In September 1805 a youthful Thomas Stamford Raffles – with his new wife Olivia in tow – arrived on a ship called the Warley at Pulau Penang, known to its English inhabitants as Prince of Wales’ Island.
Penang lies across a murky channel from the dark green foreshore of the Malay state of Kedah. It is one of the three great entrepôts and melting pots that have at various times held sway over the Straits of Melaka. The first was the town that gave this mighty shipping lane its name – Melaka; the third and final would be Singapore. But the early 1800s were the middle act of the Straits’ history, and the preeminent port was Penang.
Penang is the English corruption of the Malay word pinang, referring to the tooth-staining betel nut that the island is said to resemble. It had long been a little-used offshoot of the jungle realm of the Sultan of Kedah. No one lived there besides a few fishermen. But two decades before Raffles’ arrival a British outpost had been founded at the island’s northeast promontory by a wandering sea captain called Francis Light.
Light of the East
Light, who was born in the tiny village of Dallinghoo in the Suffolk flatlands, had served in the Royal Navy in his youth, but by his mid-twenties – with a bare minimum of sea knowledge under his belt – he had set himself up as skipper of a private trading ship, plying the monsoon-chased waters of the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. He ran out under sail from the east coast of India to Thai islands, Burmese river mouths and Malay harbours. It was during these wanderings that he had first drifted past Penang, noted its sheltered channel and prime position commanding the head of one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares, and made the acquaintance of its owner, the Sultan of Kedah.
For fifteen years he made a nuisance of himself whenever his little ship docked in the steaming river mouths of Calcutta and Madras, pestering anyone who would listen with his calls for a British base in Southeast Asia, and with his claim for Penang as the perfect location. It was a tough sell: spice was a long-forgotten story, the China trade was not yet in flood, and the preoccupying era of expansion into India was underway. But eventually, in 1786, the Governor-General authorised Light to strike a deal with the Sultan of Kedah, to lease the island, and to build a town.
Various charming, if apocryphal, stories attach themselves to the founding of Penang. The best known has it that Light ended up married to the Sultan’s daughter, thrown into the land-contract as a fragrant bonus. The 1780s were still within the era during which it was not entirely anathema for prominent Englishmen to marry high-class natives in the name of love or political expediency (though such days were already very much numbered). However, it seems that Light actually married not a Malay princess, but an Asia-born Portuguese woman called Martina (setting up exotic outposts must have run in the family: one of their sons, William, later laid out the foundations of the Australian city of Adelaide). Another well-worn tale has it that as an incentive to clear the tangled coastal jungle at the site of Penang’s future capital, Georgetown, Light was in the habit of firing cannon-loads of silver coin into the trees. In the scramble to seek out the fallen cash, the story has it, his labourers hacked in hours through vast swathes of tangled undergrowth that would otherwise have taken them weeks to clear.
The little outpost grew quickly under Light’s command as a “port of refreshment for the King’s, the Company’s and the Country Ships”, and its status as an untaxed free port for boats of all nations soon saw it drawing trade away from Dutch harbours further down the Straits and out in the islands beyond. Francis Light himself succumbed to fever in 1794, but with the old Anglo-Dutch rivalry given a new Napoleonic impetus, Penang did not stagnate. It was the forward base for British efforts to evict the VOC from Melaka, Maluku – and eventually Java – and in 1803 it was chosen as the spot at which to develop new shipyards replacing scarce English oak with abundant Asian teak. But still, the step that the East India Company’s government took in 1805 was a little over the top: they decided to upgrade Penang from a mere outpost to a presidency, a territory under the rule of a governor on par with Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.
The existing British community at Georgetown must have wondered if it was a joke when they first heard the news; they must have hoped it was when they learnt the details. In the kind of antagonistic decision more often associated with modern-day management practices, the Company had decided to ship in the entire administration of the new Fourth Presidency from outside – 26 men, newcomers all, from the Governor to the chaplain, on combined salaries that amounted to an eye-watering £43,500.
As Raffles – who despite now earning £1500 a year was still at the bottom of the administrative pay grade – stepped down from the Warley into the heat and dockside clamour he may have detected a decidedly bitter odour adding its own spice to the exotic first breath of the East; it was emanating from a welcoming committee composed of the ousted old guard.
Fresh off the Boat
Penang was by no means as thoroughly cut off from the upper levels of Company control as Java was from Amsterdam. But Madras and Calcutta were still several weeks’ sailing away – and it was a risky crossing during the months when the monsoon whipped the Bay of Bengal into a maelstrom of squalls and storms. As a consequence it was a place quite used to toddling along at its own pace, and the arrival of the new presidency government – with Phillip Dundas as Governor, and Thomas Raffles as Assistant Secretary – was akin to a very large elephant suddenly boarding a very small boat. The previous lieutenant-governor had been outraged at the unilateral changes, not least because he had not been offered so much as an honorary post in the new administration. Those who did remain often found themselves radically downgraded (the former First Government Secretary was reduced to the status of a jobbing tax collector for example) and taking orders from brisk young men, quite literally fresh off the boat.
And to make matters worse the new injection of activity had seen prices soar. Spanish dollars were used as the common currency of Southeast Asia at the time, and Governor Dundas was soon writing back to Calcutta to complain that “a dollar here does not go as far as a rupee in the other provinces”. Houses were in short supply; rents rocketed, and junior civil servants were obliged to bunk up at Flower Pot Hall, a boarding house owned by a Mr Porter on the seedy alleyway of Love Lane. The rent was a dollar and a half a day, which included a bottle of wine between four men.
But the new arrivals – and the new money – brought a certain buzz to the little island, and for Raffles it was a staging post from which to launch himself on a mercurial career. Throughout the second half of the first decade of the 19th century he beavered away in Penang, slogging through long, deskbound hours over chaotic paperwork. He took on any number of official roles, and in the first of many disputes with his employers he got entangled in an argument over his salary. With all the extra roles he had taken on it had crept significantly upwards – a little too high, the courts decided in 1807, and he was ordered to repay the excess.
The stress, the heat and the insects took their toll, and Penang itself seemed to be stagnating. The much-vaunted dockyards only ever managed to produce one ship; the place was a little too far north along the Straits of Melaka really to flourish as a port, and in 1808 a catastrophic fire tore through Georgetown and did £75,000 worth of damage. Periodic bouts of fever began to drag Raffles down, and with it a degree of fear and frustration which he expressed in a letter to a friend in 1808:
I am convinced my health will never permit me holding this office many years. If therefore I am not to look for a seat in [the East India Company] Council, or some quiet place in the Government, I must either fall a sacrifice or apply for the first vacancy in the Collectorship or other subordinate office. My constitution was always delicate; with care I have no doubt it could last as long here as in England. Without it, it will soon break up. I am afraid they will work the willing horse to death; all I ask is to see the end of it…
Fortunately for Raffles the man who would soon provide him with the almighty leg-up he felt he deserved had already arrived at his post in Calcutta.
The Mad Marquis
Gilbert Elliot, the First Earl of Minto, had been chosen for the role of Governor-General by the Directors of the East India Company as what they hoped would prove a very safe pair of hands. They were desperate for a period of quiet, for Minto’s predecessor – Richard Colley, the Marquis Wellesley – had been an absolute nightmare.
Wellesley had had a great deal in common with the long-dead Jan Pieterszoon Coen of the VOC: he had no concern for financial costs, hated Indians, and cared only for territorial expansion and general colonial aggrandisement. By the end of his term he had brought the Company to the brink of bankruptcy. A contemporary wrote of him that “The desire of fame is his ruling passion & it is insatiable, too often indeed ridiculous”. He was spectacularly arrogant, treated the native princes who were supposed to be the Company’s allies with contempt, and poured general scorn on just about everyone.
In a letter to his unfortunate French wife Hyacinthe (a curious choice of partner for a committed Francophobe) he declared of Calcutta’s European residents that “the men are stupid, are coxcombs, are uneducated; the women are bitches, are badly dressed, are dull”. The Company merchants meanwhile, were “so vulgar, ignorant, rude, familiar & stupid as to be disgusting & intolerable; especially the ladies, not one of whom, by the bye, is even decently good looking”. Judging by this he might have made a suitable pen-pal for Olivia Raffles, but as it was it was Hyacinthe – who had sensibly chosen to stay in England – who had to read his vitriolic screeds and his sneering taunts of infidelity: “As for sex, one must have it in this climate”. When he embarked on plans for a massive and costly new Government House at Calcutta, the Directors in Leadenhall Street decided that enough was enough and gave him the boot. He returned to England where he was involved in several scandals with street prostitutes. Hyacinthe left him, and his own exasperated brother declared that “I wish that [he] was castrated…”
Wellesley had successfully stacked the Company’s debts to a monstrous £31.5 million (well over £1 billion in today’s money), and they declared that under his command India had “been turned into a despotism”. Everything, they fervently hoped, would be different under Minto.
Minto was certainly a much more personable and liberal character. His relationship with his wife was rather different from Wellesley’s, as were his letters home. They are charming, full of little jokes and indiscretions about the absurdities of high office in India, and they suggest a man still very close to his partner of three decades: “The first night I went to bed at Calcutta,” he wrote, “I was followed by fourteen persons in white muslin gowns into the dressing-room. One might have hoped that some of them were ladies; but on finding there were as many turbans and black beards as gowns, I was very desirous that these bearded handmaids should leave me”.
In India itself Minto did indeed do as the Company had hoped; he was eventually subjected to some cruel comments about the total inconsequence of his six-year term. However, he was not entirely a sap, and at the height of his reign he would hand over to the horrified Directors a huge tranche of potentially very costly new territory that they had never asked for – and that was not even part of India. It was Lord Minto who would order the rogue operation of the Java campaign, and who would place the inexperienced Raffles at its head…
© Tim Hannigan 2013