It’s a part of the world we’ve long had an interest in.
Already by 1592 Sir James Lancaster was turning up on Penang with his ship the Edward Bonaventure for a few months of looting vessels.
In 1786 we established our first major presence here with the British East India Company leasing Penang from the Sultan of Kedah. On 11 August, Captain Francis Light raised the British flag and changed the name of the island (for a while at least) to Prince of Wales Island. Presumably the Prince of Wales was at least mildly chuffed. It’s always nice to have an island named after you. We liked it so much we decided to lease another chunk of land opposite Penang, which we grandly called Province Wellesley (not that Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, a different Wellesley, Richard Wellesley, who was Governor of Madras and Governor-general of Bengal) and which is now Seberang Perai.
That was just the start of it. During the Napoleonic Wars we took over control of Malacca from the Dutch, so the French didn’t get their hands on it (though we gave it back to the Dutch in 1815 when the war was over) and we eventually swapped another bit of territory with the Dutch and took long-term control of it.
And so we went on through the nineteenth century adding little bits and pieces here and there (like an acquisitive squirrel gathering tasty nuts – admittedly like a very large imperial squirrel gathering tasty nuts, but like one nonetheless). In the 1840s began the fascinating episode of the so-called White Rajahs of Sarawak. One Brit called James Brooke, after helping out the Sultan of Brunei when he was in a tight spot, was made Rajah of Sarawak. He and his descendants ruled Sarawak as Rajahs all the way until 1946.
In 1846, we picked up Labuan as well. And in 1878 we leased Sabah from the Sultanate of Sulu. In 1909, we pinched a bunch of states off Siam and added them to the territories we controlled in what is now Malaysia. And where we weren’t actually taking control, we took sort of control by assigning British ‘advisers’ to local rulers. By the First World War we had direct or indirect control throughout the region.
During the Second World War, the Japanese invaded and took over the whole area. We tried to get it back. One thing we did was to support the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, a resistance force that had a strong element of ethnic Chinese in its ranks. People from our Force 136 landed to make contact with the resistance fighters, and by the end of the war we were sending in supplies by air.
By the summer of 1945 we were preparing to launch Operation Zipper to commence the liberation of Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese surrender meant the full implementation of the plan was unnecessary, and instead we moved in forces to implement the surrender, disarm the Japanese and return Malaya to British rule. On 28 August 1945, Task Force 11, which included the battleship HMS Nelson, two escort carriers and assorted other vessels, arrived in Penang.
But there was trouble ahead. The Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army had ceased to have the Japanese to fight, and as the world descended into the Cold War, Malaya descended into the so-called Malayan Emergency, in which we fought the guerrillas of the Malayan Peoples’ Liberation Army from 1948 to 1960. Eventually, we won the war against the guerrillas, but our time in control of the area was coming to an end. In 1963 Malaysia became independent.