- 2007/07/16 Grave revelations

Sunshine passes, shadows fall. At the cemetery, peace reigns and serenity outlasts all. In an almost forgotten plot of land adjacent to Hotel Continental and Hotel Malaysia in Penang Road, lies a Protestant cemetery. It is located in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (Northam Road) behind where Cold Storage once was.

It is suspected that this forlorn looking piece of ground has been passed over by most tourists, local and foreign, because it is visually unimpressive. The grounds have not been given proper landscaping that merits its historical importance.

The only reason I ventured in there was because someone I know had been hearing whispers of ancient Penang.

The irresistible urge to take a look at Captain Francis Light's grave was also another reason.

Inside the cemetery, the gnarled branches of the old and tired frangipani trees provided the necessary atmosphere for what laid beneath the ground. There was a lingering air of reverence that came from the pages of an era long forgotten pervading the small plot.

The Protestant cemetery started on what was described as a mound on the far side of Penang town. That was more than 200 years ago.

For the sake of familiarity, this place will be referred to as the Northam Road cemetery. It could be said that the final resting place for Protestants was founded at the edge of the 18th Century Penang town.

In the old days, as we 21st Century folks call it, seafarers paid frequents calls at Penang port. These included German, Dutch and French traders and entrepreneurs.

Some, who found the island charming and even beguiling, set up homes and never went home. In this cemetery are found epitaphs on quaint tombstones in those foreign languages.

Since my intention was to find the grave of Captain Francis Light, I made a determined attempt to locate it. After about half an hour, and probably guided by the spirit of the good old Captain, I saw the “Light”, a grave almost unrecognisable at first glance. There was nothing extraordinary about it.

Truly, in death all men and women are equal. One would have expected that a man like Francis Light to have occupied a special place in the cemetery. Not so.

Apparently, the colonial masters back then had deemed that in the eyes of God, there were no favourites. And so the mighty and the lowly in life were considered equals hereafter.

Admittedly, the hour or so I spent at the cemetery was more illuminating than all the history classes I had attended back in school.

Some of the graves bore prominent names that jolted my knowledge of road names on the island.

They were David Brown, the British resident who once owned the Gelugor Estate (died 1825), Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings who founded the Penang Free School back in 1816, James Richardson Logan (1869), editor and publisher of the Logan's Journals (Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia) and Stamford Raffles' (founder of Singapore) brother-in-law Quintin Dick Thomas (1809).

Buried in the same cemetery were also several Straits Settlements Governors: Phillip Dundas (1807), William Petrie (1816) and Colonel John Alexander Bannerman (1819). All three men breathed their last while holding office.

This part of the island, which still retained a distinct lingering ambience of old colonial Penang, was also the resting ground for some 30 Chinese Hakka settlers, some of whom were believed to be fugitive Christians of the failed Taiping Revolution (1851-1864) in China.

These graves bearing Chinese names were dated back to the 1860s. The sight of the various shapes and forms of tombs to a first time visitor was at once intriguing and fascinating.

What a visitor, whether local or foreign, would initially perceive as a Christian burial place had graves that were decidedly “foreign”.

Among the myriad objects were Greek urns, raised tombs that reflected origins of India's Maharajah era and tombs that bore witness to the Roman times.

A walk through this ancient hallowed ground is a history lesson well learnt. I was told that not many students of history and others who were interested in the origins of Penang knew of this cemetery where famous people buried here formed part of the living history in this thoroughly fascinating site on the Penang heritage trail.

Where else except in this place would one find the grave of Thomas Leonowens, a British officer who died at the age of 31 and was buried here in 1859. His widow, Anna, later journeyed to Siam and became a headmistress. She wrote about her experiences in the Land of Smiles and was immortalised in the Hollywood tale of Anna and the King.

Among the notable names on tombstones were those of children and wives of pioneer settlers, who had succumbed to the illnesses that pervaded early Penang.

Unhygienic conditions and tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria exacted a terrible toll on infants and young women who followed their fathers and husbands to a tropical island that had unsettling conditions and, in many cases, that were fatal to its foreign guests.

It is with a sense of sorrow that an erstwhile traveller would view the ages of those entombed in this place surrounded by shallow, uneven walls.

The Northam Road cemetery today houses mainly graves on the north and south sides. The Catholics were buried on the south side. During World War II, Japanese Zero fighter planes destroyed most of the memorials and graves on the eastern and western sides.

By the end of the 19th Century, the cemetery was closed and further burials were carried out in the Western Road (Jalan Utama) cemetery.

Penang has many fascinating sites that reveal much about its rich heritage.

If a visitor is keen to catch a glimpse of the pioneers who walked on its streets about 200 years ago, or perhaps eager to detect flavours of antiquity, the Northam Road cemetery holds the key that will unlock the doors to that lost world.

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