top of page

The British Cemetery

“I was looking for a guitar shop and found the ‘British Cemetery’. Time to do a bit of digging!” — David J Whyte

"Sketches of Funchal, Madeira - The English Cemetery" by Alfred Pulsford Latham (1840-1867) published in The Illustrated London News, 1866

It’s nice to discover new places. Even if they are 250 years old! I knew about the ‘English Church’ and the ‘Scots Kirk’, two ecclesiastical landmarks in the middle of the city of Funchal. I was actually looking for a guitar shop but here before me in ‘Rua da Carreira’ just north of The Lavie Shopping Centre stood the British Cemetery. Time to do a bit of digging!


“Anyone who had the misfortune of dying on these islands who wasn’t Roman Catholic was either buried at sea or thrown from the cliffs at Garajau”

The British Cemetery dates back to 1770. Before that, anyone who had the misfortune of dying on these islands who was not Roman Catholic was either buried at sea or thrown from the cliffs at Garajau. That was by decree of law!


I rooted around the gravestones looking for nuggets of interest. There were quite a few! For instance, herein lies Paul Langerhans, the German pathologist who discovered the ‘Islets of Langerhans’, the cells that produce insulin. After a remarkable medical career and only in his late 20s, Langerhans retired to Funchal seeking a cure for tuberculous which he had contracted probably dissecting diseased organs. Madeira was recognised as a retreat for respiratory ailments due to its exceptional air quality. Tuberculosis or ‘consumption’ as it was more commonly called at the time was killing one in seven people throughout the 19th century and it was believed that rest and a healthy climate could change the course of the condition. In Funchal, Langerhans practised as a physician, treating mostly fellow TB sufferers and publishing scientific papers about the disease. Not known as a slouch, in his spare time, he produced a handbook for travellers to the island as well as pursuing studies in meteorology. In 1885, he married a widow of one of his patients and rented 'Quinta Lambert’ overlooking Funchal Harbour known at the time as the most beautiful villa in Funchal. It is now the official residence of the president of the Regional Government, Miguel Albuquerque. Langerhans died in Funchal at the age of 40.


I continued sniffing around the gravestones, relying on divine intervention rather than any specific directions as none were available. It wasn’t easy to find specific graves amidst the hundreds but somehow, I found what I was looking for. As I came across the next stone, I thought to myself, ‘You just couldn’t make this up!’ Sara Forbes Bonetta was a West African princess orphaned as a young child during a war with her native Yoruba and the neighbouring kingdom of Dahomey. At the age of only 3, she was enslaved to King Ghezo of Dahomey. The Atlantic slave trade was still prevalent in Dahomey and the British, who had been key players in the business but who had changed their collective tune, sent an envoy to help end the trade.

“Queen Victoria adopted her as her goddaughter”

In 1850, Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy arrived in West Africa to negotiate abolition. As part of the pleasantries, Forbes was offered a young girl as a gift to Queen Victoria. Forbes knew immediately the girl was of noble birth and accepted the ‘gift’, knowing that Sara’s fate could be far worse if left in West Africa. On their return to England, Queen Victoria was so impressed by the young princess's demeanour and "exceptional intelligence", she adopted her as her goddaughter. But the English climate did not agree with the young African princess and soon after, for the sake of her health, she was sent back to school in Africa.


As I read more about this story, it rang a faint bell! Several decades ago, I lived in Brighton, England and in fact got my first freelance work as a writer & photographer in that seaside town producing content for the Brighton & Hove Tourist Board. And I vaguely recalled a story of a young African Princess who lived in the town in the Victorian era!

Sara Forbes Bonetta moved to the fashionable resort at the age of 18 and soon after was given permission by her godmother, the Queen of England to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman at St Nicholas' Church in Brighton, East Sussex.

“white ladies with African gentlemen and African ladies with white gentlemen”

By all accounts, the wedding was a lavish affair! Newspapers of the day reported 10 horse-drawn carriages, 16 bridesmaids and a wedding party made up of ‘white ladies with African gentlemen and African ladies with white gentlemen’ passing through the streets of Brighton. Brighton has always been a bit ‘racy’ that way. The couple set up home at 17 Clifton Hill in the ‘Seven Dials’ area which I remember well but even Brighton’s relatively mild climate didn’t suit Sara’s delicate disposition. She developed a persistent cough which was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. In 1880 at the age of 37, she was sent to the warmer climes of Madeira. Unfortunately, she died that same year. Her grave is number 206 in the British Cemetery.


“As if a princess wasn’t enough, here lieth a king”

George Oruigbiji Pepple, ruler of the Kingdom of Bonny rests in peace here in the British Cemetary.

The Kingdom of Bonny?? George! I’d never heard of him… Bonny was a state within the country of Nigeria that was an incisive slave-trading port. Approximately two or three million people were transported out of this region towards the Americas and exchanged for alcohol and tobacco which was then traded for textiles and machinery from Europe as part of the ‘Triangular Trade’. George Oruigbiji Pepple, otherwise known as Perekule VII, ruled the kingdom between 30 September 1866 and 14 December 1883, when he was deposed - although later restored by the British. How he came to Madeira is unclear. King George is buried in the British Cemetery of Funchal and you can find his grave at number 209.


Here lies William Reid, founder of Reid’s Palace and the most popular hotel on the island for the rich and famous throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

As if not to be outdone, William Reid, founder of the famed Reid's Palace Hotel, bastion to the rich and famous of the late 18th and early 19th-century occupies quite an ornate spot. This seems like a footnote for poor William but I’m sure he will be happy to be included in the above-esteemed company.

Reid was the son of a Kilmarnock farmer. He was sent to Madeira in 1836 at the age of 14 on the advice of his family doctor due to his fragile health. Reid recovered and prospered in the warm Madiera climate and by the age of 25, had moved into the lucrative wine trade. The ambitious young Scot built a small fortune as well as marrying Margaret Dewey and giving her twelve children. By the 1850s, Madeira was becoming a popular winter destination for rich patrons who would stay for several months at a time, renting farmhouses or Quintas. William and Margaret took full advantage of the opportunity and rented Quintas to wealthy travellers, offering their personal supervision and services.


Before we leave this grave conversation, I’m going to link you to another figure buried in Madeira, none other than the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, King of Croatia, King of Bohemia and the last of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine to rule over Austria-Hungary. But that’s another story… Madeira’s got many amazing dead people and a visit to the British Cemetery is fulfilling but please note, it’s only open on weekdays from 9 am to 12 noon.

David J. Whyte


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page