Martina Rozells – Penang’s first First Lady

The text below – taken from pp. 27-28 of H.P. Clodd’s 1948 book, Malaya’s First British Pioneer. The Life of Francis Light (London: Luzac & Co) – quite thoroughly discusses Martina Rozells whom the founder of Penang “co-habited” with for at least 22 years before his death in 1794. With little known about her, a shroud of mystery had grown around her over time. We do know that she bore him two sons and three daughters, the most famous of the children being William, later the founder of Adelaide. Only two years after his death, Francis Light’s estates were “fast running into jungle to the certain loss of his Heirs and the Company”. His son-in-law, a General Welsh who married Sarah Light, would lament in 1818 that his wife’s siblings had “lived to see every inch of ground and even his [Light’s] houses alienated from them” (p. 138). Martina Rozells reportedly lived for several years on the land and in the bungalow bequeathed her by her common-law husband, and may have later married one John Timmer.

During the year 1772 Light allied himself with Martina Rozells, a lady regarding whose antecedents an element of romance has been attributed by some contemporary writers, who bestowed on her the rank of a princess of the royal house of Kedah, with the embellishment that the island of Penang was presented to her by the Sultan of that state as a dower. The story first appeared in print in a book published in London in 1788 by Elisha Trapaud, who stated that Light “had assisted the above Prince in quelling some troubles in his dominions, who in return bestowed upon him a princess of the blood in marriage, together with this island as a dower. Captain Light, who is extremely well beloved amongst the Malays, chose to marry the princess according to the fashions of her own country.” This statement is supplemented by an account of Malay marriage customs. Trapaud was a captain of Engineers and a member of the force which, under the command of Light, took possession of the island of Penang in 1786. The association of the two men in this event naturally lent credence to the story, which was supported by William Marsden, the historian of Sumatra, who added that the lady was a daughter of the Sultan of Kedah. On the other hand, John Crawford, an equally competent authority, flatly denied the story and asserted that “the wife of the enterprising adventurer was neither a princess nor a Malay,” but a Portuguese of Siam, while A.M. Skinner, author of A Memoir of Captain Francis Light”, concluded that probably she was connected in some way with the Kedah princess, in spite of her Portuguese name. Sir Frank Swettenham says emphatically that there is “no foundation for the story” and that Martina Rozells “had not the remotest connection with the cession of Penang to the East India Company”.

One salient fact alone would seem effectually to dispose of the “dower” part of the story. When the cession of Penang to the East India Company—not to Francis Light personally be it noted—took place in 1786, the Sultan demanded that an annual payment should be made to him by the Company by way of compensation for the loss of the trade of Kedah which was likely to be diverted to Penang as a result of the creation of the new Settlement. Moreover, the old Sultan, Muhammad Jiwa Mu’azzam Shah II, with whom the negotiations of 1771 had been conducted, had died before 1786, his successor being styled Sultan Abdullah I. Had Penang been given as a dower to Francis Light the question of compensation would certainly not have arisen.

It would seem, however, that the views of those writers who claimed for Martina Rozells some connection—admittedly vague—with the Kedah court had some ground for their contention, which was supported by a carefully reasoned article in the Asiatic Quarterly Review of January, 1905, by Mr. A. Francis Steuart, who showed on Light’s own account of the incident appears in his letter to Warren Hastings, dated, June 17th, 1772—when he had left Kedah after the Monckton mission—“The old King puts no confidence now in any one of his Ministers; he has declared before them all that he will give his country to the English rather than the Bugesses (= Bugis) shall have it, and if they will not take it he will send to the Dutch.

In his will, Sir Francis Light bequeathed Suffolk House to Martina Rozells. The house was instead sold off by the executors of his estate..

“The offer he made me upon my first arrival I thought so advantageous that not to have accepted it would have seemed downright folly. The purport of the contract is as follows: In the year one thousand and eightyfive named Ze, in the ninth day the moon, Moharram, the Nonia, brought here Francis Light, who said he lived with Mr. Harrop in Acheen, Joint Agent for Mr. Francis Jourdain, Merchant, at Madras. The Nonia presented herself to the King, and told him that she went to Acheen, and with his licence she had asked assistance, and promised in his name and licence to trade in Queda[h], for which they promised and sent two vessels with guns, powder, arms and Sepoys with Captain Light; and if the King granted their master licence to trade and keep a house in Quedah, they would furnish him with one hundred Sepoys to keep out any enemy whatever.”

Here then appears to be irrefutable evidence that petticoat, or, to use the Malay equivalent, sarong influence played a part in the preliminary steps leading up to the Sultan’s invitation to Light in 1771 to settle in Kedah, which as we know Light accepted. Whether or not the Nyonya and Martina Rozells were related is a question to which no definite answer can be given. A point to be noted, however, is that in the preamble of his will made on the 20th October, 1794, Light stated that he had “co-habited” with Martina Rozells since the year 1772, a date approximately one year after he had left Kedah for Junk Ceylon [Phuket]. Her name certain shows Portuguese origin and it is quite possible that she was a member of the Portugese Roman Catholic community then located in Junk Ceylon. This community later was forced, owing to the Siamese reconquest of that island, to move to Kedah, where it remained until transferred to Penang in 1786.

Martina Rozells bore Light five children. William, the elder of their two sons, who was born in 1784, distinguished himself in the Peninsular War, and become confidential ADC to the Duke of Wellington; later he played an important part in the foundation of the City of Adelaide in Australia.



Related Articles

WINDOW INTO HISTORY
Mar 2011

The enchanting hill of early Penang

A letter written in 1824 shows how a visit to Penang Hill helped lift a man’s spirits.

WINDOW INTO HISTORY
Sep 2011

The Spice Island of Penang, 1834

Penang was a spice giant in the 19th century, before the blight. 

WINDOW INTO HISTORY
Feb 2016

Bringing Books to the Public

We trace the birth of Penang's – and Malaysia's – first library.