“The tale of the Infinitely Great Grandmother is a shadow play where the screen has been stretched by my mother to accommodate many stories about our Eurasian origins. In-between people, we, like many Eurasians, were displaced and afraid of being shadows without any proper way of explaining our origins” - Simone Lazaroo
“History is about the choices people make, not the events that happened within the boundaries of a state” – Tan Liok Ee
Many women of history leave only traces, faint outlines in the shadow of the men who came before them. Seen only as a footnote and often through the gaze of men, these women continue to evade attempts to pin them down. They come into focus in fleeting moments, only to keep moving and disappear again. Sometimes, if they are lucky, if we are lucky, they’re recorded in official documents of memory: in archives, through letters, in official correspondence, in works of art. From this we can revive them through a careful and delicate process of writing them back into the story. But other times, they vanish from history with barely a trace. What is left is an outline, a form, an imprint of their presence. And sometimes, this is all we have to follow.
Ann Lanyon found this out when she began researching the story of Malinche, the Amerindian women who, in the 1500s, translated for and accompanied Spanish conquistador Cortez in his conquering of the Aztecs. History hasn’t treated Malinche kindly. Some cast her as an ambiguous figure, others call her a traitor. Yet as Lanyon discovered, a strong alternative folklore grew up and weaved itself around her, complicating dominant historical depictions: Malinche after all was also the mother of the ‘first Mexican’. Whole ancestries, stories, histories are traced back through her line.
Martina Rozells - a mysterious, elusive and yet central figure in the Penang Eurasian story - is another one of these women. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning. It begins with a Siamese Princess...
My great, great, great grandfather was the King of Siam. His daughter, a Siamese Princess, was my great, great grandmother. The story my mother told me when I was growing up, and the story she was told when she was growing up, was that my great, great, great grandfather was King Chulalongkorn, son of the famous Thai King Mongut. (Mongut was the King depicted by Hollywood in the musical The King and I and played by a mischievous Yul Brynner). The story goes that one of the daughters of the King secretly met, scandalously fell in love with and eventually eloped with a German or Dutch consular official stationed in Siam: a European and a commoner! The Princess’ royal family, both outraged and shamed, cut her off from the family royal ties and disowned her. This story entered our family folklore and I grew up proudly telling my friends of my ‘blue blood’ and Siamese royal heritage. My mother certainly grew up believing the story was true.
The historical King in question had 84 children, so it is possible, if not entirely plausible, that this story contains some grain of truth. But I wonder whether perhaps the genesis of the story lies in the re-imagining of my maternal grandmother’s mother and her story, which was also somewhat shrouded in scandal and mystery. She was a Eurasian, who grew up a D’Almeida – a Portuguese Eurasian name - but who was adopted and in fact was thought to be a Neubraunner, another Eurasian name of German or Dutch Colonial heritage found in parts of southern Thailand. Could this be some clue to the German-Dutch-Thai princess story?
Or perhaps the story was simply a template for many Eurasian families that embellished and romanticised the details of those early inter-cultural liaisons and intimate alliances between powerful European men and the local Malay women. It is perhaps a tale of the in-between children they produced. But in this story, the power balance is inverted and refracted to place the women at the centre: it is the women who hold the intrigue as much as they continue to elude.
I thought my family story was unique, or at least particular to our ancestral line. It was only when I heard a similar story from my mother’s extended family that I realised the princess might not have been a princess at all, if indeed there ever was one. My mother’s second cousin told me of the fanciful stories that she grew up with as part of her own family folklore. These, she now believed, were used to cover up the shame of illegitimacy and cultural displacement of those early Colonial years and the birth of the first generations of Eurasians: the adoptions; the abandoned children; and the Malay mothers who continued to live in the house as servants while their children were educated as Europeans, taught to speak English, and wear Western clothes. Secretly, the mothers would whisper to their children in their mother tongue.
What happens to history in the re-telling? What happens to the Eurasian ancestral origin story when it is reinvented and passed down the generations, when family stories merge with the historical narrative, absorbing new and embellished details each time they are told? Does the narrative messiness obscure or reveal something about the truth of history? A truth that can only be told when refashioned into story?
In another branch of my family tree, another family story, a French plantation owner in Sumatra met and married a woman from a Javanese aristocratic family. In a variation of the story, she was a dancer in the court of Jogjakarta whose family threatened to throw her off the balcony if she married the Frenchman. In a third rendition, the couple eloped and made their way to Penang where they were absorbed into the flourishing and dynamic Eurasian Catholic community. There may indeed be some truths in these tales, but more intriguing is they each evoke and perpetuate the dangerous and alluring myth of forbidden love, family shame and disapproval, cultural ambiguity and the archetype of intimate interactions and alliances between beautiful Asian women and powerful Western men.
Sometimes, strategic alliances were inferred in these stories, traces of which are evident in the power dynamics and flows between local ruling families and colonial interests in the negotiation over land, labour and trade. But they still remain mere shadows of what the real stories, the real, lived lives, must have been like. The slippages, contradictions and frustratingly absent details hidden in this Eurasian folklore are fresh ground for exploration and reinvention, a way of rewriting the mythology that perhaps began with that first Eurasian of Penang, Martina Rozells. Most Eurasian Penangites today would be able to trace at least one branch of their family tree back to Martina.
In many ways, Martina Rozells comes alive to us through the traces she has left behind. In others, it is the traces that erase her past. She is found in contemporary accounts of Colnel Francis Light and his claim to the island of Penang in 1786 on behalf of the British East India Company (the first truly global corporation). She is found by his side over the span of more than 20 years from Junk Ceylon (now Phuket) where they opened a trading post; to the Sultanate of Kedah on peninsula Malaysia, and finally settling in Penang. Whether they ‘co-habitated’, were ‘married’, were common law companions, or simply formed a practical and strategic ‘alliance’ as various accounts suggest, it cannot be denied that Martina was an important and influential figure in the 'founding' and 'settlement' of Penang. The 200 strong group of Portuguese Eurasian Catholics that came across with Light and Rozells established a strong Eurasian presence on the island, a presence that had been strong across the other Straits Settlements (Malacca and Singapore) since 1511.
From what we know, Martina herself was Eurasian, of Thai-Portuguese heritage. In one reference she is referred to as Martinha Thong Di but took her mother’s name of Rozells. She was almost certainly one hundreds of Portuguese Eurasian Catholics who, in two successive waves, fled religious persecution in southern Siam and to Kedah on the Malay Peninsula. There is much speculation and much embellishment about these early years, and little concrete to go on. Some writings suggest Martina had connections to the Kedah court. Other contemporary accounts suggest that she was the daughter of the 19th Sultan of Kedah (Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin II) by a lower-ranking wife of mixed Thai-Portuguese ancestry. Adopting Martina’s maternal name (Rozells) might have had the strategic advantage of highlighting her Catholic and European heritage. This resonates with the speculation that as a “maid of honour to the Sultan of Kedah’s wife”, Martina would have been of “high birth”, making her a prized possession and negotiating tool in dealings between the Sultan and Light over control of Penang Island. Other accounts wonder whether Martina was the ‘nonya’ sent to Light by the Sultan of Kedah in 1772 (the year that Light and Rozells were supposedly married in Siam), but there is no evidence that Rozells and the nonya were the same woman. Another account speculates the Sultan gave Light a “Princess of Kedah” as a reward, or part of the agreement in granting Light control over Penang in exchange for British protection from the Siamese. Other variations say that a Princess was sent to covet Light’s aid in Siam on behalf of the Sultan. And then there are those that refute the claim that she was in any way connected to the nobility precisely because of her mixed heritage. Whatever the intricacies of the story were, we can see the broad brushstrokes and perhaps the beginnings of the Siamese Princess story of my own family folklore.
Whatever the nature of their relationship, Martina continues to resist interpretation but tempts the writer to imagine her as a woman of considerable fortitude and ingenuity. Light and Rozells had five children. Their third son, William, was the first Surveyor-General of South Australia and went on to found the city of Adelaide. We can imagine Light treated her well. It is known he spoke both Malay and Thai and took effort to learn the local customs. He had been trading in Siam and Malaya for a decade before meeting Martina and was well respected by the locals. Some reports say they were married in Siam according to local customs. They lived together in Penang and were commonly regarded as man and wife, but as Light was Anglican and Rozells was Catholic, a marriage in the eyes of the British not a likely possibility. What we know for sure is Light left most of his personal fortune and estate to Martina, including the extravagant residence Suffolk House, although it is thought that others tried to swindle her out of this entitlement and she had to fight a long battle in the court system in which she had a clear disadvantage. She finally won the case but in a subsequent battle years later lost control of the estate to the British. The rumour was that to keep her quiet, Martina received a pension from the British East India Company. This is my favourite detail. If it is true, a record must exist buried somewhere deep in the bowels of the British Library and Archives. We know she continued to live a quiet life after Light’s death and eventually went on to marry another Englishman. She died in Penang in 1822.
And that’s all we really know or don’t know about Martina Rozells. Was she the Siamese Princess in my childhood stories?
My own fascination with Martina’s story and its refashioning over time is partly due to its fugitive nature, as well as her role as a cultural mediator. Perhaps this is what it is to be Eurasian: impossible to pin down, to tie to one particular meaning or history, but to be deeply rooted in the cultural consequences of Empire. It is in these slippages and gaps, in the contradiction and confusion, in the contested and contentious nature of these Eurasian stories, this family folkore, at the centre of it is some kind of jewel.