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Sunday October 2, 2011

Penang’s link with ocean made waves

Historians and researchers from across the globe recently converged on George Town to discuss the diverse links between Penang and the Indian Ocean.

PENANG has a spicy past, literally. The island's first pepper plants were introduced in 1790 by a Chinese Kapitan, who brought in pepper vines from Acheh with funds from Captain Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement.

Christina Skott, a history lecturer at Cambridge University, said the British East India Company (EIC) wanted to start spice plantations then in the hope of breaking the Dutch monopoly on cloves and nutmeg.

“Penang was an important centre for botanical exchange and transfer as well as for agricultural experiments during the first decade of its opening in 1786. The first commercial crops were coconut and pepper,” said Skott, one of 25 international speakers at the recent three-day “Penang and the Indian Ocean (PIO) Conference 2011”.

Irving: Pointed out that one of the largest collections of Malay melodies published in the 19th century was sourced from Penang.

During the conference jointly organised by Think City, Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), Universiti Sains Malaysia's Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), and academics from University of Cambridge and London University, experts and researchers explored and discussed Penang's history as a trading port in the Straits of Malacca.

The conference also looked at promoting a research cluster dedicated to mapping the historical and contemporary linkages of Penang in its Indian Ocean context.

While many speakers touched on early history, maritime trade, transmigration, cultural flow and commercial networks, a few like Skott gave interesting insight to some lesser-known facts.

Skott said the Company Garden in Air Itam was set up under Light and initially operated using convict labour. Many of the plants were brought in from China.

“The first substantial inventory of the Company Garden was carried out in 1803 by an official botanist, William Hunter,” said Skott. Inventive cultivation techniques, she added, led to the rapid expansion of nutmeg production in Penang after 1835.

David R. M. Irving, a post doctoral research associate at King's College London, described Penang as one of several significant trading entrepots which provided “fertile condition for the mixing and exchange of musical practices” in the early 19th century.

He cited an article by Jonas Daniel Vaughan titled Notes on the Malays of Pinang and Province Wellesley (1858) that made reference to Indian musicians playing “shrill pipes resembling the clarinet” during festivals.

Irving pointed out that one of the largest collections of Malay melodies published in the 19th century was sourced from Penang.

Skott: ‘Penang was an important centre for botanical exchange and transfer as well as for agricultural experiments’

From the late 18th century onwards, many Malay musical troupes with affinities to European music emerged.

Another speaker, Vivian Louis Forbes, adjunct professor and map curator from University of Western Australia, said the main aim of the EIC and English commercial traders when Penang was founded was to capture the tea trade of China and the spice trade of the East Indies.

“In order to achieve dominance in the trade links in the Indian Ocean, the EIC and later the Colonial administration were compelled to ensure that ships on passages to and from Penang were given all the benefits and protection that could be offered.”

Forbes said four significant lighthouses were constructed then, in Fort Cornwallis (1882), Muka Head (1883), Pulau Rimau (1885) and Pulau Tikus (date unknown).

Rathi Menon, a retired history professor from St Xavier's College Aluva, in Cochin, India, said many Malayalees from Madras started arriving in Penang after 1789 to work in plantations.

She cited a 1966 report of the Penang City Council which mentioned a fire in Malabar Street in 1789, noting that it was the name of the street now known as Chulia Street.

“Naming a key street like this clearly shows the large number of Malabari presence in that area. The Malabaris, a good number of them from the Muslim community, played a key role in trade and commerce in Penang. In later years, most of these Muslims assimilated into the local population by marrying Malay people and became bumiputras (sons of the soil),” she added.

The conference also highlighted the concern among Malaysian Indians over the declining use of regional Indian dialects among the younger generation, many of whom do not converse in Tamil or who just speak a smattering of Tanglish (a mix of Tamil and English).

This may be why the Telugus, Malayalees, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Sri Lankans often encourage their young to join their respective ethnic-based organisations to expose them to their mother tongue.

Many urban Indian youths, it was pointed out, shied away from speaking the dialects these days, partly out of fear that their peers might ridicule them.

History professor Lakshmi Subramaniam, from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta, India, however, felt that language should not be forced on the younger generation merely to retain ethnic identity.

“Retaining culture is generational but it can be quite complex. A 70-year-old man who came to Malaya in the 1930s may have a particular notion about the land he left, the language he spoke and the religion he embraced. But his children, born and raised in an independent Malaysia, may have a very different sense of that reality,” she said.

“I think one cannot press the language and cultural identity issue too much. What is interesting about the diaspora is that in a strange way, it gives you a slightly different understanding of your national identity,” said Lakshmi.

“I feel it is very critical to be at least bi-lingual. It is also important to get a sense of your own linguistic ethnicity as it gives you access to a different world not to go back to the past but to address the present with your ancestral inheritance.

“If you tell your child she has to speak in her mother tongue to remember her grandfather's past, she may not want to do so. But if you integrate spoken Tamil with interesting things happening in the cinema, television or cultural scene, she may want to pick up the language.

“It is important to make language a part of the living present and not the past.”