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Brief history

Pulau Pinang was ruled by the sultans of Kedah until the late eighteenth century. But increasing harassment by Thai and Burmese raiding parties encouraged the sultan to seek military protection from Francis Light, a plausible British adventurer searching for a regional trading base to counter the Dutch presence in Sumatra. After a decade of wrangling, a deal was struck: Light would provide military aid through the British East India Company and the sultan would receive 30,000 Spanish dollars a year. There was one snag – the East India Company’s Governor-General, Charles Cornwallis, refused to be party to the plans. Concealing the facts from both parties, Light went ahead anyway and took possession of Penang on August 11, 1786, then spent five years assuring the sultan that the matter of protection was being referred to authorities in London. The sultan finally caught on but failed to evict the British, ending up with an annuity of 6000 Spanish dollars and no role in the island’s government.

Penang thus became the first British settlement in the Malay Peninsula. Within two years, four hundred acres were under cultivation and the population – many of them Chinese traders quick to grasp the island’s strategic position in the busy Straits of Melaka – had reached ten thousand. Francis Light was made superintendent and declared the island a free port, renaming it “Prince of Wales Island” after the British heir apparent. Georgetown took its name from the British king, George III, and retained its colonial label even after the island’s name reverted to Penang.

For a time, all looked rosy for Penang, with Georgetown proclaimed as capital of the Straits Settlements (incorporating Melaka and Singapore) in 1826. But the founding of Singapore in 1819 was the beginning of the end for Georgetown, as the new colony overtook its predecessor in every respect. This had one beneficial result: with Georgetown stuck in the economic doldrums well into the twentieth century, no significant development took place within the city, and consequently many of its colonial and early Chinese buildings survive to this day.

Read more Penang travel guide at here.