Penang at War

Penang at War

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Penang at War: The comprehensive defeat of the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1806 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 ushered in a century of British imperial dominance and the hegemony of the Royal Navy, Penang, however, disappointed the East India Company. A paucity of decent locally-sourced timber undermined a shipbuilding programme and it struggled to support the main trade-route between China and Europe. When, in 1823, Stamford Raffles recognised that Britain’s strategic interests would be better served by a port at Singapore, Penang’s days as Britain’s primary settlement in the region were numbered. Singapore became the strategic anchor and key naval and military base for the British, a status and position that was only to deepen over time. In 1858, following the Indian Mutiny, the British government assumed respon- sibility from the East lndia Company for its vast land interests in India and its disparate other holdings, including the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang. In 1867, the government of the Indian Raj formally transferred the Settlements to the Colonial Office in London.This change had little impact on the relative status of the settlements, and Penang was to continue to play Tonto to Singapore’s Lone Ranger.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Penang was firmly established as a busy trading entrepot feeding off regional trading routes to Siam, northern Sumatra, Malaya and Burma. lts commercial and business fortunes fluctuated with the economic cycle but it remained an intensely polyglot and cosmopolitan port without rival in the upper reaches of the Straits of Malacca. In practice, the only serious threat to nineteenth century Penang came from within, such as the nasty and violent conflagration in I858 between two rival Chinese secret societies fighting for control of lucrative trading and other business interests – after a few days of riot and bloodshed, a force of Indian sepoys, police and British volunteers quelled the violence. But, internal riot and affray aside, Penang faced no obvious challenges. This was lucky, because in I889 a British traveller noted that ‘Fort Cornwallis is incapable of affording protection either to shipping in the harbour or to the inhabitants in the town. The sea has made considerable encroachment in recent years.” These minimal defences and the token military presence were, however, then, fit for purpose.

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