After more than a century of neglect, the Old Protestant Cemetery is now listed as a Class 1 Heritage site and maintained by the Penang Heritage Trust.
Despite its extremely rich historical value (Georgetown’s founder Francis Light, among other notables, is buried there), the cemetery is seldom mentioned in tourist brochures. The relative lack of attention contributed to its dilapidated appearance.
The Old Protestant Cemetery lies in a grove of odorous frangipani trees along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, near the historic core of Georgetown, only metres away from the beachfront.
Established for British colonial administrators, traders and missionaries who arrived after Penang’s establishment in 1786, the cemetery is of significant historic interest and is older than many better-known burial grounds. In 2012, conservation works were undertaken to protect and preserve the site, although there was some concern about how the restoration was done.
This Cemetery was the first to be consecrated after Captain Francis Light founded the Prince of Wales Island Settlement in 1786. The first recorded burial was of Lt. William Murray of the Bengal Artillery in 1787; the grave marker is no longer extant.
The last person to be buried at the cemetery was Cornelia Josephine Van Someren in 1892. After that, the cemetery was closed and subsequent Christian burials have been carried out in the Western Road Cemetery.
The cemetery also contains 12 Chinese graves, as well as the graves of some of Penang’s early German merchants and their relatives. These were Chinese Christians that had fled from the Boxer Rebellion in China and the persecution of Christians. Of around 500 graves, over 25% are not identifiable due to weathering and damage.
The tablets of many tombs have fallen off; some, which could not be matched to their tombs, are mounted on the south wall. Some of the simple, square-ish tombstones are in a state of disrepair (Captain Light’s tomb is surprisingly simple), but there are plenty that are huge and ornate affairs.
A remarkable portion of the graves are of people who died before reaching 50 years of age; many of the men and women buried are in their twenties and thirties. This is because there was a severe malaria outbreak (‘jungle fever’) after the clearing of the forests. Several graves belong to infants – a poignant reminder of the harsh conditions the early settlers encountered in Penang.
Behind this cemetery, accessible through a small door in the wall, is the adjacent Roman Catholic Cemetery.
The first known clean-up of the cemetery was in 1894 by British authorities, who restored Light’s grave on the centennial of his death. No further restoration works took place at the cemetery until 1993, when the Penang Heritage Trust repaired and cleaned the boundary walls and tombstones. Faded inscriptions were also re-inked, and a large signboard in Malay and English with a site plan of important tombs was put up. The cemetery was reopened in time for Francis Light’s bicentennial.
In 2012, the cemetery underwent a major conservation effort involving a complete overhaul of the site (removal of weeds, mosses and fungi on the headstones, repairs to the tomb structures, removal of 80 trees encroaching on the old graves, installation of a walkway, seats and rest areas for visitors).
Many of the frangipani trees have been trimmed or cleared, and the cemetery is now more readily visible to passers-by.