Inside the Old Protestant Cemetery, George Town

Northam Road Cemetery, an old Protestant cemetery in George Town, Malaysia

It had been a few days since I left Malacca and came to Penang — my last destination in Malaysia. My month-long trip to Malaysia was about to end soon and I wanted to get the best out of remaining days.

After spending a few days exploring those street arts spread across the town, I decided to visit a few mosques around. Since the beginning of my trip, I wanted to do an article about some of the beautiful mosques of Malaysia and the Tanjung Bungah Mosque was on my list.

The day finally came when I was on my way towards the Floating Mosque of George Town. The mosque was about 12 KMs from my hostel located in Chulia Street. I decided that I will walk for a while and then take a taxi or a bus to reach the mosque.

I am the resurrection and the life
Saith the Lord he who believethin me,
Though he were dead, yet shall he live.

First, I visited Cheong Fatt Tze aka the Blue Mansion and then continued towards the mosque. I didn’t realise when I reached the gate of a cemetery. Its gate was closed and I didn’t know if it was allowed to enter the place. Looking through the gate, I felt there was something inside the cemetery that persuaded me to enter it. I walked around to look for a way to go inside.

Northam Road Cemetery, aka the old Protestant cemetery, George Town, Malaysia

Looking around, I came across a broken wall which looked like it was deliberately damaged to make a way to enter the cemetery. It took me a few moments to decided whether I should enter the cemetery by jumping off the wall. I looked around — hoping to find someone — but failed. A few moments later, I had made up my mind — I definitely wanted to enter the cemetery. And so I did.

Inside the Old Protestant Cemetery

As soon as I jumped off the wall, it felt like I had entered a totally different world. There was eternal silence — only a few birds chirping. The noise of the busy road had vanished inside the silence of the cemetery.

I took a glance around the whole place before proceeding further. I didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing by entering the place. But there was some kind of energy in the atmosphere that made me walk further. Someone, something, was pulling me towards those tombs. I didn’t know who or what was that. But I started walking.

There was no one inside the cemetery, only a few mosquitoes to accompany me. I could hear them buzzing, following me as I walked. I didn’t have a mosquito repellent with me but the serenity of the place had made me ignore the fact that I was being bitten by those mosquitoes.

A few minutes after walking around different tombs, I was standing in front of a big tomb that belonged to George C. Scott — a two-years and seven-month-old boy. On the tomb was the following verse — taken from George Gordon Byron aka Lord Byron’s poem Bright Be the Place of Thy Soul.

On earth thou wert all but divine,
As thy soul shall immortally be;
And our sorrow may cease to repine,
When we know that thy God is with thee.

About the Old Protestant Cemetery, George Town, Penang

Also known as the Northam Road Cemetery, the old Protestant cemetery of Penang was founded in 1786. It was the same year when Captain Francis Light founded the British colony of Penang and George Town as its capital. The Northam Road is now known as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.

More than two centuries old, the old Protestant cemetery is one of the oldest burial grounds in the world. The earliest burial at this cemetery is believed to be of William Murray who died in 1787. The last burial is recorded to be of Cornelia Josephine Van Someren before the cemetery was closed in 1892. After the old cemetery was closed, subsequent burials took place at the Western Road Christian Cemetery, which was established in 1890.

Graves at Northam Road Cemetery Penang, Malaysia
One of the oldest cemeteries of the world is in George Town, Penang, Malaysia
The grave of Ethel Amy Clark at the Old Protestant Cemetery, George Town, Malaysia

Adjacent to the Protestant cemetery, there’s a Roman Catholic cemetery accessible through a narrow gate in a dividing wall. Early maps suggest that both cemeteries were simply referred to as the “Burying Ground.” Protestants were interred in the Northern section while Catholics in the Southern. It is believed that the ground was separated by a wall after the consecration of St. George’s Church in 1819.

The burial site has seen decades of neglect after it ceased to be in use. The condition of the site worsened when Japan bombed George Town during World War II and many burial records were lost. Conservation efforts took place in 1993 and then in 2007. The latest effort was carried out by the Penang Municipal Council, the Penang Heritage Trust, and George Town World Heritage Inc in 2012.

The grave of Constantine George Glinn in Penang Malaysia
The grave of Constantine George Glinn

According to a survey carried out in 2013, there are a total of 459 graves at the old Protestant cemetery — 432 of which are in-situ and 27 are disturbed. Currently, the cemetery is a listed class 1 heritage site being managed by Penang Heritage Trust.

In my father’s house are many mansions.

About People Buried at the Northam Road Cemetery

Penang was referred to as a “change of air station” by the Britishers who visited the island from India. Ironically, the island saw outbreaks of tropical diseases such as malaria, cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis in the 19th century — which were some of the common causes of deaths.

Over 30% of people resting at the cemetery who have been identified died before reaching the age of 30. This figure sheds a light on the high mortality rate in Penang at that time. It was heartbreaking to see that nearly 60 graves at the burial ground belong to infants and children who died at a very young age. The four-day-old infant William Duncan was the youngest child to be buried here.

People from at least 10 different ethnicities are believed to be buried at the Northam Road Cemetery that includes English, Americans, Australians, French, Irish, and Chinese.

Buried at the cemetery were people from different classes of society. Graves of some high-ranking government officials, army officers, policemen, doctors, judges, missionaries, coopers, and sailors are found here. The oldest person to be buried here was William Thomas Lewis who died at the age of 84 years.

Some Notable Personalities Resting at the Old Protestant Cemetery

  • Captain Francis Light: Acquired the island from the Sultan of Kedah and founded Penang as “Prince of Wales Island” and George Town.
  • Philip Dundas: The first Governor of Penang.
  • James Scott: Co-founder of Penang.
  • Michael Arratoon: Son of A A Anthony, who founded Penang’s first stockbroking firm in 1830.
  • Reverend R.S. Hutchings: Founder of the Penang Free School — the oldest English-medium school in South East Asia.
  • The Browns of Glugor: One of the wealthiest families in Penang.
  • The Jackson Family: Lt. Colonel Gregory Jackson, his wife Matilda, and their elder son Gregory who died within 24 hours of catching “jungle fever” on Mount Elvira.
Roman Catholic Cemetery Gate
Grave of D Luckie at Northam Road Cemetery

Inside the Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang: Summary

Graveyards are not your usual touristic places. I had walked towards the Northam Road Cemetery out of curiosity. But there was something about the place, something very unavoidable that persuaded me to jump the wall and enter it.

Suffer little children to come unto me,
and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

After spending about two hours at the cemetery, I started walking out. I had spent those two hours in silence, surrounded by people who were now peacefully resting in their graves. Those heartfelt messages inscribed on some of the tombs were speaking of the pain we go through when we lose someone dear. What was even more heartbreaking was to see graves that belonged to infants and young children.

When I left the cemetery, I was speechless. I had just gone back in time and imagined how the town might have looked in past. I couldn’t help but think about all those people who had lived in that time. Passing through those graves, I hoped someone would come out and sit with me to share their story. If the dead could speak, I know I would have lots of stories to listen to.

In the midst of life, we are in death.

Walking out, I realised there was another gate that was open to visitors. I just smiled and thought how crazy was it for me to jump a wall to enter the cemetery because the gate I saw was locked. Before heading out, I turned around, took a moment to look at the cemetery, and thought that one day, I will also be resting at a burial place like this. A few minutes later, I was on my way toward the floating mosque.

The Old Protestant Cemetery of Penang in Malaysia

Thinking of visiting the historic George Town, Penang? There are a number of affordable hostels/hotels around the town.


Also Read: An Evening at Bukit China Burial Ground in Malacca, Malaysia

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