Penang, also called Penang Island, Malay Pinang or Pulau Pinang, island of Malaysia, lying in the Strait of Malacca off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaya, from which it is separated by a narrow strait whose smallest width is 2.5 miles (4 km). Penang Island is roughly oval in shape. It has a granitic, mountainous interior—reaching a high point of 2,428 feet (740 metres)—and is ringed by narrow coastal plains that are most extensive in the northeast, where Malaysia’s chief port, George Town, uses the sheltered harbourage of the inside strait. Long one of Asia’s busiest shipping centres, Penang is now one of Malaysia’s prime tourist destinations, with luxury and resort hotels mainly on the north coast at Batu Feringgi.
The island’s strategic location in the northern part of the Strait of Malacca led Captain Francis Light of Britain’s East India Company to found a British colony there in 1786. The British occupation was formalized in 1791 by a treaty with the sultan of Kedah; the adjacent mainland area was added in 1800. In 1826 Penang combined with Malacca and Singapore to form the Straits Settlements. In the beginning, the island (called Prince of Wales Island until after 1867) was virtually uninhabited and had excellent shelter and water for sailing vessels plying the India-China run. It quickly attracted a cosmopolitan population of Chinese, Indians, Sumatrans, and Burmans and rapidly surpassed any other trading post in western Malaya. From the mid-19th century Penang became a market and point of transit for the valuable tin and rubber of the mainland. Although the countryside continued to be Malay, Malay influence, tradition, and economic life almost disappeared from the urban and port areas, where Penang became predominantly Chinese by ethnicity and European in manner and economic outlook.