Every last Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the month (ie the last entire weekend that falls within the month), Penang’s Tourism Office arranges a panoply of heritage and cultural events. On the Sundays of this weekend, the Francis Light Cemetery Tour offers you the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of George Town though the lives and deaths of some of its earliest residents.
The tour is named after Captain Francis Light, founder of the European settlement of Penang in 1786, who is buried here, but the cemetery is actually the old Northam Road Protestant Cemetery, which was established together with the adjacent Catholic Cemetery, that same year, with the first burial being recorded the following year. Led by local history and heritage expert Clement Liang, the tour begins at 2pm sharp just inside the entrance under the shade of the trees, with a brief overview of those early days. Most of the burial records for the graves were destroyed during the bombing of St George’s Church during World War II, as were many of the tombs themselves, so reconstructing the history is an imperfect and ongoing task. Nevertheless the tour offers a fascinating snapshot of the various communities and personalities who lived and died in Penang.
Next Clement leads the group to the grave of Michael Arratoon, one of the early important Aremenian settlers, whose family’s brokerage firm is still listed on the KL stock exchange today. Other famous Armenians in Penang include the Sarkies brothers, who founded the E&O Hotel. Armenian Street was, of course, named after this community. Their religion, while Orthodox rather than Protestant, excluded them from being buried in the Catholic Cemetery, so here they lie.
There are a number of early Chinese Christian graves too. These, Clement explained, were not local Penang Chinese but refugees from the Taiping rebellion in China, in which Christian followers of a man who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ fought against the Manchurian Qing dynasty rulers of China. A massive civil war that ended in defeat and religious persecution for Christians caused around 20 million deaths, and resulted in mass emigration of surviving Chinese Christians, including here to Penang.
The tomb of Frida Huttenbach gives Clement the opportunity to speak about the contributions of the German merchants to Penang’s early commercial success. The tomb’s deliberately broken-off pillar was the way Germans indicated that a life had been “broken off”, ie that the deceased had died young (she was 22). Frida’s husband was one of the Huttenbach brothers, best known in Penang for installing the first street lamps here, along Beach Street.
Our attention is next drawn to a tomb erected for some of the many missionaries and their families who arrived in Penang in the early 19th century to proselytise and set up schools. Like many early settlers, many of them died young after falling victim to malaria, diphtheria and other scourges of the time. Poor missionary-wife Joanna was a typical tragedy: she died in childbirth aged 27; the baby also died. A year earlier she had lost a baby girl, and a year before that, another one.
Then there are the graves of the more famous makers of Penang’s history, including James Scott, friend and partner of Captain Francis Light, and important land-owner; Philip Dundas, Governor of Penang from 1807 to 1807; James Richardson Logan, lawyer, newspaper founder and defender of the rights of non-Europeans in Penang; and of course Captain Francis Light himself, who also died from Malaria, just eight years after the founding of the European settlement of Penang.
Other gems that are pointed out include the symbol of the Freemasons used instead of the Christian cross on a handful of graves, and the burial of a number of French people. As most of the French were traditionally Catholics, these may have been descendants of fleeing Huguenot refugees. Also there is a reminder of the unstable swampy land on which George Town is built, through a tomb that has visibly sunk into the ground so the tombstone is no longer visible.
Finally we take a peek though the gate into the Catholic cemetery on the other side of the dividing wall.The renovation of this area began much more recently than that of the Protestant Cemetery, and far less is known about the occupants of the tombs. We have a tantalising glance of the tomb that is widely suspected to be that of Martina Rozells, the companion of Captain Francis Light for at least 22 years, but, as she was a Catholic and he a Protestant, and that time it was impossible for their marriage to be recognised by the church.
The Francis Light Cemetery Tour takes place on the Sunday of the last weekend at the month at 2pm. Meet at the entrance of the Protestant Cemetery on Northam Road. The full programme of events can be found at https://www.facebook.com/LFSSPenang/. For more information about the Cemetery’s history and the occupants of the tombs, there is a comprehensive brochure which you can download here: http://www.gtwhi.com.my/images/northam-road-protestant-cemetery.pdf