Hari Merdeka: Independence Day in Malaysia

Hari Merdeka means ‘Independence Day’ in the Malay language. And while Americans recently enjoyed the Labor Day weekend, Malaysians used the same long-weekend to celebrate 62 years as a nation independent of British rule.

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The occasion is a pretty big deal in Malaysia. Many of today’s 32 million Malaysians were alive and remember the first Hari Merdeka: August 31, 1957. 

On modern, bustling, tropical Penang Island, the Malaysian flag is proudly displayed everywhere. There are parades, fireworks, political speeches and family gatherings on the holiday.

Ironically, there is a connection to the American Declaration of Independence.

The historic fortress which has served to protect Penang since the 1780s is named after British General Charles Cornwallis — the very same general who was defeated by George Washington at the famous Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

Despite the surrender of his army, which effectively ended the American Revolutionary War, Cornwallis remained a respected British military and political leader. In 1786 he was named Governor-General and commander-in-chief of India with responsibility for much of England’s colonial empire in the Far East, including present-day Malaysia.

Fort Cornwallis is a tourist attraction today. Admission is $5 to walk atop the massive stone bastions with cannons. The fort holds the distinction of being one which never engaged in any hostilities whatsoever.

Within a few decades it became non-essential, as the center of British trade in the region shifted 350 miles south to Singapore. The fort was damaged by Japanese bombing during WWII.

More interesting to me than the fort, is the nearby Penang Protestant Cemetery where many early British administrators and prominent residents are buried.

In a small, shaded grove of trees, dozens of headstone inscriptions give testament to the danger of extended sea travel, high rate of child mortality, and prevalence of ‘jungle fever’ (malaria). The founder of Penang Island and builder of Fort Cornwallis, Captain Francis Light, himself succumbed to malaria in 1794.

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As a long-term, budget global wanderer, it’s always neat to explore the history of places where we stay.  As I like to say ‘history is FREE’ – and cemeteries, too.

For better or worse, local histories are often framed by western colonialism, domination and warfare. And in a round-about-way, those centuries of economic exploitation are what has enabled us as retired American vagabonds to be here today, enjoying Malaysia.  

Happy Hari Merdeka.

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