Colonial Penang's pre-modern roots

Penang under the East India Company 1786-1858

Andrew Barber
AB&A. 2009; Hard cover;160 pages

Review by Ooi Kee Beng

The salience of the approach Barber chose to tell the early history of Penang is seen immediately in the introduction through several observations that immediately remind us of the island settlement's unique place in history.

Describing Penang's early fate within the internal dynamics of the British East India Company makes for a highly suggestive and informative narrative, not only about politics and economics but more interestingly about the cultural distinctiveness of Britain's first settlement east of India.

The Company was born in another age, exactly on December 31, 1600, just is months before Queen Elizabeth I of England passed away. Throughout its first two centuries, its dealings with the world exhibited "tolerance and cosmopolitanism". This slowly changed with the company's administration becoming more centralised in tandem with the increasing power of the kingdom.

By the time Penang was settled by the British, an imperial and haughty culture was overtaking the ad hoc adventurism of the earlier period. In the early 1800s, following the Napoleonic Wars, the buccaneering spirit was practically gone and the company's officers were forbidden from marrying local women. This was in stark contrast to the company's edict of 1615 when the European wives of its employees were not allowed to accompany them on their long trips.

Barber makes the poignant point that Francis Light, living in George Town with Martina Rozells as his common-law wife, ran "an easy-going, personalised, relaxed administration, albeit rather inefficient and modestly corrupt". This changed after his death in 1794, and his successors tended to be more concerned about bureaucratic correctness than administrative flexibility in running the island. The fact that the Catholic Eurasian Rozells could not defend her and their children's rights following Light's death perhaps also testifies to the racialist attitudes that had now come to define the latter period of European colonialism.

By the time Penang was settled, Light had been active in South-East Asia for almost two decades, having arrived in Aceh in 1869 from Madras. The network he developed over the years promoting "the merits of possible 'factories' or trading stations" included the Sultan of Kedah. This merchant adventurer's knowledge of the region's "political economy" — to use a modern term — was to be of great benefit to him in the acquisition of Penang. The British take-over took place officially at noon on August 11, 1786, witnessed by Rozells and two of their children, among many others.

Barber highlights the radical change that Britain's self-image was undergoing during this period by contrasting the cultural atmospherics in colonial Penang with Singapore's.

[...] from the outset Singapore was characterised by an efficient, hierarchical but avowedly racist system of governance. Communities lived, by law, in clearly delimitated areas; no surprises, the British and Europeans had the best of the land. Though Singapore was settled by the East India Company, by the time Stamford Raffles raised the Union Jack, the Company was closer in spirit to the Victorian Raj than the old, louche "John Company" of Francis Light, Robert Clive and James Lancaster (p. 13).

As an interested reader, one is led to query if elite defensiveness in Britain in the wake of the French Revolution may have been the tipping point in this imperialist shift. Britain did emerge the unchallenged victor after 1815 to display new confidence in its dealings on the global stage; leading for example to Stamford Raffles' mission to limit Dutch power in South-East Asia and to the settlement of Singapore.

Barber's book is beautifully produced, and will certainly join recent ones about Penang that book-lovers will not be able to resist adding to their collec-tion. Despite the global format in which he chose to tell the tale, the chapters discuss specific issues that came to define Penang, such as the relationship Penang's rulers had with Malay sultanates and the eclecticism of the island's physical development. Barber's take on local responses to external dynamics — though short — are credibly presented.

Published privately in hard cover in coffee-table format, the book showcases revived pictures that will excite history buffs, and provides an easy-to-digest narrative on Penang which should interest more than the general scholar.

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