Connecting the Lights

Facts, Mysteries and Eurasians

Two weeks ago, I received an email notification of a very interesting and fascinating Sunday afternoon programme at a leading hotel in Penang. After carefully perusing the attached flyer, I decided to make a trip up north and to attend the programme which incidentally featured a distinguished panel of speakers.

What does the average Malaysian know about Francis Light and Colonel William Light?

Now what was this programme, ‘ Connecting The Lights “ all about? It was about Sir Captain Francis Light, the founder of Penang, his son Colonel William Light and his wife and William’s mother, Lady Martina Rozzels.

What does the average Malaysian know about Francis Light and Colonel William Light? Who was that elusive and highly attractive Eurasian Lady, Martina Rozzels? So little is written or captured about her in the various historical documents.

Penang Continues to Fascinate

I must confess that I have always been fascinated with the island. Part of the reason could be that I spent a good two years on that island during my younger days at the small teacher training college, St Joseph’s Training College, meant to prepare La Salle Brothers to be teachers.

The La Salle Brothers also took in a few lay students, like me, who after training taught alongside the La Salle Brothers in the many mission schools throughout Malaysia. My college hostel was in Burmah Road and right in the heart of Pulau Tikus and next to the Eurasian Village ( Kampong Serani ).

Cultural Melting Pot

In addition, the whole island was and still is a cultural melting pot. I could see on a daily basis a procession of young Thai girls, dressed stylishly in jeans of all hues walking past our hostel. They were on their way to the local commercial institute in the area to be trained in typewriting, shorthand and secretarial skills.

In addition, when we attended local parties on some weekends, there was always a good mix of guests: Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and even Australians. The Royal Australian Air Force had a base in Penang and its personnel mixed very well with the locals.

Even then, Penang was an established culinary paradise. It had such an array of local dishes and one only needed to know where to go for a particular dish. For me then, it was Gurney Drive for char kueh teow and Dato Keramat for Leng Chee Kiang and / or Lobak! There were other places to go to for Nasi Kandar,  Assam Laksa and Cendol.

Distinguished Panel of Speakers

The organisers of the event, George Town Festival, had invited the following individuals: Marcus Langdon, a Penang-based author; Datuk Wira Mohd Shariff, a Kedah historian and a former district officer in Kedah; Kelly Henderson, a social activist and Parklands advocate from Adelaide; and Dato Dr. Anthony Sibert, Eurasian historian.

One of the collaborators in the event was The Royale Bintang Penang, a 4-star hotel which is housed in a heritage building built in the 1890s which belonged to Boustead & Company. This event was also to mark and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Penang Heritage Trust.

Marcus Langdon’s Contribution

Marcus Langdon was given the honour of making the first presentation.

Marcus has extensive knowledge of Penang’s early history because he has spent many years and much time researching the matter. He himself has a connection to Penang because one of his great, great grandfathers was the principal of Penang Free School!

In addition, Marcus has published two major books: Penang – The Fourth Presidency of India 1803 to 1830 Volume 1 ( Ships, Men and Mansions ) and Volume 2 ( Fire, Spice and Edifice ).

Some Facts about Francis Light

We were informed by Marcus that Francis Light enlisted in the Royal Navy at the tender age of thirteen! We were also told that he was a linguist. Francis Light could speak Bahasa Malaysia / Indonesia very well. He was also conversant with the local customs and traditions and was able to get along well with both the Sultan of Kedah as well as the Thai King. He also served for a brief period in Aceh, Indonesia. Believe or not, he was able to even read and write Jawi.

He could not only speak the Thai language quite well but he had taken the trouble to master the refined form of the Thai language used in the Royal Court. This must have surely impressed the royal families in both Kedah and Thailand.

What this indicates quite clearly is that Francis Light was a self-made man who believed in the concept of life-long education.

In addition, we were informed that Francis Light was a man of impressive diplomatic skills. Furthermore, he was equally adept in negotiations and was considered a superb negotiator.

Keep in mind that this was a man who had enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of thirteen. What this indicates quite clearly is that Francis Light was a self-made man who believed in the concept of life-long education. All these remarkable qualities and abilities of his must have impressed his ultimate bosses in the East India Company ( EIC ) in Calcutta, India.

Enigmatic Lady Martina Rozzels

Lady Martina Rozzels remains to this day an enigma! What we do know is that she somehow managed to capture the heart of Francis Light. She had two children with Francis Light… a son, Colonel William Light and a daughter.

William Light, like his illustrious father, also joined the Royal Navy initially but later on, he became an army officer rising to the exalted rank of colonel. Part of the reason for his rapid rise in the military may have been due to his birthplace being given as Suffolk, England. He was thus seen and accepted as an Englishman. Was this for strategic and career reasons?  In actual fact, he was born in Penang and is a bona fide Eurasian.

One of the speakers at the event, Datuk Wira Mohd Shariff made a fairly startling claim. According to him, a Kedah princess named Siti Zubaidah had taken on the identity of Martina Rozzels in order to marry Francis Light. She had used this Portuguese name to assume that identity. This revelation, for what it is worth, only deepens the mystery of who actually is Lady Martina Rozzels.

There are other accounts that state Lady Martina Rozzels moved from Phuket to Penang with a number of other Eurasian family members because of war and unrest in the Thai island at that time. She is to be credited, in part, for opening the doors for the La Salle Brothers coming to Penang. St Xavier’s Institution was the first La Salle school to be established in Malaysia.

Contributions from the Other Speakers

The other speakers, Datuk Wira Mohd Shariff and Kelly Henderson also gave brief presentations. Datuk Wira touched on the Kedah connections in general while Kelly Henderson talked about William Light’s role in the founding of Adelaide.

William Light admired his father’s role in the founding of Penang and wanted to leave a similar mark. As such, just as Francis Light has a statue in his honour in Penang, William Light too has a statue in his honour in Adelaide. Like father, like son!

Like his father, William Light too was a noted linguist. His plans for the city of Adelaide are considered priceless, especially his efforts at surveying for the ideal spot to locate the city. It is readily acknowledged that his decision to locate the city in that particular part was simply brilliant.

Dato Dr. Anthony Sibert however, did not turn up due to unavoidable circumstances. His contribution was nevertheless presented very briefly by one of the organisers.

Kudos to Joe Sidek

Credit should be given to a remarkable person i.e. Joe Sidek for the success of the event. As festival director for the George Town Festival for many years, he has managed to make it a successful annual happening.

It should be borne in mind that the George Town Festival started out as a celebration of George Town’s heritage status. The fact that it has since evolved into an international showcase of arts, culture and music is a great tribute to Joe Sidek, his team and the enthusiastic volunteers who lend valuable support for its various activities.

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2 thoughts on “Connecting the Lights

  1. Hello Ben,

    As much as Malayan history was never my favorite subject nor forte , I do find your article on the Lights most interesting.

    Having been born and bred in Kuala Lumpur I find Penang to be a must visit holiday destination whenever time permits. Somehow this island holds a magical magnet which inadvertantly draws me to this fascinating destination.

    I must confess though that one of the reasons could be in one of my earlier visits way back in the 70’s I had the pleasure of being introduced to a very charming girl whose name Camelia still registers in my mind very clearly to this day . Alas as fate would have it my girlfriend then who became my wife ( now ex ) so happened to pick up the phone when lovely Camelia called not long after I had returned from Penang ! My girlfriend’s jealousy immediately surfaced when she snapped at Camelia for trying to steal me from her ! As during these days when hand phones were not introduced, I had no chance to return her call to apologise for the embarrassing episode. Obviously that was the first and last time I heard from Camelia !

    The genuinely friendly nature of Penang people are one of its biggest assets plus the mouth watering hawker food Is something out of this world ! Coming back to your article , I do find the mystery on Lady Martina Rozzels particularly interesting especially the idea that she could have been one of the Kedah princesses who impersonated herself as Martina . Imagine this as fact and that would in turn make Sir Capt Francis Light’s 2 children having mixed English/ Malay parentage ! Bravo for this brief historical journey to Connect the Lights !

    Regards,

    Eugene

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