“A bit more. It‘s just after that ridge. You can do it,” coaxes Suffian Hashim encouragingly as I attempt to heave my weary body slowly up the steep slope. My daily runs on flat terrain are a piece of cake compared to this.
Several minutes later I find myself triumphantly standing head to head with Suffian at the top of the hill. The welcoming sight of the imposing Muka Head Lighthouse right in front of us makes me forget momentarily the throbbing pain in my arms and legs. Fuelled by an overwhelming sense of excitement at the prospect of finally reaching my near-impossible destination, I decide to spur Suffian forward. We race each other over the last few metres and end up at the perimeter fencing in a tie.
As I marvel at the glistening 14 metre tall concrete tower surrounded by lush greenery, Suffian begins to regale me with tales about this historic tower found on the north-western tip of Penang Island. The Muka Head Lighthouse was built by the British back in 1883 at a staggering cost of £37,929 (approximately RM24 million today). The beacon at the top stands at a height of 242 metres above sea level. On a clear night, it has a visible range of about 25 nautical miles.
“Do you know how many lighthouses there are in Penang?” Suffian asks me. I merely shrug my shoulders and meekly offer: “One?”
Beaming, he corrects me: ”No. There are actually three. The oldest lighthouse in Penang is the Fort Point Lighthouse located at Fort Cornwallis. This lighthouse here at Muka Head was built just a year after that. These two lighthouses, together with the one at Pulau Rimau, were all built during a time when Penang was experiencing a phenomenal economic boom thanks to the increasing output from the mainland tin mines.” Nearly all the tin from northern Malaya, adds Suffian, was brought to Penang to be processed at the Eastern Smelting Company located at Dato Kramat Road.
The humble beginnings of the Eastern Smelting Company can be traced back to 1897 when Lee Chin Ho established Seng Kee Tin Smelting Works. Lee gained fame when he became the first Chinese smelter to use European reverberatory furnaces. Raw tin was brought in from Perak as well as Southern Thailand where they were smelted and refined before being shaped into ingots for re-export.
At that same time, Penang Harbour was also experiencing increased activity due to the introduction of larger and more efficient steamships in England. These vessels began calling at Penang by the end of the 19th century. Due to their increased speed and large load capacity, the need for better navigational systems, including lighthouses, arose.
“Coupled with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, it became the most opportune time for Penang to reinvent itself after losing out to a better located Singapore back the 1820s. By the turn of the 20th century Penang began asserting itself as a conduit between the riches of Malaya and the world‘s unquenchable thirst for raw materials. Apart from tin, Chinese and European businessmen began linking Penang with their rubber plantations in the hinterland,” continues Suffian, who‘s been interested in lighthouses and their related history since his primary school days at Penang Free School.
The spill-over effect of this increased trade at Penang Port can be felt to this day. The economic boom quickly ushered in an influx of mercantile firms and banks. ”Take a walk around Beach Road and the nearby adjoining streets. Some of the earliest financial institutions to set up base in Penang are still there.”
An example is the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. According to Suffian, its local branch started off as an Agency Office run by Fraser & Company in the early 1860s. As business expanded rapidly, the bank finally made the decision to open its own branch in Penang in 1875. “Today we know this bank as Standard Chartered,” adds Suffian. The other banks, which also came in around the same time was the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1884 while the Nederlandsche Handel - Maatschappij, N.V. Bank of Holland started business some four years later.
The prominent western trading firms in Penang during the late 1880s included Sandiland, Buttery & Co., Boustead & Co., Katz Bros., Behn Meyer & Co., Patterson, Simon & Co., Guthrie & Co. and Whitaway, Laidlaw & Co. Most of these companies benefitted greatly from the rubber trade, which from the very beginning was essentially a western-created and controlled enterprise.
These companies grew so rapidly that they even expanded their operations into the rubber production area. By maximising their connections with shipping firms and the world rubber market, western mercantile organisations started controlling the Malayan rubber industry to a degree that they were able to create their own trading links with the outside world without having to go through any local networks at all.
Beacon of light
Pointing to the beacon on top of the Muka Head Lighthouse, Suffian explains that the repetitive sweeping ray of light helps to guide ships coming in from the Andaman Sea and the northern end of the Straits of Malacca. Shifting my attention towards the east, Suffian says: ”From here, the ships then depend on the lighthouse at Fort Cornwallis to bring them safely through the North Channel towards Penang Harbour. The lighthouse at Pulau Rimau performs the same function for vessels from the southern approach entering the South Channel.”
The lighthouse at Fort Cornwallis is one of the oldest in Malaysia, second only to the one at Cape Rachado in Tanjung Tuan, Melaka. It was constructed at a cost of £10,224 by the British administration in 1882. At the beginning, it was called the Fort Point Lighthouse but after two consecutive renovations — in 1914 and 1928 — the name changed to Penang Harbour Lighthouse.
The Penang Harbour Lighthouse holds the record for being the only one in the country completely of steel framework. Standing just 21 metres tall, the lighthouse beacon covers a surprisingly long visual distance — more than 16 nautical miles.
During the colonial era, the flagstaff next to the lighthouse served as a means to announce the arrival of mail ships or the impending departure of the Governor or other important dignitaries from Penang Hill. The Union Jack would be raised during these occasions.
The origins of Fort Cornwallis can be traced back to 1786 when Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah. During Light‘s time, the fort was just a simple nibong stockade with no permanent structures.
Its construction practically happened overnight to provide immediate protection for the new colony against attacks from pirates and Kedah warriors. The latter made several futile attempts to retake Penang after Light renegaded on the terms of the treaty to provide assistance to Sultan Abdullah during Siamese attacks.
The fort was named after Charles Cornwallis who‘d just been elected Governor-General of India during the time when Light took possession of Penang. Cornwallis is best remembered as one of the leading British generals in the American War of Independence where his surrender at Yorktown in 1781 led to an end to significant hostilities in North America.
Construction of the permanent fort we know today only began in 1804. The-then governor of Penang, Colonel R. T. Farquhar ordered Indian convict labourers to build a permanent structure using brick and stone. Norman Macalister had already replaced Farquhar as governor by the time the fort was completed in 1810. Fort Cornwallis was built at a cost of $80,000 and boasted of an insurmountable moat. Unfortunately, the moat had to be filled in when it was partly blamed for a serious malaria outbreak in George Town during the 1920s.
After such enthusiastic chatter, Suffian suddenly pauses, making me wonder whether he‘d exhausted his knowledge of the lighthouse. It seems not as he stares me right in the eyes and resumes talking with gusto. ”You know what, I suddenly realised an interesting fact. Penang is actually home to all three types of lighthouses that exist in this world. The one here at Muka Head represents those found near the coast while the one at Fort Cornwallis is similar to those found close to a port or harbour. Finally, the one at Pulau Rimau is a good example of lighthouses built on small uninhabited islands.”
The Pulau Rimau Lighthouse was built two years later than its cousin at Muka Head. It consists of a 17-metre round cylindrical cast iron tower complete with lantern and gallery. Due to its remote location on a small island off the south eastern tip of Penang Island, there‘s provision for a light keeper‘s accommodation in the form of a single storey house located adjacent to the lighthouse itself.
On our return trek to the Penang National Park entrance, Suffian highlights to me several buffalo tracks which I hadn‘t noticed during my haste to reach the lighthouse earlier. ”There were no heavy machinery to lift the raw materials up to the Muka Head Lighthouse site during its construction,” explains Suffian, before adding that teams of oxen had to be commissioned to transport cement, wood, bricks and other necessities manually up the hill. ”The workers placed smooth wooden logs on these tracks to reduce friction and also ease the burden of the animals,” he concludes, a faraway look in his eyes.