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The History of Penang

Oct 26, 2007
Penang is a wonderful island destination in Southeast Asia, located in the straits of Malacca, on the north-west coast of Malaysia. Located just four-hour drive by air from Kuala Lumpur - the capital city of Malaysia, the city boasts of an enormous variety of attractions in the form of cultural spots, ancient shrines, beautiful beaches and islands, and several other natural landmarks including Penang Hill.

Equally interesting is the long history of Penang dating back to the mid 16th century when some of the Portuguese merchants from Goa (India) who cruised to the Far East in search of spice stopped on a small rocky isle on the northern coast of Penang in order to obtain fresh water from a river close by.

The locals called these Portuguese traders ferringi. Later, this rocky islet came to be known as Batu Ferringhi, otherwise known as Lover's Isle. However, the Portuguese named the main island 'Pulo Pinaom', literally meaning Betel Nut Island. This later became Penang, which means 'palm tree.' Probably at that time there were areca nut palm trees in abundance in the area.

In the 17th century, Penang served as a natural harbor during the monsoon months for Arabian, Chinese, Dutch, French, and Indian ships. In meantime, Penang also became much popular among the pirates who plundered ships that traversed via the Straits of Malacca. By the 18th century, the spice as well as opium trade between the East and west became greatly popular.

At this time, the Dutch dominated the spice trade. Later, the British also took steps to enter the scenario to dominate spice trade. As a result, they sent Captain Francis Light to establish good trade relations in this region. But, during this time Penang was under the control of the Kingdom of Kedah. In 1771, the Sultan of Kedah handed over Penang to Captain Francis Light in return for protection against the threats of Burmese and Siamese.

After a year, Francis Light sailed to Junk Ceylon in order to form a business there, along with one of his friends, James Scott. This in turn allowed him to gain knowledge on the customs as well as the language of the people, thereby enabling him to win the trusts of the people. Later, in August 1786, Light landed at today's Esplanade in order to officially take possession of the island. This marked the propitious beginning of the first British settlement on Malaysian soil.

After this, the area was renamed 'Prince of Wales Island.' Later, Light founded a settlement on the northeast peninsula of the island, and named it George Town to honor George, the then Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV. As a result, this uninhabited area's population rose to 10,000 by the end of the century. Prince of Wales Island soon flourished as a trading post for tea, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, and textiles.

Meanwhile, when Sultan Abdullah, the then ruler of Sultanate of Kedah, learned that the British is not willing to offer protection, he gathered an army to retake Penang. However, Kedah was defeated, and accordingly Sultan Abdullah entered a contract with the British to hand over Penang to the British. In return, Light agreed to pay the Sultan annually an amount of 6,000 Spanish dollars. This system still continues, and today Penang Government pays RM 18,800 to the Sultan of Kedah every year. When Francis Light died in 1794, his position was taken over by Martina Rozells and William Light.

During the beginning of the 19th century, the settlement of Penang was transformed into Presidency. By the middle of the 19th century, Penang witnessed a glorious trade, with the founding of rich deposits of tin in nearby state, namely, Perak.

Later, Penang was famed as an immigration port, serving immigrants from across the world, particularly from South India and South China. After some times, steps were taken to link Penang by ship to such destinations as Medan, Rangoon, and Singapore.

By the turn of the 20th century, Penang became an important center for trading rubber. In 1905, the first hydroelectric system in the region was completed. Soon after a year, the city's first electric tramway was developed. Gradually, other modes of transport were also introduced here, such as rickshaws.

During the1930s, Penang became an important center of entertainment, with an array of cabaret and cinema halls and gambling centers. This in turn paved way for the ruin of many rich families. Penang further suffered as a result of the Wall Street Crash. Soon after this, the Second World War broke out in 1941. During this time, the region was bombed. As a result, the British took off to Singapore. Then, came the fearful days, when Penang was dominated by the Japanese Kempettai. Eventually, the Japanese force surrendered to the English forces in 1945.

After long years of struggle for power between the democratic forces of Britain and Malaya and the communists, Malaysia attained independence in August 1957, and Penang became one of its 13 states. Penang is now officially known as Negeri Pulau Pinang.
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