A Brief History of Penang

Francis Light
Statue of Captain Francis Light, in the grounds of the state museum

Penang (spelled Pinang in Malay) was once part of the sultanate of Kedah, but in 1786 Captain Francis Light landed on the island and felt it would make a suitable base for the British East India Company in the Malay states. He arranged to rent the island and nearby mainland from the sultan of Kedah for the sum of 10,000 Spanish dollars per year. In fact, the government of Penang, now a state in Malaysia, still pays the sultan of Kedah an annual rent of 30,000 Ringgit (about US$ 7,500).

Captain Light first established Fort Cornwallis on the northeastern corner of the island, and the city of Georgetown was laid out around it. The city was named after King George III, the ruler of England at the time, and Light actually renamed the island to 'Prince of Wales' island.

The city grew organically outward from Fort Cornwallis, with waves of immigrants coming to settle from all over Asia and Europe. Each ethnic group was assigned its own street, although this segregation was less rigid and formal than in other colonial outposts such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Anybody with the money could buy any piece of land from a willing seller.