Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Patch of England in Bogotá


Our bike tours often visit Bogotá's historic Central Cemetery, with its 22,000 tombs, many of them elaborate above-ground artworks.

I'd been told that hidden alongside the Central Cemetery there existed an English Cemetery, and I'd passed by its shut gates thousands of times. Today they were preparing for Remembrance Day and so the gates stood open and we walked into a green expanse which conjures up a little bit of Albion in Bogotá. The forested cemetery of lawns and simple Protestant headstones contrasts strongly with the concrete and elaborateness of the multi-story Spanish-style cemetery alongside. (I'd choose the English Cenetery to rest in peace in, but the Central Cemetery, with its artwork and traditions, is lots more interesting.)

The cementerio inglés is Bogotá's second-oldest cemetery, and its origins are tied into Colombia's own birth. Colombia gave the land to the English government in gratitude for the British Legion's service in Latin America's revolution against Spain. (The English were neither altruistic nor anti-empire, of course. They wanted to weaken Spain and open markets for English trade - the same reasons why France had supported the revolution in North America.) The cemetery's gates were made from melted down muskets and bayonets used by the British Legion. Legion veterans were buried here, and later other members of the English community. Eventually, the cemetery also became by default the burial ground for many Bogotá Protestants seeking an alternative to the neighboring Catholic Cemetery. Today, the cemetery is only seldom used, we were told.
The British Cemetery is legally part of the British Embassy grounds. That makes it a "corner of a foreign field that is forever England," complete even with sentimental poetry about Albion.
Also, see some photos on Flckr.

On Plaza Bolívar, a plaque honoring the British Legion. 
In recent years, Bogotá has converted the nearby children's cemetery into Parque del Renacimiento and plans to remove the nearby mausoleums and turn the area into soccer fields. It would be thoughtful of the British Embassy to open the unused part of its cemetery to the public, perhaps for cultural events or a space for art. It's a green, peaceful haven in the middle of the city, so it's a pity that it be closed off - especially as the area will become much busier whenever the adjoining Transmilenio station is finally, finally completed.

This is not Bogotá's only ethnic cemetery. On the Central Cemetery's west side is the German Cemetery and in southwest Bogotá the Jewish Cemetery.

Bogotá contains a surprising amount of English architecture, particularly in and around the Teusaquillo neighborhood, including this one-time housing block, now a small university:

And the La Merced neighborhood, which was actually built by the British Petroleum Company during the 1930s and '40s for its executives. Few of the houses are still homes. There are offices, universities, a backpackers' hostel, private clubs and restaurants.
British Petroleum-built homes in the La Merced neighborhood.
The sun will never set on the British Empire - as long as the sun shines in Bogotá!

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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