Unripened spices

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Early Penang’s British administration had high hopes for the island’s spice exports and Captain Francis Light (the first Superintendent) was a keen gardener who established an experimental plantation in Air Itam to grow pepper, cloves and nutmegs. By 1810 four tons of pepper had been harvested from plantations around George Town for export and substantial quantities of nutmeg and clove were also exported. In time, poor yields and restricted market access took their toll, leading to the industry’s decline.

The onset of the Napoleonic Wars meant disaster for Penang’s fledgling pepper industry which was battered by a trade embargo. Without access to the lucrative European market, British East India Company spices from Penang lay wasting at warehouses in London. Eventually pepper farming was discontinued.

Historians have noted that early planters did not implement correct cultivation methods and wasted large numbers of seedlings trying to cultivate spices. But a more crucial factor explains why the spice industry never took off – Penang’s “mountainous and rocky” soil with few alluvial deposits and only a thin layer of topsoil made it unsuitable for many crops.


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