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A Magnificently Rich Tome on Early Penang

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Review of Penang – The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830, Volume One: Ships, Men and Mansions, by Mark Langdon. George Town: Areca Books. 2013.

By OOI KEE BENG, for Penang Monthly, March 2014

There are several questions about the history of Penang that have bothered me for quite a while, satisfactory responses to which cannot be found in any Malaysian schoolbook. This is not strange, given how the significance of Penang has been played down since independence for nationalistic reasons; and how national history has successively been caricatured to serve narrow political agendas.

Knowing history in as much of its complexity as possible is a human entitlement. And by extension, political simplification of the past is therefore theft of a cruel kind since it seeks to hide information that holds profound meaning for all of us now living. On the other hand, a history is well told when it not only reveals documented truths about the past but also connects these in sensitive ways that deepen our understanding of the present.

There is therefore a semi-declared battle being fought between those who would abridge the past for their own ends and those who would expose the broad sweep of history. To defy the former, the latter must rely on empirical evidence and dedicated inquiry.

Mark Langdon should therefore be warmly congratulated for having written volume one of Penang – The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830; as should Areca Books, whose efforts in publishing this astonishing wealth of information seal its already well-earned reputation as the foremost producer of books about Penang.

Much of the answer to one of my questions about Penang’s history can indeed be found in Langdon’s book, which makes me an immediate fan of his commendable project.

The quick growth of Penang after Francis Light settled there in 1786 showed that his sense of timing was indeed impeccable. He read the times correctly, and was rewarded handsomely for it. The turning only two decades later of the little island into the Fourth Presidency of India in 1805—to a par with Calcutta, Madras and Bombay—also showed that the East India Company as a whole had come to appreciate Light’s prescience.

But why did the Prince of Wales Island’s elevated position last only until 1830? Well, the answer lies in the Napoleonic Wars and how the balance of global power shifted after the British victory at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. For more details, I advise you, dear reader, to study Langdon’s admirable volume.

In over 500 pages, the history of early Penang, based on British colonial documents that few if any scholars are more proficient in than Langdon, unfolds most vividly. What’s even better news is that this is only the first of three volumes. I am informed by Areca Books that the second is to be published already this year, and will discuss specific entries such as Fort Cornwallis, Penang Free School, St George’s Church, the Library, the Spice and Botanical Gardens, as well as fires that George Town suffered in the early years.

This initial volume is divided into four “books”, the first of which deals with shipping, based on documents showing that had the question of making Penang a presidency come a year later than it did, the British Parliament would not have passed it. Penang’s role in the colonizing process, it would seem, was a rather confused one, reflective of the exigencies of the times. European powers were after all fighting to the death for control of the continent, and this contest was re-enacted in the farther reaches of the Indian archipelago in an ad hoc fashion.

What has always been of great interest to me in this context, is how distinct the Britain that colonized Penang in 1786 was from the Britain that acquired Singapore in 1819, both in self-image and in ambition. As ably argued by Roger Knight in his recent book Britain against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory 1793-1815 (Allen Lane 2013), it was the prolonged resistance against Napoleonic aggression that transformed Britain’s civil service and economy into a superpower that could envision world domination. Another important work that throws light on this period is C.A. Bayly’s Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830 (London & New York: Longman 1989).

Just as Malay culture today cannot be properly understood without reference to Indian traditions, the history of Malaysia would suffer from missing the intimate connections between the Napoleonic and immediate post-Napoleonic periods on the one hand and the successive incorporation of territories in the Malay Archipelago into the Eurocentric global economy on the other.

Book Two in Fourth Presidency presents “Administrators” who played key roles in the first 50 years of Penang’s history. Among them are names who came to define Penang’s urban landscape as much as hawkers stalls would come to do: Francis Light, George Caunter, George Leith, Robert Farquhar, and Norman Macalister, among others.

Book Three provides details about the history of Government House, “the most significant building with a proven link back to Francis Light still standing in Penang (p391)”. The building stands today under the guardianship of Convent Light Street, a prominent Penang institution developed by The Catholic Holy Infant Jesus Mission that acquired it in 1859 and in all probability saved it from destruction.

The fourth book deals with Suffolk House, another historical structure built during the period in question. As we know, this handsome house was restored only recently, rescued from definite doom by devoted Penang heritage activists.

In short, Langdon has accomplished a book that no person interested in Penang’s past can do without. It is finely produced with an impressive array of illustrations, and is clearly one of the finest books on the first decades of the island’s history. It’s a real keepsake, and I look forward covetously to his second and third volumes.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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