by Maganjeet Kaur
Francis Light is no stranger to us. We know him as a buccaneer and the founder of a British colony on Penang. But who was he really? Where did he come from? What drove him? These questions are explored in Rose Gan’s thrilling novel Dragon: Penang Chronicles 1. The book will be available at the local bookshops by the first week of November 2021 but it is possible to pre-order it online.
I have had the pleasure of reading an advance copy; as a historical novel, it satisfies both the need to have beauty of language in a book as well as the desire for historical information. Rose is adept at creating atmosphere – her description of places, people and events immerses the reader in the time-period in question and, thus, appreciate the story at a deeper level. The novel also fleshes out the many facets of Light’s personality allowing us to understand him better than through the two-dimensional character typically depicted in history books.
The story is so real and engrossing that one may forget this is a work of fiction. We must remember though that there is a lot unknown about Light especially of his early life. We don’t even know how he looks like – the statue at Fort Cornwallis is based on the likeliness of his son, William. Rose’s filling in the gaps based on the in-depth research she has undertaken seem very plausible. Overall, although the book is filled with facts, it is an easy and pleasant read.
Book Launch at Ubud Festival – 10 October, 6.30pm (GMT +8)
Rose will be sharing her journey writing the book on 10 October at the Ubud Festival (click here for details).
Her talk will be streamed live on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Do tune in; you can interact with Rose at this time and ask any questions you may have. If you are not free on the 10th, the recording will remain available online at the links above.
I have written a short summary below if you want to understand the story before the talk (no spoilers, I promise).
The Story in short
The story opens in Suffolk, England, in 1740 with the impending birth of Light, conceived through an illicit love affair. The soon- to- be father sought help to place the unwanted child in adoptive care with the directive that the child be brought up as a gentleman (or a lady, if female). Thus, upon birth, the baby became the son of Mary Light, a young widow, with Sir William Negus as his guardian. Sir William, fond of the boy, provided him with a grammar school education as befitting a gentleman.
We first meet Francis Light at Seckford School in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and quickly come to realise that even at the tender age of fourteen, Light was no pushover; his careful planning and execution to extract revenge on a bullying schoolmate shows the single-minded deviousness with which he later grabbed Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah. He was a poor student. Although obviously clever, he could not apply attention to the likes of Greek and Roman verbs or religious education. Hence, the principal of the school felt it better if he withdrew from school and focussed on learning a trade. However, he yearned to join the Royal Navy thinking he could, through hard work, climb up the ranks and, in time, command his own ship in spite of his lowly illegitimate status in life. A war could make this a reality.
left: Seckford’s Free School, Woodbridge, a sketch by Thomas Churchyard c. 1800; right: A small windowpane from the original school, later town library, etched with the names of Francis Light and James Lynn. It was donated to the Penang Museum. Rose has weaved the windowpane into the story in the scene where Light extracts revenge.
In October 1754, he joined the HMS Mars as a surgeon’s assistant. Although bitterly disappointed that he could not join at the rank of midshipman because of his low social status, he made the best of the situation and sought to learn quickly. Here, we catch a glimpse of life on board a warship and understand the importance of rank in eighteenth century British genteel society. We also see his character unfold further – he is observant, calculative, learns quickly and is a good judge of character. He is no fool and does not trust people easily. When the ship runs aground, Light’s singular act of bravery saves all the men on-board and earns him the friendship of Captain John Amherst, which would help his naval career over the next few years.
An appointment with Sir John Cleveland, the First Secretary to the Admiralty, put him in high hopes of getting his name on the List and entering the ranks of an Officer. He was to be disappointed. Then, a chance meeting with James Scott, a former shipmate on the Arrogant, got him thinking of a career path outside the navy. Scott had been offered a position with the East India Company (EIC), also known as the Honourable Company, and was due to sail out shortly. He suggested Light follow his lead as there was opportunity for making lots of money out East. Being illegitimate, however, his application to the EIC was rejected and, so, he went to India as a common sailor on the Clive, an East Indiaman headed to Madras (known also as Fort St. George to the British, today Chennai). In Madras, Light landed a job with the country traders Jourdan, Sullivan and DeSouza, and he finally realised his ambition of captaining a ship.
Rose fleshes out more of Light’s character. We see a soft side to him when he adopts a starving, orphaned child after he stumbles over him at the entrance of his lodgings. The kid was around ten years old, possibly Bugis, spoke Malay and answered to the name of Soliman. They teach each other their languages and Light’s mastery of Malay would hold him in good stead when he started trading along the Straits of Malacca. We also see that he is not averse to profiteering and smuggling when he sneaks into Dutch-controlled Ceylon. In a run-in with a Bugis ship in which not only his ship and goods were in danger of being seized, but he and his crew potentially slain, we see Light as a silver-tongued orator sweet-talking the Bugis into doing business with him and outsmarting the Dutch.
His old friend, James Scott, had left the Honourable Company and had become an entrepreneur. Light catchs up with him in Junk Ceylon (Phuket today, known previously as Thalang to the Siamese and Ujung Salang to the Malays). Scott wanted Light to partner with him but Light prevaricated. His conversations with Scott reveal his motivations – he wants to be accepted as an equal and to go back to England in glory as a gentleman. Unlike Scott, who had married a Malay and does not care for approval, Light was not willing to be cast out of genteel English society. Hence, we see the motivation behind his willingness to work hard in supporting a British settlement in the Straits.
Through his trading trips down the Straits, we get to understand the political undercurrents and the jostling for power in the region – Siam rising under a new king (Tak Sin), the Bugis-Dutch rivalry for control over the Straits, dissent among the chiefs under Sultan Alaudin of Aceh, and the courting of foreign powers to keep local enemies at bay. With Junk Ceylon taken over by Bugis Riau and Kedah beleaguered by a rebellion as well as by Bugis Selangor, Sultan Muhammed Jiwa of Kedah suggests the EIC set up a trading post at Kuala Kedah and promised that all trade would pass through British hands. He reasons that this will keep other powers at bay and he enlists Light’s help to forward the proposal to the EIC. Is this the chance Light has been seeking for so many years?
Light’s attention also turns to marriage. In his typical calculative fashion, he singles out Thong Di – her mother is a member of the Kedah royalty and her father’s family is well connected politically and economically in Thalang. Thong Di herself is a widow with two children; her deceased husband, Martim Rozells, was a good friend with whom he had previously done business. However, Thong Di throws him a curve ball when she suggests an alliance between Light and her daughter, Martinha. Light initially baulks at marrying a girl half his age but eventually comes around after weighing the advantages of the union.
The book ends with Scott suggesting the time was right to ask the Sultan to bestow on him the pearl that he had always wanted – the island of Penang, which he could develop into a settlement. His success in obtaining Penang and his relationship with Martinha is explored in Pearl: Penang Chronicles 2, which will be published next year.
left: statue of Francis Light at Fort Cornwallis; right: portrait of a Malay woman by Robert Home, c. 1790. Could this be Martinha?