Col. Macalister, Governor of Penang

Col. Norman Macalister of the Kingsburgh family was sworn in as lieutenant-governor of Penang on this day in 1807. This made him ruler of part of the British Empire, but not an employee of the British government. In fact, Penang, then known as Prince of Wales Island, was governed by the Honourable East India Company, a nineteenth-century mega-corporation that resulted from several mergers of similar companies in the preceding century.

Like those it absorbed, the HEIC began as a commercial venture, trading with the far-flung colonies of the British Empire. Although its commercial activities continued, by 1807 the Company had found a new role in the Empire: serving as proxy government to a good number of Britain’s colonial possessions in the east. It had its own armies, fought its own wars, and in some places it even issued its own money.

The Kingsburgh family was deeply involved with the Company. Five of Col. Macalister’s brothers served the Company in India; three of them died there. One of his nephews served with him in Penang; a second nephew would die in the Company’s service in 1825 in Italy. His younger daughter married an HEIC man. 

As for Governor Macalister himself, he served in Penang’s top post until 24 March 1810, when he was appointed second member of the governing council and commandant of local forces. The legacy of his time in office includes the present structure of Fort Cornwallis, built by convict labour during his term, and two streets named in his honour in the capital city. But he, too, was destined to die in the Company’s service – or at least on its ship: Shortly after his term as governor ended he went down with the HEI Ocean in the South China Sea, apparently on his way home to Scotland.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


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