Francis Light

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Francis Light
Francis Light Statue - panoramio.jpg
The statue of Captain Francis Light, R.N., at Fort Cornwallis in George Town on Penang Island, Malaysia
Born1740 (1740)
Died21 October 1794(1794-10-21) (aged 53–54)[1]
OccupationColonial official
Known forModernising Penang
RelativesSon William Light, founder of Adelaide

Captain Francis Light (c. 1740 – 21 October 1794) was a British explorer and the founder of the British colony of Penang (in modern-day Malaysia) and its capital city of George Town in 1786. Light and his lifelong partner, Martina Rozells, were the parents of William Light, who founded the city of Adelaide in South Australia.

Early years[edit]

Light was baptised in Dallinghoo, Suffolk, England on 15 December 1740. His mother was given as Mary Light. Taken in by a relative, the nobleman William Negus, he attended Woodbridge Grammar School[2] from 1747.[3] Researchers initially believed Light to be the illegitimate son of William Negus, but according to author Noël Francis Light Purdon,[4] the six-times great-grandson of Francis Light, Negus received payment for looking after him and acting as his guardian throughout his education.[Note 1]


Naval career[edit]

Light began his service in the Royal Navy as a surgeon's servant on HMS Mars in February 1754.[3] He started an apprenticeship in the Royal Navy in 1759 (aged 19) on HMS Captain, before being transferred after a few months to the newly-commissioned HMS Dragon.[5] He was a midshipman on HMS Arrogant in 1761[2] before ending his service with the navy in 1763.[3]

It was in the navy that he met James Scott, who would later play an important part in his life and business dealings.[6][7]

In the colonies[edit]

His movements between 1763 and 1765 are not recorded, but it seems that he managed to amass enough of a fortune to bequeath a considerable amount of property in a will to William Negus and three other men.[8]

Thalang, Siam[edit]

In 1765 Light embarked the East India Company's ship Clive,[3] captained by John Allen,[9] bound for Madras and Bombay. In India, he secured command of a "country ship" belonging to Madras trading firm Jourdain, Sulivan & Desouza,[3] the Speedwell. Setting up a base in Thalang in Siam (also known as Salang and Jung/JunkCeylon, now Phuket province, in Thailand), he traded there, in Aceh (now an Indonesian province) and the Malay Peninsula, learning the local languages. Basing himself in Thalang, he met a woman named Martina Rozells, and together they set up a trading post in Kuala Kedah.[6] He soon gained an influential position with the Sultan of Kedah.[3]

For about ten years he had his headquarters in Thalang, where he revived a defunct French trading post. While in Thalang he learned to speak and write several languages, including Malay and Thai, and became family friends with Than Phu Ying Chan and her husband, the Governor of Thalang. Later, in 1785, he warned the island administrators of an imminent Burmese attack. Light's warning enabled the islanders, led by Chan and her sister Mook, to prepare for Thalang's defence and subsequently repel the Burmese invasion.[10] In 1785, after the death of the Governor of Thalang, his widow Pia Pimons and other relatives proposed that Light assume the position; however the King of Siam, Rama II, thwarted the proposal.[11]


Light's interest in Penang had begun in 1771, when he proposed the idea of a British settlement in the neighbourhood of the Malay Peninsula to Warren Hastings, the East India Company's Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal). He suggested that the island of Penang might serve as a "convenient magazine for the Eastern trade" but at that time his idea gained no ground.[12] In 1776–77, Light arranged a large shipment of firearms for the Siamese Kingdom of Thonburi, ruled by Taksin the Great.[13]

Whereas his previous suggestion had brought no result, following the recent war with the American rebels that ended in a British defeat during which Britain had struggled with France for naval superiority, Light's suggestion took on a new significance. In 1786, on behalf of the British East India Company, Light leased Penang Island from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah (who had succeeded Muhammad Jewa in 1778 as leader of Kedah Sultanate), for the price of 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum.[14] Under the administration of Governor-general Sir John Macpherson, Light was entitled Superintendent and put in charge of the settlement, styled Dewa Raja by the Malays, on 1 July 1786; thus marking the beginning of British rule over the Malay States.[6] The new colony was very sparsely populated at this time: it was described as "one vast jungle of nearly 107 square miles, with a population of only fifty-eight souls". Pirates had to be discouraged from landing, and forests were cleared. George Town (named after King George III) was established, and when two East India Company ships appeared on the coast, Light took the opportunity of inviting the ships and crews to attend the declaration of the new colony of Prince of Wales Island on 11 August 1786, being the eve of the Prince of Wales's birthday.[14]

The Sultan, however, was bound under the Southeast Asian mandala political model in fealty to the King of Siam. Light had exceeded his authority with a promise of military aid should the Burmese or Siamese invade,[15] despite the fact that Sultan Abdullah asked him to refrain from landing until the promise of military aid had been confirmed in London. Thus, when the Sultan's territories were invaded and no aid was forthcoming, the Sultan attempted to take back the island as a refuge in 1790.[16][Note 2][17]

The multicultural colony of Penang became extraordinarily successful from its inception and Light served as Superintendent of the settlement until his death in October 1794, apart from between 21 November 1789 and 9 February 1790, when John Glass acted in his place.[17][18] By 1789 there were about 10,000 inhabitants, and by 1795, 20,000.[19]

Family tree of the Capel family descendants of Light

Accounts of his actions seem to indicate that he was a fair-minded and honourable man. In 1790, he asked for a higher salary, in order to allow him to live without having to engage in trade (by which he may have enriched himself, but possibly compromise his role). This led to his business partnership with James Scott being dissolved.[20][7] In 1794, he recommended that a proper system of justice should be instituted in Penang, as it should not be within the powers of the Superintendent to dispense "arbitrary judgement".[21]

Death and legacy[edit]

The tomb of Francis Light in Penang's Protestant Cemetery.

Light died from malaria on 21 October 1794[1][Note 3] and was buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery at Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah Road) in George Town.[23] He remembered his friends James Scott, William Fairlie and Thomas Pegou in his will.[24]

A bronze statue, sculpted by F.J. Wilcoxson and cast at Burton's Foundry in Thames Ditton, bears Francis Light's name but was actually modelled on the features of his son William, there being no portrait of Francis to use. Erected in 1936 to celebrate 150 years since George Town was founded, it stands at Fort Cornwallis in George Town.[6] Light Street, within the UNESCO World Heritage Site in George Town, is named after him. Convent Light Street, Penang's oldest girls' school, founded in 1852, is located along the street.[6] He was respected by his British peers as a fair and honourable man and admired for his achievements, which included keeping the Siamese and Dutch at bay. He was a skilled negotiator and cared for the welfare of the people both in his colony and old friends in Thalang, sending rice when the island was hit by famine. He spoke the local languages and partially assumed the local dress, earning the love of the residents of Penang.[25]


Martina Rozells[edit]

Light had three daughters and two sons with Martina (sometimes spelt Martinha) Rozells (possibly born Thong Di),[26] whose origins and status are the subject of debate. She has been variously recorded as being of Portuguese or French extraction on one side, and of Siamese or Malay on the other. She was also rumoured to have been a princess,[27] possibly given to Light as a reward, or the island as her dowry, although other sources state that the princess was sent to enlist Light's aid on behalf of the Sultan.[28][29] Two contemporaries of Light, historian William Marsden (who says that she was the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah), and Captain Elisha Trapaud (who describes the wedding of Light to a princess of the Sultan's family, bestowed upon him as a mark of the prince's gratitude) seem to confirm the story that she was of noble blood. However, John Crawfurd, later First Resident of Singapore,[30] said in 1820 that Martina was not a princess, but a Portuguese woman from Siam,[31] and Steuart points out that there is no evidence that Trapaud knew Light when the couple began living together.[32] Other contemporary accounts name her as the daughter of the 19th Sultan of Kedah (Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin II), by a lower-ranking wife of mixed Thai-Portuguese ancestry. She may have adopted her mother's name to emphasise her ancestry and "high birth". She was probably one of many Portuguese Eurasian Catholics who had fled religious persecution in southern Siam and to Kedah.[33]

There were a number of Rozells registered at George Town in 1788. There was also a Martinha (no surname shown) registered as being from Siam, with a son William, of Kedah. Steuart posits that Martina was the same person as the "Nonya" who took part in the earliest negotiations with the Sultan in 1770-1. This would support the idea that she was not a princess, but nevertheless had strong connections with both Siam and Kedah and therefore a useful person to employ in negotiations between the Sultan and the British administration at Aceh.[32] If they were legally married, Light did not declare it. However, it was against East India Company rules to marry a Catholic and, as Martina belonged to the Catholic faith, Light may have tried to avoid dismissal refraining from officially declaring his marriage. Light did leave Rozells his considerable property in his will. Either way, they cohabited for at least 22 years before his death.[27] Light's business partners, James Scott[7] and William Fairlie, were the executors of Light's will, and some versions of events have suggested that these two cheated Rozells out of portions of her inheritance, namely their family residence and estate, the Suffolk Estate. Rozells did however inherit a bungalow in Penang, along with a pension from the East India Company. Despite the lack of recognition from Light's British peers in regards to the status of Rozells as his wife, she was perceived as such by the local Eurasians and Thai community.[27] Rozells later remarried, marrying a John Timmer at a ceremony at the chapel in Fort Cornwallis in 1799.[27]

Family life and offspring[edit]

Light and his family lived in the first home constructed on the Suffolk Estate, four 4 miles (6.4 km) west of George Town. Their home was described as a "simple Anglo-Indian Garden House style of timber and attap construction", built within his pepper estate.[citation needed] (After Light's estate was settled in 1805, William Edward Phillips built a grand Georgian-styled mansion, also known as Suffolk Park.) His eldest son, Colonel William Light, was the first Surveyor General of the Colony of South Australia; William is famous for choosing the site of the colony's capital, Adelaide, and designing the layout of the streets and parks in the Adelaide city centre, North Adelaide and the Adelaide Park Lands.[citation needed]

The other son, Francis Lanoon Light II, was born in Penang in 1791, married a Javanese woman, Charlotte Aboni, with whom he had a daughter and two sons. He died in 1823.[34] His descendants are the Capel family in Malaysia.[35] Their daughters were named Sarah, Mary and Ann (aka "Lukey"). They all married in Calcutta. Sarah married General James Welsh, an EIC officer in the Madras Army. Mary married a wealthy indigo plantation owner, George Boyd,[36] and Ann married a physician, Charles Hunter.[37] By 1818, Welsh observed that his wife and her siblings had seen all of their mother's property disappear.[27]

In popular culture[edit]

In October 2019, co-commissioned by Adelaide's OzAsia festival and Penang's George Town Festival, a play was created and staged by Australian writer and director Thomas Henning in collaboration with Malaysian duo TerryandTheCuz, named Light. Rather than presenting a by-the-numbers historical retelling, the play explores the personal circumstances first of Light and his pivotal role in Penang's modern history, and then of his son William in Adelaide. The roles of the women in their lives are explored, as well as the geopolitical situation of the time which influenced the decisions of the elder and junior Lights.The life of Martina Rozells is also brought to life.[38] The play is mainly about family, aiming to use Light's inner perspective to look at the world, and touches on "the values and notions of nationalism".[39] Henning used the Mayo and Dutton collections at Flinders University for all of his research for the play. Henning sees William Light as an unfulfilled individual, despite all of his success; his life was "also lonely and drifting".[39]

In October 2021, Dragon, the first volume of Penang Chronicles published by Monsoon Books was released worldwide. Written by Rose Gan, a British writer and historian who has lived in Malaysia for many years, the series follows the life and times of Francis Light and Martinha Rozells. It takes a fresh look at the historical sources, presenting a vivid depiction of the people of the Straits and their own fascinating history set aside the known events of the life of Captain Light. Dragon looks at the early years of Light, his years in the British navy at war in the Americas, and then his life as a country ship captain for the East India Company in the Straits of Malacca. The second volume Pearl will be released in 2022 and charts Light's journey from merchant captain to governor of Penang island and the part Martinha Rozells and her family played in the events. The third novel, Emporium, about the early years of the settlement, is to be released in 2023.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Purdon was/is reportedly authoring a book on the Light Family. See also here and notes about a talk he gave.
  2. ^ Shah's reigns incorrectly recorded as 1773 in this source – should be 1778.
  3. ^ One source mentions 25 October.[22]


  1. ^ a b Bastin, John; Stubbs Brown, M. (May 1959). "Historical Sketch of Penang in 1794". Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 32 (1 (185)): 21–22. JSTOR 41503147. Light died on 21 October 1794, and was succeeded as Superintendent of Penang by Phillip Mannington...succeeded by Thomas Pegou as Acting-Superintendent on 30 November 1795 (footnote 31) See page-url.
  2. ^ a b Steuart 1901, p. 4.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Light, Francis (The Light Letters)". AIM25. Part of The Malay Documents now held by School of Oriental and African Studies. Retrieved 25 October 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. ^ "Contributors". Transnational Literature. 2 (1): 4. November 2009. Retrieved 25 October 2019.
  5. ^ Clodd, Harold Parker) (1948), Malaya's first British pioneer: the life of Francis Light, Luzac, p. 1, ISBN 978-0-375-42750-3
  6. ^ a b c d e Khoo, Salma Nasution (2007). Streets of George Town, Penang (4th ed.). Areca Books. pp. 88, 112. ISBN 978-9839886009. Full text at
  7. ^ a b c Harfield, A. G. (1984). British & Indian Armies in the East Indies, 1685–1935. Picton. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-902633-95-7. By 1779 [Scott] was on Junk Ceylon Island and became a firm friend of Francis Light. They agreed that once Scott was established on Pulo Pinang that Light would administer the island and accept the inevitable loss that the Company salary involved, and Scott would trade and make enough for both. Tregonnning records that he did this and continued to prosper even after the death of Francis Light... He died on 19 September 1808 and was buried in Northam Road Cemetery.
  8. ^ Steuart 1901, pp. 5–6.
  9. ^ "British Merchant east indiaman 'Clive' (1762)". Three Decks. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  10. ^ Simmonds 1965, pp. 217–222.
  11. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 9.
  12. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 7.
  13. ^ Wade, Geoff (2014). Asian Expansions: The Historical Experiences of Polity Expansion in Asia. Routledge Studies in the Early History of Asia. Routledge. p. 175. ISBN 978-1135043537. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  14. ^ a b Steuart 1901, pp. 13–25.
  15. ^ Bindloss, Joe; Brash, Celeste (2008). Kuala Lumpur, Melaka & Penang. Lonely Planet. ISBN 978-1741044850.
  16. ^ Ooi, Keat Gin, ed. (2004). "Penang (1786)". Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor. ABC-CLIO. p. 1048. ISBN 978-1576077702. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  17. ^ a b "Malay States (Penang)". World Statesmen. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  18. ^ Bastin, John; Stubbs Brown, M. (May 1959). "Historical Sketch of Penang in 1794". Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 32 (1 (185)): 21. JSTOR 41503147. Glass was captain of the garrison at Penang, but, in fact, a "country" trader, and a close friend of Francis Light. He was one of the ships' captains present at the raising of the British flag on Penang on 11 August 1796. See E. Trapaud, A Short Account..., p. 17 page-url
  19. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 24.
  20. ^ Steuart 1901, pp. 28–29.
  21. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 32.
  22. ^ Harfield, A. G. (1982). "Fort Cornwallis, Pulo Pinang. (With notes on two 19th Century Military artists)". Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research. 60 (242 (Summer 1982)): 80. JSTOR 44230543. The date on his tombstone in the Northam Road cemetery says he died on 21 October 1794, but Tregonning records in his book that an official despatch sent by Philip Mannington, Light's successor, shows Francis Light as having died on 25 October 1794" page-url Tregonning's The Founding of Penang (1786-1826) perhaps?
  23. ^ Mok, Opalyn (6 November 2014). "Historical cemetery where Francis Light is buried to be given a facelift". Malay Mail. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  24. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 34.
  25. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 37-38.
  26. ^ Martina she is referred in one source as Martinha Thong Di but took her mother’s name of Rozells.
  27. ^ a b c d e "The light of his life Francis Light's contributions are fondly remembered but not those of his wife". Star Online. Article quotes Clodd (1948) and historians Ooi Kee Beng and Marcus Langdon. 6 April 2013. Retrieved 27 October 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  28. ^ Leslie James, (2005) On The Trail of Francis Light, Founder of Modern Penang
  29. ^ Crawfurd, John (August 2006) [First published 1830]. "Chapter I – Arrival at Penang.". Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-general of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley. p. 22. ISBN 9788120612372. OCLC 03452414. Retrieved 10 February 2014. The history of this little establishment is very shortly told... There is no foundation whatever for the idle story which has gained currency, of Mr. Light's having received Penang as a dowry with a daughter of the King of Queda. It was made over to the East India Company, in consideration of a yearly payment of 6000 Spanish dollars.
  30. ^ Firaci, Biagio (10 June 2014). "Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and the British Colonization of Singapore among Penang, Melaka and Bencoonen". Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  31. ^ Steuart 1901, pp. 26–27.
  32. ^ a b Simmonds 1965, p. 216.
  33. ^ De Souza, Poppy (4 April 2016). "I was a Siamese Princess: Reconstructing colonial (her)stories". Poppy de Souza. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  34. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 31.
  35. ^ Kim, Choong Kwee (25 December 2004). "Special Xmas for Capel clan". Star Online. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  36. ^ It must have been her wedding that her brother William attended.
  37. ^ Steuart 1901, p. 35.
  38. ^ Jefferson, Dee (19 October 2019). "Malaysian-Australian play about Adelaide's founding father William Light premieres at OzAsia Festival". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  39. ^ a b Harris, Samela. "Interview: Shedding Light on Light at OzAsia". The Barefoot Review. Retrieved 18 October 2019.

Cited sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]