Roadtrip Diaries: Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang

While wandering the streets of George Town, you might chance upon a small cemetery within a quiet grove of frangipani trees, partially hidden from view the busy street by a low concrete wall.

This is the Old Protestant Cemetery, or the Northam Road Cemetery, an 18th century disused Protestant cemetery where the bones of some of Penang’s earliest settlers rest – including those of Sir Francis Light, the British explorer and founder of the British colony in Penang (which paved the way for British colonial rule in Malaya).

The cemetery was established in 1786 – making it the oldest of its kind in Southeast Asia, and also older than some of the more well known cemeteries in Europe such as London’s historic Highgate Cemetery and the Pere Lachaise in Paris.

It received its last burials in 1892, and the site was cleaned up by the British authorities in 1894 – but after that it languished for over a century, with parts of it destroyed by Japanese shelling during World War II. As Malaya gained independence and became Malaysia, still the graves lay undisturbed, relics of the past that nobody knew what to do with, as George Town grew into a modern city around it.

In the 1990s, the Penang government finally saw fit to restore the place and establish it as a heritage site. Restoration and clean up works were done, as they sought to categorize and match tombstones and memorials to the dead. In total, 450 in situ and disturbed memorials survived, although 150 could not be identified, and more still were buried in unidentified graves, some over older bodies. Among those interred here are the British, German, Dutch, French, Armenians, Australians, and Chinese. They come from all walks of life – aside from important personages including the aforementioned Light, two former English governors of Penang, and the Marquis Cornwall (of whom Fort Cornwall nearby is named after), there were also doctors, civil servants, lawyers, planters, missionaries, tavern keepers, and even prisoners of war. I guess in death, we are all equal.

Today, the cemetery is a category 1 heritage site, and is open to the public for visits during the day. We didn’t plan specifically on coming here, but passed by it on our way somewhere else and decided to pop in for a stroll.

Not such a good idea. Because I was wearing a black skirt and shirt (and also because my blood is apparently really tasty) I might as well have a sign that said “Walking Mosquito Buffet” on my forehead, because a cloud of them descended onto me. I had no less than 20 bites within the span of five minutes. So we had to leave pretty quickly, which was a shame. If you’re planning a sojourn here, best be prepared with some strong mosquito repellent. N, unfairly, had NO bites (because I became his meat shield, essentially).

Mozzies aside, the cemetery is actually a nice place to enjoy a stroll. There’s a certain tranquility to it, as if it exists in some sort of pocket in time, despite its proximity of the site to the street and the fact that there’s a gas station to its left and a car showroom across the road. The tombs of the dead rise up from the earth, parts of the stone cracked by the passage of time with weeds sprouting from them, but some of the epitaphs can still be seen as clearly as the day they had been interred, centuries ago.

Many of those who are laid to rest here died young, in their 20s and 30s. Penang at the time was a harsh environment for European settlers, full of diseases such as malaria, thick jungles filled with dangerous animals, and pirate raids on its coasts. I think it’s a bittersweet end – they who braved such a long voyage to settle new lands, only to die far away from home. But I’d like to think that some of them found joy and a sense of belonging in their new home.

If you’re in the neighbourhood and you’re not a mosquito magnet, consider spending a bit of time at this hauntingly beautiful (no pun intended) cemetery. Its wonderfully tranquil, and provides some respite from the scorching heat of George Town as you stroll under its shady frangipani trees. Photography is allowed but be mindful as it is still a place where the dead have been laid to rest, their slumber undisturbed for centuries as the world around it changed.


Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, 10050 George Town, Penang.

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4 thoughts on “Roadtrip Diaries: Old Protestant Cemetery, Penang

  1. I’m digging this vibe. Cemetery crawl. 🙂 I’m Protestant so this should make it to my iti. Scared of mozzies though. Is malaria still a thing in Malaysia? Do I need prophylactic tablets?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You know, this oddly takes me back to Fort Canning Green in Singapore – with the old cemetery plots being surrounded by modern architecture. Who would have thought that the seeds they planted back then would grow into the Penang of today?

    Liked by 1 person

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