A Brief History on Francis Light and Penang

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Frances Wilks takes a walk down Light Street to discover the places where you can catch an echo of the founder of Penang.

Streets of George Town
Francis Light has left an indelible mark not only on the history of Penang, but also on its topography. It is thought that he was responsible for creating the initial grid of streets which now constitute the heritage zone of George Town.

Light was also responsible for clearing much of the jungle from the lowlands of the island in order to create townships and spice estates. Sadly though, the story of his inducing the natives to cut down the jungle by firing silver coins into the forest (so make them clear the undergrowth to retrieve the coins) is probably apocryphal.

Fort Cornwallis
The present stone construction of Fort Cornwallis was built a few years after Light’s death on the site of his original (and simpler) fort. The fort houses a statue of Light. The Chapel at Fort Cornwallis was built in 1799, and it was here that the first recorded marriage took place that same year when John Timmers married Light’s widow Martina Rozales. Fort Cornwallis is open daily, admission RM2.

The Convent, Light Street
The Convent on Light Street was founded in 1850 and is the oldest girls’ school in Penang. Its gracious grounds house Light’s well and sit close to Government House, which was built a few years after Light’s death on the site of a house in which Light is thought to have lived. The convent is open occasionally for tours.

The Protestant Cemetery
Light is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, which is also the resting place for many notable figures including Thomas Leonowens, who was the husband of the Anna who was governess to the King of Siam’s children and the woman made famous by the film The King and I. There are also many early Governors of the island buried here.

Light’s tomb is made of Calcutta Marble and was created in the late nineteenth century. It was originally surrounded by iron railings which have subsequently been stolen.The cemetery is open daily during daylight hours. The Penang Heritage Trust run tours on the last Sunday of the month. Admission is free.

Suffolk House
The current Suffolk House dates from a later time than Light’s. It is thought that the original Suffolk House served as his residence within his pepper estate until his death in 1794.

Light enjoyed a successful common law marriage with Martina Rozales and left much of his property to her in his will; a legal first in Malaya. It was also the first time in an English document that the term “bungalow” was used to mean a low, single story property. This word is believed to derive from “Bengal Low”, or a low Bengal style property, as Bengal was the heart of the East India Company and had a great influence on the early settlement of Penang.

The current Suffolk House dates from the early nineteenth century and is a magnificent house built in the Anglo-Indian style. Part museum and part restaurant, it is wonderfully evocative of the early days of Penang. Contact www.suffolkhouse.com.my or 04.228 3930.


Further Reading
Penang in the Time of the East India Company by Andrew Barber on sale at the E&O Hotel giftshop.

This article was written by Frances Wilks for Penang International.
Source: Penang International August-September 2012

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