Francis Light’s Last Will & Testament

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 …

It begins,

‘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.

If you search online for an image of Martina Rozells this portrait will probably pop up. It was painted by George Chinnery 1774-1852, famous for his paintings of the China Coast. According to auction house Christies (who know a thing or two about art) the subject is most probably a Tanka girl (boatwoman) at Macao and therefore very unlikely to be of Martina Rozells.
Home, Robert; Portrait of a Malay Woman; The Royal College of Surgeons of England;

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.

The Suffolk estate bequeathed by Light to Martina would have been very desirable. This was how it was painted in 1820 by Capt. Robert Smith. The house itself was most likely built after Light’s death. Not surprising that Fairlie and Scott ignored Light’s dying wish and cheated Martina of her inheritance.
This is how the house looks today after a recent restoration. It is now a restaurant and events venue.

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.

Malaysian Road Traffic Signs

Road traffic signs in Malaysia generally follow the international standards used in Europe, but there are a few which have been tailored for local conditions. This one is my favourite:


It informs users of this busy urban dual carriageway that bullock carts, trishaws, pedal-powered food carts and bicycles are not permitted.

The chances of seeing a bullock cart these days are rare. I recall seeing some in Malacca about 25 years ago. They were used to ferry tourists around the padang. They’ve gone now. This may be the only bullock cart left in Malacca:


Trishaws have all but disappeared too as a means of transport. There are a few in the main tourist area of Melaka for selfie purposes. This working trishaw was spotted in Penang a few years back:

Trishaw-Penang Food carts are still around but they too are under threat as urban councils tighten up on hygiene laws and parking spaces. I snapped this photo in Muar some time ago (probably would cost a lot more than RM 3 today):


It’s a shame to see these icons of traditional culture disappearing from modern Malaysia, to be replaced by sanitised shopping malls, food trucks and Uber cars. All that’s left is the road sign as a reminder of what has been lost.

Great Malaysian Railway Journeys


Some time ago I came across a 100 year old publication called Tours In The Malay Peninsula, Pamphlet of Information for Travellers written by the Federated Malay States Railway.

The pamphlet describes a rail journey from Penang to Singapore in 1914. To mark the publication’s centenary I thought it would be interesting to repeat the journey and see how things have changed.

What’s more, I decided to write a website about it, which might seem a nutty thing to do given its niche audience, but it has given me an excuse to visit various places along the route which I might otherwise have not bothered visiting.

I’ve called the website Great Malaysian Railway Journeys in homage to Michael Portillo’s excellent TV series about Great British and Continental railway journeys.

The website is still a work in progress but I hope you’ll take a look at it by clicking here.

Great Malaysian Railway Journeys

Hong Kong Bar – Chulia Street, Penang

Hong Kong Bar, Penang as at March 2012

The Hong Kong Bar in Chulia Street is something of a Penang institution.

It has been owned and run by the same family since 1955 and has always been a popular haunt for servicemen from the RAF/RAAF Butterworth days and visiting sailors and soldiers.

RAF Butterworth handed over to the RAAF in 1957 and since then Aussies have been the most frequent patrons. The RAAF base closed down in 1988 but Butterworth (and the bar) still hosts Rifle Company units of the Australian army who come out to Malaysia for three month stints of  jungle warfare training.

The servicemen have left mementos of their many hours spent in the bar and the walls are lined with plaques and photos. The bar also has the custom of maintaining photo albums and visitors books of all its clients.

Sadly there was a major fire at the bar in September 2004 which gutted much of the interior and destroyed the old photo books. Since the fire, the owners have made a good job of recreating the nostalgic feel of the old bar.  From the outside the place looks much as it always has except that the sign now carries a Malay description Pusat Istirehat which I think translates as ‘leisure centre’.

Business is probably not what it used to be when the RAAF base was operational and when I visited in March 2012 I was the only customer. But this did give me an opportunity to chat to the middle aged lady who runs the place. She told me more about Malaysian current affairs in 5 minutes than I had learned in the last 2 years of living here!

Here are a few photos for readers who may have fond memories of this place.

Fire damaged plaques at Hong Kong Bar, Penang

Mementos from Auzzie military units.

Retro Style CD juke box has replaced the old record playing juke box.

Ex-servicemen make up a high proportion of Hong Kong Bar's customers these days.

Hong Kong Bar, Chulia Street, Penang

Postcard from Penang

While in Penang recently I took a few photos of the grand old bank buildings on Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street).

Standard Chartered’s office is probably the oldest one still occupied by its original owners.

Standard Chartered Bank, Penang

The old Mercantile building has been restored but looks a little different from the original.

Restored Mercantile building. Old Mercantile Branch

My favourite of the bunch is probably the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (Netherlands Trading Society) which later became ABN Bank and now is a branch of Royal Bank of Scotland.

Royal Bank of Scotland Penang

Of course there is a branch of HSBC here too. It is a newer building, completed in 1950. There is nothing special about it except that there is a time capsule buried under the foundation stone containing the 4th March 1950 edition of the Penang Gazette, a sweep ticket for that afternoon’s races (too late to collect the winnings I expect), some coins, stamps and photos of the Penang staff.

HSBC Penang

This building occupies the same site as an earlier branch  which had to be demolished due to bomb damage during WWII.  I asked my Dad if he had ever been to Penang. He said  ‘Yes, during the war. We bombed it!’  (he was in the navy). Well I am sure the Royal Navy would never have targeted such a venerable institution as the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank so the damage was more likely inflicted accidentally by one of the USAF’s B-29 high altitude bombing raids on Penang, unless of course the Japanese did it.

Luckily I have an old postcard of the earlier HSBC building to show you what it was like.

HSBC Penang in 1910

What is remarkable about this postcard is that it was obviously written by a member of HSBC staff in 1910 (or perhaps that is not so remarkable – who else would buy a postcard of a bank?).

Why did he write it upside down?

To save you trying to read upside down I shall attempt to decipher the writing:

Between Penang & Singapore 5/5/10

Am still travelling eastwards. Looks now as if I were bound for H/O. Spent a pleasant hour or so at the Penang Club last night. The Devanha will be practically empty tomorrow when we leave Singapore. We had a lot of thunder & lightning & very heavy rain today. Kindest regards, WHS.

The postcard is addressed to his colleague B. Reeves at HSBC, 31 Lombard Street, London which is where, incidentally, the famous author PG Wodehouse worked briefly from 1900-1902 before he realized that he wasn’t cut out for banking. (Some of us took a lot longer to work that out!).

The ‘Devanha’ referred to in the postcard would have been the S.S. Devanha, a passenger and cargo liner owned by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O) which plied the UK to India/China route. This 8092 ton vessel was built by Caird & Co. in Greenock in 1906 so it would have still been quite new and no doubt was a very comfortable and civilized way to travel from UK to Hong Kong, which is where Mr. WHS seems to be bound.

SS Devanha

During the First World War the ship was requisitioned and took part in the Dardanelles campaign, first as a troopship and later as a hospital ship.

HMHS Devanha

The Devanha transported the 12th Battalion of Australian troops to land at what later became known as Anzac Beach. One of her lifeboats which the soldiers used to row ashore is now on display at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.

Devanha lifeboat

The Devanha was scrapped in 1928 in Japan of all places where it could perhaps have been been melted down into war materials to be later used in the invasion of Penang bringing this story full circle.