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