Penang: History

Pearl of the Orient

Penang History

Originally part of the Malay Sultanate of Kedah, Penang was given to the British East India Company in 1786 by the Sultan of Kedah, in exchange for military protection from Burmese and Siamese armies who were threatening Kedah. On 11 August 1786, Captain Francis Light, credited as the founder of Penang, landed in Penang and renamed it Prince of Wales Island as a mark of respect to the heir of the British throne. Many early settlers died of malaria, earning Penang the nickname ‘White Man's Grave.’ In fact, Light had acted without the approval of the East India Company when he promised military protection to the Sultan.

When the Company failed to protect Kedah when it was attacked by Siam, the Sultan unsuccessfully attempted to reclaim the island in 1790. In 1826, Penang, along with Singapore and Malacca, became part of the Straits Settlement under British administration in India, moving to direct British colonial rule in 1867. In 1946 it became part of the Malayan Union and in 1948, a state of the Federation of Malaya which gained independence in 1957 and finally became Malaya in 1963.

Penang was a free port until 1969. Despite the loss of the island's free-port status, from the 1970s to the late 1990s the state built up one of the largest electronics manufacturing bases in Asia, in the Free Trade Zone around the airport in the south of the island. In July 2008 George Town, the historic capital of Penang was formally inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.