The Light Letters

Scope and Content

The collection comprises approximatly 1,200 Malay letters, primarily correspondence received (with some copies of letters sent) by Captain Francis Light and his business partner, Captain James Scott from (and to) rulers and dignitaries of the Malay Sultanates in the 1780's and 1790's. There are also items from Aceh, Jambi, Indragiri, Minangkabau, Palembang, Pedir, Siak, and other places in Sumatra, from Brunei and Sambas, and from Tidore.

The letters cover the history of relations, negotiations and conflicts between Light, the rulers of Kedah and the Governor General in Bengal leading up to and including the settlement of Penang in 1786 and the armed conflict of 1791. There are also letters dealing with business affairs between Light and Malay nobles such as the purchase, shipment and sale of commodities, ammunition, slaves and opium, and the maintenance of good political and economic neighbourly relations; letters from the Sultanate of Selangor; letters from royal merchants at the Malay courts, and letters concerning trade from various rulers and nobles in the Peninsula and Sumatra, especially from Aceh, Asahan and other North-Sumatran states. In addition, the collection contains several dozen letters and documents from the same period relating to Bencoolen (Benkulen) and the West Sumatran Presidency, which are unrelated to Light.

Various papers, various sizes

Administrative / Biographical History

Francis Light was born in Suffolk. Although his date of birth is unknown, his baptism is recorded as 15 December 1740. He was educated at Seckford's Grammar School, Woodbridge from 1747. He entered service as a surgeon's servant on the HMS Mars in February 1754, and subsequently served as midshipman on the HMS Captain, the HMS Dragon and in 1761 aboard the HMS Arrogant. His employment with the Navy ended in 1763. In 1765 he embarked on a journey bound for Madras and Bombay aboard the East India Company's ship 'Clive'. In India, he secured command of a 'Country Ship' (owned in India and engaged in trade in Eastern waters) belonging to a Madras firm of merchants, Jourdain, Sulivan & Desouza. Light was posted to Kedah with the company, where he quickly attained an influential position with the Sultan of Kedah. From 1771, he was involved in various proposals to cede land belonging to Kedah to the British. In 1786 Light was able to report to the Bengal Government that he had persuaded the Sultan to cede the Island of Penang (Pulau Penang) to the East India Company for 36;6000 a year. The offer was accepted and in June 1786 Light was appointed first Superintendent of the new British colony. He landed with his forces in July 1786, and on 11 August the colony was christened Prince of Wales Island. He combined his position as Superintendent with his role as principal merchant.

By 1791, the Sultan of Kedah found that his revenues were being seriously diminished by the growing prosperity of Penang, and he demanded additional income to compensate for this loss. He simultaneously made preparations to seize the island, constructing a fort at Prye. Light obtained reinforcements from Bengal and attacked the fort, capturing it on 12 April 1791. The Sultan sued for peace and a treaty was agreed. The Sultan was granted an annual payment of $6000, on condition that the English could continue in possession of Penang. The settlement entered a period of relative quiet during which Light oversaw its administration, with periodic requests to the Bengal Government for a larger administrative staff.

With the beginning of the French War with England in February 1793, and the threat that this posed to English trade in the East, Light called for the reinforcement of troops in Indian waters. He also set about rebuilding Penang's defences. Naval reinforcements arrived in Madras at the end of 1793. The French attempt to capture Penang did not take place until 1796, after Light's death.

Light married Martina Rozells, by whom he had 3 daughters and 2 sons. His eldest son, William Light, became the first Surveyor General of Southern Australia and founder of the city of Adelaide. Francis Light died from a Malarial attack on 21 October 1794.

Further reading: Steuert, A.F., The Founders of Penang and Adelaide: a Short Sketch of the Lives of Francis and William Light , (London, 1901) Clodd, H.P., Malaya's First British Pioneer: the Life of Francis Light , (London, 1948).


The letters have been bound into 11 volumes, broadly grouped by place of origin and sender.

Access Information


Acquisition Information

The Malay documents form part of the collection formed by William Marsden (bequeathed to King's College Library by William Marsden's widow in 1835 and 1837), transferred to SOAS Library shortly after its foundation in 1916.


See Marsden, W., 'Bibliotheca Marsdeniana philologica et orientalis: A Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts collected with a view to the General Comparison of Languages, and to the study of Oriental Literatures, London, 1827, p.304. Some of these letters published with English translations in Marsden, W., 'A Grammer of the Malayan Language, with an Introduction and Praxis, London 1812, pp. 137-57.

Related Material

Francis Light, correspondence and papers (1786-1794) held at the British Library, Manuscript Collections, [ref. Add MS 45271]; See HMC Papers of British Colonial Governors 1782-1900, (1986).

A letter in Thai to Captain Francis Light from the Siamese authorities, relating to the supply of 4000 muskets by Light to the Siamese government of King Tak Sin; held at SOAS Library [Ref. MS 380629]

Photograph of a letter in Thai from Thalang written to Francis Light by the King's Minister, 1877 held at SOAS Library [Ref. MS 380665]

Corporate Names