George Caunter (1758 — April 1812) governed the Prince of Wales' Island (Penang Island) as Acting Superintendent in 1797 during Superintendent Major Forbes Ross MacDonald's leave of absence and again in 1799 upon the resignation and departure of MacDonald. He served as Acting Superintendent until the arrival of Sir George Alexander William Leith in 1800.
Information on Caunter, and other pioneers of Pulo Peenang or Prince of Wales' Isle, is difficult to come by. However, historian Langdon (2013), has, through careful and painstaking study of India Office and Straits Settlements Factory Records and other equally difficult-to-access archival material, put together, comprehensive information on Caunter, probably the first person to do so, as well all the other important people connected Penang, at that time.
Life and family
George Caunter was born in 1758" to George Caunter (1716 — 1767) and Esther, of Abham, Staverton, Devonshire in England. His siblings were Esther (b.1756), Priscilla (b.1760) and Richard (b.1763). He married Harriett Georgina Hutchings (b.1769 Devonshire — 1800 Govt. Hse, Penang). Their children were George Henry (b.1791), Harriett Georgina Hutchings (b.1793), (Rev.) John Hobart (1794 — 14 Nov. 1851), (Male child) and Richard MacDonald Caunter (21 Jul. 1794 — 14 Nov.1851).
Superintendent Major MacDonald passed on in early 1799 during his second absence from Penang. George Caunter was also his locum tenens during MacDonald's first absence, and succeeded Macdonald as Acting Superintendent until the arrival of Lt. Gov. George Leith.
Caunter was a Magistrate of the Island with Philip Manington Jr., apparently a son of the first Philip Mannington who succeeded Capt. Francis Light as his second or assistant.
George Caunter was First Assistant in Sir George Alexander William Leith's Government with Philip Manington as Second Assistant, William Edward Phillips as Secretary, James Hutton as Surgeon and Henry Waring as Assistant Surgeon.
George Caunter had been deputed by Lt.-Gov. Leith to negotiate the treaty with Kedah leading to British possession of Province Wellesley in 1800.
Caunter was appointed chaplain around the early part of 1800.
In February 1803, he applied for compensation on account of expenses incurred by him while engaged as Acting Superintendent during the earlier absence, and, later, the death of Superintendent Forbes Ross MacDonald, stating, "It will not, I hope, be deemed improper in me to observe that in taking charge of the Superintendence of this island, I considered it to be my duty to support the credit and dignity of the station to the best of my ability, and therefore continued to keep a public table for strangers, and to give the usual annual public dinners as had been customary with the Superintendents, and I trust the expenses thereby incurred will not be deemed lavish when the times during the above period, considerable fleets and armaments were in the port and some of them for many weeks at a time."
George Caunter's appointments as First Assistant, Chaplain and Treasurer appear to have ceased in 1805.
Up until the time that Caunter had secured Province Wellesley for Leith, on 7 July 1800, that territory had been part of the ancient Kingdom of Kedah. History tells us negotiations had stalled for some time until Caunter made a present of $2,000 to the Royal ladies of Kedah. That treaty influenced the East India Company's attitude towards Kedah and Siam, and expanded the resources of Prince of Wales' Isle, the opportunities for, and the sphere of influence of its mainly planting and mercantile inhabitants.
But it is not only for that expansion, as important and enduring as it is, that Penang is indebted to George Caunter. He also played an important role in encouraging planting of spices, particularly nutmeg, on the island.
In 1798, Caunter, the Acting Superintendent of Prince of Wales Island, wrote, "A very large quantity of nutmeg and clove plants have been offered to me by the Captain of the Surprise, on the Honorable Company's account, on the same terms as had been paid by the Bencoolen Government for plants imported into that settlement, but having no instructions on that head, I declined taking them. Those plants are now, I understand, to be offered to public sale, which will, I presume, answer the views of Government equally well with purchasing them on the Company's account, as it matters not by whom, so that they are propagated on the island. — About six hundred nutmeg plants belonging to the Company are now in a very thriving way, but the clove plant appears to be difficult to rear, there being not above half a dozen alive of those sent here by the Company's botanist." The Surprise was a British brig that arrived a few days earlier from the Moluccas with five slaves sent over by the Resident at Banda, R. T. Townsend, to look after those nutmeg plants at Penang.
George Leith (Lieut.-Governor) in a letter dated Fort Cornwallis, Prince of Wales Island, The 6 March 1802, to R. C. Crommelin, Esquire (Secretary to Government in the Public Department at Fort William), wrote, "The clove tree at present seems to thrive better in the Honorable Company's garden than the nutmeg, but on the other hand, the nutmeg tree, in some of the gentlemen's gardens, is the most promising; it is therefore, I think fair to conclude that the plants will succeed in different parts of the island ; the nutmeg grows slowly till it attains the height of 4 feet, when it advances more rapidly ; till this year, it was uncertain whether the nutmeg tree would produce fruit, I have now the satisfaction to say, this doubt is removed, as there is a fine nutmeg on a tree belonging to Mr. Caunter, and many more in his grounds in blossom." In his letter, Leith points out that Captain Francis Light was the first to introduce cinnamon, clove and nutmeg trees, from Mautirius, to the island, 'procured at great expense,' but notes that the clove and nutmeg trees died shortly after. Light noted that there were 500 nutmeg trees between 3 to 10 years of age, at Caunter's estate, a few of the 10-year-olds, being between 7 to 9 feet and in bloom. Also on Caunter's estate were 40 clove plants between 3 to 4 feet high. Light died on 25 October 1794. It seems reasonable, therefore, that the tree that produced the fruit, that Leith referred to, and the others that were in blossom, may have been the ones Caunter obtained from the subsequent sale of the ones that arrived from the Moluccas aboard the 'Surprise,' in 1798, four years after Light's demise and four years before Leith's letter.
On or around 21 April 1802, in replying S. R. Crommelin's letter, William Hunter (1755-1812), the Company's botanist, wrote that he had arrived at Penangm and acknowledged the generous help provided by Leith, particularly with the information that was essential to Hunter's mission there, which was, among other things, to determine the state of the Company's spice plantations on the island. Since Leith, in his letter of 6 March, had covered the statistics relating to spice planting, both by the Company, and by private individuals, Hunter, who admitted to being unwell at the time, confined himself to other areas like, describing the geography of the island, and the quality of the soil in different areas, how the land was being prepared by the locals, highlighting where the best areas were, and so on. The Company's spice plantation was bounded on the west and south sides by Penang Hill, and on the south by "the bank of the Ayer Etam, or Black River, and being low ground, is liable to be overflowed after heavy rains, as the river then sometimes rises suddenly to the height of ten feet above its usual level. But this water soon runs off." Hunter, still ill and having had to retreat up Penang Hill in order to aid his recovery, wrote once more to Crommelin on 1 July 1802. He acknolwedged receiving Crommelin's letter of 4th march upon his return to town on 11 June and informed Crommelin that he had taken charge of the Company's plantation on the 15th. There is no reference to Caunter in either of these two letters.
The following year, on 18 May 1803, Hunter wrote from Calcutta to the Marquis Wellesley, the Governor-General of India, "Besides the extensive plantation belonging to the Honourable Company, several thousand trees are now on the estates of individuals, both European and Chinese. One nut was produced last year on Mr. Caunter's ground, by a tree, which including its growth before transplantation may be about ten years old. Though plucked before it was ripe, it had the true aroma of the best kind." Attached to this letter is a treatise on, "Plants of Prince of Wales Island," which remained unpublished till 1909. He did, however, publish a similar paper, entitled, "An account of the cultivation of Pepper on Prince of Wales Island," which was published in the Asiatic Researches Vol. iX, 1809, a hundred years earlier. The 1909 publication of his work was edited by H. N. Ridley. The folio manuscript, from which this work was drawn, was entitled "Outline of a Flora of Prince of Wales's Island ... Noble Marquis Wellesley, Governor General," by Dr. William Hunter (1755-1812), and dated from "Calcutta, 18th May, 1803. It was preserved at the Department of Botany.
Ridley, later noted, "The Court of Directors in 1803 desired that every encouragement should be given to the Penang spice planters, as Dr. Roxburgh had in the previous year expressed his opinion that this was "the most eligible spot of all the East India Company's possession for spice cultivation." All this from that first nutmeg on Caunter's tree.
We learn more of Caunter's establishments from the minutes of an 1807 Road Committee meeting. In that was recorded the proposal to lay a road from Dato Kramat Kampong into the Ayer Itam valley. This is Dato Kramat Road of today. The first part of that road, it was written, "between Suffolk and Mr. Caunter's ground," was described as "marked out, but not yet made." Captain Francis Light's large pepper estate, Suffolk, lay immediately north of Caunter's extensive plantation (Jelutong of today). Caunter had built a house on his estate. Caunter's house it did not survive the way Suffolk House, built by William Edward Phillips on Light's land. His memory was, up till 15 December 2008, kept alive in the area known as Caunter Hall, in Penang, its principal thoroughfare, Caunter Hall Road, being thereafter renamed, Jalan P. Ramlee. Lengkok Caunter (Caunter Crescent), a smaller road, still exists.
- Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 9 January 1836, Page 2
- Langdon, Marcus. Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1930. Penang: Areca, 2013: 210, 213, 215-220, 222, 238, 243-244, 269, 332, 347, 358, 361, 400. Print.
- POLg09 - A POLLETT Family Tree." POLg09 - A POLLETT Family Tree. Ancestry.com, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~rogpol/POLg09.htm>.
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- 'Second Lieutenants,' in The Navy List, Corrected to the end of December 1814. London: John Murray for the Admiralty Office. 1815. Page 34.
- 'Marine Officers on Half-Pay,' in A List of the Army and Marines; A List of the Officers on Half Pay; And a Succession of Colonels. The Thirty-Fifth Edition. War-Office. 15 February 1787. Page 351.
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- 'Notices of Pinang,' in in The Journal of The Indian Archipelago Vol V. Singapore: G. M. Frederick for J. R. Logan. 1851. Print. Page 118
- In 1797, while he was Magistrate, George Caunter had the heads of a Chinese man and woman shaved and ordered them to stand in the pillory, as punishment for adultery (Purcell, Victor. The Chinese in Malaya. 1948. Print. Page 49; and The Chinese in Southeast Asia. 1965. Print. Page 246).
- Caunter and Manington took turns at the bench, never sitting together except in capital cases when they were also joined by the Superintendent as President of the Court. Court papers up to 1811 mention him as 'Police Magistrate.' He died in April 1812 (Malaya Law Review, Volumes 11-12. 1969. Pages 41, 42, and 142).
- 'A List of the Honourable United East-India Company's Covenanted Civil Servants on the Bengal Establishment,' in New Oriental Register and East India Directory for 1802. London: Black's and Parry. Page 6.
- The Straits Times, 26 May 1956, Page 9
- 'Notices of Pinang,' in in The Journal of The Indian Archipelago Vol V. Singapore: G. M. Frederick for J. R. Logan. 1851. Print. Page 354.
- 'From Govr George Leith (POWI) to Chief Secretary to Govt G. H. Barlow (Fort William) dated 10 May 1800, Notices of Pinang,' in in The Journal of The Indian Archipelago Vol V. Singapore: G. M. Frederick for J. R. Logan. 1851. Print. Page 163.
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- Hunter, Sir William. "Plants of Prince of Wales Island." SBRAS September 1909 : 4, 49-128. Print.
- Journal of Botany: British and Foreign - Volume 54. 1916: 143. Print.
- Ridley, Henry. Spices. London: MacMillan and Co. Limited. 1912: 102. Print.
- Skott, Christina. "Climate, Ecology and Cultivation in Early Penang." Ed. Wei-Leng Loh, T.N. Harper, and Sunil S. Amrith. Proceedings of the PIO Conference [PIO | Penang & Indian Ocean Conference 2011] (2012): 99-110. ThinkCity | Penang Story. ThinkCity, 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://www.thinkcity.com.my/penangstory/images/stories/images/pio_conf_papers_fa.pdf>.
- Davies, Donald. "A village of promise that failed to grow up." The Straits Times [Singapore] 5 January 1958: 12. Print.
- "Caunter Hall Road (Jalan P. Ramlee) and Caunter Crescent (Lengkok Caunter)." OpenStreetMap. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://www.openstreetmap.org/way/160234768#map=17/5.40797/100.31220>.
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