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Captain Francis Light (1740 – 25 October 1794)[1] was the founder of the British colony of Penang (in modern-day Malaysia) and its capital city of George Town in 1786.

Captain Francis Light
The statue of Captain Sir Francis Light at Penang, Malaysia
Born1740 (1740)
Dallinghoo, Suffolk, England, Britain
Died25 October 1794(1794-10-25) (aged 53–54)[1]
OccupationColonial official
Known forModernising Penang


Early yearsEdit

Light was baptised in Dallinghoo, Suffolk, England on 15 December 1740.[2] His mother was given as Mary Light, though his father preferred to remain anonymous. Taken in by a relative, the nobleman William Negus, after schooling at elementary school with the Negus children, he began an early apprenticeship with a naval surgeon. Researchers initially believed Light to be the illegitimate son of William Negus, but according to Noël Francis Light Purdon, the six-times great-grandson of Francis Light, Negus received payment for looking after him and acting as his guardian throughout his education.[3]


From 1759 to 1763, Light served as a Royal Navy midshipman. He left to seek his fortune in the colonies, and from 1765 worked as a private country trader.

Light's interest in Penang began in 1771, when he proposed the idea of a British settlement in the neighbourhood of the Malay Peninsular to Warren Hastings, the East India Company's Governor of the Presidency of Fort William. 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.[4] Light also arranged a large shipment of firearms for the Siamese Kingdom of Thonburi and Taksin the Great ennobled him Phraya Ratcha Capitan for his service. King Taksin also permitted Light’s export of tin from Salang around 1777.[5]

For about ten years he had his headquarters in Salang, where he revived a failed French trading post. While in Salang he learned to speak and write several languages, including Malay and Thai. He became family friends with Than Phu Ying Chan and her husband, the Governor of Salang[disambiguation needed][6]. In 1785, he warned the Siamese on Phuket Island of an imminent Burmese attack. Light's warning enabled the islanders, led by Chan and her sister Mook to prepare for Phuket's defence and subsequently repel the Burmese invasion.

Whereas his previous suggestion had brought no result, following the war that ended in the Peace of 1783 with France and Spain 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 of Kedah Sultanate, renaming it Prince of Wales Island, and the capital, George Town. Under the administration of Governor-general Sir John Macpherson, Light was entitled Superintendent and put in charge of the settlement; thus occasioning the beginning of British expansion into the Malay States, and into British colonization in Southeast Asia.

The Sultan, however, was bound under the Southeast Asian mandala political model in fealty to the king of Siam. Light exceeded his authority with a promise of military aid should the Burmese or Siamese invade.[7] Thus, when the Sultan's land was invaded and no aid was forthcoming, the Sultan attempted to take back the island as a refuge.[8] A legend arose that Light had been given a Princess of Kedah 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.[9][10]

The multicultural colony of Penang became extraordinarily successful from its inception and Light served as Superintendent of the settlement until his death.


Tomb of Francis Light in Penang's Protestant Cemetery

Light died from malaria on 21 October 1794 and was buried at the Old Protestant cemetery at Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) in George Town. A statue, which bears his name but has the facial features of his son William, stands at Fort Cornwallis in George Town.

Light had four daughters and two sons with Martina Rozells, who was said to be of Portuguese and Siamese lineage. Martina is occasionally referred to in the literature as the Princess of Kedah, as above. If they were legally married, he did not declare it. However, it was against East India Company rules to marry a Catholic and, as Martina was Catholic, Light may have tried to avoid dismissal by never declaring his marriage. He did leave her his considerable property.

Their 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.


Light Street, within the UNESCO World Heritage Site in George Town, is named after him. Convent Light Street, one of Penang's oldest girls' schools, is located along the street.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b The date on his tombstone in the Northam Road cemetery says he died on 21 October 1794, but an official despatch sent by Philip Mannington, Light's successor, shows Francis Light as having died on "25 October 1794".
    • Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Society for Army Historical Research (London, England), 1982; Item notes: v.60 no.244 1982; p. 80
    • Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1959; p. 22
    • "British & Indian Armies in the East Indies, 1685–1935", A. G. Harfield, Picton Pub., 1984; ISBN 0-902633-95-3, ISBN 978-0-902633-95-7; p. 58
  2. ^ Steurt 1901, p. 4.
  3. ^ "Captain Francis Light grave". Retrieved 6 February 2014.
  4. ^ Steurt 1901, p. 7.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Kuala Lumpur, Melaka & Penang. Ediz. Inglese. By Joe Bindloss
  8. ^ Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East ..., Volume 2 edited by Keat Gin Ooi
  9. ^ Leslie James, (2005) On The Trail of Francis Light, Founder of Modern Penang
  10. ^ 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. Volume 1 (2nd ed.). London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley. p. 22. 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....
  • Kernial Singh Sandhu, (1969). Indians in Malaya-immigration and settlement, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  • Sinnappah, Anasanatnam, (1979). Indians in Malaysia and Singapore. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.
  • A. Francis Steuart, (1901). A Short Sketch of the Lives of Francis and William Light. Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London.

External linksEdit