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Biography of Captain Francis Light

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Captain Francis Light was the man instrumental in putting Penang on the map. While there has been arguments over whether or not he founded Penang, there is no denying that he established the trading port of George Town, and that made possible activities that led to the island becoming one of the most important cities in the country. The following chronology is a biography of his life.

1740: Born in Dallinghoo, Suffolk, out of wedlock. Mother Mary Light. Father anonymous.

1759-63: Served the Navy. First as Cadet on HMS Captain, then as Midshipman on HMS Dragon and finally as midshipman on HMS Arrogant. Met James Scott. In 1763, the signing of the Treaty of Paris (which ended the war between Great Britain, France and Spain), his ship stopped sailing, and he was out of job.

1765-75: Arrived in Madras to seek his fortune. Found job in the shipping firm Jourdain, Sullivan & de Souza, licensed by the British East India Company to conduct local trading. Made captain of the Speedwell. Sailed between India, Thailand and the Malay peninsula. He conducted trade in a semi-autonomous position, living on his own wits.

1772: Got to know Martinha Rosales (Martina Rozells) and together set up a trading office in Kuala Bahang (Kuala Kedah). She was Eurasian with Portuguese parentage on the father's side. He learned to speak Malay and Siamese.

1771: Francis Light reported to the British East India Company that the Sultan of Kedah (Sultan Mohamed Jiwa) is interested to offer his seaport (Kuala Kedah?) and the whole coastline up to Penang, in return for help (military assistance) against Selangor. The British EIC sent the young Edward Monkton to negotiate, but the deal fell through.

1771-1786: Fed up with the result of the negotiations, Francis Light and Martinha sailed off to Ujong Salang (Phuket), where they conducted their trading there, in partnership with James Scott. Honored by the Siamese King in Ayutthaya with the title of Chao Phya (Lord Lieutenant).

1778: Sultan Muhammad Jiwa passed away, succeeded by his son Sultan Abdullah Mukkaram Shah.

1783: The French set up at Trincomalee, Ceylon, and proceeded (for a while) to blockade Calcutta. Light, who was cruising down the Caromandal coast, was also captured, but managed to escape.

1784: The Dutch thwarted British attemps to set up trading settlements at Rhio and Acheh. Francis Light approached Sultan Abdullah to grant Penang Island to the British on "certain conditions."

1786: Sultan Abdullah wrote to the Acting Governor-General in Calcutta, specifying the conditions, which include military protection. Acting as the sultan's representative, Light sent the letter along with his own cover letter. Before the British could reply, Sultan Abdullah was badgering Light on a response. Trying to stall for time, Light gave the Sultan a commitment that the British would honour the conditions, and on this context, Francis Light proceeded to land and established a post on Penang.

May 1787: Siam demanded Kedah provide Siam with 200 perahus, arms, ammunition, food supplies and 10,000 soldiers. Now the Sultan comes to Light asked for the promised assistance. Light tried to write to India and when no reply came, was evasive of the Sultan. The disappointed Sultan sent his representative to Siam promissing assistance.

Nov 1787: Siam made another demand, for $30,000, arms, and food supplies for 20,000 soldiers. The sultan, desperate, tried to get help from the French in Pondicherry but the French declined. He turned to the Dutch for help but the Dutch also declined. Upset, he lined up 400 perahus and 120 guns around Penang, and held British merchandise worth $30,000 in Kuala Kedah. He now demanded that Light pay him $10,000. Light complied, paid the sultan $10,000, and said he would write to Calcutta once more.

1791: Still no reply from Calcutta, Sultan Abdullah resolved to take Penang by force. Light, not wanting to find, sent $5,000 as "compensation for the delay". But this time Sultan Abdullah returned the money. He has "had it" with British promises. Now he wanted Penang back. In the fight, Light was at an advantage, with better weapons, so he forced the sultan's troops to a retreat.

1 June 1791: Treaty between Sultan Abdullah and Francis Light. The British to pay Kedah $6,000 as long as they occupied the island.

1794: Francis Light passed away in Penang of malaria.

For his role in founding Penang, the British East India Company gave him the title of Superintendent, which is lower than the Lieutenant-Governor or even President, enjoyed by his successors.

Further Reading

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