The history of Penang began in 1786, when Captain Francis Light struck a deal with the Sultan of Kedah. He acquired Pulau Pinang (Penang lsland) from the Sultan on behalf of the East lndia Company, which in retum promised Kedah protection against the powerful neighbours.
By 1800, Light had also managed to negotiate for a strip of land next to the island. The place was named Province Wellesley (after the Governor of lndia) and is now the present Seberang Perai.
Light named the island Prince of Wales Island because the acquisition date fell on the prince’s birthday. He first landed at the site of the present Esplanade. The place was then no more than a swampy, malaria-infested area. To clear the place, he loaded the ship’s cannons with silver dollars and fired them into the jungle to encourage a faster clearing of the thick undergrowth by the labourers.
A town was established and named Georgetown after the Prince of Wales. Thc grid of this settlement was bordered by Light Street, Chulia Street, Pitt Street (Jalam Masjid Kapitan Keling) and Bishop Street.
To encourage settlers. the port was accorded a duty-free status and new arrivals were allowed to claim as much land as they could clear. From virtually an uninhabited island, the population grew to 10,000 by the end of the century.
Penang became a trading post for tea, spices (clove and nutmeg from local plantations), china, pepper from Acheh and textiles from India. Later on, the regional trade grew to include tin, then rubber.
lt became the crossroads of great civilizations, a melting pot of the east. Traders and settlers came from Europe, lndia, China, the Malay Archipelago, Thailand and Burma.
The free and neutral British port was favoured over Dutch trading posts because of the heavy restrictions and taxes imposed by the Dutch.
The Europeans settled at Light Street, the Eurasians from Kcdah and Phuket stayed at Bishop Street and Church Suteet (Lebuh Gereja).
The Straits Chinese traders from Kedah and Malacca who came here to seek new opportunities converged at China Street while the lndian traders settled at Chulia Street.
By early 1800s, Georgetown had grown to include two more streets — Armenian Street inhabited by the Armenians and Acheen Street home to the Achehnese, other Sumatrans and Malays.
ln 1832, Penang formed part of the Straits Settlement with Melaka and Singapore. Besides being a commercial interest and land of opportunities, Penang was also a liberal haven to the various communities – the Malays escaping Siamese attacks in Kedah, the Eurasians fleeing religious persecution in South Thailand, the Manchu-oppressed Chinese and the South Indians who left a homeland of poverty and strife.
Penang remained under the British Colonial rule until 1957, when it gained independence under the Federation of Malaya. lt was briefly occupied by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945. In 1963, it became part of Malaysia when Sabah and Sarawak came into the group.
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Posted June 4, 2011