The Story of Early Juru

By Eugene Quah

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A scene at a sugar mill from 1895/1896. Numerous large sugar plantations were established at Juru and the surrounding districts at the time. “Sugar boats” would sail down the river, carrying produce from these plantations to Penang Harbour and beyond. Source: Max Dupain & Associates, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy CSR Ltd.

IN LATE APRIL 1845, James Richardson Logan, a Penang lawyer and ethnologist, visited Bukit Tengah and Juru. He noted that land bounded by the Prai and Juru rivers were heavily cultivated with paddy fields. The locals told him that “almost everywhere on this plain, in digging wells, they come, at a depth of a man’s height, to sea shells, and that seamud is the universal subsoil.” They believed that the sea formerly occupied the site of their paddy fields. Logan concurred that the permatangs (ridges of the paddy fields) “were successively the beaches of the sea”.

Che Ahmad, a local planter, told him sea shells were found in abundance on top of Bukit Duraka Juru[1] and at a low ridge called Permatang Batu near Bukit Tengah (which he later visited out of curiosity). Logan later found that the aforementioned low ridge was 15ft high and wholly composed of sea shells. Remarkably, recent geological research has confirmed their hunches that Juru was once submerged under a shallow sea.

According to scientists, around 5,000 years ago, global sea levels were indeed approximately 5m higher than they are today. Much of the coastal areas on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, including large parts of the Penang mainland, would have been under water. In 1851, the British discovered curious mounds of soil consisting of shells of a common species of sea clam (kepah), many miles inland at Kepala Batas—they turned out to be the remains of seafood dinners of ages past, or kitchen middens. Guar Kepah (Clam Hillock), where archaeologist Mokhtar Saidin and team unearthed the 5,700-year-old remains of a Neolithic woman in 2017, remains the only known prehistoric human site in the state.

A typical “gigi air” (water’s edge) Malay kampung on stilts at Bukit Tambun along the Junjung River, just south of Juru in 1891. The stilt houses at Kuala Juru village still looked the same in a photo taken in the 1970s (which unfortunately could not be shared here due to copyright issues). Source: J. Claine (1891), “85 vues et types de la presqu’île de Malacca, principalement Singapour et PouloPenang”, National Library of France.

First Contact

On 30 August 1592, Captain James Lancaster’s ship, the Edward Bonaventure, crewed by his sickly band of British privateers stricken by scurvy, set sail towards Seberang Prai, desperately seeking “some place of refreshing”. They had spent three miserable months living off just oysters, whelks and fish. Many of the crew had died.

Lancaster had decided to rest and wait out the “winter”—the Southwest monsoon—at a good anchorage off the southern coast of Penang island. The uninhabited island belonged to the Kingdom of Kedah then, under the rule of Mudzaffar Shah III. According to Edmund Barker, the captain’s lieutenant, the ship did not sail far eastwards that day, when it dropped anchor at a bay “six fathoms” deep, about “two leagues” from the mainland.[2]

Lancaster, Barker and a few others rowed “out on shore to see what inhabitants might be found”. They discovered tracks of “bare-footed people”, who had left in haste as their campfire was still hot. The next day, 31 August 1592, at “about two of the [clock] in the afternoon, we [spied] a [canoe] which came [near] until us, but would not come [aboard] us, having in it some sixteen naked Indians, with whom nevertheless, going afterwards on land, we had friendly conference and promise of victuals [provisions]”.

The sixteen naked Indians were certainly not from India, then the richest land in the world under the rule of the Mughal Empire; nor did they appear to be Malays, a sea-faring people who customarily wore clothes and who were never shy to board foreign ships.[3]

The Semang are an Orang Asli tribe that once resided in the Juru River basin. Near the source of the Juru River is a place called Kubang Semang (Semang’s Hollow) and to the south, at the border with Perak, there is a Sungai Semang (Semang River), evidence of their long presence in the area. The Semang Juru were likely the “naked Indians” the British encountered in Penang back in 1592. Source: Skeat & Blagden (1906) “Pagan races of the Malay Peninsula”

Researcher Lim Teckwyn of the Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies reckons these “naked Indians” Lancaster met were likely the Semang of Juru, a tribe of aboriginal people we now collectively call the Orang Asli (Original People). The Semang were mentioned by name in the Kedah Annals (Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa). After being given food by them, which likely included fruits and vegetables, Lancaster and his crew recovered well enough to plunder some ships heading to Burma. After many more misadventures Lancaster finally found his way back to Britain in 1594.

On 31 December 1600, a motley group of traders gathered to form the “Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies”—the East India Company. One of the directors tasked to lead the first voyage to the Far East to trade (and plunder) was James Lancaster, the privateer who lived to sail another day thanks to the kindness of these early Penang mainland inhabitants.

This map by William Fletcher, from 1820 (republished by John Henry Moor in 1837), shows that there were already settlements around the foothills of Juru Hill as well as the present Juru village site west of the hill. Source: John Henry Moor (1837), “Notices of the Indian Archipelago etc. etc.” Public Domain


The origins of the name of Juru River are lost to time. If any explanation is given at all, it is always the following, taken from a 1939 book based on oral sources: “Juru tukang [artificer or skilled craftsman]. The place used to be a boat building centre”. However, this explanation is not convincing as juru is not a known contraction of juru tukang.

The river’s name, spelt phonetically as Jooroo, first appeared in writing in 1813 during a landmark Penang court case—the Crown vs. Lebby Cundoo (Lebai Kundu). The spelling Juroo had, however, appeared in a map presented by Robert Townsend Farquhar to the incoming Presidency government, eight years earlier, in 1805. This was based on the recollections of a certain “Dattu Pungava”—Dato’ Pangeran?—of Kedah.

John Crawfurd’s extensive 1854 Malay dictionary, which took 40 years to complete, defines juru as an angle or corner—penjuru in modern Malay. Additionally, the word for a variety of starfruit, as given by orientalist William Marsden in 1783, was belimbing jooroo, indicating that juru meant angle or corner. As is the case of rivers in Malaysia, Juru River was probably named after its geographical features—as it is, vessels entering Juru River must negotiate two distinct hairpin bends to go further upstream. Thus, Sungai Juru probably meant “Angle River”.

A detailed map of the Juru District as surveyed by Jules Moniot in 1853. The two distinct hairpin bends near the mouth of the river is probably the source of its name, Sungai Juru (Angle River). Source: “Map of Prince of Wales’ Island or Pulo Penang and province Wellesley (1853)”, National Archives of Singapore

The District

In a report dated 24 August 1820, the Penang Presidency reported to the Board of Directors of the EIC in London that the most detailed map of Penang and Province Wellesley had just been completed by William Fletcher, the settlement’s surveyor. His map, which shows that the area and village south of the river and east of Bukit Juru was then called Bagan Nanas (Pineapple Landing-Place) and not Juru, suggests that the district of Juru was later named after the river. The population on the mainland, including Juru, was then only 5,457.

The government admitted the territory had “not been attended to sufficiently” and has “become a resort for vagrants and for individuals, evading the execution of the law”. The report suggests dividing the mainland into four districts, “each with a suitable Police Establishment” to improve security.

Juru River originates from Bukit Mertajam (429m a.s.l.), seen here in the distance from the north peak of Bukit Juru (211m a.s.l.). Around 5,000 years ago, Bukit Juru was an island and most of the Juru district was a shallow sea. Source: Eugene Quah Ter-Neng

On Monday, 12 November 1821, the Kingdom of Siam suddenly invaded Kedah, causing a massive influx of Malays to Penang and especially to Province Wellesley. The Kedah Malays refer to this war—a dark and violent period in their history—as Perang Musuh Bisik (The War of the Whispering Enemy).

Kedah princes like Tengku Kudin and Tengku Muhammad Saad put up a heroic resistance for many years to retake Kedah from the Siamese. The latter’s descendants would later settle at Kuala Juru, controlling access to one of the main waterways leading into the interior. The road to Kuala Juru is one of the oldest in the district—and can be seen on an 1839 map.

It is popularly assumed that Juru was mostly populated by these fleeing Kedah Malays, although an 1820 map shows that there were already substantial settlements on the eastern and western foothills of Bukit Juru before the war. These earlier settlements were likely set up by the Bugis, a maritime people from Sulawesi who had a kingdom in Selangor. The EIC had encouraged them in 1819 to settle at Pulau Rimau and Pulau Kra (now Pulau Aman) near Juru; many Juru villagers today still claim Bugis ancestry.

Mouth of the Prai River in 1907. The steamboats seen here would have been able to navigate to Juru via Sungai Derhaka Prai and Sungai Rambai. The Prai, Muda, Juru, Junjung and Kerian rivers were once connected to each other by tributaries and canals, and served as water highways to the interior of Province Wellesley and to Kedah and Perak. Source: Sir William Dixson (ca. 1907), “On the Praye [sic] River”, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Malay Schooling

A select committee to the British parliament regarding the affairs of the EIC in Penang noted in April 1823 that “Mr. [Anthony de la Combe Maingy], the superintendent of Point Wellesley” said that the district under his care “was exceedingly populous” with “every village literally swarming with children”.

Maingy informed the government that “the Malays acknowledge the benefit of education, although too poor and destitute to provide it for their children” but are open to schooling provided by others. He “recommended the establishment of three or four free schools” with Malay as the language of instruction. The British parliament was informed that funds had been allocated by the EIC to establish the said schools “at the several stations of Prye [Prai], Teluk Aier Tawar [Teluk Air Tawar], Panaga [Penaga] and Juroo [Juru]”. Today, there is a village in the district called Kampung Sekolah Juru (Juru School Village) and a primary school, Sekolah Kebangsaan Juru, possibly the earliest Malay school on mainland Penang still in existence.

View of Kuala Juru from the south. Massive industrialisation, an illconceived bridge design which unintentionally dammed the river, and lax enforcement of environmental laws caused Sungai Juru to become one of the most polluted rivers in the country by 1976. Source: Jason Selvanayagam (Photo)

The 19th Century Until Now

By 1826, the government reported that “Wellesley Province has now long been settled” and that “it has a population of 17,154”—an increase of 214% from the previous six years. The government also noted that “a considerable sum of money has been expended on it”. Throughout the 19th century, Juru River served as a crucial transport route, supporting the growth of Bukit Mertajam and nearby plantations by providing access to the Penang Strait and Penang Harbour.

Left: Photo of the Juru old cannon. Around 1963, the late Tengku Ayub—fondly known as Penghulu Ayub among older villagers—found what appears to be a 19th century Malay lela rentaka bronze swivel cannon. Penghulu Ayub incidentally was a direct descendant of Tengku Muhammad Saad, who was a resistance figure during the Siamese invasion of Kedah. Right: The Penghulu Besar (Head Village Chief) of Juru, Bukit Kechil and Seberang Prai, he (middle), is seen posing with the old Malay cannon he found buried on hilly land near his home at Juru. Source: Courtesy of Raja Adley Paris Iskandar Shah bin Raja Baharudin (Left Photo), Berita Harian 24 October 1965, pg.7 (Right Photo), Uppsala Auktions Kammare (2021), Auction: 20211012 “Kanon med relingsfäste”

The district remained an agricultural centre until the later part of the 20th century, when massive industrialisation took place. By 1976, Juru River was one of the most polluted rivers in Malaysia. While the river today no longer holds this disreputable title, it is by no means clean. As of 2020, the population of the Juru district was 37,704. The farming of blood cockles—one of the few marine species that can tolerate polluted waters—as well as fishing are one of the mainstays of the villagers of Kuala Juru these days.

  • [1] Asmah Haji Omar (1987), “Malay in Its Sociocultural Context”, pg. 105
  • [2] Calcutta Monthly Journal vol. 42 (AugustDecember (1822), pg. 818
  • [3] Consumer’s Association of Penang (1976), “Pollution: Kuala Juru’s Battle for Survival”
  • [4] David Bassett (1989), “Anglo-Kedah Relations” 1688-1765, JMBRAS Vol. 62, No. 2 (257) (1989)
  • [5] Eugene Quah TerNeng (2024), “A Short History of Pulau Rimau”, Penang Monthly, March 2024
  • [6] H.D. Tjia (1992), “Holocene sea-level changes in the Malay-Thai Peninsula, a tectonically stable environment”, Geol. Soc. Malaysia, Bulletin 31, July 1992; pp. 157-176
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  • [13] John Henry Moor (1837), “Notices of the Indian Archipelago, and adjacent countries; etc.”
  • [14] John Turnbull Thompson (1865), “Some Glimpses Into Life in the Far East”
  • [15] Jonathan Rigg (1862), Verhandelingen Van Het Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap Van Kunsten En Wetenschappen (1862), Volume 29, “A Dictionary of the Sunda Language”, pg. 180
  • [16] Lim, P. E. et al. (1995). “Determination and speciation of heavy metals in sediments of the Juru River”, 35, 85-95
  • [17] Mokhtar Saidin et al.(2019), “Shell Mound Investigation at Guar Kepah (Penang, Malaysia) Using 2-D Resistivity Imaging for Archaeological Study”
  • [18] Pierre Etienne Lazare Favre (1875), “Dictionnaire malaisfrançais”, Volume 1
  • [19] Prince of Wales Island Government (1813), R. v. Lebby Cundoo & anor. 2 Ky. Cr. 6, Court Case
  • [20] Rollin Bonney (1971), “Kedah 1771-1821: The Search for Security”
  • [21] S. Durai Raja Singam (1938), “Malayan Place Names”
  • [22] Straits Settlement Factory Records (1820), “B5: Penang: Letters to London”, Reports for 1820 to the Board of Directors
  • [23] Straits Settlement Factory Records (1823) I23: Penang Miscellaneous Letters, Letter No. 284, Reply to A.D. Maingy from W.S.Cracroft
  • [24] Straits Settlement Factory Records (1823), “B7: Penang: Letters to London”, Reports for 1823 to the Board of Directors
  • [25] Straits Settlement Factory Records (1828): “A56: Penang, Singapore and Malacca Consultations”, pg. 602
  • [26] Teckwyn Lim (2021), “ ‘Sixteen Naked Indians’: First Contact between the British and the Orang Asli”, JMBRAS Volume 94, Part 2, No. 321pg.27-42
  • [27] William Marsden (1783), “The history of Sumatra and etc. etc.”, pg. 82
Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.