Of sepoys and spices: The success story of a Penang dynasty

The Shaik Eusoff clan gathered outside the Shaik Eusoff Jamek Mosque in the 1990s.

GEORGE TOWN: From sepoys to spice kings, shipping magnates and landowners, fabulous wealth and great works of charity mark some of the tales in the family history of the Shaik dynasty of Penang which have been passed down for 10 generations.

As told by the family, the story begins with soldiers said to have accompanied Captain Francis Light of the East India Company, who took possession of Penang island when he landed in 1786.

The sepoys – Indian native soldiers serving the company – were led by a junior commander who was to be the founding father of the dynasty, say family members.

He successfully ventured into the spice trade, which was carried on by his son who later married the daughter of a spice and shipping magnate who was Penang’s second Kapitan Kling or head of the Indian community. The family fortunes were expanded by a grandson who acquired vast tracts of land on the island and mainland in the 19th century.

MMM Noordin (Mohammed Nasaroodin Merican), the grandson of the second Kapitan Kling, MM Noordin.

By then, the family was fabulously wealthy and lived like kings. They owned the largest number of horse-drawn carriages on the island, with a large staff of servants at their beck and call, some of whom were Europeans according to family members.

Tales of the family’s history and the mark they made on Penang were related to FMT by senior family members Shaik Idrus Shaik Hassan, Abdul Wahab Md Osman, and Shaik Harun Narashid Shaik Habil.

They said the family’s history in Penang began with the arrival of Shaik Nattar Sahib, a Gujarati from Mumbai who was a junior commander of the sepoys who came to Penang with Light.

Eusoff’s great-grandson Shaik Idrus Shaik Hassan (centre), flanked by great-great-grandchildren Shaik Harun Narashid Shaik Habil (left) and Abdul Wahab Md Osman.

Shaik Nattar went on to achieve success in the spice trade. He built Hasharah Khana, a transit home for newly-arrived Indian immigrants, located on what is now Jalan Masjid, off Chulia Street. The site of the hostel now houses a metal workshop on one end and a Taoist temple at another corner.

Hasharah Khana was also the venue for performances of boria, an Indian-Persian form of musical theatre which later evolved to become a traditional Penang art form.

Shaik Natar had two sons, Shaik Latiff and Shaik Imam. Latiff took over the spice trading business after Natar’s death.

The Hasharah Khana at Jalan Masjid today.

Latiff later married the daughter of Mohamed Noordin Merican of Pondicherry, a famous spice trader who was Penang’s second Kapitan Kling.

Noordin traded pepper in exchange for textiles. He later became a shipping magnate serving Asian ports, and eventually commanded a large share of trade at Penang’s bustling entrepot. Noordin Street is named after him.

Latiff had two children, a son, Eusoff, and daughter, Buchik.

Eusoff went on to take over Latiff’s business and many properties, and soon started buying up land. He held many parcels of land in George Town, Butterworth, and Bukit Mertajam, but much of the land he acquired was given away for charitable purposes, say family members.

Eusoff built a beautiful mansion at 362 Chulia Street in 1850. The building, which now houses the Yeng Keng Hotel, is regarded as one of the oldest surviving intact buildings in the George Town World Heritage Site.

In 1850, Eusoff built a beautiful mansion at 362 Chulia Street, not far from the Hasharah Khana transit home. It was bought over by the Yin Han Pit Su, a Cantonese association, in 1897.

Today, the building houses the Yeng Keng Hotel and is regarded as one of the oldest surviving intact buildings in the World Heritage Site.

Eusoff was regarded as a very pious man and a great benefactor: among his charitable works was his contribution of large amounts of cash for building the Penang General Hospital in 1882. He was highly respected by the colonial government and remained close to those in power in the Straits Settlements, said family members.

The last known picture of Eusoff’s granddaughters in the 1960s. From left, Satar Bee, Sawal Bee, and Khaider Bee. They are the daughters of Eusoff’s son, Shaik Noordin.

He had eight children, 100 grandchildren and more than 1,000 great-grandchildren.

Of Euroff’s many properties and land holdings, the only remaining structures by which he is best remembered are Wisma Yatim in Ayer Itam, the Syed Hussin Aidid Malay Boys Home behind the Chung Ling School, also in Ayer Itam, and the Shaik Eusoff Jamek Mosque in Dhoby Ghaut, built on five acres of wakaf land that he donated.

Eusoff was also the largest contributor in cash and kind to the Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Board, which took care of Hindu and Muslim places of worship. The board ceased to exist in 1959 after the Majlis Agama system was introduced.

He died on April 23, 1894.

His great-great grandson Wahab has appealed to the 1,000 or so descendants to locate a photograph or portrait of their great ancestor.