and pirates crowded the trading routes as a result of the phenomenal rise of the China trade connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. At the same time, the networks of Chinese overseas shipping rapidly expanded, connecting the ports of the Southeastern Chinese coastal provinces with new settlements overseas, varying from Chinese towns, panglong, and pepper and gambier plantations to gold and silver mines, all contributing to the overseas expansion of the Chinese economy.[10] Summing up his observations on this period in maritime Southeast Asian history, Blussé concludes that the 1780–1830 period can in political terms best be described as the era in which the metropolitan mind of London and The Hague took over from vice-regal autocracies of Calcutta and Batavia. In economic terms, we also see much institutional change: the emergence of private entrepreneurs, shipping companies and trading houses at the expense of the chartered East India Companies; monopolistic trade practices increasingly replaced by an expansion of ‘free trade’ and the institutions that came with it, including the agency houses (think of the Bombay agency houses dealing in cotton and opium for China but also their subsidiaries established during the British interregnum in Batavia); shifting patterns of trade between Europe and Asia, in particular the introduction of English and later Dutch textiles and machinery; and new ways of exploiting the agricultural and fiscal resources of the colonial territories.[11]   It was within this environment and at this historical juncture that the new settlement in Penang arose. Penang was certainly not the first European settlement in Southeast Asia, but it did emerge within a new political and economic context which conditioned the port’s development and subsequently the development of Singapore. Its emergence was also important for the region which we today call peninsular Malaysia. While Melaka had long been occupied by European powers and had been influential in the areas around the south of the peninsula, the new settlement in Penang was in an area which had seen much less formal European engagement,[12] and it was through British engagement with this region that there was subsequent British expansion into the northern Malay states and eventual contention with Siam for control over the region. The importance of the establishment of the port of Penang in the eventual creation of modern Malaysia thus needs to be given due attention. *** This book is the first volume of a proposed three-volume set. I have been fortunate to have been privy to the ideas, the efforts and the passion which Marcus Langdon has devoted to these books on the history of early Penang over the last decade. From the initial, tentative identification of the sources to be scoured, through the years of microfilm scanning and the gradual selection and arrangement of the sources, I have been amazed at the passion which Marcus has brought to this endeavour. Employment has been put on hold, social relations have been disrupted and all energy has been devoted to procuring the materials necessary for what has become a central pillar of Marcus’s life. Research visits to the archives and libraries of Malaysia, Australia and Britain have seen him uncover true gems of early Malayan history, including previously unknown, immensely important historical materials.[13]Through his researches, Marcus has become today the preeminent global expert on the British archival materials relating to Penang. Beyond the textual accounts he has brought together, the range of illustrative and cartographic materials gleaned in this process – many of which were previously unknown – is obvious from simply scanning this volume. The quality of this first volume assures us that the three-volume set will constitute the most detailed history of early Penang ever to be published and that the set will long remain a landmark in Penang historiography. Congratulations are due to Marcus for this immense contribution to Malaysian, Asian and world history.


[1] For a useful collection of articles detailing Portuguese and Dutch trade in Asia in this period, see Om Prakash (ed.), European Commercial Expansion in Early Modern Asia, Aldershot: Variorum, 1997.
[2] Anthony Reid also employs the term ‘Chinese century’ for the period 1740–1840. See Anthony Reid, ‘Introduction’, in Anthony Reid (ed.), The Last Stand of Asian Autonomies: Responses to Modernity in the Diverse States of Southeast Asia and Korea 1750–1900, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 1–26.
[3] See Leonard Blussé, ‘Chinese century: the eighteenth century in the China Sea region’, Archipel, Vol. 58, 1999, pp. 107–29.
[4] Carl Trocki, ‘Chinese pioneering in eighteenth-century Southeast Asia’, in Anthony Reid (ed.), The Last Stand of Asian Autonomies: Responses to Modernity in the Diverse States of Southeast Asia and Korea, 1750–1900, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 83–101.
[5] For a useful study in this respect, see Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade 1750–1950, London: Routledge, 1999
[6] C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780–1830, London and New York: Longman, 1989.
[7] Leonard Blussé, ‘Changes in regime and colonial state formation in the Malay archipelago, 1780–1830’, Singapore: Asia Research Institute Online Working Papers No. 41, 2005, at: www.ari.nus.edu.sg/docs/wps/wps05_041.pdf.
[8] ibid., p. 4
[9] Bayly, Imperial Meridian, p. 250.
[10] Blussé, ‘Changes in regime and colonial state formation’, p. 5.
[11] Ibid., p. 12.
[12] The Company country traders had however long operated at Ujong Salang (Junk Ceylon) before the port of Penang was established. For some background, see Rollin Bonney, Kedah 1771–1821, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971.
[13] One of the most important of these historical sources is a sketch of the Singapore coastline done on the day after Stamford Raffles landed on the island. This was published as: Marcus Langdon and Kwa Chong Guan, ‘Notes on “Sketch of the Land round Singapore Harbour, 7 February 1819”’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 83, No. 1, 2010, pp. 1–7 (see illustration 129, p. 419).   To read the preface of The Fourth Presidency please click here.