British Garrison Cemetery

The old graveyard up the hill seemed just as forgotten as the British colonials buried there 150 years ago. There was nobody in sight, no shade, no breeze, nothing—just a profound midday heat beating down on the faded, crumbling tombstones, and a barely perceptible buzz coming from the touristy hustle of the nearby Kandy National Museum and Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

And, then, Charles Carmichael, caretaker of the British Garrison Cemetery since 1990, seemed to appear out of thin air, like an apparition, and turned our mildly curious peek at the cemetery into an unexpected highlight of our time in Kandy.

Open for just 50-odd years between 1822 and the mid-1870s, the British Garrison Cemetery holds 195 graves of men, women, and children who succumbed, mostly, to tropical diseases of the time such as malaria, cholera, and heat stroke. Carmichael, barefoot with light mocoa-brown skin, a neatly trimmed mustache with curly handlebars, and a thick, soothing British accent—think a classically trained nightly news radio broadcaster in London, circa 1931—led us through those graves, quickly reciting from memory the stories of many of the deterred.

Here was the grave of a poor chap who died from heat stroke when trying to outrun a charging elephant; there was the final resting place of a woman who lived to be 86. Her last wish was to see her son, a British soldier, one more time before she died; she traveled here to central Sri Lanka to do just that, then died the very next day.

Captain James McGlashan survived a number of bloody battles, including in Waterloo against a fellow named Napoleon Bonaparte, only to later ignore repeated warnings about malaria in Kandy and die from it. The Cargills of Cargill Supermarket fame are buried here. A once-wealthy and powerful coffee plantation barron who lost it all, a soldier deemed a traitor by the British army for abandoning his post after being left to fend off advancing forces all by himself, a tomb holding five soldiers… all here, their memory living on in this one man.

As Charles led us around the cemetery and shared these stories, I couldn’t help but picture the ghosts of these long-dead people sitting on their tombstones, nodding in approval at their caretaker’s capsule accounts of their lives and ultimately deaths. Somebody cared; somebody remembered.

He seemed embarassed, though, that we were so impressed with his extensive knowledge of the cemetery: “I only know because of the man who wrote the book.” He refers, of course, to List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon, of Historical or Local Interest with an obituary of Persons Uncommemorated, by John Penry Lewis, a man lauded for the painstaking research of the book, which was originally published in 1913. Brevity was apparently not one of Mr. Lewis’s stronger suits, however.

Charles mentioned that there were very few visitors to the cemetery these days. “I have not seen an Englishman in over a week now,” he said. Still, he tends to these impossibly well-manicured grounds as if they were visited by hundreds daily—and they deserve to be.

This kind, humble man is a Sri Lankan treasure, a bridge to a forgotten history in a forgotten corner of Kandy. Lewis’s List of Inscriptions might be the skin and bones of the British Garrison Cemetery’s history, but Charles is the one who brings this place to life. I can picture him there now, lovingly, carefully, brushing dirt away from the tombstones, pulling weeds, mowing the grass in that blinding heat, waiting for somebody to share his stories with, that air of nobility hanging on his every word.

The place might be largely overlooked, but I’ll always remember Charles Carmichael, caretaker of the British Garrison Cemetery.