Penang and East Sumatran ports 1824

The following abstract comes from the beginning of a book published by the Government of Prince of Wales Island in 1824. It bore the long title An exposition of the Politician and Commercial Relations of the Government of Prince of Wales Island with the States on the East Coast of Sumatra from Diamond Point to Siack.

The volume is a good reminder of what the cultural, commercial and political diversity in the Straits of Malacca looked like before late colonial empire-building and modern nation-states divided the region and simplified our understanding of that diversity. The early 1800s following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte saw new adjustments being forced by the British and the Dutch, and new agreements being reached between them to secure control over the trade routes in the region which were so important to their economies and to their wish to tap the China trade.

Diamond Point is the place exactly westwards of Penang Island, on Sumatra Island. Diamond Point and Penang thus conveniently mark the northern entrance into the Straits of Malacca.

Siack refers to the major kingdom based at what is today the town of Pekanbaru through which the Siak River flows. It is the capital of the Riau Province today.

Timian refers to what is now Tamiang, on the north-eastern coast of Sumatra.

Those wishing to know more about the east coast of Sumatra in the 19th century should also read John Anderson’s work from 1823, Mission to the east coast of Sumatra, in M.DCCC. XXIII, under the direction of the government of Prince of Wales island: including historical and descriptive sketches of the country, an account of the commerce, population, and customs of the inhabitants, and a visit to the Batta cannibal states in the interior.

Penang was given the status of a Presidency in 1805; and in 1826, a year after Malacca was ceded by the Netherlands to the British, both Malacca and Singapore were added to the Presidency. In 1830, the Presidency was dissolved and the three territories, now known as the Straits Settlements, were administered by the Bengal Government until 1851. It was then controlled by the Government of India until 1867, when it was placed under the Colonial Office.

The highly significant Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, also known as the Treaty of London, cut South-East Asia’s archipelagic world into two spheres of influence, which later in general became the independent states of Malaysia and Indonesia.

As curiosa, “Prince of Wales Island” faded away as the official name for Penang Island. Somehow, it never caught on well enough to replace the time-tried local moniker of “Pinang”, a name based on the Malay word for the areca nut. That name – “Binlang” island – already appeared on the map General Zheng He used on his travels between 1405 and 1433.

Another reason could be that Penang was not the only island in the world called Prince of Wales Island. There is one in southern Alaska (named after Captain James Cook who mapped the area in 1774); another in Arctic Canada named in 1851; and a third is found in the Torres Strait between Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Incidentally, “Georgetown” is a name carried by about five dozen urban centres in the world, at least 42 of which are in the US. Penang’s, however, is written as “George Town” – two words.

THE establishment of a direct intercourse with the more Northerly States on the East Coast of Sumatra is an event of recent occurrence. The more Southerly and most important state on that Coast however, Siack, which exercises a paramount authority over the whole as far as Timian, has been known to us for some time past, as a place of considerable trade.

About a year after Pinang was elevated to the rank of a Presidency, Mr. John Scott was deputed to Siack, for the purpose of entering into a contract for the supply of Timber; Mr. F. Garling was also sent in 1807 and Mr. Lynch in 1808. The report of the latter gentleman tended much to extend our geographical knowledge of that Coast, but he represented the moral condition of the Chiefs in very unfavorable colours and the people so hostile to friendly relations, from their universal attachment to Piracy, that the Government was deterred from establishing a close and more intimate commercial intercourse between this Island and the numerous ports which line the Eastern Coast. A very considerable supply of excellent Timber was procured for the construction of His Majesty’s Frigate Malacca, and H.C. Ship Inglis of 1,200 Tons, both built on this Island.

When the intelligence of the expected transfer of Malacca to the Dutch reached Pinang it became necessary to make such arrangements with some of the principal chiefs in this neighbourhood, as would prevent the Netherlands Government from entering into monopolies, as there was but too just grounds for apprehending they would endeavour to do. The Resident of Malacca, Major (now Colonel) Farquhar was deputed as Agent by the Pinang Government to Siack, amongst other places in 1818, with this view, and made treaty with the King. The Ambassador was received with very demonstration of respect and matters appeared more inviting for establishing a beneficial commercial intercourse. The Rajah expressed the utmost desire to improve his connexion with the British Government. The Supreme Government subsequently gave authority to the Pinang Government to form a British Settlement at Siack, should such a measure appear to be expedient.

In 1819 the chiefs of Delli, Sirdang and Assahan opened a correspondence with the Governor which indicated a desire of improving their relations with this Government and the Netherlands Government having occupied Rhio, Malacca and Padang and used their utmost efforts to divert to these ports, the greatest portion of the Trade of Sumatra, it was considered necessary to remind the Native Chiefs of the more reciprocally beneficial and liberal course of measures pursued by the British Government.

It was deemed therefore, that without the danger of embarrassment with the disputes of any of the Native Chiefs, the time was arrived when the Government of Pinang might endeavour to procure a more extensive and intimate knowledge of the ports and people in this neighbourhood and even to derive, by a judicious course of measures, some permanent commercial advantages for this Establishment. For this purpose Mr. Ibbetson of the Civil Service was selected to proceed as Commissioner, and he sailed from Penang in June 1820…

The Commissioner was cautioned not to involve himself in any disputes which might subsist between the different Native Chiefs, and not to pursue any measures calculated to interfere with the Netherlands authorities at Palembang. The principal objects of his Mission were in fact stated to be:

• First and Chiefly, to obtain by means of a responsible and accredited Agent, an authentic, exact and unbiased account of the resources and condition of the different States on that Coast.

• Secondly, to prevent Malacca, and Rhio from engrossing the Trade hitherto flowing from Siack and the Eastern Coast of Pinang.

• Thirdly, to ascertain if it were practicable, as supposed by many, to bring down again to the Eastern side of Sumatra the Trade from Menangkabau, and the reported flourishing countries in the interior; it being certain that the course of that trade flowed through the large Rivers of Siack, Indrigiri, &c. before it was diverted to the Dutch Settlement of Padang and the West Coast, and

• Lastly, to collect every information respecting the productions of the interior countries said to abound with Gold Mines, and also respecting the extent and nature of the navigation of the three large Rivers of Siack, Indrigiri and Jambi, said by Natives to communicate with each other in the centre of Sumatra.

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