British-Siam boundary stone
A forlorn and fascinating remnant of Penang’s age-old border intrigue
Who would have thought that one of the oldest and most significant relics of Penang’s ancient border politics would lie quietly, undisturbed in the open, at a far-flung and unknown corner of the state for more than a hundred years?
The solitary British-Siam boundary stone, which marks the official margin separating Penang from the neighbouring state of Kedah, was forgotten and lost from all known records until it was discovered in 1989. It was found at a barren, sun-baked site near a desolate bend of the Muda River at the northeastern tip of mainland Penang. Even to this day hardly anyone passes by this remote area.
With its age-old letterings engraved on a coarse granite surface, the stone tablet was mounted within a six-foot high cement frame which still stands here. The words are etched in three languages – English, Siamese and the old Malay-Arabic script of Jawi. The writing in English simply reads: ‘British and Siamese boundary’. Most of the other inscriptions have faded with time.
The structure rests at a place called Ekor Kuching (which incidentally means ‘cat’s tail’). Just a few yards to the east is the district of Kulim in Kedah. To the west is Penang’s rural area of Pinang Tunggal in Seberang Perai.
The stone was almost certainly installed here following the signing of a treaty between Great Britain and the kingdom of Siam on May 6, 1869. Britain had then already colonised Penang island for the past 83 years.
Known as the Bangkok Treaty of 1869, it entailed Siam agreeing to give away a substantial land mass, directly opposite Penang island, to the British. The British named it Province Wellesley, after Richard Wellesley, the governor of Madras and governor-general of Bengal from 1797 to 1805.
It would later come to be known as Seberang Perai and remain part of Penang after independence from the British in 1957.
The treaty also specified the border line between the Siamese territory of Kedah and the new British colonial land. The boundary stone must have been placed to mark and signify this border between the two powers.
It existed in isolation, forgotten by the rest of the world, until a local mechanic named Ai Chop An Chian stumbled on it in 1989. Interviewed by The Star newspaper much later in 2005, he recalled that the inscription was clearer when he first spotted the stone. “Initially I thought it was the controls for irrigation gates. But on a closer look, I was surprised to find Thai letterings on the stone. The words were clearer then,” he was quoted as remarking.
Interestingly, The Star report mentioned that another boundary stone was said to have been placed near the southern border between Province Wellesley and Siamese Kedah, at Bukit Panchor (near Nibong Tebal, a town in southern Seberang Perai). No one today seems knows about this stone and where it lies.
It is fascinating to note that there was another fateful twist in the aforementioned Bangkok Treaty of 1869. For the treaty had a third signatory – the sultan of Kedah. Together with the terms where Siam ceded Seberang Perai to the British, it was also agreed that the British would pay a sum of 10,000 Spanish dollars to the sultan every year for taking control of Seberang Perai. The amount, or rather its equivalent in ringgit, continues to be paid annually to Kedah this very day, by the federal government of Malaysia that inherited the nation’s administration from the British authority.
The boundary stone at Ekor Kuching is now shaded by a gazebo erected over it to protect it from the elements. There are no signboards pointing to its location. The GPS coordinates for the site are 5.551433 : 100.528862.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs by Adrian Cheah