Penang on the brink of war,1821


THE FOLLOWING TEXT is mined by Ooi Kee Beng from The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, Vol. XIV, January–June 1822: p284. It provides details of the immediate aft ermath of the escape to Penang in 1821 by Rajah Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Shah II of Kedah, ahead of an invading Siamese army led by the Rajah of Ligor. Langkawi was not spared. Demands for the sultan to be handed over were made to the Governor of Penang, William Edward Phillips. A skirmish at Penaga near “Prye” was fought and won by the British under a Captain Brooke. The Rajah of Ligor sent a hundred war perahus into Penang harbour, and with enemies at the gate, the first ever volunteer corps in Penang was formed by its inhabitants for their own protection (E.G. Cullins and W. F. Zehnder: The Early History of Penang 1592–1827. Penang: Criterion Press, 1905: p41).

These conflicts occurred as part of a Burmese- Siamese war. Kedah remained under direct Siamese rule until 1843, when the kingdom was restored, but with border areas, including Perlis, cut away for good.

One major consequence of this event was the flood of refugees into Province Wellesley, which saw its official Malay population rising from 5,399 in 1820 to 17,805 in 1827 to reach as many as 41,072 by 1833. Kedah itself suffered a sharp drop in population naturally, and even over time, many of the refugees did not return but instead stayed on in Province Wellesley, having obtained land there (Zaharah Mahmud: “The Population of Kedah in the Nineteenth Century”, p193–209. In Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol 3 No 2, September 1972. Cambridge University Press). John Crawfurd was a negotiator sent by the British administration in Madras to Bangkok, and would soon become the second British Resident to Singapore, a position he would hold from 1823 to 1826. “St Antonio” was apparently a British messenger vessel. The “Three Great Presidencies in India” were Madras, Bengal and Bombay. Penang was made a Presidency in 1805, a status it retained until 1830.

A map of Penang, circa 1888.

“Some days ago we were informed that the king of Queda, having been engaged in hostilities with the Siamese, had been completely defeated, and obliged to leave his dominions for Penang, where he found shelter and protection. The accounts now received by the St Antonio enable us to add, that the animosity of the victors had carried them to a greater length than could have been expected, for the expatriated monarch had no sooner taken refuge under the British flag, than they sent an envoy to demand him, either dead or alive, of the Penang Government. An answer being given in the negative, they again demanded his head, threatening to commence hostilities unless their desires were complied with. Finding this repeated eff ort at intimidation fruitless, they lowered their tone a little, and required permission to send ten boats into the river to search for the king on the island, pretending to believe that he was not in the town. This was, of course, refused, and they were informed by the Penang Government that directions had been issued to the cruisers under its orders to treat all of their armed boats that might be found near the island or not the opposite coast as enemies, yet without using unnecessary force to subdue them. Subsequently several of the Siamese boats, the crews of which were very audacious, were detained and sent in, and in one of them was found a letter to the Captain Chinaman of Penang, with a present accompanying it, inviting him to raise his countrymen on their side, as soon as they should attack the island, which they proposed to do without delay. For this purpose they said that they had collected upwards of 7,000 men on the opposite shore. The alarm of the native inhabitants at Penang is considerable, and the Chinamen,c. who have property on the island, are employed in repairing their muskets or purchasing other arms for the purpose of defending it against their expected visitors. Dispatches have been forwarded by the Penang Government to the Governor-General by the St Antonio.”

– Colonial Journal, January 5.

“Further Particulars. – Letters which have been kindly shewn to us, mention that it was thought not improbable that the King of Siam would keep Dr Crawford until the King of Queda is handed over to his General, the Rajah of Ligor. The Governor of Malacca had sent up His Majesty’s ship the Malumpus of forty-four guns and 320 men, to the assistance of the island in case of an attack, which, however, was not considered probable. A letter of the 5th instant, with which we have been favoured, says, ‘our people here seem to think little of the few troops we have on the island, although there is a million sterling of property here belonging to the three great Presidencies of India, besides what belongs to the island, as much more, which might all be destroyed, or at least a great part of it, by the town being set on fire by the Siamese in a dozen of places some dark night. I hope, however, they will be deterred by seeing so many ships coming and going. Nothing else, I assure you, can alarm them.’”

– Madras Courier, January 22.

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