Fort Canning Cemetery
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Fort Canning Cemetery was the first burial ground for Europeans in Singapore. Located on Fort Canning Hill, the grounds encompassed two cemetery sites. The first site was used from 1819 to 1822, and the second from 1822 to 1865. Fort Canning Cemetery was closed in 1865, and eventually converted into a park. The former cemetery area is now known as Fort Canning Green.
Original burial site
The first cemetery site was located near the front of a bungalow used by the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, on what was then called Government Hill. It was soon found that the cemetery was located too close to government residences and was closed in 1822, three years after the founding of Singapore. There are no visible traces of this cemetery after various rebuilding projects on the site over the years, the most significant of which was the construction of Fort Canning.
Three burials from the original cemetery were identified. The first was that of John Casamajor, a Commercial Resident of the East India Company and judge who was visiting from India and died in Singapore on 1 February 1821. The other two burials were those of John Carnegy, a ship’s captain who died on 12 February 1821, and John Collingwood, a ship’s commander who died on 21 November 1821.
Second cemetery site
The second cemetery site was located on the lower slopes of Fort Canning Hill, and was originally about a quarter of the size of the present-day site. The new site was listed as “Lot 576 – Burial ground on Government Hill, two acres” in the register of lands issued by Raffles and the second Resident of Singapore, John Crawfurd. A number of gravestones were relocated from the first site to the second, and the burial ground was divided into separate areas for Protestant and Catholic burials.
However, the available space was soon used up, and Reverend Robert Burn, the resident chaplain, applied for a new burial site in May 1827. In April 1830, after some bureaucratic delays, Governor Robert Fullerton authorised Reverend Burn to select and report on a more suitable site, or submit a proposal to enlarge the existing cemetery. Reverend Burn opted for the latter and included in his proposal a plan to enclose the newly enlarged area with a wall. On 6 October 1834, the newly enlarged cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of Calcutta, Daniel Wilson.
Due to the restricted size of the cemetery, segregation of Protestant and Catholic burials was not enforced strictly until 1845. In the same year, the cemetery was again extended to include land to the east of the central path. In 1846, a brick wall and a pair of gates of Gothic design were built to enclose the cemetery. This wall still stands and memorial stones recovered from the graves have been bricked into its south, west and north walls.
Around the time of the wall’s construction, two arches were built on the south (seaward) and the land-facing sides of the burial ground. The arches and wall were designed by Captain Charles Edward Faber, the Superintending Engineer of the Settlement.
In October 1864, two anonymous letters to the editor of The Straits Times reported on the poor administration of the cemetery, possibly because the chaplain, Reverend C. J. Waterhouse, was in conflict with the municipal council.
Closure of the cemetery
By the end of 1863, the cemetery was full once more. A new site at Bukit Timah was identified, but construction delays meant that Fort Canning cemetery was left open until 31 March 1865. The last burial at the cemetery was that of Marie Dominica Scott in December 1868, probably because her parents were also interred there.
Between 1822 and 1865, more than 600 burials had taken place at the Fort Canning cemetery. Around one third of these burials were those of Chinese Christians.
Despite a repair and conservation order for the cemetery issued by Colonial Secretary Sir Frederick Dickson in 1886, and occasional clean-up efforts by members of the public, the state of the burial ground deteriorated.
As the cemetery’s burial register had been lost, the government hired H. A. Stallwood, a clerk, to re-compile the burial register by copying details from gravestones. His task was complicated by the poor condition of the stones, the haphazard and crowded layout of the cemetery, and in-filling in the older sections. Stallwood’s report was published in the 1912 edition of the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. The report showed that a large proportion of the gravestones and memorials were still in place, as were the paths dividing various sections and the dividing wall that segregated the Protestant and Catholic burials.
In 1953, the Committee for the Preservation of Historic Sites in Singapore announced that the cemetery would be turned into a park. By 1954, the majority of the gravestones, memorial and inscription plaques had been removed and set in the cemetery’s walls. A number of tombstones and statues from the original cemetery were set in the garden of the nearby St. Gregory’s Armenian Church.
In 1971, the site was turned into a carpark. Three years later, it was announced that Fort Canning would be turned into a park and cultural ground. The rest of the site was cleared and by late 1977, only three of the original monuments remained in their original positions. The oldest stone unearthed dates back to 1820, and inscriptions in English, French, German, Dutch and Russian have been found. The area is currently known as Fort Canning Green.
Prominent burials at Fort Canning cemetery included those of Sir Jose D’Almeida Carvalho, the Portuguese Consul-General and one of the earliest European merchants in Singapore, and his family.
George Drumgoole Coleman, the Irish town-planner and architect who designed and constructed many of Singapore’s colonial-era roads and public buildings, is another prominent burial at Fort Canning. Other notable personalities interred there are Charles Spottiswoode, the Armenian merchant Aristakes Sarkies, and Captain William Scott, cousin of Sir Walter Scott.
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(Call no.: RSING q959.57 FOR - [HIS])
Graves to be exhumed [Microfilm: NL8002_9]. (1974, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 13.
Graves to become a garden soon – but historic ones will stay [Microfilm: NL2510]. (1953, March 4). The Straits Times, p. 8.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.