Colonel William Light

Image of an oil painting, self portrait of Colonel William Light c.1815.

William Light (1786-1839) was born 27 April 1786 in Malaya. He was the second son of Captain Francis Light and Martinha Rozells, a Portuguese Eurasian. William Light spent his early years in Penang, but at age six was sent to England to be educated by his father’s friend, Charles Doughty. In 1799, at the age of 14, Light entered the Royal Navy as a ‘volunteer boy’, and left as a midshipman two years later.

Light returned to Europe in 1806, serving first in the Peninsular war and later as an infantry captain in the Channel Islands, Scotland and Ireland. In 1821 he sold his army commission, married E Perois, and spent some years travelling through Europe where he mixed largely in artistic and literary circles. Light was known as an able linguist and competent drawer.

In 1823 Light became involved with the international force to help the Spanish Liberales in their fight against King Ferdinand. Light served as a lieutenant-colonel in the Spanish revolutionary army where he was severely wounded.

In 1824 Light married Mary Bennet (the fate of his first wife is unknown). Light was almost twice Mary’s age at the time of the marriage and brought no money to the relationship. Mary Bennet, on the other hand, commanded a modest fortune of 31,000 from her fathers estate as well as an annual allowance from her mother. The Lights lived off Mary’s income. William and Mary purchased a yacht and travelled widely throughout Europe for two years, visiting France, Italy, Switzerland, Egypt and sailing the Mediterranean before arriving back in England. In 1830 the Lights traveled extensively throughout Egypt and in 1832 Light returned to Britain and then Alexandria alone. Mary, a staunchly independent woman, remained in Egypt and began a relationship with another man, effectively ending her marriage of 10 years. When Light returned to Alexandria in 1834 his separation from Mary had been finalised (Light received no monetary gain from the separation). Light spent two more years between Britain and Egypt captaining the paddle steamer Nile on its voyage from England to join the Egyptian navy. It was here that he met John Morphett, John Hindmarsh and Dr John Woodforde.

Light returned to London in January 1836 where he was appointed surveyor-general of South Australia at £400 a year. Many of Light’s staff and equipment had already been chosen for him and the main surveying party had left five weeks earlier on the Cygnet under the management of George Kingston. On 1 May 1836, after a short delay due to ill-health, Light sailed with the remainder of his staff (and his female companion Maria Gandy) aboard the Rapid.

Light’s instructions from the Colonization Commission were daunting. Within two months of his arrival Light was to examine 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.

Light eventually resigned as Surveyor General, due to the what he believed were the unreasonable conditions placed upon him. He went on to form the private surveying company Light, Finniss & Co. However, Light’s situation had begun to deteriorate both financially and health wise. After an unsuccessful trip to find a northern route to the Murray, Light returned seriously ill and for the last few months of his life he was house-bound. William Light died of tuberculosis on the 6th of October 1839.

Image credit: Self Portrait, Colonel William Light. c.1815. Image courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia, [866P21]

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