The Early Promise of Penang Pepper

In A Short Account of the Settlement, Produce, and Commerce, of Prince of Wales Island, in the Straits of Malacca, written by Sir George Leith, 2nd Baronet (1766-January 25, 1842), and published in London in 1804 are some interesting notes about the importance of pepper to the newly founded colony (see pp. 49-50). Sir George was the first Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales Island (1800-1803), and it was he who successfully negotiated with the Sultan of Kedah for the cession of a strip of land on the mainland – which was immediately renamed Province Wellesley after the Governor-General of India, Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley. The Prince of Wales Island and Province Wellesley, now formed the Settlement of Penang.

At the end of his tenure, Sir George wrote that “The numerous, extensive, and highly cultivated Plantations of Pepper and Beetlenut, which are every where rising into view, will, in a short time, afford large Cargoes of these articles, without the trouble and expence of Importation. It is computed that there will be upwards of Fifteen Thousand Peculs of Pepper produced on the Island this year; and that in the course of Three or Four Years more, the Plantations will yield more than Twenty Thousand Peculs” (p45).

The demand for high quality pepper from Penang seemed unlimited back in Europe at the time. The continent had just entered into the costly Napoleonic Wars which would last a dozen years.

Sir George claimed of Penang that “In addition to the quantity of Pepper at present annually exported from this Port, almost any number of Tons could be procured for the London Market, should it ever be deemed advisable to send it home on account of the Honourable Company; and we may safely venture to assert, that the Pepper will be of as fine a quality as any ever procured; and the Pepper produced on the Island is considered cleaner than that of the surrounding Countries; and in general, in equal measures, it is heavier.”

“In the year, 1802, a Thousand Tons of Pepper of 20cwt. were sent from the Island to Europe, without having the smallest effect on the surrounding Markets. That, and indeed, a much larger quantity, could easily be procured, without any risk of raising the price, viz. 50l. Sterl. per Ton of 20cwt.”

“Innumerable indeed are the advantages which would accrue to this Settlement, were the Exportation of Pepper produced on the Island, direct to the London Market on the Honourable Company’s Ships, once established; nor would these advantages be confined to the Settlement alone, as considerable benefit, it is confidently presumed would also arise to the Honourable Company from this branch of Commerce. The experiment at least appears worth the trial; all the expences attending it, will be apparent at one view, and even if the flattering expectations which are now entertained should not be fully realized, still there is no prospect of risk, or loss, attending the measure. To the Pepper, the product of the Island, many other articles might be added, if required, as Rhubarb, Gallingal Root, Turmeric, Cochinedal, &c. &c.”

What is also of great interest to the botanist or herb enthusiast in this interesting little volume is found at the end of it, as Appendix B. Stretching over pages 59 to 65, details are provided on how Pepper was actually being cultivated on the island of Penang.


As the Manner of cultivating the Pepper Vine is not generally known in Europe, the following Observations on the Subject, the Result of Personal Experience of a Cultivator, possessed of large Plantations, may prove interesting.

The Vines are propagated from either Slips or Cuttings, and planted in rows, at the distance of 6 or 8 feet, varying in this respect according to the judgement of the Cultivator.

The Supporter to the Vine is usually planted at the same time, or very shortly after the Vine. There are several sorts of Supporters, the Dedap, and Moncooda Trees, are, however, generally preferred; the former, which is propagated from Cuttings, is esteemed the best, its spreading Branches and thick foliage, affording more shelter and support to the Vine than the latter, but the uncertainty attending the rearing of it in many Soils, causes the Moncooda, which is raised from the Seed without difficulty, to be more commonly used, particularly since the improvement introduced in training it with three or four perpendicular Branches, instead of one, which was the usual mode; this is done by cutting of the leader, when the Plant is between four and five months old; this causes it to throw outside shoots, three or four of which, only, are suffered to remain, and trained in a perpendicular manner.

When the Vine is first planted, it is covered with the branch of a tree, called Peah, something like the Nepa, to protect it against the effects of the Sun, until it has taken Root, and is fit to be brought to the Stick; this happens usually about six weeks after planting; when a Stick of about 3 inches in circumference, and 7 or 8 feet long, is planted near it, to which it soon adheres, (being at first slightly attached to it by a string) and creeps up towards the top.

In eleven or twelve Months the Vine generally begins to shew Blossoms, at which period it may have attained the height of Six Feet, it is then fit for turning down; this is done by loosening the Vine from the Stick, and removing that entirely: the leaves are slipped off the stem, leaving only a small tuft at the top; a pit is then dug close to the Roots, about twenty inches diameter, and nearly the same depth; at the bottom of which, the Stem of the Vine is coiled horizontally, bringing the top or tuft, beforementioned, to the supporter already planted for that purpose, to which it is faftened by a string; the pit is then filled, covering the stem in that position.

The encreasing size of the Vine, in a short time after the above operation has been performed, shews that Roots are springing abundantly from the Stem; the whole skill of the Cultivator is now shewn by the manner in which he trains the Vine, as this naturally takes a perpendicular direction; his care is to prevent its ascending too rapidly, and which, if not checked, it will certainly do. This was an error the majority of Pepper Planters fell into at the first settlement of the Island, when the cultivation of this valuable Plant was not so well understood as at present. The top of the Vine, therefore, and a length of some feet below it, is consequently not allowed to adhere to the supporter, but being pendant and inclining to the ground, throws out side shoots, by which it encreases in bulk proportionably to its height.

Although the Blossom on the Vine, thus turned down, comes to maturity, the produce, even of the third year, is trifling, averaging perhaps, in a large Plantation, about 1-8th of a Catty; from the third to the fourth half a Catty; increasing half a Catty a year, until it will average 2 or 2 ½ Catties; at which time the Vine may be considered to be in full vigour. As there are not many Plantations on the Island much above Ten Years old, we can only judge, from information, how long the Vine will continue bearing. From intelligent Chinese, who have lived at Tringano, and other places on the Eastern Side of the Malay Peninsula, we learn that it continues in full vigour to the age of Fifteen Years, and then gradually declines, still however, yielding Fruit, if properly attended to, to the age of Twenty-five or Thirty Years. This opinion differs very materially from that entertained by the original Cultivators on the Island, who supposed the Vine would cease bearing at Sixteen Years; there is, however, every reason to suppose the mean of the two opinions will prove nearly correct: a Garden, eleven years old, situated at Songhy Cluan, containing 3,000 Plants only, has lately been let for Three Years, for Seventy Peculs of Pepper per annum, which makes each Plant average 2 1-3d Catties; a strong argument in favour of the Vine’s bearing longer than Sixteen Years; as did it then cease giving Fruit entirely, the gradual decrease would certainly have commenced at Eleven years: but it has been before observed, that the Vine in full vigour will not average more than 2 ½ Catties per Plant. The Renter of this Garden is thought by his Countrymen, the Chinese, to have made a very good bargain.

There are few Soils on this Island unfavourable to the Vine: the dark Mould mixed with Gravel, is generally preferred; it thrives in high and low situations, best in the latter, if sufficiently raised to prevent the water in the heavy rains from settling; if the Roots were to be covered with water for 6 or 8 days, the Vine would infallibly be killed. A Plantation, if properly taken care of, should be kept perfectly free from weeds and grass; and for the first Five or Six Years, the Earth should be regularly turned twice a year; after that period, once turning will be sufficient. Four Coolies will take care of a Laxa (10,000) of Plants, if properly attended to; they must, however, be allowed a Cook, but they will require additional hands when the Crop is gathered; the number will, of course, depend upon the fertility of the Vines.

The Vine blossoms twice a Year, after the commencement of the Rains in the setting in of the S.W. Monsoon, in April and May; and when they cease, in December; the former Crop is gathered the latter end of December, January, and February; the latter in May, June, and July.

[…] The Pepper, when plucked before it is fully ripe, diminishes both in size and weight, so much as frequently to occasion a difference of upwards of 30 per cent, between what is gathered in this state, and that which attains its full maturity. The Chinese Planters fall frequently into this error from a want of funds; and the necessity they are often reduced to of realizing Cash at a fixed period, in order to satisfy those who have made them advances at most extortionate Interest; and also from a wish to save expence, in collecting the Pepper gradually as it ripens, (which is when the Fruit becomes of a Reddish Colour,) they pluck the whole, or the greatest part of the Pepper, at once from the Vine, instead of those bunches only which are perfectly ripe. This mode, of course, is more laborious and expensive: when gathered it exposed to the Sun on Matts, and in the course of the day begins to turn black; it is then put into a large Wicker Basket, in the shape of a Tray, and trod upon, to separate the Pepper from the Stem, of which the Bunch is formed: in favourable weather, it will be perfectly dry in the course of four days, when it is packed in Gunnys, and ready for the Market.

A Pecul of Green Pepper, if allowed to remain on the Vine till perfectly ripe, will yield from 35 to 36 Catties, when dry.

The Vines seldom fail of shewing much Blossom in Gardens which are properly taken care of; but it is subject to be blighted, even after the fruit has attained some size, when the season proves either unusually hot or dry; when this happens, considerable quantities of Pepper will drop off; a few hours rain soon puts a stop to it.

The Pepper of this Island, when gathered in a proper state, and carefully dried, is esteemed equal in Taste, Weight, and Size, to that of any place whatever, and superior to most.

European Cultivators make their Plantations by contract; the usual price is 225 Dollars per Thousand: this includes every expense of Tools, Houses, digging Wells and clearing the ground, and every other item, the price of the young Plant excepted.

The Pepper Plant was first introduced into the Island from Acheen, by the then Captain China, Che Kay, under the patronage of Mr. Light, who advanced him money for that purpose; this was about the year 1790.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His forthcoming book is Catharsis: A Second Chance for Malaysian Democracy (SIRD, Penang Institute and ISEAS Publishing).

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