Penang’s link to the Bronze Elephant in Singapore

19 01 2010

I am not one who is fond of wandering around  burial places. Having had a bad experience at a cemetery on St. John’s Island on a school camp where a few teachers and some senior students had conspired to scare the hell out of my classmates, I had developed an irrational fear of cemeteries, and made it a point to avoid cemeteries like the plague. There had been occasions when I didn’t have much of a choice: once, on a cold and dark winter’s evening, I had missed the bus stop to get to my lodging in Earl’s Court in London, and I ended up having to walk by the Brompton Cemetery – and having an overactive imagination did not help. There were of course the occasions when I did venture into cemeteries out of choice: looking for the resting place of Hector Berlioz at the Cimetière de Montmartre, I ended up losing myself and wandering aimlessly around the cemetery – somehow I wasn’t the only one as I encountered a few American tourists doing the same, in search of the grave of Jim Morrison (who is actually buried across town at the Cimetière du Montparnasse). I once did the same at the Necropolis in Glasgow as well, when at the end of a walk on autumn’s evening to soak in the magnificent colours of the fall, I somehow ended up getting lost among the tombstones of the old cemetery. So, when I found myself walking by the old Protestant Cemetery along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in the half light of dawn on my way to take some photographs of the ruined Shih Chung Branch School building next  to the cemetery, I passed up the opportunity to explore the cemetery, after taking a few photographs from the safety of the clearing just inside the cemetery grounds by the main gate. The cluster of trees staring eerily at me as if beckoning me to walk through the passage it held open for me, looking as if it was a scene from the Twilight Zone added to a sense of unease, as did the solitary trishaw that sat in the clearing, seemingly awaiting the custom of perhaps one of the cemetery’s inhabitants.

Wandering aimlessly around the Necropolis in Glasgow, Autumn 1988

The Protestant Cemetery was used between 1789 to 1892.

A side gate to the Protestant Cemetery.

A solitary trishaw waits, as if waiting for the custom of one of the cemetery's inhabitants.

Gravestones include one of the British colony of Penang's founder, Captain Francis Light.

View through the cluster of trees in the Protestant Cemetery. It seemed as if the path made by the rows of trees were beckoning me to walk into a scene from the Twilight Zone!

Thus, it was only much later, when I was doing some research into the background of the abandoned Shih Chung Branch School building, that I came across an interesting link between the cemetery and a bronze statue of an elephant in Singapore and the story of the English school teacher at the court of King Mongkut Siam both of which had fascinated me in my childhood. Apparently, Thomas Leonowens the husband of a certain Anna Leonowens (Anna is the subject of the story), who as a young hotel keeper in Penang was struck down with Apoplexy in 1859, and is buried in the cemetery. That Anna would have later taken up the position at the Siamese Royal Court if her husband had still been alive, we do not know, but we can speculate that it was in these circumstances that she did take the position up three years later, which provided us with the delightful tale of Anna and the King, and perhaps opened the doors to the travels of one of Anna’s pupils, Chulalongkorn, the eldest son of Monkut, who ascended the Siamese throne upon his father’s death. Chulalongkorn had on one of his trips presented the statue of the bronze elephant as a gift to Singapore, which was the first foreign place in which Chulalongkorn had set foot on in his vast travels.

Inscription on the tomb of Thomas Leonowens at the old Protestant Cemetery in Penang.

The cemetery is also interesting from the perspective that among those laid to rest there, are several notable personalities which include Captain Francis Light, the founder of the British Colony of Penang and Quintin Dick Thompson, the brother-in-law of modern Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles. Another interesting  note on the cemetery is that there are over 30 Chinese graves which date from the 1860s to the 1880s, which is suggested, may have belonged to Christian Hakkas who came to Penang after the Taiping Rebellion in China. Perhaps, given the interesting facts I have uncovered, I would summon up my courage to venture into the Twilight Zone the next time I visit Penang.


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