Over lunch yesterday, my colleague and I were discussing my earlier post on David Brown and we were asking ourselves who exactly was David Brown (1776-1825)? He might have owned large tracts of land on Penang island (known as the Prince of Wales Island in those days) but how did he get his hands on so much land?
I saw a hint in the Penang Travel Tips website where the writer, Timothy Tye, said that "David Brown went into business with his fellow Scotsman, James Scott, who was Francis Light's trading partner. After James Scott died, David Brown took over his business, and eventually became the largest landowner on Penang Island."
However, there is still no inkling about how Brown accumulated his land. Did he inherit it or did he forcibly take it from someone else?
This time, I turned to Timothy's other Asia Explorers website to extract this interesting passage: "When Francis Light passed away in 1794, his business partners James Scott and William Fairlie were the executors of his will. Light had willed his estate to Martina Rozells, the woman he lived with for 22 year but never officially married. The union produced five children, three girls, Sarah, Mary and Ann, and two sons, William and Francis Lanoon. In an age when women have little or no say, Scott and Fairlie swiftly transferred Light's properties to their own names, including his estate Suffolk. Martina went to court seeking justice, but it eluded this unfortunate woman who was one part Portuguese, one part Siamese, and no part British. She was, after all, just someone's common-law wife - a.k.a mistress - and in all likelihood, illiterate. To keep her mouth shut, they gave her a pension. Surely the British East India Company would rather have this very important piece of real estate safe in British hands than to see justice served."
Some of the jigsaw puzzle now falls into place. From the disjointed information on two web sources, I gathered that James Scott (1746-1808) and William Fairlie (1752-1834) claimed Light's properties as theirs and later on, Brown took over the land from Scott when the latter died. Francis Light (1740-1794), the founder of the British settlement on the island for the British East India Company, was apparently no angel himself. He might have negotiated control of Penang from the then Sultan of Kedah but he himself wasn't above claiming large parts of the sparsely populated island as his own. Of course in those days, the land was worth almost nothing and the ignorant natives had little rights. For the natives - and the island was already inhabited then - survival was the order of their day.
These were the early British settlers and traders that came with Light to Penang soon afterwards: people like James Scott, William Fairlie and David Brown. There were many others and they were the ones who took control over most of the island and divided the resources among themselves. For better or for worse, they were the ones who initially shaped Penang and gave the island its direction and heritage.