Penang Lawyer canes

The popular name of a hard and sometimes brittle walking stick exported from Penang and Singapore. Made from the stem of a miniature palm known as Licuala acutifida, Griffith, the sticks are prepared by scraping the young stem with glass, so as to remove the epidermis but no more. The sticks are then straightened by fire and polished (Balfour).

The name is popularly thought to have originated in a jocular supposition that lawsuits in Penang were decided by the lex baculina. But there can be little doubt that it is a corruption of some native term, and pinang liyar, ‘wild areca’, or pinang layor, “fire-dried areca.”

1883.-(But the book-an excellent one-is without date-more shame to the Religious Tract Society which publishes it). “Next morning, taking my ‘Penang lawyer’ to defend myself from dogs…” The following note is added: “A Penang lawyer is a heavy walking-stick, supposed to be so called from its usefulness in settling disputes in Penang.”-Gilmour, Among the Mongols, 14.

The term Penang lawyer was also mentioned in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “Silver Blazes,” describing the Penang lawyer as a “club-like walking stick.”

Further reference is made to Penang lawyer in the third sentence of the opening chapter (“Mr. Sherlock Holmes”) in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” again by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:  “Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. ‘To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,’ was engraved upon it, with the date of ‘1884.’ It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry—dignified, solid, and reassuring.”1

Further history:   Penang, also named Prince of Wales Island is situated at the northern extremity of the Malacca Straits. Beginning in the first quarter of the 19th century, Penang was as a penal settlement where criminals were transported, including criminals from India of all castes and tribes, also Chinese and Malay prisoners. Early on, many worked in gangs in the construction and repair of roads or in stone-quarrying. Local jails or houses of correction, according to the existing law of the time, were kept distinct from the convict jails at the several existing settlements. A good proportion of these local prisoners were employed upon extramural works, under the guard of convict petty officers, natives of India. At Penang, there were a considerable number of these Indian convicts upon ticket of leave, who gained their livelihood in a variety of ways, and some were the first to discover the palm known by the Malays as “Plas tikkoos,” and by botanists as the “Licuala acutifida.” From this small palm, no taller than 5-6 feet which grew mostly upon the Penang Hill, were constructed walking sticks called “Penang lawyers,” prepared…(see first paragraph above).  Several of these Penang lawyers were sold by the convicts on the spot, and many more were exported to Europe and America.2

licuala_spinosa (2)
Licuala acutifida, Griffith palm.

Houn-01

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

1.  http://penangoikoss.blogspot.com/2006/04/penang-lawyer-sir-arthur-conan-doyle.html
2.   Prisoners Their Own Warders, J.F.A. McNair and W.D. Bayliss. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26974/26974-h/26974-h.htm

For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts