REGARDLESS of whether one uses it to catch up on contemporary issues or to wrap up a portion of nasi lemak, the newspaper has truly become an essential part of the daily lives of most Malaysians. This was certainly not always the case, and the manner in which the press came into being and developed in the peninsula is a fascinating study in the spheres of history, economics, and social change.
The Prince of Wales Island Government Gazette appears, at first sight, to be the name of some obscure British royal publication. It was, however, this name that graced the first newspaper to appear in the Malay peninsula. Penang was, in its earliest days, known to the British as Prince of Wales Island, while its capital was named Georgetown, both named in honour of George, Prince of Wales, who was later to become Britain's King George IV.
For its first 20 years, despite its population growing to over 10,000, the settlement at Penang managed to survive without a newspaper. On a Saturday in Feb 1806, however, there appeared on the streets of Georgetown the first edition of the Prince of Wales Island Government Gazette. No copies of the first few issues appear to have survived and it is only with Vol 1, No. 4, published on March 22 1806, and comprising four pages, that the known library holdings begin.
Under various titles including The Government Gazette and Prince of Wales Island Gazette, the newspaper continued in print until the early 1830s. Apart from its importance in having been the earliest regular publication in the peninsula, the various issues provide us with information about the development of Penang over a period when it was one of the most important entrepots in South-East Asia.
The first issues of the Gazette bore at the bottom of their final page the statement: "Printed and Published by A.B. Bone, No 68 Beach Street for himself and the other proprietors''. Bone was also half of a partnership named "Court and Bone'', an auction and commission house, and advertisements for their auctions were carried on the first page of the early issues of the newspaper.
The subsequent publisher, one William Cox, also ran the operation from premises in Beach Street, which in the early 19th century did indeed front the beach. By the end of its existence in 1830, the newspaper was being printed at the Government Press by an E. De Oliveiro.
In many ways, the Prince of Wales Island Gazette was a government organ, despite being privately-run for most of its existence, and "Published under the Authority and Patronage of Government'' was emblazoned on its title page as part of the paper's masthead. The concerns of the East India Company administrators in Penang are revealed through the various issues, particularly by the "General Orders'' which most issues carried.
We learn, for example, through the issues of 1814, about the increasing contacts which various European representatives were having with sultanates within the peninsula and the archipelago, and the concern that the East India Company felt at this.
The issue of June 14 ,1814, notes, in the usual pompous terminology of the 19th century administrators, how "it is contrary to the Honourable the Court of Directors and the regulations established by the Supreme Government, that any individual should hold a direct correspondence with the Native Chiefs and Princes of this country.''
The British were, in this period, involved in a European power rivalry, and they were principally concerned that the Dutch were trying to monopolise commercial links with indigenous polities of the region. The Dutch agreements signed with rulers in Pontianak, Sambas and Mempawa in Borneo in 1819, were reflected with great concern in the pages of the Penang press.
Issues of local concern also appeared regularly in these weekly (and subsequently bi-weekly) papers. The names of ships arriving and departing from the port, new regulations, notices of recent crimes or fires, cholera outbreaks and so on, were the important local news of the time. The government also used the Gazette to proclaim public notices such as those which appeared in the issue of Sept 27 , 1806. One of the government notices required that a Francis Simon, who had been granted a piece of land along Penang Road by Francis Light in 1794, and who had allowed it to "become a noisome and pestilential swamp, the exhalations from which are highly prejudicial to the health of the Inhabitants and disgraceful to the Police'', drain his swamp or deliver up the land for government sale to someone else.
Another notice, signed by the Acting Secretary to the Government T. Raffles (who was later to make his name further south), noted that a meeting of the Committee of Assessors (the early precursor of the MPPP) was to be called to decide on the expelling of one Tomby Sahib from the Committee, for having "connived at the nefarious transactions of the late Police Magistrate''.
We can thus see from the Gazette that the local politics and intimate linkages which mark any city administration were obviously well-entrenched in Georgetown by the beginning of the 19th century. Other events which drew the attention of the press were "affrays'', as social disturbances were then called. One recorded in 1830 involved a group of 100 Chinese gamblers at Batu Kawan in Province Wellesley and their response when the police attempted to break up their gaming activities.
Accounts of murder cases, as today, obviously held the attention of readers and in 1827, we read a long account of a milk seller named Kairasob, who had claimed to know how to turn base metals into gold. His murder by one of his disappointed students, who then left a detailed account of his discontent on the corpse, obviously appealed to the more morbid sentiments of the newspaper-reading citizenry, a characteristic which the press continues to actively exploit today.
The reading public who purchased these newspapers comprised initially the officials who administered the settlement for the British East India Company, and members of the diverse trading communities who made use of the facilities afforded by the port of Penang. The contents of the press reflected this. Much of each issue was taken up by "intelligence'' comprising extracts from newspapers sent from Europe, obviously anxiously awaited, even six months after their initial publication.
The news from London took precedence, and there were also regular accounts from Paris, Berlin, Vienna and the Hague. Major diplomatic events, such as Napoleon's visit to Britain in 1815, and the negotiations between Britain and Holland which led up to the signing of the Treaty of London in 1824, which basically split spheres of influence in the Malay world between the British and the Dutch, were also staple fare. But it was not only foreign political news that was presented to Gazette readers. The latest scientific investigations in Europe were also reported - the opening of Egyptian mummies, the discovery of the skeleton of a mammoth near London, and various experiments in "craniology'' and on the compressibility of water.
Equally, if not perhaps more important to the readers, were details of what was happening in India. As most of the administrative and military personnel in Penang had been posted there from India, they were obviously concerned about what was happening in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and other centres of the East India Company's realm, places to which they would likely return.
* This is the first part of a two-part article on the P.o.W. Island Gazette. The second part will be published next week. Dr Geoff Wade is research fellow at the Centre of Asian Studies, Hong Kong University.
Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events 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 - : The Prince of Wales Island Government Gazette is notable for having been the peninsula's earliest newspaper and rates as an invaluable source of information on Penang over a period when the island was one of the most important entrepots in South-East Asia, writes DR GEOFF WADE.
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