LIGHT, William (c. 1786-1839)


LIGHT, William (c. 1786-1839)
founder of Adelaide
was born about the year 1786 either on the island of Salang or in the territory of Kedah, and spent his first six years at Penang. His father, Captain Francis Light, traded in Siam and Malaya and married Martina Rozells in 1772. There is still some doubt as to who she was, but the family tradition is that she was a princess of Kedah. Captain Light did valuable work in extending the British influence in the Malay peninsula but in October 1794 died of malaria. His son was then being educated in England, and in September 1799 joined H.M. frigate Clyde as a volunteer. In June 1801 he was made a midshipman, and in 1802 left the navy and spent some time in travelling. He visited India in 1805 and attended a sister's wedding, and in 1808 joined the army as cornet of the 4th Light Dragoons. He fought through the campaigns in Spain where his knowledge of French and Spanish proved useful, and distinguished himself by his gallantry. Napier in his history of the peninsular war gives an account of one of his feats and speaks of him as "Captain William Light distinguished by the variety of his attainments—an artist, musician, mechanist, seaman and soldier". Light was promoted lieutenant in 1809, became a captain in 1814, and in May 1815 he was offered the post of brigade-major in the Household cavalry, but was just too late to fight at Waterloo. For part of the next six years Light was on half-pay and he left the army in 1821. He had expectations from his father's estate but in 1818 found that the land had been alienated. An action against the East India Company resulted in his receiving £20,000 in settlement of his claim. He was travelling in Europe during 1822, and spent much time in Sicily making sketches. These re-drawn by the famous water-colour artist, Peter De Wint, were published in 1823 under the title Sicilian Sketches from Drawings by P. De Wint, The Original Sketches by Major Light. In the same year he was fighting on the Spanish side against the French and was wounded in the thigh. He returned to England in November and met Mary Bennet, a daughter of the Duke of Richmond and Mrs Bennet. They were married in October 1824 and during the next 10 years spent much time in travelling in Europe and Egypt. In 1828 a volume of Views of Pompeii, after Light's drawings, was published at London. By September 1834 husband and wife had agreed to separate, and in that month Light went from England to Egypt as commander of the Nile, a paddle steamer. In Egypt Light met Captain John Hindmarsh (q.v.) who, on the Nile being charted by Mehemet Ali, was given command of it. Light went with him as second in command. Hindmarsh, however, resigned in February 1835 and Light again became captain of the Nile. He resigned on 1 November 1835 and, returning to England, narrowly missed being appointed the first governor of South Australia. He was warmly recommended by Colonel C. J. Napier who had refused the position, but in the meantime Hindmarsh had been appointed. Hindmarsh, however, strongly recommended that Light should be given a responsible position and eventually he was gazetted surveyor-general. In May 1836 he sailed in the Rapid and arrived in South Australia on 20 August. The South Australian commissioners had entrusted Light with the entire decision as to the site of the settlement, and he at once began cruising along the coast examining the country. After some weeks he decided that the east coast of St Vincent Gulf was the most promising, but difficulty was found in finding a harbour and fresh water. On 21 November 1836 he entered Port Adelaide River and was able to report to the commissioners: "Although my duty obliges me to look at other places first, before I fix on the capital, yet I feel assured, as I did from the first, that I shall only be losing time." The absence of fresh water disqualified the harbour itself as a site for the capital, and he fixed on the present site, a choice which has met with the complete approval of posterity. At the time everyone was won over, even the governor approved, but in a little while an opposition party was formed. Hindmarsh had always been anxious to have the capital near the mouth of the Murray, and officials of the South Australian Company did not want an inland situation. In the meanwhile Light went on with his survey and laid out the 1042 acres of Adelaide in two months. In deference to the wishes of the governor he also agreed to survey 200 or 300 acres near the port. It was well that Light stood firmly by his convictions. If he had not done so, said B. T. Finniss (q.v.), "the colony would have been a failure, the first colonists would have been ruined, the capital of the company would have perished and public feeling would have ruined the commissioners".
Light's next work was the surveying of the country land but he found that his staff was insufficient. Moreover his own health was showing a change for the worse. No doubt he had undergone privations, and the controversies in which he found himself involved were not helpful to his health. During the winter months of 1837 the surveying under Light and Finniss proceeded steadily and by October the outlook for the colony was hopeful. But the report by a sealer named Walker of the discovery of a harbour near the mouth of the Murray raised the settlement site question again. Hindmarsh even went so far as to ask Lord Glenelg on 18 December 1837 for authority to move the capital. It was unfortunate that Light should have been worried in this way, as he was making good progress with the surveying of the country, 60,000 acres were surveyed by the end of the year and by May 1838 150,000 acres had been completed. (Sir) G. S. Kingston, who had been sent to England to endeavour to obtain more surveyors, returned in June to report that all assistance had been refused, that Light's methods of surveying had been condemned, and that a system of running surveys of which Light could not possibly approve had been ordered. He at once resigned and nearly the whole force of surveyors resigned in sympathy with him. Light's health got rapidly worse under the strain, but he became senior partner in the surveying firm of Light, Finniss and Company and was able to work for some months longer. The new governor, Colonel Gawler (q.v.), arrived on 12 October 1838, and it was hoped that the survey department now in a state of chaos under Kingston, might again be handed over to Light. A movement to send an address to the new governor praying for this appears to have been checked by the statement of an official that it would be fruitless because the governor was determined not to reappoint Light. In the meantime the position was given to Captain Sturt (q.v.). How nearly Light missed reappointment may be gathered from the fact that Gawler wrote to Light in November 1838, sending an extract from a dispatch from the colonization commissioners expressing their unwillingness to accept Light's resignation. In his accompanying letter Gawler said that this expression of the commissioners' feelings was just the encouragement he had needed to reappoint Light, and that he would have done so had the dispatch arrived before the position had been offered to Sturt.
In January 1839 Light went to the Para River to conduct a survey for the South Australian Company. His spirit was able to keep him in the saddle for 10 hours on one day, but he collapsed more than once. He returned to Adelaide on 21 January, and next day a spark set fire to the roof of his hut which was completely burnt out in a few minutes. Practically all his instruments, papers, journals and sketches were destroyed. He was preparing to remove to his new house at Thebarton then nearly ready. His friends showed him what kindness they could, but his remaining days were those of an invalid, though in May 1839 he attempted a journey seeking the northerly route to the Murray. He obtained copies of the commissioners' dispatches referring to him, and with the help of a portion of his diary that had been saved was able to publish at the end of June A Brief Journal of the Proceedings of William Light. His financial circumstances were not good, but in August he made his will in which he made Miss Maria Gandy, who had devotedly nursed him, sole beneficiary and executrix. He had some comfort in the fact that public opinion was moving in favour of his choice of the site of the city. He died early in the morning of 6 October 1839, and was buried in the square that bears his name. His wife who was living in England survived him with two sons, who afterwards became officers in the army, and a daughter (City of Adelaide, Municipal Year Book, 1944-5, p. 63). A monument over his grave designed by Kingston was erected by public subscription in 1843. The stone used crumbled and a new memorial was unveiled on 21 June 1905. His portrait painted by himself is at the national gallery, Adelaide. His statue by Birnie Rhind stands on Montefiore Hill, Adelaide.
Light was a man 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 was a gallant soldier, a capable artist and a charming companion with great general ability, but his crowning feat was his finding the site of Adelaide and in spite of all opposition getting it adopted. His last days were clouded by illness and anxiety, but he ranks among the great pioneers of British colonization.
M. P. Mayo, The Life and Letters of Colonel William Light; T. Gill, Colonel William Light, the Founder of Adelaide; A. F. Steuart, A Short Sketch of the Lives of Francis and William Light; A. Grenfell Price, Founders and Pioneers of South Australia; City of Adelaide, Municipal Year Book, 1944-5, pp. 53-66.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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