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Light on a dark subject

Millennium markers - British colony

WHEN Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang island, which belonged to Kedah, on Aug 11, 1786, in the name of King George III of Britain, calling it the Prince of Wales Island, he did so without a treaty.

The illegal occupation of the island lasted five years. During this period, the terms of cession of the island to the East India Company (EIC), including compensation for its lease, the resultant loss of trade and the issue of defence and protection for Sultan Abdullah of Kedah from his enemies, were still unresolved.

But Light, who was very keen to make his fortune, had been anxious to occupy the island, turn it quickly into a British port and become Superintendent of Penang. As early as 1771, he had been an independent country trader and a frequent visitor to Kedah where he became greatly liked and trusted by the Malays. In 1786, he was appointed an EIC agent.

Sultan Abdullah was so fond of him that he allowed Light to marry a lady of his court, the beautiful Portuguese Eurasian, Martina Rozells, who later bore him five children, of whom one became aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington and afterwards founder of Adelaide.

In order to curry favour with the EIC which was looking for an island on the route to China to serve as a naval station, Light had claimed to have obtained a free grant of the island of Penang from Sultan Abdullah to the EIC on condition that the EIC gave him protection from his enemies.

The EIC's records reveal that Light appeared deceitful in his dealings with both the sultan and the EIC. Acting as a mediator and an agent of both parties, he misrepresented and misinformed both on several occasions. Throughout the proceedings, he was motivated only by self-interest.

Light's conduct did not win him praise from his superiors in the EIC. The papers in the EIC archives reveal him as a man without honour who dared to promise more than he could deliver. This led a British historian, R.O. Winstedt, to remark in his book, Britain and Malaya, 1786-1943, (1949, Longmans): "The acquisition of Penang is the blackest spot on the British record of Malaya."

Earlier in 1908, Sir Frank Swettenham, a former British Governor, in his book, British Malaya, lamented that the acquisition of Penang was "unflattering to our (British) national pride," as it did not live up to "British good faith and honour".

Malaysian historian R. Bonney in his account, Kedah, 1771-1821: The Search for Security and Independence, (1971, Oxford University Press), also asserted: "By taking formal possession of the island on 11 August 1786, Light not only committed, by European standards, a breach of international law, but cheated Sultan Abdullah as well."

Yet, despite these views, Malayan school history books produced during the final stages of the British administration - from the 1950s onwards until Malaya's independence in 1957 - had concealed the true story of Light's acquisition of Penang. Instead, they extolled him as the "Founder of Penang" and praised his contribution to the development and progress of British Malaya.

What was Light's wrongdoing?

Light, in his negotiations with his EIC superiors in India, had failed to inform them of the Siamese and Burmese threats to Kedah. He gave the impression that the grant of the island was made because Sultan Abdullah needed protection only from his internal enemies, the Bugis-backed Kedah rebels taking refuge in Selangor.

When Sultan Abdullah received the EIC's reply, he noted that the EIC had only offered to "always keep an armed vessel stationed to guard the island of Penang and the coast adjacent belonging to the island of Queda (or Kedah)." He regarded this as insufficient defence for Kedah against a land attack from the Burmese or Siamese. There was also no word about paying him any compensation.

Light told Sultan Abdullah that the request for protection had been referred by the EIC in India to London, and that the company would come to some settlement with him. If the island was a free grant, why should Light insist upon the EIC's obligation to come to a settlement?

Light, however, assured the ruler that he would not suffer and that the EIC would protect him - but Light found himself in a difficult and unpleasant situation in which he had promised more than he was permitted. At his request, he was allowed by Sultan Abdullah to occupy Penang island tentatively until the ruler's demands were met. Tactically, the ruler might have considered it prudent to allow Light's presence in Penang as a temporary deterrent to his enemies.

However, in 1788, the EIC directors' decision finally arrived, in which they rejected the ruler's request for protection against the Burmese and Siamese; but Light was ordered to negotiate a financial settlement with the ruler. "Light, sanguine and eager, had staked his honour and lost," observed Winstedt. " … there is no doubt that Light had led Kedah to expect more than he could fulfil."

Caught by his own deception, Light had no choice now but to use the island's revenue to pay the sultan some compensation. Sultan Abdullah refused to accept Light's offer of $10,000 (Straits dollars) a year for eight years for the island, or $4,000 a year for so long as the Company occupied the island.

By late 1790, Sultan Abdullah had refused to part with Penang unless the company promised him assistance against Siamese attacks. He assembled his forces at Prai to retake the island. Light, however, ordered the English ships to attack and destroy the Kedah fleet. Penang island was now forcibly held by Light.

On April 20, 1791, a nine-point treaty, called the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, was signed between the two parties, in which the EIC promised to pay an annual sum of 6,000 Spanish dollars for as long as the English continued in possession of the island.

Light dictated the terms from a position of strength. Although the two countries promised "to live in peace by sea and land, to continue as long as the Sun and Moon give light," the EIC no longer committed itself to protect Kedah from Siam or Burma (now Myanmar), or from the sultan's enemies in Kedah or Selangor.

This was the protection that the ruler had continuously asked for and which Light knew was the one condition on which he had been willing to cede Penang.

Light had betrayed the trust and friendship of Sultan Abdullah. The Englishman's word was no longer his bond.

Tomb of Francis Light

The treaty stipulated there was to be free trade with Kedah in provisions, that both parties would mutually hand over fugitive slaves, debtors, murderers and forgers, that the sultan would exclude other Europeans from Kedah, and that the English would not harbour traitors or rebels from Kedah.

In 1800, Sultan Abdullah's successor, Sultan Dhiauddin , signed a treaty ceding to the EIC a piece of territory on the Kedah mainland at Prai, which was called Province Wellesley, for an annual payment of $4,000. The ruler was in debt, and probably also thought that the English presence could be a deterrent to Siam or Burma. (Today, the Penang Government still pays RM10,000 to Kedah.)

In 1821, despite the EIC's presence in Penang, Kedah was attacked by Siamese forces and occupied until 1841. The EIC administrators in Penang sat idly by, and only allowed Kedah's ruler, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin, to take refuge in Penang. To appease the Siamese, he was later asked to move to Malacca.

Sultan Ahmad appealed to the EIC for help, urging it to ratify "the engagements contracted by Mr Light with my father," and reminded it that Penang island had originally been ceded on the understanding that protection would be given to Kedah, but the plea was to no avail. The 1800 Treaty had, in fact, superseded the 1791 Treaty with Light, and the EIC had cleverly again absolved itself from any commitment to render protection to Kedah.

The final blow to Kedah came in 1826 when the EIC's agent, Henry Burney, went to Bangkok and concluded a treaty with Siam (as Thailand was known then), under which the British acknowledged Siam's overlordship of Kedah and promised non-interference in Kedah's affairs. In return, the Siamese recognised the British right to occupy Penang and the mainland territory of Prai.

"The cause of these untoward events," wrote Swettenham in British Malaya, "was the cowardice of the East India Company, ending in a breach of faith which sullied the British name and weakened its influence with Malaya for very many years."

* Dr Cheah Boon Kheng was formerly a lecturer in the History Department at Universiti Sains Malaysia.Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF - : On Oct 31, 1985, the Penang state government announced the cancellation of its plans to celebrate on a grand scale the bicentennial anniversary of the so-called 'founding of Penang' by Sir Francis Light. This followed protests against commemorating the 'shameful' event and controversy over Light's conduct in the affair. As the date on which Light took possession of the island approaches, Dr CHEAH BOON KHENG recounts in this week's Millennium Markers what the colonial entrepreneur did and why he appears in such an unfavourable light.

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