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).