Francis Light; From Illegitimate Boy to Founder of Penang's British Colony

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Pat Fama goes in search of the man that George Town must not forget; the illegitimate boy who grew up to single-handedly place Penang in the palm of the British hand, sealing its position in history forever.

Without Captain Francis Light there would be no George Town, but his legacy is much more than just one city. When Light took possession of Penang in 1786 on behalf of the East India Company (EIC), he set in motion a process of colonisation which resulted in all of present-day Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei coming under British rule.

While his contribution to history is undeniable, assessing Light’s legacy is problematic, as so much of his life is a grey area, often closer to fiction than fact. We know that he was born in the English county of Suffolk in 1740, and that his mother was called Mary Light. Who his father was is an enduring mystery, although the most likely candidate is a nobleman called William Regus.

Being illegitimate does not appear to have set Light back a great deal: he obtained a proper education before becoming a midshipman, the lowest ranking officer in the Royal Navy. It does, however, explain why he headed to far-off lands to seek his fortune, and why he had a tendency to flout convention.

Sneaky Tactics

At the time of Light’s arrival in the Far East, the EIC had a monopoly on Britain’s trade in the region, as well as controlling large amounts of territory in India. Despite its dominance, the EIC did allow approved “country traders” to operate in its waters. Light was one such merchant, and from roughly 1765 onwards, he operating principally out of Phuket, known then as Junk Ceylon.

It was these trading activities that convinced Light of Penang’s possible worth to the EIC, predominantly as a safe harbour between India and China. Through charm and a certain economy with the truth, Light was able to persuade the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang in return for British protection from Siamese and Burmese ambitions and a yearly payment.

Once the Sultan had worked out that no protection would be forthcoming, he set about trying to take Penang back by force. These efforts ended with a humiliating military defeat in 1791 and a peace treaty, which ceded the disputed island to the British in return for 6,000 silver dollars a year.

Before 1786, only a small number of people lived in Penang, but in the subsequent years the population increased massively. Light encouraged settlers from all races and religions to come to the island, and so Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Malays, and Siamese (to name just a few nationalities) flocked to the new settlement. By the time Francis Light died in 1794, George Town was a thriving, multi-cultural place.

Overlooked Achievements


The pertaining mystery of Light’s story is why he received such little recognition, not just since independence, but during colonial times too. It was not until 1886, on the centenary of Penang’s founding as a British settlement, that a proper memorial was erected in his honour. Set near St George’s, the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia, the memorial includes this epitaph:

“The settlers and natives were greatly attached to him, and by his death, had to deplore the loss of one who watched over their interests and cares as a father.”

This tribute is a rather longer and more fulsome than the words on his tombstone in George Town’s Protestant Cemetery, which refer to him establishing “this island as a British settlement.” There is no mention of him having been in charge Penang for the eight years up until his death, or indeed of his loving family and friends.

Leaving a Legacy

Light’s will, which can be seen at the Penang State Museum, left the bulk of his considerable estate to his long-time companion, Martina Rozells, and their five children.

The estate included the spice plantation he named Suffolk (after his home county in England) and the garden house he built on it, and it’s not known whether elements of this structure were incorporated into the Anglo-Indian mansion subsequently built on the site (the recently restored Suffolk House). As well as visiting the mansion itself, there are several contemporary paintings of Suffolk House in Penang State Museum which hint at how the landscape looked in Light’s time.

It’s believed Martina Rozells was Eurasian, probably of mixed Siamese and Portuguese extraction. The couple lived together as man and wife although they were not allowed to marry because she was a Catholic. They shared a bungalow in what is now part of the grounds of Convent Light Street School, and though the bungalow is long gone, a plaque commemorates a former road once named Martina’s Lane remains.

A Man worth Remembering

Adding open cohabitation with a mixed-raced Catholic to being a self-made but illegitimate man, it’s no wonder that some considered Light to be less than respectable. Fluency in Malay and Siamese opened up accusations of “going native”, but these critical views were by no means universal. Light’s charm, loyalty and generosity, not to mention his accomplishments as Penang’s first Superintendent, won him many friends too.

In many ways, the statue which stands today in Fort Cornwallis sums up the enigma that is Francis Light. It is modelled on his eldest son, Colonel William Light (the founder of Adelaide in South Australia) because there are no surviving images of its subject. Since being erected in Fort Cornwallis in 1938, the statue has been moved to the High Court, then the Penang State Museum, before coming back full circle to its current place.


Along the way, Light’s sword has gone missing; a theft long blamed on the Japanese until the accusation was seemingly disproved by photographic evidence. Regardless of the identity of the sword-stealer, it seems appropriate that the man who achieved so much by persuasion, rather than force of arms, should be shown without a weapon.

But the most fitting memorial of all to this shaper of the city is, of course, George Town itself.

This article was written by Pat Fama for Penang International.
Source: Penang International August-September 2012
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