General on the Great Hill: US Civil War Hero Visits Penang – Part Two

By Eugene Quah

January 2023 LEST WE FORGET
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Julia Boggs Grant (née Dent; 1826–1902) was First Lady of the US and wife of President Ulysses S. Grant. Source: US National Park Service.

IN PART ONE, the 18th President of the United States of America, Ulysses S. Grant, arrived at Penang and was hosted to a dinner at Government House on Flagstaff Hill by Acting Lieutenant Governor Charles John Irving. Only General Grant and his son, Colonel Frederick Dent Grant, took up Governor Irving’s invitation to stay overnight at the hill. The rest of his entourage decided to remain onboard the steamship.

Mrs. Grant’s Adventures

Unknown to the General, his wife did leave the boat. Julia Dent Grant, the former First Lady of the US, spent the night at the home of Chief Justice Thomas Lett Wood, who had spent time in North America as the Chief Justice of British Columbia in Canada. “They had hardly left, however, when the wife of the Chief Justice came on board and insisted that I should go and stay all night with her,” recalled Mrs. Grant.

The following day, on Saturday, 29 March 1879, just after daybreak at 6am, Justice Wood and Councillor Scott welcomed an entourage from Simla at the jetty. The group, which included the New York Herald journalist, John Russell Young, General Grant’s biographer and former Secretary of the Navy, Adolphe Borie, were reunited with the former First Lady at the Chief Justice’s house after spending the night on the Simla. They were whisked to Wood’s home, where they had breakfast, after which they were given a tour of the island. Mrs. Grant recalled, “We rode over the island and saw nutmeg orchards and coconut trees growing in great forests.” The former First Lady also bought “a bunch of Penang canes” to be given to a friend back in the US.

The journalist, John Young, recounted, “We drove to the mountain, where there was a small inn, and a swimming bath of water that came from the mountains.”  He was referring to the famous Alexandra Baths, along the approach to the Penang Botanic Gardens, which would only be established five years later, in 1884. At the time, it was just known as the Waterfall Gardens.

Back then, the narrow dirt track to the summit of Penang Hill started approximately at the start of the current jeep track just to the left of the entrance to the Gardens. The night before, General Grant had passed by the baths and gone up to the summit with Governor Irving using this mountain path. “High granite cliffs were around us, and there were deep ravines torn by nature in some volcanic mood,” Young recalled. He also saw workmen breaking up the granite. The waterfall valley was, at that time, a granite quarry.

“Some Malays climbed the palm-trees and threw down cocoanuts [sic] that we might taste the milk”. According to Young, “The milk was served in tumblers. It has an insipid, medicinal taste, which none of us seem to relish.” The “milk” that they took may not have been santan (coconut milk) but probably alcoholic toddy or palm wine, which also has a milky appearance and was often served from earthen pots.

Young also seemed fascinated with what he called a sensitive plant that grew in abundance, “which withered and turned brown at the slightest touch”. The shrub, Mimosa pudica, or touch-me-not in English, is commonly found everywhere in Penang to this day.

Later that afternoon, after they were done with their sightseeing, Mrs. Grant and the entourage headed to the Court of Requests near Fort Cornwallis. This fort was named after Lord Cornwallis, remembered by Americans as the British general who surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. As the Town Hall was still under construction and standing at just 15ft high, the reception was held, instead, at the Court of Requests. “The landing was covered with the usual scarlet cloth,” recalled Mrs. Grant. It was located just beside the moats and was “tastefully decorated with Evergreens and Flags” for the occasion.

Etching based on a photo showing the levee at the Court of Requests near Fort Cornwallis during the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit a few years before General Grant’s. A levee is a formal reception of visitors or guests held by the British monarch or his representative. The levee held in honour of General Grant would have looked like the one depicted above. Source: Public Domain, “The Illustrated London News” (1870), Volume 56, 5th February 1870

The Chinese Question

According to John Young, at 4pm, General Grant finally arrived after coming down from the hill. Councillor Scott, who also represented the European Chamber of Commerce, gave his speech. Mrs. Grant recalled that “after the English authorities had welcomed the General, the Chinese also gave him a reception”.

A Chinese gentleman about the General’s age, dressed in a traditional Chinese “blue-buttoned mandarin” costume, stood before him after being introduced. “The Hokkien and Cantonese merchant traders and other residents of this island have heard of the time when Your Excellency filled the most important office of the President of the United States of America,” began the representative of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.[1] The spokesperson was Koh Seang Tat. A prominent merchant, the British-educated Koh was a good friend of Colonel Anson, the Acting Governor of the Straits Settlements. Koh had also been appointed a Justice of the Peace two months prior, the first Chinese person to have been accorded the honour by the British.

Koh Seang Tat (辜上達, Gu Shangda; 1831 – 1911). Court interpreter, planter, merchant, revenue farmer, activist, philanthropist and public figure. He was the grandson of the first Kapitan Cina of Penang, Koh Lay Huan (辜禮歡, Gu Lihuan), an early settler who met Francis Light on 18 July 1786 to request permission to erect a bazaar. The public fountain he gifted to the municipality still stands today beside the Penang Town Hall and is called the Koh Seang Tat Fountain. Source: Arkib Negara / George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI)

He continued, “It is the first time a visit has been paid to Penang by so distinguished a representative of the United States of America.” The pleasantries soon gave way to an earnest plea with significant political ramifications. The speech went on to inform the General that “formerly no restrictions were placed on emigration from China, but latterly restrictions have been imposed”. The address ended with a challenge to Grant; should he use his influence to help reopen the ports in America to Chinese immigrants, his “name will ever be held in grateful remembrance”. General Grant had thus been presented with the “Chinese question”, “the most delicate issue in American politics” of the time – the Depression of 1873 “threw many American[s] out of work” and agitators in California “incited and channelled the rage of white labourers against Chinese people”.

An etching from a photo reproduced in journalist, John Russell Young’s book about General Grant’s world tour, showing a street in Penang during his visit. This scene was likely based on a photo taken on 29 March 1879. Most of the roads back then were nothing more than dirt roads. Source: Public Domain, John Russell Young (1879), “Around the World with General Grant, Vol. 2

According to Young, a copy of the speech had, in fact, been sent to the Government House for Grant to look over. However, as was his habit, he “always declined these courtesies”. The General wanted to hear the address in public, because according to him, his best response “would be what came to him on the instant”. 

True enough, now put on the spot, the famously stoic General Grant gave a spontaneous reply. In “a quiet, conversational tone”, the General began, “It is true the United States has made laws discouraging emigration from China, but Chinese emigrants are sent by contract and become, as it were, slaves for the time being.” Mrs. Grant recalled later feeling very pleased when her husband continued, “You must remember the great struggle the United States has just passed through, in which there was so much precious blood and treasure lost, to wipe out slavery.” He explained, “You must not, therefore, expect the United States to tolerate even temporary slavery on her shores.” General Grant was referring to indentured labour, which the Chinese in Penang also practised. However, he assured that the hostility towards the Chinese “did not represent the real sentiment of America; but was the work of demagogues” who “pander to prejudice against race or nationality and favour any measure of oppressions that might advance their political interests”.

The local press reported that the former President “promised that the subject should engage his attention on his visit to China”. However, the American media later said that some in the political establishment felt he had crossed the line with the promise and was too diplomatic. Nevertheless, Mrs. Grant thought the General “made the best speech here I ever knew him to make”, while John Young commented, “The response was one of the General's longest and most important speeches.”

Three Cheers for the General

After the reception, Grant and his entourage were taken for a final tour around George Town, “which took two hours”. The town at the time was notorious for its dusty roads, and used manually lit streetlamps. A correspondent covering the visit noted that the government had planned to install electric streetlamps the following week. The General, “accompanied by the Honourable Lieutenant Governor and a large number of officials and unofficial residents, then proceeded to the Jetty”. The sun had already set when the General and his entire party boarded the steam launch Rosebud. As they departed the jetty for the Simla, the crowd, who had come to see them off, gave the General and Mrs. Grant “three hearty cheers”.

And thus ended the first-ever visit by a former or sitting American President to Malaya. General Grant then visited Melaka and Singapore. His last port of call in Asia was Yokohama, Japan. He reached San Francisco later that year and was the first American President to successfully circumnavigate the world. It would be another 87 years, in 1966, before a sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson, paid a state visit to the young independent nation of Malaysia.

A contemporary photograph of General Grant from around May to June 1879. After Penang, he stopped at Melaka and Singapore on his way to China. He is seen here with Viceroy Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) in Tianjin. Source: Public Domain, US Library of Congress,


[1]The British-educated Koh Seang Tat likely delivered the speech in English. Koh’s writing and public speeches in English reported by the local press support the notion that he had a good command of the language. Personal conversation with Jeffrey Seow, 22 September 2022.

  • Julia Dent Grant (1975), “Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant)”.
  • David S. Jones (1997), “Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society”.
  • The Illustrated London News (1870).
  • Jeffrey Seow (2013), “Koh Seang Tat”. In Loh Wei Leng, Badriyah Haji Salleh, Mahani Musa, Wong Yee Tuan & Marcus Langdon (Eds.), “Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities of Penang”.
  • The Montreal Gazette, 21 May 1879
  • Kendall A. Johnson (2017), “The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade”.
  • S. Wells Williams (1879), “Chinese Immigration” in the Journal of Social Science: Issues 10-13.
  • John Russell Young (1879), “Around the World with General Grant”, Volume 2.
  • Singapore Daily Times (1879).
  • Philip Mathews (2013), “Chronicle of Malaysia: Fifty Years of Headline News, 1963-2013”.
Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher who is working on a book about Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad while on a hiatus from designing software.