Christina Granroth

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Christina Granroth

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    Early descriptions of Penang:

    1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    Christina Granroth



    This paper looks at representations of landscape and people in early descriptions of Penang. Examining British travel accounts and official reports, the paper argues that the deployment of the language of the picturesque in combination with established perceptions of the Malay introduced a new phase in British knowledge of the Malay peninsula.

    In describing the beauty and diversity of the scenery British visitors to Penang painted a new picture of the ‘other India’: a tropical but still wholesome Eden. In this creation of a ‘tropical picturesque’, Penang came to stand out in contrast to the India proper. This

    picture was further enhanced by British perceptions of Penang’s indigenous inhabitants. The European stereotyping of the character of the Malay during the eighteenth century had created a people that fitted well into a romantic notion of boldness, courage and adventure. This environmental and ethnographic distinctiveness, the paper suggests, contributed to inspire the early scholars to more systematic enquiries into Malay culture and history. Raffles’ fascination with Malay history was partly propelled by a romantic yearning for a glorious past. The wider influence of his scholarship, however, would be seen in the promotion of official British interest in the region.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 1/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Early descriptions of Penang: Ethnography & the tropical picturesque

     ‘It is the most extensive and beautifully variegated prospect we had ever seen in

    India….so strikingly grand and beautiful is it, that the most phlegmatic observer

    can hardly fail to experience some pleasing sensations, when placed on this fairy

    spot.. I could not help feasting my eyes, for hours together, within undiminished

    delight, on the romantic scenery which nature, assisted by art, had scattered around

    in bountiful profusion… from the salubrity of its air, it is justly esteemed the

    Montpellier of India...from the dawn of day, until the sun has emerged above the

    high mountains of Queda, and even for some time after this period, Penang rivals

    2any thing that has been fabled of the Elysian fields’.

    Historians of early Penang often stress that its establishment, earliest history and place in Empire has to be understood in the context of economic development, world politics and strategy. However, these writers seldom venture outside straightforward reasons for the founding and importance of early Penang, seen as directly linked to the financial and political state of the East India Company. This paper wants to take early Penang into the arena of representation, to look at its place in what has been called the ‘informal’ or ‘invisible’ empire, by examining how early Penang was presented in Britain. Through a reading of travel literature as well as official reports, I want to suggest that Penang came to stand out as very distinct place in the second British Empire, a place that not only confirmed the old notion of the ‘other India’, (‘India extra Gangem’) but also introduced the British to a different India. This new ‘other India’ was a result of intellectual rather than political or economic shifts.

    This distinctness of Penang evolved on two levels. Firstly, the representation of landscape, climate and a tropical environment which was based on the language of the picturesque. The first decades of Penang’s history coincided with the emergence of a new mode of topographical description in Britain, whereby nature was increasingly described thought the language of the picturesque, a movement which had originally been applied to art. I want to suggest that Penang, through the unique qualities of its landscape to a higher degree than India corresponded to the criteria for the picturesque. This is evident in travel literature, but also in more official reports, where a fact-based narrative is interrupted in order to dwell on the picturesque beauty of Penang. Expressed through the language of the picturesque Penang then also contributed to imperial knowledge through topography, agricultural opportunities and variety in landscape. But I also want to argue that the special place of

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 2/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    Penang was buttressed by ways in which its landscape evoked a domestic equivalent in the minds of the British, through topography, cultivation and other features not found on the subcontinent.

    Secondly, I want to link the picturesque and its development into the Romantic Movement with British perceptions of the Malay, touching on colonial knowledge as ethnography as well as European knowledge of the Malay world. All European visitors agreed that Penang’s most striking feature was its ethnic diversity. Even so, it was perceived that the Malay were the original inhabitants. Early Penang also coincided with the emergence of the first scholarly attempts to systematically describe the history and language of the Malay, representing a shift in ethnographical knowledge which would pave the way for the British imperial project in the peninsula. Here I want to take a look at the perceptions of Malay character, proposing that it was the literary romantic notion of the historical Malay as bold, enterprising and courageous which appealed to John Leyden, and through his transmission to

    3Stamford Raffles.

    The idea of the picturesque had been proposed by Edmund Burke in the 1750’s. His essay A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

    proposed a new way of perceiving and describing nature, through the concept of the ‘picturesque’, where nature is basically judged by its resemblance to art, specifically to a certain tradition of composition of landscape. Burke also put forward the idea that the only medium in which the sublime can be properly represented is in words. This started off the movement of the picturesque in literature.

    4By the 1790’s William Gilpin’s three essays on the picturesque would influence the

    way travellers described landscape, and have a profound effect on the genre of travel writing.

    What Gilpin and Burke brought into aesthetic theory was a questioning of the essential qualities of ‘beauty’. By introducing the categories of ‘the picturesque’, ‘the sublime’ and the foreign element as ‘exotic’, the experience of beauty was divided into

    degrees of intensity. Sensations and psychological influences were brought in as determining an aesthetic experience. The landscape favoured by the picturesque was characterised by romantic disorder, irregularity, singular shapes. But the picturesque also embraced humans into this landscape, with wild terrains inhabited by outlaws and bandits, who could be brought within the aegis of good taste.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 3/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    By the beginning of the nineteenth century the cult of the picturesque had become a way of perceiving both landscape and its inhabitants. Although Burke and Gilpin were mostly concerned with domestic landscape, the picturesque became a language through which the steadily growing scenic tourism enacted visual and verbal framing of natural scenes. Words such as ‘landscape’ and ‘prospect’ where here essential in describing views of diversity as well as rugged mountain scenes from Scotland and the European Alps.

    The language of the picturesque would, however, travel further than Europeans making the Grand Tour. While Gilpin still toured the mountains of Scotland and Wales, the artists travelling with the expeditions of Captain Cook began the long process of ‘aesthetizising’ the exotic landscape of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia. From India, Thomas and William Daniell contributed to the cult of the exotic picturesque in England during the last decades of the eighteenth century by depicting Indian landscapes, at the same time giving many in Britain their first glimpse of life in India. Connoisseurs of art eagerly purchased the works of the Daniells for their celebration of India’s ‘sublime’ landscape, conjuring up the exotic through a tropical flora and fauna and description of ‘native manners’. The Daniells also visited Southeast Asia briefly and published aquatint

    prints of Java in the their Picturesque voyage to India by the way of China. (William

    Daniell’s set of engravings of Penang in 1821 were aquatinted and hand coloured after paintings by Captain Robert Smith of the Bengal engineers, who was stationed in Penang

    51814-1818. Although splendid engravings, they cannot convey personal experience nor demonstrate contrasting perceptions of nature in comparison to India).

    The role of the literary picturesque in an imperial discourse is still an under researched aspect of colonial knowledge. Landscape description have been highlighted in studies of the Pacific voyages, and most importantly though the work of Sidney Parkinson, who developed the picturesque as the agent whereby topography, art as information, could be elevated to the level of taste. In the case of India Sara Sulieri has seen the picturesque within the categorical distinction between aesthetic and practical, useful and ornamental, as a tool whereby both categories converge in support of merchant capitalism. The relationship between the picturesque and landappopriation or ethnography, important in the case of Penang, has not been properly discussed in a colonial context, in the way, for example Ann Bermingham has seen the picturesque on a social an political level, as providing an aesthetic whereby the English countryside could be appropriated imaginatively by a new class of landowners responsible for the enclosures of common land. In ethnography, on the other hand,

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 4/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    some Canadian historians have come to see the picturesque as instrumental in the

    6dehumanisation of native peoples and in the exploitation of the environment.

    I will now turn to Penang, to point to the aspects in which I think the island answered particularly well to the call for picturesque qualities, and so contributed to this special place Penang came to hold, distinguishing it from the rest of India. These were the unique topography, diversity of landscape, the climate, cultivation and lastly the similarities to British and in particular Scottish landscape.

    It seems clear that the fascination many felt for Penang can be explained through the ways in which the topography of the island possessed several of the qualities which were essential to the language and idea of the picturesque. The smallness of the island facilitated the opening up of different kinds of ‘prospects’. Gilpin, in his essay on picturesque travel had emphasized the change in landscape: ‘nor is there in travelling a greater pleasure, than when a scene of grandeur bursts unexpectedly upon the eye, accompanied with some accidental circumstance of the atmosphere, which harmonizes with it, and gives it double value.’ This trope was used to describe the first sight of Penning, the approach. ‘We were about twenty miles distant and, as we approached the deepening tints became more and more vivid, point after point opening gradually to our view, until the whole extent of the picturesque Isle formed one side of our splendid panorama. Whilst, on the other side not more than four miles, off the hilly and jungly coast of Queda displayed almost equal beauty, though of bolder character.’

    It was, however, the topography of Penang which primarily invited to picturesque description. What fascinated visitors to Penang was of course the hill, and the opportunity it offered to gain access to a ‘prospect’ equalled only in the Scottish highlands or the Alps of the Grand Tour. Euphorically described by Lord Minto on his visit to Penang in a letter to his family, the following scene could as well be taken from his native Scotland.

    ‘The situation is beautiful - on the bank of a running stream fresh form mountains

    springs. Beyond the stream the plain extends perhaps a quarter of a mile to the foot of

    a sublime mountain, and not more sublime than beautiful, steep, craggy, broken into

    smaller hills, and the whole covered with the most magnificent wood, interspersed

    with underwood, and here and there vacant spaces which are green and flourishing’.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 5/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    As seen in the quote by Gilpin, the changes in the atmosphere and its effect on the emotions and body were important in the picturesque. In Penang, this aspect was accentuated in scenes form sunrise and sunset, over the sea and seen from the hill.

    ‘The island presented a most beautiful and irregular outline, involved in those delicate

    tints of grey pink, which as the sun rose, through a human atmosphere, changed to

    beautiful pink. In my younger days, I had frequently been puzzled how to understand

    the proper application of the expression ‘rosy tinted Aurora’, but now it was most

    completely illustrated, to my mind as well as to my eye, by the soft pink-grey which

    overspread the whole of this lovely mountain.’

    Wathen described the scene as ‘the sun about to sink into its bosom from a cloudless sky, leaving the horizon glowing with the deepest saffron tint’. The eloquence with which this atmospheric change is described has no equivalents in the other Indian dominions. Another important feature in the picturesque was the waterfall, in a domestic Scottish and British setting acclaimed as the most sublime experiences. In India, there was no waterfall which could be as easily accessed and enjoyed as the waterfall in Penang, and every visitor wanted to see it. Johnson, who only stayed three days on the island, mentions the visit to the waterfall as his ‘main excursion’, and the waterfall as ‘well worth the attentions of any traveller, who wishes to see Nature sporting in her own wild romantic shapes’.

    At the waterfall the whole extent of a tropical environment was realised and closely observed. Again, it was the painterly qualities of the eternal greenery which attracted attention, nature ‘clothed in that splendid livery which she assumes in the torrid zone’. The denseness of vegetation, the hugeness of the trees matched the very epitome of Gilpin’s sublime beauty,

    only the climate was different. This was also realised, as ‘the beauty of the flowers and mosses and the strange character of the creepers, lichens and parasitical plant that abound in its neighbourhood, must be sought for in vain in colder clime.’ This was essentially Penang’s contribution to landscape perception: the creation of a ‘tropical picturesque’.

    In his extensive praise of Penang Johnson pointed out the essence of the picturesque, that ‘delightful scenes, whether in nature, painting or poetry have a kindly influence on body as well as mind’. The landscape as well as the climate had contributed to the reputation for Penang had gained as the healthiest spot in the Indies. Already in 1799 Popham wrote that

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 6/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    Penang is ‘universally known to be one of the most healthy situations in India’, and Johnson named it the ‘Montpellier of India’.

    The climate was not too hot, and the topography contributed, since it was not too mountainous nor marshy: ‘These hills and the retreats which they afford, are the chief charm of Penang, and have made for it a reputation quite independent of its commercial importance, and give it rang as one of the sanitaria of India.’ In comparison to India the climate of Penang

    was by described as ‘infallible’, as it had ‘neighter the great vicissitudes of Bombay, the marsh effluvia of Bengal, or the scorching heat of Madras.’

    The diversity of the landscape was also a major contribution to the uniqueness of Penang in British India. James Brooke, later the first Raja of Sarawak, described the view from Penang hill as ‘a landscape of vast extent, and so diversified that the eye never wearies of gazing’. The view exposing itself from Penning Hill was not a monotonous vista, but

    contained all the necessary ingredients for a picturesque painting: landscape interspersed with cultivation, well organised gardens, as well as varied human dwellings. The most striking feature in this respect was the high degree of cultivation, which also points to the ways in which descriptions of the ways aesthetics were inseparable from economic development. The fertility of the soil of had been an important issue in the prospects imagined by the British, and some early visitors envisaged the hills of Penang produce European vegetables and wheat.

    My last point concerned with picturesque landscape is that Penang seems to have evoked a sentiment of familiarity which the British felt towards images of rural beauty promoted in paintings. Here I see Penang and its landscape as crucial in the ways it invited to a picturesque description through its similarity to a domestic British and I particular a Scottish landscape. Several writers describe the beautiful ‘glens’ of Penang, and Lord Minto was fascinated to find, in the creeks of Penang, ‘a sort of microscopic Tweed and Teviot’, finding much comfort in the ‘view and neighbourhood of miniature Kelso’.

    Landscape was not the only aspect of Penang which reminded the British of home. The thatched roof of Malay houses caught the eye of Europeans. Johnson had described the Malay houses of Penang as ‘built of wood, and thatched over with the leaves of trees, &c; the roofs resembling those of cottages in England.’ Later writers would refer to Malay houses as ‘cottages’, whereas Chinese and European houses were referred to as ‘dwellings’, and Wathen made further distinctions separating the ‘picturesque cottages’ of the Malays, from the

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 7/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

‘European house, the Hindoo bungalow, the Chinese dwelling and the Birman hut’. Such

    comparison to the simplicity of British cottage-life might have inspired Forrest to suggest that

    7only Scotsmen should be allowed to settle in Southeast Asia.

    When John Wathen left Penang he wrote: ‘It is with regret I quit this most beautiful spot, emulating in beauty and produce Paradise itself’. Initially, he had explained why he had chosen to dwell in such length on Penang, the reason being that it was so ‘little known to the British public’. So what did Europeans know about the Malay Peninsula and its inhabitants by

    the end of the eighteenth century and what was this knowledge based on?

    In their important 1982 work The Great Map of Mankind, which chartered British

    knowledge of the world in the eighteenth century, P.J. Marshall and G. Williams did not have much to say about Southeast Asia. Only a few paragraphs were devoted to the whole region, squeezed in between the extensive chapters on different aspects of knowledge about India and China. This also well mirrors the situation at the time. A look at cosmographies, histories and geography books confirms a patchy and uncertain picture in comparison to India and China. Already, in the 1657 edition of his famous Cosmography Peter Heylyn had reason to

    apologise for the scarce information provided on the region now known as Southeast Asia, which, Heylyn said, could not be as accurately described as India and China, because they were not so well discovered. Fifty years later a new edition of the cosmography gave the same excuse, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century Michael Symes still found it appropriate to point out that there were ‘no countries of the habitable globe, where the arts and civilisation are understood, of which we have so limited a knowledge, as of those that lie between the British possessions in India and the empire of China’. Raffles famously shared this view, and saw his enquiries into Malay history as a crusade to make the region known in Europe.

    A closer examination of geographical and ethnographical compendia published in Britain in the eighteenth century reveal that the bulk of the information was still culled from the European travel collections of the early seventeenth century, in particular those of Purchas, but also translated material from Dutch and Italian works was used. To this was added the contents of a handful of later travel books. But his add and stir method did not improve the situation, instead we see contradictions and confusion, both in terms of geographical and commercial information and attitudes to native inhabitants.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 8/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    During the eighteenth century, however, a firm stereotyping of the Malay seems to emerge. Much of this was based on earlier characterizations: the contradiction of indolence paired with treachery, fierceness and running amok. The sense of danger for Europeans was

    increasingly prominent, through warnings and stories related to piracy. Two standard ingredients in descriptions of the Malay people then crystallized during the eighteenth century, which both associated to threats against Europeans: the mentioning of all Malays wearing the kris, and the emphasis on piracy. The prominence of these themes in compendia was also due to the continued recycling of only a few accounts, the attitudes of which determined much of what was said on the Malay character overall. Two examples of such accounts were the History of the Indies by the Abbé Raynal and Pierre Poivre’s Travels of a Philosopher. Only

    the latter had visited the region.

    The end of the eighteenth century sees a development towards a rehabilitation of the Malays. In travel literature two views are expressed. The first one repeats this stereotype of the Malay, the other makes attempts to put right misconceptions through eyewitness reports. Benjamin Morrell could be quoted as an example of the first of these: ‘the treachery and

    perfidy of the Malays having become proverbial, it behoves every ship-master, when in any of their ports, to be constantly on his guard’. This is followed by detailed descriptions how Malays board and attack European vessels. The second view emphasises a new contribution to the knowledge by of the Malay by contradicting the commonly held views. The only comment Wathen, for example, had about Malacca in the introduction to his book was that ‘the Author did not find the native Malays so savage as they are almost universally

    represented by persons who have visited their coasts.’

    Another important development at the end of the eighteenth century meant that history was added to the evaluation of Malay character. Poivre was here the most widely used source. Despite his negative attitudes to the Malay in general Poivre suggested that in the past the Malay had been ‘one of the greatest powers, and made a very considerable figure on the theatre of Asia. The sea was covered with their ships, and they carried on a most extensive commerce. Their laws, however, were apparently very different from those which subsist

    8among them at present.’

    The thought that Malay character had previously been different was taken up in other accounts. A good example is Popham's description of Penang, published in London 1799. Popham's view was that it was Dutch and Portuguese oppression which had dampened the

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    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    industry of the Malays, something which would be restored with the arrival of the liberal British, by ‘recovering their industry and ability under the fostering protection of England’. In Penang Popham had already noticed promising signs of enterprise, because ‘since their intercourse with the English they have displayed those qualitities in an infinitely greater degree than at any other time.’ (under Dutch or Portuguese). The reasons for the difference between Malay and Indian character now were revealed: the Malays had, like the British, been a seafaring and enterprising nation. This idea would later be taken up by Raffles.

    We thus find that Raffles’ ideas about the restoration of Malay character, with the help of the British, were not unprepared. What interests us here, however, is the ways in which perceptions of Malay character was linked to the movement of the picturesque and the romantic. As mentioned earlier, picturesque landscape had incorporated not only wild and rugged landscape, but ‘wild’ and bold peoples as well: bandits, perils, and dangerous situation were popular subjects in picturesque painting.

    The literary picturesque had been closely linked to Scotland and its proud, bold and uncompromising chieftains. One of the more prominent figures within this movement was John Leyden, who was a close associate of Walter Scott, having helped him in collecting Scottish balladry for his Border Minstrelsy. Leyden was also a very gifted linguist, who had

    ended up in India, where he was making a name for himself as an Oriental Scholar, when he fell gravely ill and was recommended to seek recovery in Penang. There he famously met Raffles, newly arrived from Britain, and the two set out to kick-start British scholarship on

     9Malay history and language.

    By this time Leyden already knew numerous Oriental languages. What was it then that made Leyden take such a keen interest in the Malay? It seems that his fascination was to a great extent built on preperceptions of the Malay as portrayed by the eighteenth century as kris swinging and piratical. It was no coincidence that the characterisation of the Malay, especially as it revealed itself to Leyden in history, corresponded almost exactly to that of the bold and courageous behaviour of the inhabitants of Scotland as Leyden saw them. He was himself, after all, a stout Scotsman, and seems to have identified with the Malays in a special way. When later landing at Java, he stepped ashore dressed as a pirate. Leyden’s personal imagination had already come to light on his way to Penang, when he in vain hoped for danger and attack from pirates. His favourite saying was ‘Where there is danger, Leyden is

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 10/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

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