Kedah emerged as a major kingdom on the Malay Peninsula in the 5th century, with archaeological findings in Lembah Bujang dating back to that period. The economic abundance of Kedah drew, throughout its history, the attention of many outside forces. Before coming under the rule of the Malacca Empire in the 15th century, Kedah was a reluctant vassal of the Siamese. Although Kedah was able to maintain some degree of autonomy for a brief period, Chinese attacks in 1618 led Kedah to seek protection from its former Siamese overlords, causing it to fall under the latter’s influence again.
In the 18th century, external pressures from Bugis, Siam and Burma increasingly weakened Kedah. The situation was exacerbated by a power struggle that sparked off a civil war in 1724. Raja Haji, a Bugis leader, took advantage of the internal chaos and invaded Kedah in 1770.
To counter the continuous threat from Siam, Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah appealed to the British for protection. Sir Francis Light was appointed as his representative to achieve this, armed with the guarantee of the exclusive leasing of Penang to the British East Indies Company. On 11 August 1786, Light was sent to Penang to found the first British settlement there.
In 1788, when it became apparent that the British had no intentions of aiding him, Abdullah tried to expel Light from Penang. Light, anticipating such a move, managed to repel this challenge and consequently forced Abdullah to sign over Penang on 11 May 1791. In 1800, a tract of land on the peninsula mainland, Butterworth, was signed over to the British as well.
In 1821, the Siamese conquered Kedah and ruled it for the next 20 years. Several attempts were made by the disposed Kedah Sultan to amass military support and restore the kingdom. Eventually Siam acquiesced, but not before separating Perlis from Kedah to form a separate vassal principality. Kedah itself remained a Siamese vassal state until 1909.
On 9 July 1909, the Bangkok Agreement, which was ratified by the British and Siamese, effectively delivered Kedah to the British. Upon the appointment of Sir George Maxwell as Kedah’s British adviser, Kedah officially became a British colony. This lasted until the Japanese Invasion in 1941. British rule resumed on 1 September 1946 and Kedah was placed under the British Military Administration.
In London the British formed the Malayan Peninsula Planning Unit in 1943, and on 10 October 1945, the Malayan Union scheme was laid out before the British Parliament. A day later, Sir Harold MacMichael was sent to the Malayan Peninsula to obtain the agreement of the Malay Rulers. According to this agreement, Penang, Malacca and nine other Malay states were united under the Malayan Union.
Malay opposition groups derailed the Malayan Union plan, and the Malays formed the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) under Dato’ Onn Jaafar’s leadership on 11 May 1946. The Malay Federation was founded on 1 February 1948 and on 31 August 1957, independence was declared.