The Penang connection

A heartening feature of this year’s Madras Week is the participation of several overseas players. The Australians are commemorating the Emden-Sydney finale that brought to an end a legend that gifted Tamil a new word on September 22, 1914. The Germans are hosting a discussion on how the Great War had an impact on Literature and the Arts in Madras. The French are having readings from literature of the same period while the British are having a blogging contest about Madras and the Great War underway. Meanwhile, two Armenian scholars living in Paris have put together a week-long programme in the Armenian Church in Madras on Armenian Street, the highlight of which is a splendid exhibition commemorating the Armenian contribution to Madras and to their homeland as well, the first Armenian Constitution having been drafted here and the first Armenian printing press and newspaper being established here.

But to me, at the top of this heap is the celebration of Madras Day in Penang, Malaysia, with an exhibition of Madras photographs. Perhaps this will set an example for ‘Madrasis’/‘Chennaivasis’ in other cities around the world to get together and organise events to remember where they came from. But, that Penang will be first off the mark is not surprising, considering the nearly 230-year connection the island has with Madras.

It was a Capt. Francis Light, a trader associated with the firm of Jourdain, Sullivan and de Souza, in Madras, who in 1785-86 negotiated with the Sultan of Kedah to grant the East India Company the island in exchange for protection against Siamese and Burmese intrusions. Light later arrived in Penang on August 11, 1786, to take possession of the grant and at the place where he landed Fort Cornwallis was subsequently raised. He also renamed what was to be the nucleus of Britain’s East Asian empire as Prince of Wales Island, but the name never stuck; Penang or Pulau Pinang it has remained. It was to this island that the first Indian traders and workers went from Negapatam, mainly Tamils, and in time became an integral part of the island’s cosmopolitan population.

What Madras has been to modern India, Penang has been to modern Malaysia, recording a heap of ‘firsts’. One of them is St. George’s Church, work on which was completed in 1816. It is the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia and is the only building in Penang to be declared one of the fifty National Treasures by the Government of Malaysia. Not unlike St. George’s Cathedral in Madras in appearance, it is no surprise to learn that it was built by Capt. Robert Smith of the Madras Engineers. It was formally consecrated in May 1819 by the Bishop of Calcutta, the Rt. Rev. Thomas F. Middleton. Three years earlier, Middleton, the first Anglican Bishop of India, had consecrated St. George’s in Madras which became a Cathedral church in 1835. In front of the church in Penang, gracing its immaculate lawn is the ‘cupola-ed’ memorial to Francis Light. The first recorded service in the Church was for the marriage of Light’s widow, Martina Rosella, to John Timmer. The Church was restored over a period of a year between 2010 and 2011. Our own St. George’s meanwhile, awaits its promised restoration. But a Government heritage grant made things easier in Penang.

Unlike Francis Day, Andrew Cogan and Beri Thimmappa in Madras, Francis Light is well remembered in George Town, Penang, with several sites still bearing his name.

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