Account of an Early Transit in Penang
The following text is from a report written and submitted in 1796 by Captain Walter Caulfield Lennon. It is about his impressions of “Pulo Penang”, which he visited in November the year before on the way from Madras to the “Molucca Islands”.
The article was titled “Journal of a voyage through the Straits of Malacca on an expedition to the Molucca Islands under the command of Admiral Rainier with some account of those islands at the time of their falling into our hands, and likewise suggestions relative to their future better management in case of being retained in our permanent possession”. Lennon was serving as Principal Engineer and Secretary to the Expedition. [First published in Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 7 (June 1881), pp. 51-74].
Those were globally eventful times. The Great French War was raging in Europe, which would culminate in Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The Netherlands was being turned into a satellite state by the French, which encouraged British occupation of Dutch colonies throughout the world. These were however subsequently returned after the fall of Napoleon.
Malacca was surrendered by the Dutch to the English in August 1795, and the once-mighty declining Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) was soon to be nationalised as it continued its descent into bankruptcy and dissolution by 1800. In 1796 Napoleon gained hero status among his countrymen following his successful military campaign against Austria in northern Italy.
Admiral Peter Rainier was England’s senior naval officer in the Far East from 1794 to 1805, whose mandate was simply “the Protection of the Trade and Settlements of His Majesty’s Subjects and…Allies” (see “Peter Augustus Ward: Admiral Peter Rainier and the Command of the East Indies Station 1794-1805”: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/ bitstream/handle/10036/3028/WardP. pdf?sequence=5).
In Penang, Francis Light had passed away on October 21, 1794, and his position as Superintendent (of the British East India Company) had been taken over by Philip Mannington. Mannington held the position for only a year, passing away in November 1795. The mention of the tree with the “elastic gum” abundant in Penang is of special interest, since Lennon’s note is from 1796 and accounts of the transfer of rubber seeds from South America to Kew Gardens tend to date the event to the 1870s – seven decades later.
16th – We this day had a large party at Mr. Scott’s. This gentleman has lived here since the first establishment of the Island. He had formerly been a Captain in the country trade, but being unfortunate, was obliged to live chiefly amongst the Malays, on the Island Junkceylon [Phuket]. He has since made a handsome fortune, and very honourably discharged all his former debts. His house is built of wood in the Malay fashion upon posts raised about five feet from the ground. Several of the houses here are built in the same way which, however well adapted to the situation Malays in general are fond of, over swamps, or water, and always near it, does not appear to be the most secure or convenient for Europeans.
23rd. – This morning went to see the waterfall, which is about six miles from the town, with a road for carriages for about four of the way, the rest I walked, and after climbing the latter part of it up a very steep and jungly path, at last arrived at the foot of the waterfall, and was exceedingly struck with the grandeur and magnificence it exhibited; It is above 300 feet high and falls in a broken cataract from an opening in the hill about half way up according to the view. The scenery round is true nature in its most sublime aspect, and with the expense of a little labour in clearing away some of the trees about it, would afford one of the most beautiful views possible. At present to get a sight of it you are obliged to come so near that the effect is almost lost.
I am informed by Mr. Mannington that the population of Pulo Penang exceeds 20,000 souls, consisting of Chulears, Chinese, Malays, Bengallies, Portuguese, and Europeans; the first bear the greatest proportion in number and are chiefly the boatmen and fishers, and some of the richest traders are of this cast; they are originally all from the Malabar and Coromandel coasts. The artificers and most of the shop-keepers are Chinese, whose daily hire in the former capacity is very dear, being half a Spanish dollar per day. The persons who are generally employed in clearing the ground and cutting down trees for timber are Malays, who work by contract, and with their little axes with long handles, cut down or sit idle at their pleasure. Their manner of cutting differs from what is generally practised; if the lower part of the trunk of a tree be much thicker, as it for the most part is, than at the height of 6 or 8 feet, they erect a stage and cut it that height where it is least trouble, then clearing away the underwood they take advantage of the wind and cutting nearly through several trees in its direction, they fairly fell the first which in its fall brings down all the others to leeward of it. After the trees are somewhat dry, they are set fire to, but seldom that I could perceive, were entirely consumed: very large timbers still lying in the direction they chanced to fall. This and the quantity of ground lost by the stumps still remaining, if left to nature to decay, as is usually the case, impedes the cultivation for not less than six years and sometimes ten. I am, therefore, of opinion that it would be more advantageous to dig the trees at first fairly out of the ground, at least to cut all the roots that spread, and then ropes fixed to the top could easily bring down the trees by tackles attached to the bases of the adjoining trees, and when this was insufficient the aid of the axe and mamooty could soon effect it. Rice is generally cultivated after the wood is cut down, but from the ground not being effectually cleared there is full a third part of it lost, for at least six years, and the standing stumps give it the most barbarous appearance possible. The first expense and trouble is greater in the way that I conceive best, but the surface gained must more than counterbalance it; for in the present manner there is the profit of two entire years' cultivation of the whole lost in the first six years. The variety and luxuriance of the trees over this island, as over all the Malay islands, is very great, timber very plenty and good; but they have no teak, which is the best wood in India; Poon grows to an immense size, and one tree large enough for the Suffolk’s main mast, for which I am told it was intended, now lays upon the beach.
The harbour of Penang is proved to be safe and capable of holding all the ships of our Navy in the East, and affording them and any other ships every requisite assistance at all times. There is now a shipwright established, who built four ships here, and from the cheapness of timber, if encouragement was given to artificers, ships might be built cheaper here than anywhere in India, and docks for the largest ships could be formed almost by the simple excavation of the rock of Pulo Juaja [footnote: Jerajah or Jerjah] where the Chinese now manufacture chunam very cheap and good. It is, therefore, a good situation for establishing a Naval Arsenal as the most central to all the trade between India and China and all the islands to the Eastward, which there are now hopes may be carried to an extent much beyond what it has been hitherto, and this in all probability could be done without any, or at most a very trifling, expense to the Company; since if they would only avow their encouragement and support of the Settlement, in the manner beforementioned, its being continued a free port would secure it such a resource of shipping and trade as would tempt the speculation of individuals to these undertakings. The watering of ships at Penang at present is by no means convenient, but might easily be made so, at a much less expense than has been proposed by some schemers, whose plan I have heard of, but who don't seem to understand the subject; though perhaps it may some day happen that, being proposed by some person with interest, it may become an expensive job to the Company without much advantage to the public.
The Fort is situated in the North-East point of the island, which I think the best, but it is in itself so childish a plan and scale, so near the sea, so ill-executed, and so crowded on by the town and houses adjoining, that I fancy, to afford a real security to their possessions, it will be found necessary to build another in a different place. I am told the best place for the purpose is about six miles South, near where the Chinese have their pepper gardens, and where there is an inner harbour, which might, as far as I can judge, from the plan of it, be improved to the reception of large ships. The tree or plant which yields that curious substance, the elastic gum, grows here in abundance; its juice, when cut or broken, resembles milk, which, when suffered to remain exposed to the air, coagulates into the substance we see it without any chemical process whatever. Bullocks and sheep are very scarce and poor here; the beef is generally buffalo, chiefly from the opposite shore of Queda, and sheep come from Bengal. Poultry are plenty and cheap; the market being supplied by Malay prows, besides what are bred on the island, which are every day increasing; vegetables are cultivated in great plenty by the Chinese, who, wherever they settle, are industrious and orderly. I am told that there are at present for sale in Queda, twenty very fine elephants, which might be bought and embarked for 500 Spanish dollars each, which would be worth from 1,000 to 1,500 or even 2,000 Pagodas each on the coast of Coromandel, this breed of elephants being much more esteemed than any in India. Having received orders from the Admiral for the embarkation of the troops, communicated the same to Major Vigors.
24th. – This morning embarked with the Admiral on board the Orpheus, weighed anchor at 10 o’clock, and sailed through the southern passage, in which we had rather more water than on the flat to the Northward, but the channel is more intricate, though perfectly safe with a leading wind.
25th. – Fell in with four China ships bound for Bengal and Bombay. By one of the latter we sent despatches to be landed at Anjango. We steered South after clearing the shoal, which extends to near Saddle Island, and the 26th made Pula Jarra. We then steered South-East, and the next day, 27th, made the Sambelans or Nine Islands. Two more China ships passed us.
28th. – Very light airs, but fine weather; this evening made the Aroas, and anchored for the night.
29th. – Steering due East from the Aroas, we sailed with a fine breeze through the Sand Heads to Parcelar Hill, from whence the course to Malacca, South-East is without danger, Point Rachargo, half way, being a very safe mark. All these islands and points are like so many mile-stones or guide posts for this little voyage.
30th. – Our wind very faint and the tide against us for a great part of the day; we dropped anchor in Malacca road until 5 o’clock in the evening. Immediately went on shore with the despatches from the Admiral intimating his intention to dissolve the Dutch Government.