Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Penang's founding in 1786

My problem with languages is that there are times when some words confuse me through infrequent use. Take the word "found" as an example. I know that it is the past tense of "find", but it is also used less frequently as a present tense, in which case the past tense becomes "founded", such as in "Francis Light founded Penang in 1786."

That's what we learnt in school as small kids. We were taught and we read in books that Francis Light was the founder (see note below) of Penang. As small kids soaking in all sorts of new information, my school mates and I would be so impressed. Wow, we used to think, until Light arrived to found Penang, nobody knew what Penang was or where Penang was. Did the island suddenly rise up from the sea overnight in time for Light to "find" it? Was the island an uninhabited jungle until Light set foot here?

But nowadays, we know that this was not true. People were already staying on the island well before 11 Aug 1786. Maybe not the Europeans but all the same, there was a sparse population of the Chinese, Malays and Indians. The local inhabitants certainly knew of Pulo Pinang and as a matter of fact, Light also knew of the existence of Penang island from as early as 1769. He was then moving a lot between Madras, Phuket and Penang island.

At that time, Kedah was a prosperous rice-growing region. But it was under constant physical threats from Siam and had to pay an annual sum to the King of Siam. So the Kedah Sultan of the day sought to play off the threats from Siam against the military might of the British East India Company in Madras, India. At the same time, Light wanted to set up a trading station somewhere along the northern peninsula away from Dutch-controlled Malacca.

It cut both ways that a deal was finally struck. The Kedah Sultan would give up his presumably useless island of Pulo Pinang in the south - and eventually receive an annual bounty of 6,000 Spanish Dollars - in return for British support against his enemies. Whether or not he eventually obtained the British protection he craved for was, of course, another matter.

So let me return to my original question: what is the meaning of "found" if it is different from the word "find"? According to my dictionaries which I've just been looking up, "to found" means "to establish". When Light founded Penang, what it meant was that he established Penang as a trading post or a trading station for the British East India Company. He did not "find" or "discover" Penang; the island was already here eons ago.

Light arrived on the island in July 1786. Under orders, the ground was cleared for the early settlement. It was perhaps at this point that we read stories of cannons being used to blast coins into the thick mangrove forest so that the natives and prisoners could clear the land in their scramble to find the money. Same as Rome was not built in a day, Penang was not emptied in a day too.

But by early August, much of the place had been readied. A site was prepared for the formal acquisition of the island by the East India Company, and this ceremony took place on 11 August 1786 with the first raising of the British flag on the grounds where Fort Cornwallis is today. That date marked the official day that Francis Light founded Penang. That's all it was, actually, purely down-to-earth. Nothing magical about it.

Note: Again, I have to be very careful of the language: "find" ( a verb) means "discover" while "found" (also a verb) means "establish". But "founder" does not only mean the "person who establishes something". The word is also used as a verb to mean "sink or collapse" such as in "the business was mismanaged until it foundered." Arghh, the English language....!!

No comments: