The Cemetery that Disappeared

Unlike Krakow’s Kazimierz, in Singapore no glue attaches the Past to Present. Land is scarce, buildings are Towers, the Mall is religion and the dead do not compete with the living. But the living always join the dead.

“The [first] European burial ground had been placed just in front of the Government bungalow, so a better place was looked for, and the present site of the old burial ground (which was used until 1865 when that in Bukit Timah Road was opened) was selected. Very few persons ever visit the old Cemetery now, and yet there is a history to be read in the tomb-stones, which however are fast decaying and tumbling down. The inscriptions in granite are almost effaced by time, and those on plaster have all tumbled away. The names on marble plates have lasted by far the best. One of the tomb-stones of 1821 must have been moved into this Cemetery from the former one where the flagstaff is now.”

The cemetery in 1819 was in front of Raffles’ bungalow on Government Hill, close to the flagstaff marked on Lieutenant Jackson’s 1822 plan for the growing settlement. A larger burial ground was soon needed and a cemetery lower down the hill was opened in 1822 and remained in use until 1865. Consecrated in 1834 by the Bishop Wilson of Calcutta, the burial ground was initially for those of the Anglican Church and ʻother Protestants’, but the northern end was opened to Roman Catholics in 1835 though this division of the dead had earlier been ignored.

“The wall up the centre divides the Protestant from the Roman Catholic portion, about which there was much correspondence between Padre Beurel and Governor Butterworth. For some years no difference had been made, as was said to have been the practice in India”.

In 1846 a brick wall was built to enclose the cemetery, and two monumental arches designed by Captain Charles Faber were added at the Northern and Southern entrances. At that time the gently sloping burial ground overlooked the sea, more by accident than geomancy. High-rise office blocks and land reclamation from the harbour long ago removed this perspective, but more was to come.

By 1863 the cemetery was full and closed to further burial: in the tropical climate, brick and plaster tombs were rapidly disintegrating and the tombstones becoming illegible. Like tombs everywhere, the stones could be put to other uses.

“On one occasion the compiler of this book, going to try to ascertain the date of the death of an old Singaporean, found the native caretaker using an old tombstone with an inscription on it, as a curry grinding stone.”

A Record of Burials, if ever it existed, was lost on the handover from the East India Company to the Crown in 1867. Physical deterioration of the graves and the lack of records had long been a matter of concern, but for a burgeoning Entrepôt, not a priority.

“The tombstones in the old cemetery on the hill-side seem now like a memorial of the fading-out of memory in Singapore of many of the oldest inhabitants, rather than a monument of those who were laid there. The tombs which are still standing are fast falling into pieces and the inscriptions becoming illegible. From time to time, by private persons and the help of the Public Works Department, the inscriptions have been cleaned or repainted, and the fallen brickwork or granite stones replaced in position. When Sir Frederick Dickson was Colonial Secretary he had this done, about 1886. It seems a pity these old inscriptions should be lost, and the Government might, perhaps, employ a clerk for a month or two, to copy such as are still legible, and then have them written alphabetically in a book to be kept in the Library, the more so as the registers of burials in that cemetery are not to be found. There may be copies in Calcutta, but it seems very doubtful. The great dearth in general of all the documents before the Transfer in 1867, is very remarkable.”

Perhaps it suited everyone that some documents went missing at Transfer.

Only in 1912 was a register was finally compiled by H.A. Stallwood and published in Volume 61 of the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. The National Library of Singapore has a microfilm copy, but linear searching and reversal of black and white figures made reading a penance. (Yet how common microfilm used to be). The British Library would doubtless have a copy, but by good fortune, a copy was found in the Paris antiquarian bookseller Oriens, and purchased. A splendid volume, it captures perfectly the already decaying cemetery just before it finally disappeared. We will use this ʻwho’s who’ of the cemetery to guide our further posts.

In 1859, troubled by world events, not least the Crimean War, Russian warships in the China Sea, and the Indian Mutiny, the decision was made to demolish the Governor’s House and build a Fort to be named after Viscount Canning, Governor-General and First Viceroy of India (1856-1862): the cemetery consequently took the name of Fort Canning Cemetery. The Fort was never effective: line-of-sight was embarrassingly obstructed by the existing Fort on Pearl’s Hill and it was too far from the shore. Even its 68-pounder guns could barely reach the harbour. In the end its role became that of a signal station, a fire-alarm and time-keeper. A smaller cannon was fired at 5am, noon and 9pm. This ceased in 1896 and the Fort was demolished in 1927.

By 1954, the deterioration had gone so far that most of the gravestones – like that of Lieutenant Wladimir Astafiew – had been removed: some of the headstones were set in the North and South walls, where they remain today. Over the next twenty years, the graves were appropriately cleared, and today the cemetery is parkland, home to fashion-shoots, wedding portfolios and open-air concerts. The headstones set in the walls continue their inexorable decline and are completely illegible in many cases, corroded by lichens and home to voracious ants. Wabi-sabi would be too generous an interpretation. Others have made listings in recent years, and the National Archive of Singapore has images of charcoal rubbings than can assist in deciphering vanished text. We will come back to look at some of those who were interred here.

Journal of the Straits Branch Royal Asiatic Society, 1912, 61, 77
An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, Charles Buckley, 1902