Penang before Francis Light (as the English saw it in 1905)

The following short passage is taken from the beginning of The Early History of Penang 1592-1827, a book written by E.G. Cullin and W.F. Zehnder and published in 1905 by The Criterion Press based in Penang. The text had first been published in the local newspaper, The Straits Echo.

The book also intriguingly states that when Francis Light in 1786 settled in Penang, an island thought by the Europeans to be uninhabited, “he found 58 men, women and children near the foot of the hills at Datu Kramat, and on the founding of the Settlement (George Town) they asked permission, which was granted, to come in and build houses in the little township. A French padre came over from Quedah bringing his flock and settled along the coast at Pulo Tikus, as they do to this day.”

Scurvy was a curse plaguing early long-distance sailors, caused by C-vitamin deficiency. Apparently, because Captain James Lancaster (died 1618) happened to have lemon juice on his ship for his men, the crew fared much better than those on other ships in his expedition. The disease was fatal in many cases and is characterised by “spongy and bleeding gums, bleeding under the skin, and extreme weakness” (see The Free Dictionary).

The East India Company was granted a charter in 1601 by Queen Elizabeth the First near the end of her reign, and was the oldest of several such East India Companies formed in Europe at that time to ply the spice trade. The Company was dissolved in 1858 following the Indian Rebellion that took place the year before.

As a matter of interest, Penang appeared much earlier in Chinese records. It was reportedly noted on maps kept by the Ming Dynasty expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He between 1407 and 1433, as “Bin Lang Yu” (檳榔嶼).

CHAPTER I: Early Voyages

THE FIRST mention of Penang in the history of Malaya is in the year 1591. We find after searching the records at the India Office that Captain Lancaster, afterwards Sir James Lancaster, was one of the first English voyagers in these waters, in his ship the Edward Bonaventure, having come for purposes of trade. But to Francis Drake belonged the honour of being the first Englishman to bring his ship to the East Indies, for he made his memorable trip round the world twelve years previously.

The Edward Bonaventure was one of three ships sent out from England in 1591 to the East to trade with the natives for pepper and other spices, in which Malaya abounded. The expedition reached Zanzibar at the close of 1592, and leaving it in February of the following year did not cast anchor again till June, when the commander found a harbour off Pulau Rimau to the south of the Island of Penang, or Pulau Pinang. Scurvy seems to have been raging on board the ships at the time, as Capt. Lancaster remained at his anchorage till the end of August, losing no less than 26 of the crew from the ravages of scurvy.

It is a singular fact that the very first English trader of Malaya should have found his way direct to this little out-of-the-way and then uninhabited island, which destiny has shown was to become such a famous and prosperous port of call in our time. Capt. Lancaster loaded his ships chiefly with pepper taken from Portuguese and Peguan vessels which he plundered off Perak, where three of them are said to have “laden a cargo of pepper.” His own ship and its two companions were, however, lost. The notes of Lancaster’s voyage, and still more the instructive and interesting accounts of the profits to be made, first convinced Englishmen of the great advantages that were to be derived from Malayan trade. Eight years after Lancaster’s voyage to Malaya, the famous East India Company was formed with a charter for fifteen years (afterwards extended) chiefly with the object of trading with Malaya: and this Company sent out in 1601 the same captain (now Sir James) Lancaster as “admiral of four vessels,” with the celebrated Davis as Pilot. Lancaster first made for the Nicobars and afterwards, when loaded with pepper, sent home two of his ships from Acheen (1602) where he was well received.

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