Penang Diary 8: The last leg @Protestant Cemetery

The serene surroundings


I have a strange fascination for the resting places of departed souls. So I knew I had to visit the oldest Christian cemetery on Northam Road  (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah). However, my travel partner Manju firmly declined to explore with me in the sweltering heat.

Apparently, this place used to be very creepy before restoration work started in 2012 and cleaned it up. It is now listed as a Class 1 Heritage Site and is maintained by the Penang Heritage Trust. It helped that the Protestant Cemetery was just a short walk away from our hotel, which gave me ample time for a quick trip before leaving for the airport.

The frangipani shaded walk from the gate

The entry was through a beautiful walkway under a canopy of perfumed frangipani. It was quite hot and I was the sole person wandering around in this historic graveyard. There was an amazing sense of calm in this solitude. My mind travelled back by hundreds of years, thinking what life was like in this island when it was ruled by the mighty British.

Plot allotment

Quite a few of the tombstones were in good shape and very beautiful. Some of the inscriptions conveyed the fact that some died very young. Under the shade of trees, caressed by the unexpectedly cool breeze, I was quite transported to another world. If I had more time and if there was a bench, I may just have taken an afternoon nap here…

Interesting to see the Indian connections
Notice the word ‘laboured’
What a lovely tombstone!
Another beautifully crafted one

This cemetery was created to serve as the final resting place for the early colonial administrators, European traders, as well as missionaries who arrived after Captain Francis Light established the British colony here. Many of them died young from malaria, indicative of the very harsh conditions faced by the early settlers.

The first recorded burial was of Lt. William Murray of the Bengal Artillery in 1787 but the earliest surviving grave marker is of H.D.D. Cunningham in 1789.  The last burial was of Cornelia Van Someran in 1892 after which, the cemetery was closed, and all subsequent Christian burials were carried out in the newly constructed Western Road Cemetery.

The plaque with a humble epitaph: Notice the bottom left corner

The most famous grave here is that of Captain Francis Light (1794), which surprisingly, is not grand at all. He left behind his Catholic common-law wife, Martina Rozells, and four children. As marrying a Catholic could result in his dismissal from the British East India Company, he could never declare their status officially. Their son, Sir William Light, was the first Surveyor General of South Australia who chose the site for, and designed the layout of its capital, Adelaide.

How green and peaceful this place is

Other graves include:

  • James Richardson Logan (editor of the Penang Gazette)
  • Reverend Hutchings (founder of the Penang Free School)
  • William Petrie (Governor of Prince of Wales Island, 1811-16)
  • Michael Arratoon (an Armenian whose father started Penang’s first stockbroker firm in 1830)
  • Thomas Leonowens (husband of Anna of the movie The King & I fame)
A lot of these tombs are mounted along the boundary walls
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I could not understand the significance of this symbol at all!

The cemetery also contains 12 Chinese graves. These Chinese Christians were refugees fleeing from religious persecution during the  Boxer Rebellion.


Armenians were another influential ethnic group in Penang. They came as traders and were well educated. Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, established the nearby Eastern and Oriental Hotel as well as the world famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Most of Penang’s Armenian society has since emigrated to Singapore and Australia, and they no longer have a big presence on the island. (Source: Malaysian Meanderers)
Another Calcutta-born person
 There is a big open grassy space in front, that (I later learnt) is an area of unmarked graves. Part of the cemetery was heavily bombed by Japan in World War II. Only the middle portion remained unscathed. As the nearby St. George’s Church was also bombed, the cemetery registry went missing.
Restorers then mounted the recovered tablets along the back wall. Unknowingly, I may have trampled over a few unsuspecting sleeping souls.
The area of unmarked graves
WW2 was a pivotal point in the colonial history of SE Asia. When the British returned after years of Japanese occupation, they were not exactly welcomed back by the locals, who had been earlier thoughtlessly deserted in their times of need.
And this is how the process to break free from the shackles of British colonial rule started… which laid the foundation of what we now know as Malaysia.
catholic door
The wall of separation (Pic from the Internet)
There is a wall, with a small doorway, which separates the Protestant cemetery from the Catholic one. I do not recall seeing it. So, even after death, the twain  shall never meet!

With these thoughts, I returned to my hotel to find Manju looking all fresh and ready to leave. I had a quick shower and toured the lovely hotel grounds once again before  leaving for the airport.


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For those interested in viewing more of this cemetery, watch this slideshow.


2 thoughts on “Penang Diary 8: The last leg @Protestant Cemetery

  1. Thank you for the beautiful photographs and the commentary. Absolutely LOVE the street arts. Also the colors are amazing. Definitely need to visit it done day.


    1. Thank you so much for sparing the time to read. Pls share my blog with people you think may be interested.

      Penang really is a must visit place. Onek kichhu shekhar o aachhe.


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