Penang’s First Lady – Martina Rozells
A Eurasian of Siamese and Portuguese descent, Martina Rozells, is said to be have been born in Thaland, Phuket and later became an adopted child of the Sultan of Kedah in what is today Malaysia – just south of Satun province in Thailand. She has variously been depicted as the a Siamese Princess, the Princess of Kedah
Much has been written about Francis Light, the founder of Penang, but little has been written about his beautiful Thai-Eurasian, common in law wife, Martina Rozells.
“Martina Rozells co-habited with Francis Light, the founder of Penang, for at least 22 years before his death from malaria in 1794. She bore him five (or possibly six) children, one of whom later became the founder of Adelaide in Australia. Founding a city must have been written into the genetic code of both father and son.
Over the years many romantic legends have been constructed about Martina, and the truth may never be fully known. One of the most exotic stories is that she was a princess of the royal house of Kedah and that the island of Penang was presented to her (and her husband) by the Sultan as her dowry. However, as the Sultan demanded tribute from Penang as recompense for revenue lost, this cannot be true. Along with this story is the notion that Light and Martina were actually married according to Malay customs; but they were not recognised by the East India Company.
Other versions of the Martina story dress her as a Catholic Eurasian of mixed Thai and Portuguese descent. One of the reasons for Light not marrying her might have been the fact that she was a Roman Catholic and he was a Protestant. The other is that she was almost certainly a Eurasian. It is hard for us to realise how much race counted for in the past. Being of mixed race was especially tricky because you belonged to neither side. Despite these prejudices, the Eurasian community has made a rich contribution in the field of Penang’s musical history, with artists like Jimmy Boyle, Joe Rozells, Larry Rodrigues, the Baum brothers, the Jeremiahs, Colleen Read and Leo Aeria. An equally important Eurasian heritage piece is in the field of food with such delights as Beef Semur, Chicken Devil Curry and Salted fish pickles – all Malaysian favourites even today. It is thought that Francis Light himself invited the first wave of Eurasian migrants to come to Penang in 1786, the year of the Colony’s founding and that subsequent migrants came from Phuket as well as Kedah.
Light died fairly young, but he had made exceptionally detailed provision for Martina in his will, which perhaps gives us an indication of the value placed upon common household objects in those days: “I give and bequeath unto the said Martina Rozells my bungalow in George Town with one set of mahogany tables, two card cables, two couches, two bedstead large and two small with bedding…. a dressing table and 18 chairs, two silver candle sticks, one silver teapot, two sugar dishes, twelve table spoons, twelve tea spoons, one soup spoon and all the utensils not under the stewards charge to be disposed of as she thinks proper without any limitation. I also give Martina Rozells four of my best cows and one bull….” (Quoted in Streets of George Town).
It is rather shameful that after Light’s death, his business partners tried to cheat Martina out of her inheritance by transferring his properties into their names. She struggled in the courts for many years perhaps hampered by being illiterate, as so many women were in those days. She did finally win justice in 1812 but by then, she had married John Timmins. Even the street which once bore her name, Martina’s Lane, has been renamed Leith Street Ghaut”.
It is not clear where Martina Rozells was buried but, given that she died in 1822 in Penang, it is quite possible that, as a Catholic, she was buried in the Catholic Cemetery, divided from the Protestant Cemetery by a wall.