How Penang’s Early Prominence was Lost


The early decades in the life of Prince of Wales Island did not see it living up to the expectations of its administrators, especially as a ship-building port. But as a trading station at the northern end of the Straits of Malacca, the port of Penang did succeed very well, which was what prompted the East India Company to make it its Fourth Presidency (alongside Calcutta, Bombay and Madras) in 1805.

The following abstract is an attempt to understand why Penang, despite certain successes, was surpassed by Singapore so quickly. Written in October 1929, it was first published in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (Singapore), pp. 377-414. The piece is titled “A Contribution to the early history of Prince of Wales’ Island”. The author, F.G. Stevens, dismisses several suggestions for Singapore’s quick rise at the cost of Penang, which had been proposed at the time, such as the failure of the ship-building project; the claim that Singapore was better positioned geographically for regional trade; or the assumed slow progress in the cultivation of spices in Penang.

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