At a talk by Dr John Robertson, Alan Teh Leam Seng learns about a rare moment in time that occurred during the World War I
IT was nearly dawn and everyone was fast asleep in their rooms. Everything was silent except for the perpetual waves crashing onto the shore in the distance.
Then, out of the blue, there was a loud explosion, rudely awakening many from their slumber. Many guests, together with the staff, hurriedly made their way to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel terrace.
To their horror and amazement, they had become a group of reluctant audience in a theatre of war happening right in Penang harbour.
Mouths gaping and eyes blinking, these people had the front seat view of the naval battle between the warships Emden and Zhemtchug.
Moments later, the latter was sunk and the Emden victoriously sailed away, looking for other potential prey on her way out of the harbour.
Several days after the tragedy, fishermen at Pulau Jerejak made a gruesome discovery. They came across the bodies of two sailors from the ill-fated Zhemtchug.
It then became apparent that the sea currents had swept the dead Russian seamen from the battle scene and washed them up on the shores of the island.
It was said that the villagers then buried the bodies on the island. It was the recent chanced discovery of these graves that sparked Dr John Robertson’s interest in this story.
He was at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel recently to give a talk and to launch his book based on this historic international crisis aptly titled The Battle Of Penang.
The talk proved to be most interesting and informative. Dr Robertson cleverly interspersed his lecture with pictures of the ships involved and charts showing their positions in Penang harbour during that time of battle. Diplomatic representatives from Russia, Germany and France were among the distinguished guests present.
The Battle Of Penang records one of those rare moments during World War I when Penang was caught up in events of international significance.
At that time, the local population, the British, the Russians, the French, the Germans, the Japanese, the Australians and even the Dutch were involved.
Although the sea battle was brief, the repercussions were great. The sinking of both Allied ships, the Imperial Russian ship Zhemtchug and the French ship Mousquet had resulted in the deaths of hundreds seamen.
REFLECTIONS OF THE PAST
After the talk, I took a stroll along the lawn fringing the coast. I just could not help thinking that this could be one of the places where the hotel guests had witnessed the sea battle which happened on that fateful morning of Oct 28, 1914.
Along the way, I met hotel general manager Marco Giovanni Battistotti who told me that the hotel played an instrumental part at that time in getting as many people down to the Penang jetty as possible to help in the rescue efforts.
(Battistotti has since left the hotel to pursue his career.)
I learned that many Russian casualties were saved by the local people who bravely went out to sea in all sorts of boats despite the thick smoke and gunpowder still present in the early morning air.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel is indeed rich and illustrious with history. The present management is making commendable efforts to help promote Penang’s rich heritage with the hotel itself having only recently celebrated its 125th anniversary.