On the heritage trail in Penang: Exploring Georgetown’s colonial past

In August of 1786, the British flag was raised for the first time in Southeast Asia; however, the flag wasn’t first raised over Hong Kong or even Singapore. Instead, the first British possession in the region was the island of Penang, off of Malaysia’s northwestern coast.

A typical colonial house in downtown Georgetown.

A typical colonial house in downtown Georgetown.

Trading a lie of protection to the Sultan of Kedah in exchange for the island, Sir Francis Light secured the Straights of Malacca for the British East India Company. And, by declaring the island to be a free trade zone, he secured Penang’s place as one of the most important trading centers in all of Asia.

Known originally as Prince of Wales Island, Penang grew quickly. The original settlement was on the island’s northeastern corner around Fort Cornwallis, located in the heart of downtown Georgetown. Immigration was rampant during the colony’s early years thanks to Light’s offer of free land to anyone who could clear it. Because of this, the island attracted a large number of Chinese, Indian, and Malay settlers.

The city that sprang up around them had the civility of a tidy English town, with the diverseness that comes from a multicultural society.

A canon stands guard by the walls of Fort Cornwallis.

A canon stands guard by the walls of Fort Cornwallis.

Fortunately for travelers, this eclectic architecture of the city survives to the present. Walking down the streets, you can go from colonial England, to Chinatown, and to Indiatown in a matter of a few blocks.

Since the island of Penang, along with the rest of Malaysia, gained its independence from Britain in 1957, the port is becoming less and less important. However, as a travel destination, Georgetown has never been more popular. Every year, millions of tourists flock to see the UNESCO-protected old town, and the ruins of Britain’s first Southeast Asian colony.

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