The Voices of Penang’s Protestant Cemetery

The story of Captain Francis Light, founder of Penang’s British Colony, was told and documented in many ways. So much so his statue was erected at Fort Cornwallis in George Town to remember his contributions to the development of old Penang. While many celebrated how he lived, secretary of Penang Heritage Trust and occasional tour guide Clement Liang believes that it’s important to share his personal stories and how he died. ‘Like most merchants in the 19th century, Captain Francis Light died from malaria and was buried at the Protestant Cemetery on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah’.

As part of his crusade for heritage conservation, Clement leads the monthly Francis Light Cemetery Tour that is held every last Sunday of the month where he enlightens others on tales of other merchants and founders buried at the Protestant Cemetery. For instance, one resident by the name of James Scott who in the past had attempted to establish James Town as the capital of Penang, instead of George Town.  ‘James Scott was a close business partner of Captain Francis Light. He bought a lot of land in Bayan Lepas and was betting on establishing James Town. However, his venture failed and he became bankrupt’.

The early days of Protestant Cemetery
Due to the lack of early documentation of Protestant Cemetery, its early history rests on the the oldest tombstone found in the cemetery of H.D.D. Cunningham in 1789, just two years before the arrival of Captain Francis Light.

Today, there are 459 tombstones in the Protestant Cemetery with prominent merchants such as Penang’s first stockbroker Michael Arratoon of AA Anthony, founder of Penang Free School Rev R.S. Hutchings and native rights lawyer James Richard Logan of which Logan Heritage on Lebuh Pantai, George Town was named after.

There are also other unfortunate stories and tragedies buried in the Protestant Cemetery and waiting to be shared. There were many governors who died in Penang because of malaria, yellow fever and other tropical fevers. A few of them even have their cause of casualties written on their tombs. There was one who was murdered by Chinese mobs and another committed suicide due to immense pressure from his superior. That was the first recorded suicide by a British officer. Clement adds that a large number were sailors who died on the ship and then buried in the cemetery. Many of whom were Americans, Armenians, Australians, Chinese, Dutch, English, German, Irish and amounted to over 10 nationalities within the historical ground.


Cemeteries as Monument Heritage
Much of Clement’s mission in wanting Penang’s cemeteries to be recognised as a monument heritage comes from an unfortunate fate of cemeteries in other countries that were torn down to make way for development. In 2012, Bukit Brown Cemetery in Singapore was on the verge of being cleared for a four-lane road across the cemetery. As part of the conservation, an independent group called ‘Brownies’ is formed to educate the public on cemeteries as a ‘living museum of history heritage’ through free cemetery tours in Singapore.

‘Nowadays, modern buildings have lost touch with our history. If these cemeteries were wiped out, we will lose a great deal of history. We should respect the sites as they also contribute to the development of Penang in the past,’ explains Clement before expressing his hope in the coming year that Penang will be the only state in the country that actively promote monument and heritage tours. ‘We’re lucky that Penang is rich in history. Apart from Protestant Cemetery, we also have other heritage cemeteries such as Western Road, Japanese and Jewish cemeteries to look after’.

This article titled ‘The Voices of Penang’s Protestant Cemetery’ was published on my Penang in 2014. Kindly refer to this link to view from its original publication.

Header image by Adam Jones; supporting image by Gawler History

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