Throughout most recorded history, human societies have used various types of cemeteries for burial purposes; this theme points to humanity’s need to construct a meaning behind death and reflect life into the places where the dead are interred. Whether the bodies of the deceased are placed in the ground, within elaborate tombs, or simply in the presence of ancient or contemporary monuments, their location holds symbolic meaning as well as practical historical meaning for the surrounding living community.
At the beginning of November, Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. People wash and sweep their family’s grave-houses, decorate them with flowers, bring their loved ones’ favourite dishes, and eat the meal by the graves.
Up until the early 20th century, cemeteries in America were a popular place to relax, picnic and get together near a loved one’s grave.
In Prague, the old Jewish Cemetery is a popular place of pilgrimage, particularly by Jewish people who come to pray and leave small coins on tombstones. While I was in Prague I visited this famed cemetery but I managed to find my way to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Zizkov and the sprawling, beautiful Olsany Cemetery which is also in Zizkov.
The challenge, this November, is to think of a ritualistic way that I can honour my ancestors.
A Eurasian of Siamese and Portuguese descent, Martina Rozells, is said to be have been born in Thaland, Phuket and later became an adopted child of the Sultan of Kedah in what is today Malaysia – just south of Satun province in Thailand. She has variously been depicted as the a Siamese Princess, the Princess of Kedah
“Martina Rozells co-habited with Francis Light, the founder of Penang, for at least 22 years before his death from malaria in 1794. She bore him five (or possibly six) children, one of whom later became the founder of Adelaide in Australia. Founding a city must have been written into the genetic code of both father and son.
Over the years many romantic legends have been constructed about Martina, and the truth may never be fully known. One of the most exotic stories is that she was a princess of the royal house of Kedah and that the island of Penang was presented to her (and her husband) by the Sultan as her dowry. However, as the Sultan demanded tribute from Penang as recompense for revenue lost, this cannot be true. Along with this story is the notion that Light and Martina were actually married according to Malay customs; but they were not recognised by the East India Company.
Other versions of the Martina story dress her as a Catholic Eurasian of mixed Thai and Portuguese descent. One of the reasons for Light not marrying her might have been the fact that she was a Roman Catholic and he was a Protestant. The other is that she was almost certainly a Eurasian. It is hard for us to realise how much race counted for in the past. Being of mixed race was especially tricky because you belonged to neither side. Despite these prejudices, the Eurasian community has made a rich contribution in the field of Penang’s musical history, with artists like Jimmy Boyle, Joe Rozells, Larry Rodrigues, the Baum brothers, the Jeremiahs, Colleen Read and Leo Aeria. An equally important Eurasian heritage piece is in the field of food with such delights as Beef Semur, Chicken Devil Curry and Salted fish pickles – all Malaysian favourites even today. It is thought that Francis Light himself invited the first wave of Eurasian migrants to come to Penang in 1786, the year of the Colony’s founding and that subsequent migrants came from Phuket as well as Kedah.
Light died fairly young, but he had made exceptionally detailed provision for Martina in his will, which perhaps gives us an indication of the value placed upon common household objects in those days: “I give and bequeath unto the said Martina Rozells my bungalow in George Town with one set of mahogany tables, two card cables, two couches, two bedstead large and two small with bedding…. a dressing table and 18 chairs, two silver candle sticks, one silver teapot, two sugar dishes, twelve table spoons, twelve tea spoons, one soup spoon and all the utensils not under the stewards charge to be disposed of as she thinks proper without any limitation. I also give Martina Rozells four of my best cows and one bull….” (Quoted in Streets of George Town).
It is rather shameful that after Light’s death, his business partners tried to cheat Martina out of her inheritance by transferring his properties into their names. She struggled in the courts for many years perhaps hampered by being illiterate, as so many women were in those days. She did finally win justice in 1812 but by then, she had married John Timmins. Even the street which once bore her name, Martina’s Lane, has been renamed Leith Street Ghaut”.
It is not clear where Martina Rozells was buried but, given that she died in 1822 in Penang, it is quite possible that, as a Catholic, she was buried in the Catholic Cemetery, divided from the Protestant Cemetery by a wall.
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.