Early days in Balik Pulau


The history of Balik Pulau has been a continuous source of controversy. The following “eyewitness” account and maps may perhaps settle some of the argument and open up new avenues for discussion.

In March 1807 the East India Company’s assistant surveyor in Penang, Jeremiah McCarthy, was sent to reconnoitre the western part of the island. McCarthy had been appointed to Penang by the Bengal government in early 1806 and had been extremely busy surveying various parts of the island, including George Town. Some of his surveys are extant; however the survey he refers to below has unfortunately not been discovered. When Captain Thomas Robertson of the

Bengal Engineers arrived later in 1806 he took charge of the engineering and survey departments, and McCarthy was placed under him.

McCarthy’s report, dated April 6, 1807 and presented here, is the earliest description of the Balik Pulau area yet found, and was recorded in a Penang Council meeting on April 29, 18071. Henry Shepherd Pearson was acting governor at the time, with councillors Colonel Norman Macalister and William Edward Phillips present. The report is addressed to Robertson. In his covering letter to the Council, Robertson notes that “The Ayer Etam mentioned is on the Western Coast, & is totally distinct from the Ayer Etam on this side of the Island.”

I have the honor to acquaint you that agreeably to the Orders of the Hon’ble the Governor & Council communicated to me by your Letter of the 25th of Febry last I proceeded on the Hon’ble Company’s Vessel Albina to the West side of the Island as soon as that Vessel could be got ready and came to anchor near Poolo Boutton2, and the next tide having procured a Native Pilot I proceeded up the river of that name to the Village which is at the foot of the Hill3 – the Inhabitants of that Village I found to be all Malays, and consist of 35 to 40 People who have lived there above three years, they support themselves by planting Rice, Sugar Canes, Pumpkins & other Vegetables and occasionally fishing near Poolo Bouton and the mouth of the river, the Surplus of all which above their own necessary consumption they dispose of to Boats which are in the habit of coming from George Town for that Trade. I had the pleasure to send you a Sample of the Rice produced there, of which I have more by me, if it be wanted, the river is very small, and so very shallow at its Mouth that a small Canoe can not find Water into it before half flood Tide.

I the next day went up the river Ayer Etam4, this River is the largest of the [illegible] Rivers that empty themselves into the Sea at this place – but it is so encumbered with Trees and [?branches] laying in different directions in it, that I was obliged to have recourse to a very small Canoe to overcome these obstructions, & with all that the People that were with me, were often obliged to lift the Boat up in their arms to get her along & it was much worse on my return when the Tide had fallen, if that River was but cleared of these Nuisances it would admit of pretty large Boats going a long way up at high Water for in that case the Stream would clear a Channel for itself & the banks of the Mud which are now accumulated by every one of these obstructions would be worked away by the great body of water which runs there particularly in the rains.

The Ground on each side of this as well as the other Rivers is covered in small Trees fit only for Firewood, for above ⅓ of the distance from the Sea to the Hills on which the Tide flows, & as far as that the Banks and Bottom are soft Mud, but above that it is a Sandy Bottom & fine clear Water, it runs down to the foot of a little Mount5 on which a Battery might be advantageously built for the defence of the place – it appears to afford a large Base at the top sufficiently for a good House Out Offices &cr. and from its central situation commands a view of all that place – as well as a very extensive one of the Sea, the Village is a little to the Southward & Eastward of that Mount on the other side of the river6 & consists of about 14 Families or 70 People all Malays who have lived there above three years, & have cleared 141 Orlongs of Ground, equal to 186 Acres nearly, the Chief Man among them whose Name is Livi Tompion7 has given me the Names of the Cultivators in that Village, with the quantity of Ground cleared by each which is as follows —

He told me they had settled there in Mr. Farquhar’s Government on a promise that whatever quantity of Ground they cleared would be granted to them9. Livi Tompion had on his Plantation a good deal of Sugar Cane a few Cocoa Nut & Beetle Leaf the luxuriant growth of which & indeed of every other plant to be seen there exhibits the [illegible] proof of the richness of the soil. That Man told me that Mr. Farquhar had that place measured & that a Line from the foot of the Hill, which cut thro’ his ground to the Sea had measured 80 Orlongs, and another along the Water from one end to the other was 120 Orlongs of which that Man joined me in opinion that the Sea flows over ⅓ part & therefore not immediately fit for Cultivation & on a supposition that the above measurement was pretty accurately made I think it may be inferred that there is altogether Eight thousand Acres of the richest Soil on the [?island] on that plain if cleared and Cultivated. The Inhabitants seemed rejoiced at my being ordered there by the Government in the hope that may prove a prelude to an Encouragement to be held out for clearing & cultivating this part of the Island.

Livi Tompion shewed me a Valley leading from that place to Thoolo-cumbah10 where he told me there had been a foot path for several Years back, with little or no ascent in any part of it, & that if the Trees were but removed which the Cultivators of Rice have from time to time felled in many places across that path, that it would be a good road now for Horse to travel over. I have sketched off that Valley from its bearings taken while in that place, and after from its appearance taken when off Thoolo-cumbah on the accompanying plan of the Island – and I have no doubt but a Road could be made without much expence for a Carriage to pass to that part of the Island. There is another road leading to Soonghy Cluan11, but it passes over some Steep Hills, & therefore not so eligible as the former. [a section regarding suggestions for a road through the hills further north has been left out here]

…I next went up to Soongy Pinang12, to shew me which place Livi Tompion very obligingly offered me his Services, which I accepted, that river is not so large as the last but from having been kept clear of Trees by the Natives who are in the habit of getting large Mast pieces there, it is more accessable [sic] for Boats[.] [I]t is like the others soft Mud at the mouth and then becomes a Sandy bottom with a fine Stream of Water as clear as Chrystal [sic] & uncommonly cool and pleasant[.] [T]hat river also runs near the foot of another Mount very eligible for the defence of its mouth, as well as for a very pleasant place for a House at its Top13. A Village had been here, but has been evacuated for several Years back – a few families have lately gone there, but the few Months they have been there does not authorize my ranking them under the head of Cultivators. I observed several Mast pieces lying in the Water with other large Trees made fast to them to float them out of the river. I had the curiosity to measure them & they proved to be from 8¼ to 10½ feet Girt and from 93 to 120 feet long, the Sand here seems to be partially cleared up of Forrest, in a great measure I believe, on account of the facility the Natives had experienced in getting these large Mast pieces into the Water here, more than in other places the Stumps or Roots of most of which still remain there – the few Beetle Nut & Cocoa Nut trees which I saw had been planted there evince the richness of the Soil in a superior degree, like all the other parts of that plain which I saw, & from its elevated Situation I think is likely to prove the healthiest part at least to Europeans, & I beg leave to conclude with respect to that part of the Isld. by saying that after a full consideration of what I have seen on the spot & heard from the people there I am of opinion that making a Road to it … and adopting measures to encourage the Cultivation of that part of the Island is likely to prove an object richly meriting the attention of the Honble the Governor and Council.

A census of the area in 1818 reveals that there were by then a total of seven villages on the western side of the island, with a total population of 986 persons and 183 houses. The following table has been extracted from the records (spelling as used)14:

By 1820 a road had been pushed across the main range separating the eastern part of the island from the west. This road followed the valley in which today’s Ayer Etam dam is located and was known at the time as Low’s Pass. By the end of the following year the road had been extended south across the plain to Sungai Betung, where a watering reservoir was established to supply shipping passing that side of the island. A small guard station and defensive position was established on Mount Palmer (possibly Bukit Bakar Kapor) commanding the south-west point of the island. With easier access established, more and more families moved to the west coast, clearing and cultivating the land. By the census of 1829 the population of the “Western District” had reached 1,731; the Chinese then outnumbering the Malays 871 to 64415. It is clear from McCarthy’s report, however, that the earliest permanent settlers during the East India Company’s administration of Penang were the Malays, c.1804.

Detail from “Plan of Prince of Wales’ Island and the Territories ceded thereto on the Opposite shore” by W. Fletcher, 1820. [British Library, IOR/X/3338]. In this, the earliest discovered map showing the Balik Pulau area clearly, the river called Ayer Etam by McCarthy is shown as Red River. The roads indicated on this map do not bear a close relationship to those of today. Note that the references to “Chinese Bazars”, “Ch: Bazars” and “Houses”, are all north of the river. Today’s Balik Pulau township is south of the river; about where the small hole in the map appears.

Detail from “Penang or Prince of Wales Island” by Lieut. T. Woore R.N. 1832. [The National Archives, UK, MR 1-1259]. This more basic map of 1832 shows a different road alignment to the 1820 map. “China Bazar” is still shown as a cluster of buildings north of the river.

Detail from “Map of Prince of Wales’ Island or Pulo Penang and Province Wellesley” by J. Moniot, 1853. [British Library IOR/X/3340]. It is not known how or when the name Balik Pulau came into use, though the name “Balih Pulo Ayer Etum” is seen in this 1852 map. The village is shown as being in the vicinity of today’s Balik Pulau township and the roads are more consistent with today’s layout.

1 Straits Settlement Factory Records, R9 V17.

2 Pulau Betung.

3 This is possibly the hill now called Bukit Bakar Kapor, but was known as Mount Palmer at this time.

4 This river is now known by several branches, including Sungai Rusa, Sungai Samagagah, Sungai Korok and Sungai Kongsi. It is possibly the latter branch that McCarthy explored.

5 This is the hill first known as Mount Burney, and later simply as Bukit Kechil.

6 It is difficult to know whether McCarthy is referring to the branch now called Sungai Korok, or to the main branch of the river now called Sungai Kongsi, e.g. see the 1820 map for placement of the village at that time.

7 This name could also have been Live or Levi and is perhaps a phonetic interpretation of the Malay “Lebbee”. The original scribe sometimes dots two ‘i's; sometimes only one and sometimes neither.

8 The “Chee” used here is undoubtedly a phonetic interpretation of the Malay term of endearment “Inche”.

9 Robert Townsend Farquhar was Lieutenant Governor between January 1804 and September 1805. McCarthy’s description of the area tallies with the general location of today’s Balik Pulau township, though on the opposite side of the river.

10 Teluk Kumbar.

11 Now Sungai Keluang. This road ran towards James Town, which was set in the valley area immediately north of today’s airport.

12 Sungai Pinang (West Coast).

13 This hill is also now simply called Bukit Kechil.

14 SSFR, R24, V66, June 22, 1818. “Battas” as used here is a loose term for people from Sumatra.

15 The Government Gazette, Prince of Wales Island, Singapore, and Malacca, October 24, 1829.

Marcus Langdon specialises in the history of Penang under the British East India Company. He is the author of Penang: the Fourth Presidency of India 1805- 1830, Vol. 1: Ships, Men and Mansions, Penang: Areca Books, 2013.

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