Old Christian Cemetery
Fort Canning Park
Number of interments: more than 600
Open: Daylight hours
In the heart of Singapore City stands Fort Canning Park, a 100-acre oasis full of trees, museums, a botanical garden, and a concert venue. Stamford Raffles built his home on the top of the hill, after he negotiated the colonization of Singapore for the British Empire. It’s now the Government House. In the 19th century, the British Army built a hospital, barracks, and an arms depot nearby, and called it Fort Canning. Part of the British army fortifications have been preserved as the Battle Box, a historical monument commemorating the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II.
Early in the 19th century, Singapore became a major port of call for trade ships from around the world. To serve them, the Old Christian Cemetery opened in 1822. The southern half was used by the Anglican community, while the northern half served all other Christian denominations who washed up on its shores.
A high white-washed gate marked with IHS — the earliest example of Gothic Revival style in Singapore — leads into the former cemetery. These ornate gateways were designed by Captain Charles Edward Faber, superintending engineer in the Straits in the 19th century.
The cemetery filled and was closed by 1865. A century later, the graveyard had become so dilapidated and dangerous that its monuments were removed and many of them destroyed. Apparently, the bodies were left in place. More than 600 people had been buried in the old cemetery, a third of them Chinese Christians. Others came from around the world, as evidenced by surviving tombstones in German, Dutch, Thai, and other languages.
All of the legible tombstones were incorporated into a brick wall that now encircles the lawn where the cemetery used to stand. Many of their inscriptions have been painted white to make them easier to read. Others have weathered to little more than the word Memory and the hint of a Masonic emblem.
Many of the dead remembered here were sailors. Mr. John Hide, a gunner, had his stone paid for by the officers and ship’s company of the HMS Renard in 1860. Twenty-year-old Peter Parks was an able seaman who “fell from the fore topsail yard.” His stone was “erected to his memory and as a tribute to his worth by his shipmates.”
Others recorded here were spouses. One stone read, “Sacred to the Memory of Elizabeth, the affectionate wife of Geo. Gray, M.M. who departed this life on board the Allendale in Singapore Harbor.” Another remembered 22-year old Lucy, “wife of Charles Hogg of Calcutta Esquire,” and their daughter Mary Ann, “her infant child, who died on the evening of the same day.” A good number of the stones remember children.
Sometimes the longest epitaphs hint at the most interesting stories: “William Scott Esquire of Singapore, eldest son of the late James Scott Esq. of Penang, one of the first settlers of that island: born the 3rd day of May 1780 and died at Singapore, respected and beloved by all, the 18th day of December 1861.” Penang, a state in Malaysia, was settled by Westerners prior to Singapore. With so much evidence of early death in the stones around him, it’s remarkable that Scott survived for 81 years. Did he remain in the tropics his entire life? Was he sent to boarding school in England before returning to the warmer climes of his youth?
One of the stones that captured my imagination was sacred to the memory of Samuel May, “chronometer maker, who lived respected and died lamented.” Another belonged to J. Young, MM, “Wide Awake,” whose stone is graced with a Star of David and the words Requiescat in Pace. Was he Jewish or Catholic?
There’s a little information about the graveyard on the site and not much more online. However, it is a beautiful green oasis in the midst of Singapore’s skyscrapers.
Singapore’s National Parks: Fort Canning Park
Singapore Guide to Fort Canning Park
Newspaper story from 1974: Colonial Graves to Make Way for Park
Singapore Infopedia article on the cemetery
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