Stories from the past about crocodiles in Sarawak

If Sarawak were not already nicknamed the Land of Hornbills, the next best nickname for our state should definitely be Land of the Crocodiles.

One of the two crocodile species that can be found here is Crocodylus porosus or the saltwater crocodile.

It is the largest living reptile and crocodilian known. The locals call it ‘buaya katak’, which literally translates to ‘crocodile frog’ due to its ability to jump out of the water and attack its prey by the shore and even up a tree.

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Saltwater crocodile is called buaya katak in Malay due to its ability to jump out of water like this. Credit: Pixabay.

The second crocodile species is the false gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii) or Malayan gharial.

Sarawakians might know it as buaya jujulong or baya kenyulong.

Crocodiles in Sarawak have a centuries-long reputation for their ferocity and attacks against humans.

They also became a source of legend among the natives.

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Do you have any personal experiences with crocodiles in Sarawak? Let us know in the comment box. Credit: Pixabay.

Here are some stories about crocodiles in Sarawak from the past that you might never heard of:

1.James Brooke narrated about the capture of a crocodile with remains found in its stomach in his journal.

This was what the first White Rajah wrote in his journal on Nov 25, 1845.

“A male crocodile was caught this morning, measuring fifteen feet four inches in length; and it is astonishing how quiescent these animals are when taken, allowing their feet to be fastened over their back, and a strong lashing put round the mouth without any resistance, and then brought down, floated between two small canoes. When dragged out of the water to be killed, the monster only moved his tail gently backwards and forwards.

Yet when hungry, it is evident that he would attack both men and boats, for the bones of a poor fellow found in his stomach. It is probable that these cold-blooded reptiles digest their food very slowly and that one meal, which is a gorge, lasts them for some time, as is the case with the larger serpents; otherwise, if, like the dragon of all, he required a man or maid for breakfast, the demand would be a heavy drain on a small population.

The thigh and leg bones of the Malay were perfect, and the feet had some portion of the flesh adhering to them, and were crushed into a roundish form, whilst the head was found separated at the joinings or process. The poor man’s jacket and trousers were also found which enabled the relatives to recognise his remains, and, from his having been a fisherman, it was probable that he was attacked whilst occupied with his lines.”

2.The Brooke government once paid Sarawakians for every crocodile brought in dead.

Robert Taylor Pritchett (1828-1907) was a well-known artist and illustrator.

He visited both North Borneo (present-day Sabah) and Sarawak. Pritchett then wrote a paper about his journey.

The paper was published in Journal of the Society of Arts on Mar 29, 1889.

About the crocodiles in Sarawak, Pritchett stated, “The river leading up to the capital, Kuchin (Kuching), was some years ago, rather a good place for crocodiles, and you will agree with me, I think, when I tell you that Rajah Brooke decided to give one rupee per foot for every crocodile brought in dead, and Mr. Crocker told me that during the year 1881 he paid 2000 rupees, which showed 2,000 feet of crocodiles varying from 4 to 18 feet.”

Mr. Crocker here is most probably William Maunder Crocker. He joined the Sarawak civil service from 1864 until 1886.

Unfortunately, there is no official record found on the number of dead crocodiles that the Brooke government had paid for.

3.How a 12-year-old girl rescued her brother from a crocodile attack

It is possible to survive from a crocodile attack as well as to rescue someone who is being attacked by a crocodile.

These testimonies which were recorded in A History of Sarawak under its Two White Rajahs 1839-1908 (1909) by Sabine Baring-Gould and Charles Agar Bampfylde have proven so.

“A little Malay boy, just able to toddle, was larking in the mud at low water when he was seized by a crocodile, which was making for the water with its screaming little victim in its jaws, when the child’s sister, a girl of twelve, and his brother of eight, rushed to his assistance. The boy hopelessly tried to stop the crocodile by clinging to one of its fore-paws but the girl jumped upon the brute’s back, and gradually working her way to its eyes which were then just above water, succeeded in gouging out one with her fingers. This caused the crocodile promptly to drop its prey, but only just in time, as it was on the point of gliding into deep water. By the girl’s vigorous intervention it not only lost its prey but also its life, for two men coming up hacked the brute to pieces. The little heroine had remembered the story of how her grandfather saved his life in the same way. To scoop out the eyes is the only chance of escape for one taken, and it must be done promptly. The little boy was scarcely hurt. The girl’s courageous deed duly received a graceful recognition from the Ranee.

“Another girl, a Dayak girl this time, rescued her mother, who was dragged out of a boat, in which they were together, by a large crocodile. She threw herself upon the monster, and by thrusting her fingers into its eyes compelled the brute, after a short but sharp struggle, to release its prey.”

4.“May I be killed by a crocodile if I am guilty”

In the same book, Baring-Gould and Bampfylde explained a common phrase among Sarawakians in those days.

“Death caused by a crocodile is one of the most horrible of deaths, and it is often a protracted one, as the victim is borne along above water for some distance, then taken down, based against some sunken log, and brought up again. “May I be killed by a crocodile if I am guilty” is a common invocation made by Malays in protestation of their innocence; in other words, they invoke the most deadful death that comes within their ken. So did once a young Malay woman in the Simanggang Court on being convicted of a serious crime. That evening, whist she was bathing, a smothered cry, that she had barely time to utter, announced that her prayer had been heard.”

5.The duality when speaking to a crocodile

Edwin H. Gomes was an Anglican missionary who spent 17 years in Sarawak.

One of the books he wrote about his life here is Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo (1911).

In one part of the book, Gomes narrated on how a crocodile was caught by professional hunters.

According to him, professional crocodile catchers are supposed to possess some wonderful power over the animals which enables them to land them and handle them without trouble.

Once the crocodile was caught using a bait tied on a rattan line, the next step was to tie the reptile up.

In order to do this, the hunters started to talk to the creature.

Gomes observed,

“The animal is addressed in eulogistic language and beguiled, so the natives say, into offering no resistance. He is called a ‘rajah amongst animals’, and he is told that he has come on a friendly visit and must behave accordingly. First the trapper ties up its jaws – not a very difficult thing to do.

“The next thing he does appears to me not very safe. Still speaking as before in high-flown languagae, he tells the crocodile that he has brought rings for his fingers, and he binds the hind-legs fast behind the beast’s back, so taking away from him his grip on the ground, and consequently his ability to use his tail.

“Though the animal is spoken to in such flattering terms before he is secured, the moment his arms and legs are bound across his back and his powerless for evil, they howl at him and deride him for his stupidity.”

After the poor animal was derogated, according to Gomes, ‘he is taken to the nearest government station, the reward is claimed, and he is afterward cut open, and the contents of his stomach examined.’

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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