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How to cure cholera according to old Sarawakian traditions

Cholera is a disease which results from colonisation of the small bowel by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium.

It is caused by lack of clean water supply, improper sewage disposal, poor personal hygiene and unsatisfactory environmental sanitation.

The classic symptoms include watery diarrhea that lasts a few days, as well as muscle cramps and vomiting.

One of the symptoms for cholera is vomiting.

For Hematram Yadav and Chai Meng Chee who did research on the historical perspective of cholera in Sarawak, they stated that the disease has been here since 1873.

A number of epidemics have been recorded since then, the major ones taking place in 1873, 1888, 1902, 1910 and 1911.

The worst of all outbreaks were recorded in 1902 with over 1,500 recorded deaths and the actual number of cases being unknown.

At this time, there was a punitive expedition to punish the alleged Iban rebels in Simanggang district and the mission ended catastrophically due to cholera.

Lack of awareness of the causes and methods of prevention for cholera were the main causes of these outbreaks, but the late 19th and early 20th century Sarawakians did try to find our own cures for the disease.

From Iron Throne-looking chairs to manang , here are the traditional ways Sarawakians tried to cure cholera:
1.A Chinese possession

Many of the outbreaks in Sarawak occurred during the reign of the Second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.

The Rajah and his wife, Margaret tried to relieve the panic among Sarawakians during these epidemics by riding every morning through the bazaar where cholera was rife.

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There, according to the Ranee, the atmosphere was impregnated with the smell of incense and joss sticks. The Chinese burnt them in order to mitigate the plague.

Margaret wrote in My Life in Sarawak (1923), “ I remember one magnificent junk, built regardless of expense, the Chinese merchants and their humbler and poorer brethren giving their dollars and cents ungrudgingly to make this vessel glorious, as a sop to stay the ravages of the infuriated god. The junk was placed on wheels and dragged for three miles down a bad road to a place called Pinding where it was launched on the waters of the river, to be borne by the tide – it was hoped – to the sea.”

She added the procession accompanying the vessel was extremely picturesque. There were great banners in scarlet, green and blue with embroidered golden dragons.


Cholera is a disease caused by bacterium called Vibrio cholerae.

While we can imagine how exciting and colourful this procession must have been because of our own experiences today, this ‘cholera-curing’ procession was even more fearsome.

The procession was led by a man seated on a chair that looked more dire than the Iron Throne in Games of Thrones. The chair was an arm-chair formed entirely of swords, their sharp edges forming the back, the seat and the arms.

A man, clothed only in a loincloth and a handkerchief on his head, sat on the sword chair. “His head rolled from side to side, his tongue protruded, and only the whites of his eyes could be seen. I thought he must be mad or in a fit, but one of our Syces told me that was trying to allay the cholera,” Margaret wrote.

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Meanwhile, the crowd that followed him was screeching, yelling, beating gongs and making a terrific noise.

The gruesome procession took place morning and evening during the first weeks of the epidemic. But according to the Ranee, instead of allaying the scourge it appeared to have the effect of increasing it.

After awhile, the Rajah had to give an order to suppress the procession.

2.A Muhammadan rosary

There was an old lady named Dayang Kho who lived in Kampung Gerisek, (Kampung Gersik today). She was a well-respected figure among the Malay communities back then.

And she had her own ways to cure the disease. Margaret state, “Daiang Kho had brought with her from Mecca a Muhammadan rosary, and this was made great use of in cases of illness in Kuching. The rosary was placed in a tumbler of cold water over night, and the liquid poured into various bottles the next morning to be used as medicine.”

3.Manang and pelian

The concept of illness and injury among the olden Iban communities was closely linked to religion and magic.

For them, cholera was the coming of a great sea to kill and devour. The traditional way of curing was also used to cure other diseases such as smallpox; by healing (pelian) offered by the manangs (healers).

Do you know other traditional ways to cure this disease? Let us know in the comments box.

Featured image is the “War Dance of the Lundu Dyaks” from The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the suppression of Piracy; with extracts from the Journal of J. Brooke Esq., of Sarawak, The British Library.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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