Inhabitants of Penang, 1803


After Captain Norman MacAlister had served for over a decade as the Commander of the Artillery Upon Prince Of Wales Island, he published in 1803 a book lengthily titled Historical Memoir relative to Prince of Wales Island in the Straits of Malacca: and its Importance Political and Commercial (London: J.H. Hart of Warwik-Square, Newgate Street).

The 38-page typewritten volume was conceived more as a report to the East India Company and the British Government in London than as a public document. Certain sections that had apparently been planned originally were therefore excluded “for security reasons”, as we would put it today. At the time the account was being submitted, Penang was insufficiently guarded by only half an artillery company and two companies of “Sea-poys”, and so the author decided not to extrapolate too much on a plan of “the South and North Harbours of the Prince of Wales Island”, as well as “a Landscape of the Eastern Side of the Island”.

As Captain MacAlister claimed in the introduction, Prince of Wales Island at the turn of the 19th Century “excited the jealousy of France, Holland, and Spain”. His mention of his caution, it would seem, was meant to prod Whitehall and Calcutta to seriously consider strengthening the island’s defences.

George Town’s Macalister Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, was of course named after the captain.

This is a section taken from the book (pp. 22-25), relating some details of the population of the island 25 years after Francis Light had landed to claim it for Britain.


The inhabitants of Prince of Wales Island, from the time it has been settled, are very numerous. By the last computation, men, women, and children, were reckoned at 30,000. Of these, twelve thousand are Chinese. The most numerous tribe next to the Chinese are Malabars, from the coast of Coromandel. The other inhabitants are, English, European and Asiatic Portuguese, a few Dutch and Danish families; also Malays, Japanese, Acheenese, Siamese, Burmans, Buggises, Bengalees, Persees, Armenians, and Arabs. Each of these native tribes have a specific part of the town allotted for them to live in, and each tribe nominates one of their own class for their captain or head man, who is in some degree responsible for the conduct of all his tribe.

When the island was first taken possession of, there were two or three individuals, natives of the island, who subsisted by fishing, and extracting from the trees dammer and wood-oil; one of these people, a very old man, gave an account of there having been, about sixty years ago, a great many inhabitants on the island, not less than 2,000; and that, at one place, it was well cultivated: which is indeed evinced by the number of burying-places seen on that part of the island, which compacted a space of about two square miles; from its having no large trees, but many fruit-trees; and, above all, from the appearance of enclosures and furrows.

Those people who were settled upon the island, having given themselves up to piracy and plunder, which disturbed the commerce of Quida, the king fitted out an armament and expelled every soul from the island. Until the time however when it came into our hands, it continued to be the resort of piratical Malays, of whom there is still a great number in the Straits of Malacca.

There is no extent of gain that will engage a Malay in constant and unremitting industry: but, in cutting down and clearing the woods they are particularly useful and expert. And whatever class of people becomes the cultivators and permanent settlers, the temporary services of the Malays will always be necessary for the cutting down and burning of the woods. The instrument they use for this purpose is a small hatchet with a very obtuse edge, like a wedge, and resembling that used in Bengali; it is fixed with a piece of small rattan or cane to an elastic handle about four feet long, but which means the force of the stroke is much increased; and, as they direct it with exactness, the edge is never turned, although the wood of many of the trees is so excessively hard, that none of the European hatches, that are sent from Bengal for the purpose of cutting down the wood, stand for any time.

A dozen of strong Malays, thus armed, will clear away a great deal of ground in a very short time; and in their mode of proceeding there appears to be a great deal of ingenious contrivance. In most woods, either from a long continued or violent wind in one direction, or for some other imperceptible and unknown cause, the trees all require a slight inclination one way. Of this circumstance the Malays take advantage; and, having cut a little way, (perhaps one third,) into the side of two or three hundred trees, opposite to their inclination, and whose branches are all perhaps entwined and intermixed with each other, they at last fix upon some large tree, which they entirely cut down. This in its fall carries down all those that were notched next to it, those next to them, and so on, as far as the trees have been cut into. In this manner have I seen a mass of trees of some hundred yards in length, and perhaps fifty in breadth, cut down in the course of a day, which could not have been cut down, each by each, in less I think than a week. The Malays are also very expert at getting very large trees out of the wood into the sea, especially those that are strait. In doing this, they use (as rollers) junks of the Neeboon-tree, which is perfectly round and smooth; and, with a strong rattan, which they shift from tree to tree, twenty Malays will get trees fit for the largest ships’ masts in a very short time. For this kind of work, they will contract, and certainly their demand bears no kind of proportion to the real value of the trees they bring. Were spars procured in this way for his Majesty’s navy, and worked up in the dockyard, I am convinced that the mainmast of a 74-gun ship would not stand the Crown three hundred Spanish dollars.

The shops in the Bazzar which are very numerous, are kept by the Chinese and Malabars. The Chinese are a very industrious and quiet people; they are now spread over all the Malay countries, they exercise almost all the handicrafts professions, and also carry on the most of the retail trade in the Malay ports.

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