Francis Light – Founder of Penang ….
Captain Francis Light (1740-1794) of the British East India Company (EIC) is widely recognised as the founder of modern Penang in the same way that Raffles gets credit for establishing Singapore.
He died in Penang from malaria on 21 October 1794. The day before his death he executed his last will and testament, a copy of which is on display in the Penang State Museum. It makes interesting reading.
Light Was A Suffolk Boy …
‘I Francis Light of the parish of Dallinghoo in the County of Suffolk Great Britain and now residing on Prince of Wales’s Island in the East Indies do hereby make this my last will and testament …’
Dallinghoo by all accounts is today an unremarkable English village of about 170 residents and a couple of ghosts. It sprang to fame briefly in 2008 when a pair of detectorists unearthed a haul of 840 iron age gold coins worth a considerable sum. Young Francis Light needn’t have travelled half way across the world to find fame and fortune. He could have just dug up his back garden.
I give unto Martina Rozells four of my best Cows and One Bull …
The will continues, bequeathing the bulk of his considerable wealth …
‘unto Martina Rozells who has cohabited with me since the year 1772’.
Who was Martina Rozells? There are various versions of her background but one of the most credible is that he met her while he was stationed in Phuket, an island which was considered by Light to become an EIC trading post as an alternative to Penang. They were probably not legally married. Light’s use of the term ‘cohabits’ seems to confirm this. She was Eurasian (mixed race) and Catholic, possibly with some Portuguese blood (the name Rozells could be another spelling of Rosales) and she also went by the name Tong Di, suggesting perhaps Chinese or Thai parentage.
According to Mr Yusrin Faidz Yusoff, Advocate & Solicitor (1997-present) the above painting entitled ‘Portrait of a Malay Woman’ by Robert Home (1752-1834) is a portrait of Martina Rozells as commissioned by her husband Captain Francis Light, though the Hunterian Museum in London, where the portrait hangs, believes it is of a different woman. Robert Home painted a portrait of William Fairlie and His Family (Fairlie was the executor of Light’s will) so Martina was almost certainly known to Home, adding credence to Mr Yusrin’s theory. You can read more about this argument here.
Interracial liaisons during this period were common among Light’s EIC colleagues in India until the more narrow-minded attitudes in the Victorian-era suppressed the practice from the 1840’s onwards. British author William Dalrymple writes:
‘The wills of East India Company officials, now in the India Office library, clearly show that in the 1780s, more than one-third of the British men in India were leaving all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to Anglo-Indian children – a degree of cross-cultural mixing which has never made it into the history books.’
Other legends tell that Martina was the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah or even descended from the King of Siam. We’ll probably never know for sure but such claims were often woven into Eurasian family mythology in order to hide more humble or scandalous origins. (You can read more about her ancestry here.)
Whatever her background, Francis Light clearly cared for her. They had five children together and he left the bulk of his riches to her.
What else did he leave to Martina apart from cows and a bull? …
Considering that he was gravely ill with malaria he itemised his bequeathals in considerable detail including:
. The paddy field situated in Neeboonplain ? and containing one hundred oorlongs (furlongs?) of land
. Implements of husbandry and forty buffaloes
. The Pepper Gardens with my Garden House and all the land by me cleared in that part of this island called Suffolk
. My bungalow in George Town … with one set of Mahogany Tables, two Card tables, two Couches, two Bedsteads large and two small with Bedding etc, a dressing table and 18 chairs, two Silver Candlesticks, one Silver Tea pot, two sugar dishes, twelve table spoons, twelve tea spoons, one soup spoon (Silver) and all the utensils not under the Stewards charge …
He had Slaves ….
Slavery was not abolished in the colonies until 1833 and Light included his slaves among his possessions.
I give and bequeath all my Batta Slaves unto Martina Rozells.
As far as I can make out, Batta slaves may have originated from an island off the west coast of Sumatra, not far from Bencoolen which was a British colony at the time.
I leave all my Caffree Slaves the following choice, either to remain with Martina during her life she being willing to maintain them or each man to pay her fifty dollars and be free.
Caffree slaves came from Madagascar. Caffree sounds like a corruption of the Arabic word ‘Kaffiri’ meaning non-believer. The Arabs were the main slave traders on the east coast of Africa.
I give unto Enneat a female whom I have liberated the sum of two hundred dollars and unto Emai another female slave I give one hundred dollars with her freedom.
He had debt bondage slaves too ……..
I release the following from all further Bondage of Servitude and bequeath each of them ten dollars viz I Boon and his wife I Boon small and Echan his wife and children, I Tong, Tong Dam and his wife and daughter Ton Chan and her Brother, but not Esan she remained with Martina. Seng Pao and Elloi are not Slaves, they may go where they please.
His Friends May Not Have Been So Loyal After All ….
My Gold Gurglet and Bason I bequeath to William Fairlie Esqr. as a token of friendship, My Silver Gurglet and Bason I bequeath to James Scott as a remembrance My Watch I bequeath to Thomas Pigou also the choice of any of my books.
It seems Fairlie and Scott, who were executors of the will, may not have been satisfied with their jugs and washbasins and it appears they cheated Martina out of the bulk of her inheritance including Suffolk House which they sold to another EIC official. Martina sued Fairlie and Scott for breach of trust and misappropriation. She initially won her case but lost the appeal and the rumour was that EIC paid her a pension to hush her up.
His Kids Turned Out OK ….
The residue of his estate he left to his children, whom, in his will, he describes as
the Children of Martina Rozells with whom I have long cohabited whose names are Sarah Light, William Light, Mary Light, Lanoon Light and Lukey Light.
Sarah Light married James Welsh who reached the rank of General in a distinguished career with the Madras Army of the East India Company.
William Light was packed off to England to be educated at the tender age of 6. We wonder what Martina would have thought of this strange English custom of sending their children away, especially as it is unclear whether William ever saw his parents again. Still, he did well in life. He pursued a military career and is famed as the founder of Adelaide, Australia.
Mary died in her nineties in France. She married twice, to George Boyd and Samuel Cornish Truran.
Francis Lanoon Light married Charlotte Arboni and Ann Lukey Light married Dr. Charles Hunter.
Francis Light’s face is quite well known in Penang thanks to his statue at Fort Cornwallis. He even appears on the logo of a chain of coffee shops. Except that the statue was actually modelled on the features of his son William, since by the time the statue was made, 150 years after Francis Light’s death, there were no records or illustrations of how he actually looked.
You might be interested in this article about another of Penang’s early pioneers: David Brown – From Longformacus to Penang.