Saturday, 2 April 2011

Penang's role in Napoleon's downfall

It doesn't take a history buff to have heard about the Battle of Waterloo. I'm not particularly interested in history but of course, I have heard about this great battle. I learnt about it at school but I'll be danged if I remember much except that it was fought between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington in 1815. (Methinks the battle was also fought between the likes of ordinary folks like Alain Fontaine and Geoffrey Abbott on the opposing sides of the line dividing the two armies but since they were only bit part, low-ranked foot soldiers in the campaign, nobody remembered them or bothered about the loss of these inconsequential collaterals.)

Anyway, Napoleon Bonaparte was that short, pudgy and vain French emperor who is popularly pictured with his right hand tucked inside a waistcoat which looked two sizes too small for him. I said he was vain, right? He'd rather be seen in that tight outfit of his rather than in more comfortable rags.

And the victorious Duke of Wellington is always painted as the handsome dude on horseback charging and leading his men into glorious battle. That's how history wants us to remember this battle.

But who exactly was Wellington and would you know that through him, there was a connection between Penang and Napoleon? All will be made known at the end of this story but anyone interested to learn more about the Duke can first check up the facts in Wikipedia. There's a rather detailed write-up about him. Not only was he a career soldier, rising in rank to become the commander-in-chief of the British Army, he was also later a prime minister of the British Isles. Before he was created a Duke, his first known common name was Arthur Wesley.

There's something about Wellington that's not mentioned in Wikipedia: a little anecdote that I came across while reading this newly acquired book, The Penang Adventure. When still known as Arthur Wesley, the 28-year-old Colonel with the 33rd Regiment of the British Army stayed briefly at Northam Road, Prince of Wales Island from April 1797 while awaiting orders to proceed to the Philippines to fight the Frogs.

As it was several months before the orders arrived from India, Arthur Wesley occupied himself by studying how to fortify the island against hostile pirate attacks from across the mainland. His eldest brother Richard Wesley (or Richard Wellesley as he now preferred to be known, being a typical aristocratic snob and having reverted his surname to what he considered as more ancient and proper) who was by then the Governor-General in India agreed that in order to "guard the Prince of Wales Island's back door", it would be necessary to negotiate with the Sultan in Kedah as soon as possible to grant a strip of the latter's coastal land on the mainland from Sungai Muda in the north to Sungai Krian in the south with enough hinterland to give the island the necessary protection.

Arthur Wesley returned to India soon afterwards and taking the cue from his brother, also changed his surname to Wellesley in 1798 before getting the itch and going off to war again. Thus, it was left to George Leith, the Lieutenant-General of the Prince of Wales Island, to conclude a new treaty with the Sultan and take formal possession of Britain's first territory on the peninsula in 1800. Leith named this narrow strip of land as Province Wellesley in honour of Richard Wellesley, the Governor-General in India, and not Arthur Wesley or Arthur Wellesley. Henceforth, both the Prince of Wales Island and Province Wellesley together became known as the Settlement of Penang.

So there we have it, the Penang connection with Napoleon Bonaparte, courtesy of Raymond Flower's book, The Penang Adventure, which by the way I find to be very light reading. Nothing heavy, read like a novel. The book's just fine with me.

Note: The title of this story is sort of an inspiration from Spike Milligan's war memoirs - both a hilarious and at the same time, sad collection of personal reflections - called "Adolf Hitler: My Role In His Downfall", which I had read in the late 1970s.

1 comment:

stephen said...

Good God, I have that book too and his other- Monty,his part in my victory!I got both books from the secondhand bookstore. I managed to listen to recordings of the Goon Show on BBC and watched the movie version of the book on the telly!