Francis Light: the Suffolk captain who left his mark on Asia

A statue of Francis Light, a Suffolk born and educated captain who established the colony of Penang in Malaysia

A statue of Francis Light, a Suffolk born and educated captain who established the colony of Penang in Malaysia - Credit: Alexey Komarov

When you think of British explorers from centuries gone by, you tend to think of the likes of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Hudson and Captain James Cook to name but a few.  

But what about Suffolk’s very own Captain Francis Light? 

For anyone not in the know, Francis Light was an 18th century colonial sea captain who not only had a prolific career within both the Royal Navy and the East India Company, but also founded the Malaysian state of Penang – which today boasts a population of just under two million people.  

Modern-day Georgetown, Penang, as seen from above

Modern-day Georgetown, Penang, as seen from above - Credit: Getty Images

And one woman has spent years researching this fascinating local historical figure, compiling all of her findings into her recently-released novel, ‘Dragon’.  

Rose Gan is a British-born author and historian who currently resides in Malaysia, and has spent the majority of her adult life travelling between the two.  

“I’m married to a Malaysian and have three Malaysian children. We lived here when they were born around 35-40 years ago, but we eventually went back to the UK where I worked as a teacher and historian.” 

But once her children all fled the nest to attend university, Rose and her husband made their way to Penang – and it was during their time there that she first became interested in this Suffolk figure.  

A statue of Suffolk captain Francis Light in Penang

A statue of Suffolk captain Francis Light in Penang - Credit: Rose Gan

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“When we moved there, I threw myself into finding out about Penang and its history, and I eventually got to know about this woman called Martina Rozells. She was Francis’ partner and I was fascinated by her.” 

Francis Light had three daughters and two sons with Martinha, and while she was the partner of a fairly prolific figure, not much was known about her. 

“I thought I might go back and do a masters or PhD on her, and she could be my focal point, so for years I was doing this on-and-off research on her. 

“But then I realised there wasn’t enough out there for that kind of extensive project.” 

Light was baptised in the village of Dallinghoo

Light was baptised in the village of Dallinghoo - Credit: Simon Parker

After moving to Indonesia, Rose put her research project on the back burner until she moved back to Malaysia, and once retired, realised the best use of her time would be to delve into the life of Francis Light himself.  

“What drove me to write about a man was actually me trying to understand my own life, and this mixed heritage world we’re in. My children are mixed, as were Martina and Francis’, and somehow by researching this couple who were in an interracial relationship 250 years ago, it was a unique way of making sense of the issues we’d dealt with in our own lives.” 

Soon after, Rose began dedicating her time to finding out about Francis Light – and was enthralled with what she uncovered. 

While his birthdate is unknown, Light was baptised in the Suffolk settlement of Dallinghoo in 1740 and later attended Woodbridge School. 

“Research started off as a challenge, as almost everything written about Light in biographies just sums up his life in a paragraph or so, and then goes on to tell the story of Penang as that’s what most people tend to be interested in, so I had to broaden my search. There’s information about him and the people he’s met, but it’s all over the place,” Rose explains.  

Using a variety of sources including private letters, records from the East India Company, naval records and documents, diaries, newspapers, and gravestones, Rose was able to find out more about the East Anglian man behind Penang.  

Light began his naval career in 1754 as a surgeon’s assistant on HMS Mars before working on a number of other vessels including HMS Captain, HMS Dragon, and HMS Arrogant.  

Light was educated at Woodbridge School

Light was educated at Woodbridge School - Credit: Archant

Following his time in the navy, Light travelled around Asia where he soon began developing ambitions of establishing a British port in the Indies on behalf of the East India Company.  

In 1786, Light successfully leased Penang Island from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah, and established its capital city Georgetown (named after the reigning monarch at the time, King George III).  

“It all came together like a jigsaw puzzle. I managed to discover he’d been on a vessel that was shipwrecked, and I came across people’s diaries who had met him. And suddenly, I found there was a whole section about his time as a captain in India. 

“I also looked into Thai history, as he spent 15 years living in what we now call Phuket. He actually spent much of his trading life was spent living in Siam (current-day Thailand) where he spoke and wrote in Siamese. He was a very accomplished man, and I was in danger of never writing the book as I was going down so many byways. 

“When he became superintendent of Penang in 1786, he gave up all of his business assets as he believed it was a conflict of interest. He was quite noble, and there was something endearing about him. He was also a great linguist, speaking many languages and he even wrote in Jawi script. He definitely had a good education at Woodbridge School.” 

And the apple certainly didn’t fall from the tree, as one of Light’s children, William Light, went on to found and design the city of Adelaide in Australia in 1836.  

After seeing much of the world and travelling extensively, Light passed away after contracting malaria on October 21, 1794 – but the impact he had on Penang remains to this day, as Rose explains. 

“Penang is very much a Light city, and is very devoted to him. There are streets named after him, and the fort that he built is still there to this day, which is now a major tourist attraction and archaeological site currently undergoing a massive restoration. He designed the layout of Georgetown, and even though he died eight years after he became governor, he did an awful lot to shape the island. It used to be uninhabited, but under Light it became prosperous.  

Suffolk House in Penang

Suffolk House in Penang - Credit: Andrew Rankin

And while you can take the man out of Suffolk, you can’t take Suffolk out of the man – as a number of East Anglian influences can be seen on the island.  

“For example, one of the historic buildings in Penang is called Suffolk House. Sadly he died before taking up residence in it, however. Today it’s now an important heritage house, museum and wedding venue. There’s also a major hill in Penang called Strawberry Hill where Light once lived, and is named so because he would actually ship over Suffolk strawberry plants and planted them on the hill as he missed them so much. 

“The man had a deeply profound love of Suffolk. When one of his sons was six years old, he sent him back to Suffolk to be educated at the Woodbridge School, and eventually planned to bring the whole family back. He never really lost his desire to be a gentleman of Suffolk, and wanted to buy an estate and stately home back before malaria took him.” 

The Francis Light memorial in the grounds of St George's Church in Penang

The Francis Light memorial in the grounds of St George's Church in Penang - Credit: Rose Gan

From humble beginnings in Dallinghoo and Woodbridge, to more prestigious times spent in the Far East, Light lived quite the life. So what does Rose hopes readers take from her book?  

“I feel people all over the world, especially people in Suffolk, should know about him. He’s one of the first great pioneers of South East Asia, and I want people to recognise that he was much more engaged with his local community than a lot of other colonialists. He was incredibly close with traders, sultans and the locals. He ate with them, lived with and followed their ways. If more colonialists did the same, maybe history would be different.” 

Dragon, which is out now

Dragon, which is out now - Credit: Monsoon Books

To find out more about Rose and her book on Francis Light, visit monsoonbooks.co.uk

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