Frank Athelstane Swettenham was born in Belper, England on 28th March 1850, the fourth son of James Oldham Swettenham, a solicitor, and his wife Charlotte Elizabeth. Frank Swettenham joined the Straits Settlement Civil Service at the age of 20. He soon mastered Malay which led to his appointment as an interpreter and special commisioner and, at the age of twenty-four, as Assistant Resident to Selangor. During the period January 1874 and February 1876 Swettenham kept a semi-official diary of his day-to-day activities, a period which he thought of great importance not only to himself but also to the Malay states. He became Assistant Colonial Secretary for Native Affairs in 1876, was Resident to Selangor 1882-1889 and to Perak, 1889 to 1895. He was largely responsible for the creation of the Federated Malay States in 1896 and was its first Resident-General from 1896 to 1901. In 1901 he became Governor of the Straits Settlement and High Commisioner to the Malay States. He retired in 1904. To mark the occasion a full-length portrait by John Singer Sargent was commissioned by the Straits Association which now hangs in the National Museum in Singapore. A three-quarter length version, painted for Swettenham's own collection, now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London
During the 1890s Swettenham published a volume of short stories, entitled, Malay Sketches (London, 1895) and The Real Malay (London, 1899) which draws upon the characters and events noted in the journals. Following his retirement he wrote a history entitled British Malaya (London, 1906) and an autobiography, Footprints in Malaya (London, 1942)
Swettenham died at the age of 96 on 11th June 1946.