Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Heritage: Penang's early years

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.

1 comment:

Jamboree said...

The following information may assist you re David Brown and the source of his wealth. My interest is in James Scott who is an interesting character that has been portrayed as the villain in early Penang!

of Glugor Who After a Residence Of 25 Years On This Islands Died on the 12th September Aged 49 Years.
[Rear of David Brown's Tomb]
To the Memory of David Brown Erected by an affectionate son.

Died on board ship HCS Windsor Castle en route to Malacca. Studied law at Edinburgh University. It was common for early settlers to take local wives, such as Francis Light, James Scott, Logan and Brown. After steamships became common, and the opening of the Suez Canal, European women emigrated to the Straits Settlements and mixed marriages were frowned upon!

David Brown studied law at Edinburgh University, and at 21 was sent to Penang by relatives, with Power of Attorney to collect the share of his estate of his uncle, Laurence Stuart who had joined James Scott in business. At that time the East India Company was limiting potential settlers on the island only to those recommended by their own members and shareholders. David who came out on board a ship as an ordinary seaman would appear to have jumped ship at Penang. James Scott who had endless troubles, arguments and litigations with the East India Company, approved of Davids initiative and enterprise, employed him as an assistant and subsequently as his partner. Scott & Co. formerly Light , Scott & Co. , was re-registered in 1808, after the death of James Scott, as Scott, Brown & Co., and David became the most prominent man in Penang. He was the largest landowner on the island and had a major impact on development. He donated 12 acres for a playing field, and when he died the citizens of all races subscribed to a large monument to his memory at the NW corner of Padang Brown at the intersection of Anson and Perak roads, and still exists.

(Notes based on 'Historical Personalities of Penang published by committee of the Penang Festival in 1986).

David Brown was a major spice planter and merchant and bought the Glugor Estate where he successfully experimented in cultivating cloves and nutmeg. The fruit of the Gelugor tree is called 'Assam gelugor' which is a tamarind used in local curries. There are many paintings of Glugor House and the Brown family sold the land in the 1960's and is now the site of the university.

Jan Herivel