Book on old cemetery reveals rich information about Penang’s past

Langdon relating interesting stories he uncovered while researching and writing the ‘Epitaph: The Northam Road Protestant Cemetery, George Town, Penang’ during the book launch. — Photos: CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

THE old belief that dead men tell no tales is put to rest by author and historian Marcus Langdon in his latest publication ‘Epitaph: The Northam Road Protestant Cemetery, George Town, Penang’.

Touted as the most definitive work ever written about the burial ground in George Town, Penang, it provides rich background stories about the persons interred there.

Through that, the richly-illustrated, limited edition two-part set captures a fascinating snapshot of life in Penang during its first 100 years of colonial settlement.

At the book’s official launch at the Bangunan UAB on China Street Ghaut, Penang, Langdon said it was the product of two years of painstaking research.

He combed through countless books, journals, genealogical records, newspaper archives, army and navy records, and spoke with many descendants and took over 6,000 photos.

“The aim is to inform the public about the valuable historical records sitting there in the cemetery. For these are an interesting group of people.

“In the process, I've made over 400 new friends, and none of them are on Facebook,” he quipped during the event on Sunday, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Old and current photos showing some of the obelisks and ornamental structures that once adorned the top of the graves but were destroyed during the Second World War.

Langdon said the Northam Road Cemetery was likely the first burial ground to have been established on the island following Francis Light’s and the British East India Company’s settlement in 1786.

He explained that the place at the time, which is now Penang Road, was merely an elevated sand ridge running alongside padi fields. This formed a boundary for the cemetery.

“It was in use until 1890 when it closed following the opening of the Western Road Cemetery. Old photos show some graves had features like tall obelisks.

“Many graves at the eastern and western ends were destroyed or damaged during the Second World War when George Town was bombed by the Japanese.

“The earliest surviving grave now dates to 1789, while the latest is 1892, of a woman who was laid to rest next to her husband,” Langdon highlighted.

Today, there are 464 surviving memorials and tombs.

Of that number, only 341 are identifiable, with 398 persons interred – half of them aged 30 or below.

Langdon said burial registers list a further 1,437 names of persons known to have been interred there. Factoring in other unknowns, he estimates that the cemetery holds a total of 2,500 persons.

“There are 16 known nationalities. The greatest revelation is that it’s not a European cemetery, but a Christian one,” he noted, explaining that it includes persons of varying social standing, from paupers to officials.

The books being snapped up during the launch.

Due to the weathering of tombstones over time, Langdon said most of their inscriptions were impossible to read with the naked eye alone.

Thus, he had to use press aluminium foil on them – widely regarded as the least destructive technique – to reveal the wordings. Even so, some were slowly being lost forever.

“My heart goes out to these generally young people, many of whom left their homes in the United Kingdom, to venture out to the tropics here.

“Even if they survived the long sea voyage, they had to contend with diseases here. Life back then was tough,” added Langdon, who went on to autograph copies of his book.

Penang Chief Minister’s political secretary Wong Hon Wai said the 5kg book proved a very interesting read. He subsequently published a review of it in a Chinese daily.

“It is the first public cemetery in Penang and a very important part of George Town's history, though most have little knowledge on it.

“No one has done such a detailed study of it, and we thank Langdon for helping us recapture that part of history.

“Hopefully more such literature is done in the future, to help us better understand and appreciate the city's past,” Wong highlighted.

The book set, published by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), retails for RM300 at its office at the junction of Acheh Street and Carnarvon Street.

Among those present at the launch were GTWHI general manager Dr Ang Ming Chee and George Town Festival director Joe Sidek.

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