Georgetown Headstone History
For years it was known as the Pearl of the Orient. Then Penang lost its lustre, at least to the outside world as its importance on the globe’s trade routes lessened. But now, thanks to its unique architecture, fabulous cuisine and heady mix of tourist attractions, the famed city is bouncing back big time.
The Protestant Cemetery in Georgetown is the oldest Christian cemetery in Penang. Not far from the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, it is also called Northam Road Cemetery and was set up in the 18th-century for British colonial administrators, traders and missionaries that arrived after Penang’s establishment in 1786.
The Protestant church’s earliest grave is that of Captain Francis Light (one of the fathers of British colonialism in Southeast Asia). Other graves include those of James Richardson Logan (editor of the Penang Gazette) and Reverend Hutchings (early leader of St. George’s Church and founder of the Penang Free School). Movie buffs will be interested to know that Thomas Leonowens is buried here: he was 31 years-old when he passed away in 1859, leaving his widow stranded in the East. He was the husband of Anna, the self-same Anna of The King & I or Anna & the King fame.
While my daughter and I were holidaying in Georgetown this year we had a great rickshaw driver who made sure that we gained full benefit of the charm of this multi-cultural city. Before the heat engulfed us we arrived at this hauntingly beautiful cemetery. Our driver informed us that this is one of the oldest Christian cemetery of its kind, not only in Penang, but in the whole world, pre-dating even Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, England’s Highgate Cemetery where Karl Marx is interred and even Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, the largest cemetery on Earth. This is no Zentralfriedhof! Penang’s Old Protestant Cemetery is quite small—less than a block across. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in character. A grove of gnarly frangipani trees covers the burial ground, graceful stone tombs in varying state of decay strewn across its grassy bed.
Sir Francis Light is arguably the most famous resident of the Old Protestent Cemetery, but his tomb does not stand out among others that are taller or grander than his. In 1786, he leased the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah on behalf of the British East India Company and thus ushered in centuries of British colonization in Southeast Asia. Light lived here for eight years before succumbing to malaria.
He left behind his common-law wife, Martina Rozells, and four children. Martina was Catholic, and marrying a Catholic was cause for dismissal from the British East India Company. So, he never officially declared themselves as married. Rozells ended up losing her entire inheritance to Light’s business partner since their union was not recognized by the church. Their son, Sir William Light, was the first Surveyor General of South Australia and is responsible for choosing the sight for and designing the layout of its capital, Adelaide.
Cemetery exploring is a wonderful way of learning more about a city. This slide show provides some more history of what we found to be a fabulous holiday destination.