PENANG The Silicon Valley of the East [A Brief History from a Non-Historian]

April 28, 2022

Penang has had many names. The shared history of Penang Island dubbed the Pearl of The Orient, says she was established as an entrepot by Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company in 1786. To protect their position and trade, Light then fortified the area by constructing Fort Cornwallis. The island was named Prince of Wales Island, then the administrative capital named George Town, after King George III. Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai) was named after an officer called Richard Wellesley. It was occupied in 1790, then ceded to British rule when the Crown Prince of Kedah and Perlis agreed to enfranchise it to the former in 1800.

The administrative town of Seberang Perai was renamed Butterworth after one former Governor of the Straits Settlements, William John Butterworth. The Malay name was and still is Bagan.

Francis Light was, in fact, a latecomer. In 1593, another Englishman called Captain James Lancaster, onboard the Edward Bonaventure vessel, sailed to Penang, approaching it from the south, i.e. Pulau Rimau. His sailing records indicated that he foolishly remarked – Penang was an empty island. If only he came from the north!

However, this certainly was not the beginning of Penang as we know it. History has it that Penang Island was once known as Ka Satu Island. In fact, in the fable of the old Malay maritime world, sailors from Lingga sailed to Ka Satu Island, back and forth to trade. Yes, trading was already in a fashion for aeons in Ka Satu. The Old Kedah (Kadaram) was already an industrial state back in the days of the Srivijaya Empire in the 7th century, which says a lot about Penang being a hive with trading activities, being part of Kedah was not an accident. The old artefacts and records indicate that trade certainly involved India and went as far as China and Arabia. The USA was not where it is now, not even anywhere, not even a dot.

But prehistoric Penang was something else, though.  

Penang lived for thousands of years since the Neolithic era, at least. A skeleton with some prehistoric artefacts was found underneath a shell midden in Guar Kepah, Kepala Batas, by USM archaeologists. Lovingly called the Penang Woman, her frame was carbon-dated to be 5700 years old. And that has made her older than Jesus of Nazareth, twice! Still, that is not the end; Penang Woman is the 42nd skeleton found; the other 41 were dug up from 1851 to 1934 and were carted away and kept in a natural history museum in the Netherland, fancy that!


This article was written by Irhamy Ahmad.

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