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Captain Francis Light

Captain Francis Light – A Brief Hisory

Captain Francis Light is best remembered as the founder of the British colony of Penang in Malaysia. His son, Colonel William Light, founded Adelaide in Australia.

Born in Suffolk, England in 1740, he joined the Royal Navy in 1759 and served as a midshipman until 1763. He then proceeded to become a private trader in 1765 and then widened his horizons when he joined the East India Company.

Although a great deal of his work was based in Penang, Capt. Light had a long association with Phuket and his long time ambition was to acquire it as a British colony. He actually came pretty close to successfully achieving this goal.

Capt. Light arrived in Phuket in 1772, during the reign of King Taksin. The Siamese kingdom had finally been pieced back together for the first time since the destruction of Ayudhaya by the Burmese a few decades earlier.

Phuket, came under Siamese dominion once again and King Taksin, reigning from the new capital of Thonburi. appointed Phraya Surinthraja as Governor of Thalang in 1774.

Capt Francis Light at Fort Cornwallis
Phraya Surinthraja was different to Thalang’s previous governors. He had come across many Europeans in his time and had a decent grasp of their culture and business habits. He also had good knowledge of commerce and trade. He met Capt. Light and the pair soon became well acquainted.

A letter written by Capt. Light in 1787 explained how he had helped the governor regain control of the island when it temporarily fell to the Malays from Kedah.

As a result, the governor was in debt to Capt. Light, who soon became a favourable character, well liked by the locals and even recognized by King Taksin, who conferred upon Light, a Siamese noble title, making him a Phraya, a title equivalent to a Lord.

Capt. Light was therefore known as Phraya Ratcha Capitan, a name by which many Siamese chronicles of that period refer to him. During that time, the British East India Company was looking for a trading base in this region. Capt Light was keen to make Phuket the trading base for the East India Company.

In one of his letters to Lord Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, Capt. Light recommended making Phuket a trading base for the company. In his letter, Capt Light mentioned to the governor–general that Phuket had many good harbours, ideal for ships to anchor all year round.

The island, he said, could be defended without using much manpower. The soil was rich and fertile and the weather made the island ideal for growing food. The only downside was that rice production was low each year as the locals were reluctant to grow food, choosing to dig for tin. As a result, many fields were left untended and the locals bought their rice from Kedah and Marid.

Light also noted in his letter that Phuket had a lot of land, of which a good deal was covered with forests. Timber and fresh water could be found all year round. Timber was an important raw material, especially for repairing ships that sailed into port after long voyages at sea.

Capt. Light concluded that it would take up to seven years to establish a trading base in Phuket for the East India Company, including the time it would take to negotiate a deal for the handover of the island from the Siamese, clear parts of the thick tropical forests, establish a settlement and secure adequate self-sustaining food supplies for the population.

He went on to finish his letter by adding that the people of Thalang, who were fed up with being maltreated and enslaved to their Siamese overlords, were desperate for new masters.

Capt Light failed in his attempt to secure Phuket for the East India Company. If the deal had gone through, the island's history would have taken a very different direction.

He had been appointed superintendent of Penang in 1786, which he originally named Prince of Wales Island. After 8 years at this post, he died of malaria in 1794.

There is a statue of Captain Light standing in the grounds of Fort Cornwallis, Georgetown, Penang, although apparently it was actually modelled on his son William as there were no photographs or paintings of Francis available when the statue was made.

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