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Phuket History: Why Penang was colonised but Phuket was not

After 12 years of intrigues, Captain Francis Light [of the British East India Company (EIC)] and [his friend and business partner] James Scott had two islands potentially in their hands: Phuket and Penang – and an EIC in the mood to do something to obtain a base on the east side of the Bay of Bengal.

By Colin Mackay

Sunday 20 October 2019, 03:00PM

Light, seeing this open offer of a gift of Penang Island as a less troublesome and less expensive way to get his colony established, now changed tack and started extolling the virtues of Penang over Phuket to the EIC. He wrote to tell them it had an even better harbour than Phuket, and it was closer to the Malacca Straits.

The two men, however, continued to hedge their bets by proposing that the EIC take both ports as Scott wrote to the EIC: “In Pulao Penang you acquire the best and most convenient Marine port which the Malay coast affords whether you consider it a retreat for a war fleet or a port of economical com­merce. In possessing Salang (Phuket) you enter into the receipt of a certain and rapidly increasing commerce on the premises pointed out.”

Light even wrote to Madras using an “economy of scale” argument, say­ing that Penang could be taken and held using the same ships and men that could be used to take and defend Phuket and the two birds could there­fore be killed with one stone.

The EIC directors in India called for a report from one of their members, a Mr Joseph Price. He preferred Penang, as its harbour lay right on the route to China and nearer the Malacca Straits. However, he felt Phuket would be a more viable commercial centre and agreed with Light and Scott that the same force could be used to occupy and defend both islands. Madras passed this dual colony scheme for the approval of the main board in London.


In 1786, after many months’ wait, a ship arrived in Calcutta with a let­ter from the EIC directors approving that “Possession is to be taken of the ports and islands offered to us by the King of Cudda [Keddah] and especially Junkceylon which is occupied by a sepa­rate people to the number of 50,000 who have offered Captain Light the sover­eign command amongst them.”

Clearly, Light’s liberal use of statistics (Phuket’s population after the first Burmese invasion was around 8,000 at most) had worked. The reason the EIC gave for taking possession of these two islands was: “Not merely for the purpose of excluding the French, (though that is a capital object) but for the expectation of very valuable commercial acquisitions and shipping conveniences … and for extending our commerce amongst the eastern islands and indirectly by their means to China.”

Given that Penang was being offered willingly by the sultan of Keddah, and not wanting to damage their trade pros­pects with Siam by having a war over Phuket, the EIC directors made the de­cision to take Penang Island first.

Taking Penang

In late August 1786, Francis Light, sup­ported by an armed EIC frigate and a contingent of Indian army sepoys from Madras, landed and raised the Union Jack on Penang Island, giving the Brit­ish their first foothold in the central peninsula.

A congratulatory letter soon came from the EIC in India, which also advised Light and Scott that, due to the current state of the company’s finances, the directors felt it would be more pru­dent to operate just one colony first and see how it fared.

The obdurate Light and Scott, who both preferred the commercial possibili­ties offered by tin-rich Phuket, refused to give up on their plan for also taking Phuket. Scott tenaciously wrote back to Calcutta urging the EIC to continue the plan to take Phuket, as, he claimed, profits there “were more quickly to be gained and would be enough to defray the expenses of both colonies”.

But by early 1787, the next year, conditions changed on Phuket. The new king, Rama I, had taken firm control over the central peninsula and a new Siamese superintendent gen­eral with troops was positioned in the south.

On Phuket itself, a new gover­nor was put in place. Despite gaining great acclaim for her leadership and heroism against the Burmese and her sister Mook’s daughter being one of the king’s concubines, Lady Chan was no longer as powerful on the island as when her husband had been the gov­ernor. She wrote to Light, “At present the Chao Praya Thalang [new gover­nor] and I are not on good terms. I am sending Nai Phet, Nai Kaoe and Nai Thit Phrom to let you know the details, please send a small gun of good make for my personal use.”

Light also clearly had a very low opinion of the new governor, who was probably the one referred to in the An­nals of Thalang with the catchy name of Phaya Phetsirisiphjichaisongkhram.

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“The present governor styled Chau Praya Salang is one of the greatest villains who has raised himself by in­gratitude, deceit, murder and rapine from a low and indigent state. He wrote me a letter expressing great esteem and friendship to which I did not answer.”

However, despite his obvious dis­taste for the man, Light – still doggedly in pursuit of his objectives – was not above dealing with him. He wrote a most private letter to this new gover­nor and offered him the same seditious deal to make Phuket British, on terms similar to those Phaya Pimon and Lady Chan had agreed.

Light reported back to India on the new governor’s quick and positive response, “A few days ago he sent me a messenger to assure me if I would next November send a vessel with some troops, he would deliver the island to the English and only required a small annual allowance for himself.”

The EIC directors, however, in a cautious mood, still wanted to see how Penang fared first. Scott and Light, now knighted as Sir Francis Light, continued their trade with Phuket. Scott returned to Phuket regularly and apparently started a new family there. Light, however, never did return, being too occupied with governing Penang.

The immediate financial success of Penang, just as Light and Scott had foretold, meant that the EIC direc­tors in India probably felt it was more beneficial to keep Siam as a potential friend and trading partner and not to risk war. Light always regretted not obtaining Phuket, which he later admit­ted he had always preferred to Penang.

He wrote rather frustratedly in his memoirs: “Had he [Phaya Pimon] lived, I would have secured possession of the island. His death, which happened in December 1785, altered the certainty of success to a dubious point. His widow, the only person of estimation, would willingly have given up her power. Her sons and nephews beseeched me to take the government of the island. Could I have had the assurance of support from [the British] government I should have embraced the offer and secured both these islands.”

One of the last letters Light received from Thalang was in 1793, from the son of Lady Chan, who had now become the governor of Thalang; he wrote, “Please spare a thought for Khun Munda [Lady Chan]. She has aged very much lately and is not in such good health as she used to be. Mae Prang her daughter has died. Please send some white cloth for ceremonial use [mourning].”

The fate of Light and Scott

Light, now aged 53, was also not well. He suffered from recurring bouts of ma­laria that were progressively sapping his health. But he had been knighted and had become rich running his colo­ny, just as he had envisaged.

After freeing most of his slaves the day before, Sir Francis Light died in Penang in 1794, aged 54. He lies buried under some frangipani and raintrees in the old Protestant cemetery in George­town behind the grand Eastern and Oriental Hotel.

James Scott went on to become the richest man in Penang, with large prop­erty holdings and trading businesses. He had a new family of six children there. One of his sons, William, later became the harbourmaster and post­master in Singapore and another, Robert, settled in Java. After Light’s death Scott made a grab for much of Light’s estate from his “widow”, the mother of his children, Martina Rozells. Martina unsuccessfully fought Scott in the Penang courts and lost much of her wealth and land.

James Scott appears to have simply abandoned his Siamese wife and chil­dren in Phuket. When the Burmese again invaded Phuket in 1810, the vic­torious Burmese general wrote a letter to the governor of Penang, stating that the Burmese had “found there the wife and children of Captain James Scott a servant of your company [the EIC].”

“Captain Scott,” continued the gen­eral, “not being a Siamese, nor a subject of the Siamese government, shall receive no hurt from us and is at liberty to come and carry away his wife and children who await him at any time he pleases.”

Unbeknownst to his abandoned wife and children in 1810, so anx­iously awaiting their father’s return to Phuket, James Scott had died in Pen­ang in 1808, some 18 months earlier.

Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com

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