Thursday, October 30, 2014

Penang's colonial past at the Old Protestant Cemetery

Walking through the tombstones of the the Old Protestant Cemetery provides an interesting peek into Penang's colonial past. In use from 1789 to 1892, the people laid to rest on this hallowed ground represent a sampling of the expat groups that called Prince of Wales Island, as Penang was known back then, their home.

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang
Once on the outskirts of town, the Old Protestant Cemetery is now in the heart of the city.

When I first moved to Penang, this cemetery was the epitome of creepy. It was overgrown with trees, and the tombstones were covered in moss. Of the over 500 tombs, more than 25% cannot be identified due to decay and weathering. Visiting here on Halloween seemed like the perfect way to find the spookier side of the island.

However, restoration work in the summer of 2012 really cleaned up the place. The second I saw the excavators, I chided myself for not getting in there earlier with my camera to capture some atmospheric shots. Well, better late than never. Not all of the restoration was well done. The heavy machinery brought in to prune and remove trees also left some tombstones chipped or even shattered. I wonder if the dark, black ink filling in the engraving on the tombstone below is the work of a restorer or a vandal.

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang
Restoration work gone wrong?

Sir Francis Light

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. 

Penang Old Protestant Cemetery
The tomb of Sir Francis Light surrounded by others.

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.

Even in death, the divide between the Protestants and Catholics is evident. A wall separates the two denominations' cemeteries, and never will the two meet.

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang
Wall and doorway between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Cemeteries.

Thomas Leonowens

The name of either Thomas Leonowens or his wife, Anna, may not be familiar to you, but you have surely heard of the famous musical, The King and I. The "I" in the title refers to Anna Leonowens.

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang, Anna Leonowens
Tomb of Thomas Leonowens whose widow later became the Royal Governess to the children of the King of Siam.

Thomas and Anna were British childhood sweethearts who grew up in India and spent most of their married life in western Australia. After their luck ran out in Australia, they moved to Penang. Some stories say Thomas was an officer while others claim he is merely a hotel clerk. Here, Thomas died of apoplexy and left Anna penniless. She then established a school in Singapore which caught the eye of King Mongkut of Siam. She and her son moved to Bangkok to provide a modern and secular British education to his 82 children along with 39 wives and concubines. Her memoirs were eventually turned into the musical, The King and I. Interestingly, a non-musical movie of her story, Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat was partially filmed in Penang with Armenian Street standing in for the streets of 19th century Siam. 

A Variety of Expat Groups in colonial Penang

Much like today, people from all over the world call Penang home. Walking among the tombstones, I even found a Captain all the way from North America born in Salem, Massachusetts, U.S.A. This is the final resting place of colonial administrators, European traders, missionaries, and refugees. Some engravings, like this German one, are only in the native language of their home country.

Old Protestant Cemetary, Penang
The column inscribed in German is intentionally broken to represent an interrupted life.

Other tombs, like this Chinese one, have the mother tongue inscribed on one side and English on the other since English was the common language spoken among the many cultural groups. 

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang, Chinese Christians
Chinese character on one side of the tomb, but English is on the other side.

These Chinese Christians were refugees from the Taiping Rebellion. This civil war in the southern region of China was led by Hong Xiquan who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus. These twelve tombs indicate that they are Hakka people from southern China and tells how many sons and daughters the deceased has.

Armenians were another influential ethnic group in Penang. They came as traders and were well educated. Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, established the nearby Eastern and Oriental Hotel as well as the world famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. 

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang, Armenian
Tomb of Michael Arratoon inscribed in Armenian on top and English on the bottom.

The Old Protestant Cemetary is the final resting place of Michael Arratoon, an Armenian whose father started Penang's first stockbroker firm in 1830 which is still in business today. Most of Penang's Armenian society has since emigrated to Singapore and Australia, and they no longer have a big presence on the island.

World War II and the end of colonial rule

When I entered the cemetery, what struck me is that the tombs are all clustered in one part of the property, leaving a vast expanse of grass at the front. 

Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang
Part of the cemetery was destroyed in World War II. Recovered tablets are mounted on the back wall.

The fact is that I was walking on what are now unmarked graves. This area was heavily bombed by the Japanese in World War II, leaving only the middle area intact. The nearby Anglican church, St. George, was also bombed, so the cemetery registry is also missing. Restorers were unable to match recovered tablets with their proper tomb, so the tablets were mounted along the back wall of the cemetery. 

World War II was a significant turning point in British rule in Southeast Asia. When the Japanese attacked, the British fled, leaving Penang as an open city and undefended against the enemy. After years of Japanese occupation, the people did not exactly welcome the British back after being abandoned by them. Thus, the process to break free from British domination and establish the independent country of what is now Malaysia began.

Touring the Old Protestant Cemetery

Penang Heritage Trust leads a free, guided tour of the cemetery at 2 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month. Pre-registration is required by calling  04-264 2631 or emailing Meet at the information counter of the Upper Penang Street Market at 1:50 p.m.

If you would like the visit the cemetery on your own, a large sign in both English and Malay just inside the entrance gives the locations of important gravesites. Be sure to bring mosquito spray.

Final resting places nestled under frangipani trees.

Do you visit historical graveyards to learn more about a city?

This post is part of the following link ups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Budget Travelers Sandbox                              


  1. What a shame that Martina lost her inheritance and how awful that the business partner did not compensate her. The Townsville Cemetary was (and possibly still is) divided into different sections by religion. :)

  2. Oh I love the history these cemetery's hold but often do feel a bit creepy and peeping tom like to be looking at the life stories the head stones and monuments tell. But then I tell myself I am just helping to keep their memories alive. Great post!

  3. My office is nearby... parking my car right beside this place everyday!

  4. I love this old cemetery. I spent a couple of hours there this past summer. Next time I'll try an take the tour. Loved all the history you've included here. Thanks for linking up this week, and posting the badge (looks great!) #TPThursday

  5. Great post! I'm fascinated by old cemeteries. They reflect so much of the history of a place. (came via #SundayTraveler)

  6. Michele, I do love cemetaries. I would love to visit this one in Penang. What history!

  7. HI Michelle, yes I do like visiting historic graveyards like this one. This Protestant cemetery indeed reflects Penang colonial past. If only those tombstones can talk I bet they have so many interesting stories to tell. The ones you have told are truly fascinating, especially the story about Anna. I found the great division between Protestant and Catholics back then truly interesting.

  8. Oh how sad that so many were destroyed in WWII.

  9. Neat cemetery. Glad it was cleaned up and no longer creepy. Thanks for pointing out the history and all the different languages.

    Visiting from Sunday Traveler and Weekend Travel Inspiration.

  10. Perfect post for Halloween week! This was such an interesting read and I learned quite a bit of Penang's history. I find myself curious about Anna now. It's not as fancy as the European churches but seems to be filled with much more varied people tied to Penang's rich history. I'd definitely go on a tour but it has to be during the daytime. :)

  11. I love the atmosphere at this cemetery. It's good for exploring! My family has gone to visit occasionally, last time i was there was about a year ago.

  12. I definitely do visit cemeteries in my travels, especially ones that have famous people buried in them or they hold significant historical meaning. I think it's an important part of learning about a place. You don't hear too much about cemeteries outside of Europe though. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I can't say I've visited a truly historical cemetery but wow would I most definitely visit this one, Michele! All of the different people from time and ethnicities...I was saying "wow" out loud reading the post. And my lifelong study and interest in the second World War only added more intrigue though that is a bummer it got bombed. Dang, a few street lamps carefully located would make that an amazing place to photograph at night! :)

  14. From one interesting piece of information to another in this post. Old cemeteries have so many stories to tell and I've really enjoyed this walk through the cemetery. It's a shame about some of the renovation damage. I agree that it's hard to tell if that tombstone inking was the work of vandals or a bad restoration. My favorite story is that of Anna and her husband.

  15. There is so much history to be learned from old cemeteries. Thanks for exploring this one~

  16. I personally love visiting cemeteries. I find them to be peaceful as opposed to creepy. This one has so much history! I enjoyed the story behind Anna of "The King and I". I never knew that!

  17. I find cemeteries rather peaceful rather than creepy (haha is that strange?!) This is a particularly beautiful one, and certainly has a lot of history to it, which we don't often take the time to consider.

  18. Michele, it really seems a shame that you couldn't capture the original creepy version of the cemetery. But it’s fascinating what you found out about the individual graves. I always love strolling on cemeteries in different countries and learning a bit about the history of the people makes such a visit even more rewarding… :)

  19. thank you for taking me to a part of Penang I didn't make time to visit when we were there in October. Cemeterys can be fascinating places to wander around. What a shame that the registry destroyed and there are so many unmarked graves.
    Happy travels Michele.

  20. Hi Michele,
    I'm Olive n old a grave lover
    I just arrive at Penang, the Protestant Cemetery is one of my interest here and have a plan to visit it
    Do wee need an apointment to visit this place? Is it still open in the afternoon? If it not than I will change my plan to visit it on Friday morning before leaving to KL

    Thank u

    1. You do not need an appointment to visit the Protestant Cemetary. I think the gate is always open. George Town World Heritage Inc. recently published an excellent, detailed brochure of the cemetary. You can find it at

  21. I do not know if the British had sought refuge at the church or on the cemetery grounds. The cemetery is located a good distance from the church. In the bombing sorties of Japan near the end of the war, palaces, temples and heritage sites such as Nara was spared.

  22. I think the catholics used that cemetery before a newer one was established at Kelawai Road. Very well kept till today. It is a one way traffic now, situated opposite of where Gurney Plaza mall is. Beside the mall is where St Joseph's Novitiate the former College General was. Now there is a new mall built over it.


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