Light was a soldier and surveyor born on 27 April 1786 in Kuala Kedah, Malaya, the second son of Captain Francis Light (1740?-1794) and Martinha Rozells, traditionally a Princess of Kedah but almost certainly a Portuguese Eurasian. His father, the illegitimate son of William Negus, a Suffolk landowner, and Mary Light, a serving girl, served four years in the navy, went to India in 1765 and became a trader in the seas around Siam, Malaya and Sumatra. While living on Junk in Ceylon he urged the East India Co. to take over the island of Penang from the sultan of Kedah in return for protection. The company at last agreed to do this in 1786 with Light as the first superintendent.
William Light spent his infant years on Penang, but at 6 went to England to be educated by his father’s friend, Charles Doughty, of Theberton, Suffolk. In 1799 he entered the navy as a volunteer, and left as a midshipman after two years. He became a civilian internee in France in May 1803 but escaped from Verdun on 5 January 1804. Next year he was in Calcutta at his sister’s wedding on 9 March, and on 19 November 1806 was present when his brother-in-law, Major Welsh, fearing a massacre, disarmed a portion of his Indian regiment. He returned to Europe in 1806. In May 1808 he purchased a cornetcy in the 4th Dragoons, was promoted lieutenant in April 1809 while on the way to Spain and served with distinction throughout the Peninsular war. As an able linguist, who also drew well, reported accurately and showed great tact, he was frequently sent to confer with blood-thirsty guerilla bands. In November 1812 he became a junior staff officer at Wellington’s headquarters, employed on mapping, reconnaissance and liaison duties. In spite of his daring and courage he went through more than forty actions without a wound.
On return from Spain he purchased a captaincy in the infantry in November 1814. On half-pay after Waterloo, which he just missed, he spent some time travelling in Europe. Four years later he was back on full pay, serving in the Channel Islands, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1821 he quitted the army with the brevet rank of major and on 24 May married E. Perois in Londonderry. Turning again to the Continent, he mixed in literary and artistic circles. In 1823 he became aide-de-camp to Sir Robert Wilson, who raised an international force to help the Spanish ‘Liberales’ in their constitutional struggle against King Ferdinand, Light serving in the Spanish revolutionary army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. The campaign was a farce. The Liberales melted before the French army which came to aid Ferdinand, and Light was severely wounded in a scuffle for the possession of Corunna.
In 1824 he married Mary Bennet, a natural daughter of the third Duke of Richmond. His wife’s wealth was important to Light since his father’s extensive estates on Penang had been filched by his father’s friends from the ignorant Martinha. The couple travelled widely in Europe, Light making many sketches, some being published in Sicilian Scenery (London, 1823) and Views of Pompeii (London, 1828). In 1827 Light bought a yacht in England, sailed her first to Italy, and then cruised leisurely round the Mediterranean. At Alexandria in 1830 he became friendly with Mohammed Ali, then rising to power as the founder of modern Egypt. To recruit British officers for the Pasha’s navy, Light sailed his yacht to England. He revisited Alexandria briefly in 1832 and in 1834 commanded the paddle steamer Nile on its voyage from England to join the Egyptian navy. The Nile was taken over by Captain (Sir) John Hindmarsh who on return to England in February 1835 was given by Light a letter of introduction to his friend Sir Charles Napier, newly resigned as governor of the proposed settlement in South Australia. This introduction indirectly led to Hindmarsh obtaining the post, although Napier had recommended Light.
In January 1836 Light returned to London and next month he was appointed surveyor-general of South Australia at £400 a year. Most of his staff and equipment had been selected already; Light made a few modifications, asked for two more assistants, and then unfortunately told the commissioners that ‘he considered his staff sufficiently strong’. He fitted out the Rapid and, after a delay caused by his ill health, sailed in command of her with some of his staff on 1 May 1836. The main party under (Sir) George Kingston, the deputy-surveyor, had left five weeks earlier in the Cygnet.
Light’s instructions from the Colonization Commission set an impossible task. On his sole responsibility he was expected within two months to examine minutely 1500 miles (2414 km) of coastline, select ‘the best situation’ for the first settlement, survey the town site, divide 150 sq. miles (388 km²) of country into sections, and make reservations for secondary towns. He arrived off Kangaroo Island on 17 August 1836 and sailed straight to Encounter Bay, which he quickly rejected as unsafe and useless for a main harbour. Back at Kangaroo Island he found poor land, some South Australian Co. employees who had been there for a month, but no Cygnet. Before she arrived on 11 September, Light had started to examine the mainland coast. Rapid Bay, near the foot of Gulf St Vincent, impressed him favourably, but he sailed north to seek the harbour reported by the explorer, Captain Collet Barker, and the whaling captain, John Jones. The harbour eluded Light, and settlers began to arrive two weeks before the entrance to the Port Adelaide River was found on 21 November.
The background of Mediterranean travel gave Light confidence in this small but safe harbour and in the adjacent fertile plains with the Lofty Ranges for water, as the site for his settlement. To accord with instructions, however, he had to visit Port Lincoln before deciding finally. He had returned to Gulf St Vincent and determined the actual city site by the time Hindmarsh arrived on 18 December 1836. Although pleased at first by the site, Hindmarsh demurred at it being six miles (9.6 km) from the coast, and soon found other objections. Light pressed ahead with his survey of the town and laid out its 1042 acres (422 ha) by 11 March 1837. To appease Hindmarsh he later surveyed twenty-nine sections at Port Adelaide. Other surveys were impeded by dissensions among the colonists, and particularly the determined efforts, in which Hindmarsh was involved, to move the capital to Encounter Bay or Port Lincoln. When Light did commence the country surveys he found his staff inadequate in numbers and experience, their spirit sapped by poor pay, insufficient equipment and no provision for transport. Light and the resident commissioner, (Sir) James Fisher, saw that the task would take several years. They decided to send Kingston to England to ask for more equipment and staff, and to urge the recall of Hindmarsh. Meanwhile Light struggled on with the survey and had 60,000 acres (24,281 ha) completed by December 1837, when Hindmarsh was still seeking from Lord Glenelg permission to move the settlement.
Some 150,000 acres (60,703 ha) were ready by June 1838 when Kingston returned with the commissioners’ answers. Not only had Light’s appeals been rejected, but his trigonometrical survey was to be replaced by ‘running surveys’ to speed up the work. If Light refused to carry out this temporary form of survey, Kingston was to do it while Light was to be relegated to the minor task of coastal examination. Light promptly resigned with all but two of his staff. Although his health was now particularly bad, he became the principal partner in a private firm of Light, Finniss & Co. Hindmarsh was recalled in July 1838. The new governor, Colonel George Gawler, arrived in October 1838 to find the survey department in confusion under Kingston, and he appointed Captain Charles Sturt as surveyor-general. Moves in London and Adelaide to have Light reinstated proved abortive because of his health.
In January 1839 Light set out for a survey contract north of Adelaide, but ten hours in the saddle proved too much for him and he was forced to return. Next afternoon his temporary dwelling was burnt down, and with it most of his lifetime accumulation of papers, journals, and sketches. He moved into his incompleted house, Theberton (Thebarton), living as an invalid, and nursed by Maria Gandy, who had come out with him in the Rapid. He was desperately poor and sold sketches to make a little money. With the aid of salvaged papers, he wrote and published at his own expense, A Brief Journal of the Proceedings of William Light (Adelaide, 1839). In May he took part in a search for a northerly route to the Murray, but returned from the trip in a severe fever. He died from tuberculosis on 6 October 1839 and was buried in the city square named after him.
Light separated from his wife in 1832 because, during his absence from Egypt, she had been living with another man, by whom she later had three children. These children were later given the name of Light. At his death Light appointed Maria Gandy his sole executrix and beneficiary.
Light was described as ‘of medium height, sallow complexion, alert and handsome, with face clean shaven excepting closely cut side whiskers, black curly hair, brown eyes, straight nose, small mouth, and shapely chin’. He made friends readily and they remained loyal. One of them said that Light was ‘a man of extraordinary accomplishments, soldier, seaman, musician, artist and good in all’.
In his Brief Journal Light wrote, ‘The reasons that led me to fix Adelaide where it is I do not expect to be generally understood or calmly judged of at present … I leave it to posterity … to decide whether I am entitled to praise or to blame’. Boyle Travers Finniss, his friend and colleague, said, ‘If Colonel Light had not stood firm … the first colonists would have been ruined, the capital of the Company would have perished, and public feeling would have ruined the Commissioners’. Light gave Adelaide its belt of parklands, a feature of town planning ahead of the times. His fine self-portrait is in the National Gallery, Adelaide, and a portrait by George Jones, R.A., is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. In the Adelaide Town Hall there is another portrait which is a copy of the original held by descendants of the Light family in England. A statue by Birnie Rhind stands on Montefiore Hill, overlooking the city he founded. A monument over his grave, designed by Kingston and erected in 1843, soon crumbled and was replaced by a new one in 1905, stands in the Adelaide city square which bears Light’s name. A garden suburb, likewise honouring him, was built on land about 4 miles south of Adelaide previously occupied by the Mitcham army training camp, and officially designated in 1921. The Light River (Yarralinka), in the mid north of South Australia, was named for him in the late 1830s.
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