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That one time James Brooke almost died of smallpox

In May 1853, the first White Rajah of Sarawak James Brooke contracted the smallpox disease.

It was so severe that he almost died. At that time, he had just arrived in Sarawak from a visit to England.

Unfortunately for him, there was no doctor in Sarawak. The only man with some medical knowledge – Bishop Francis McDougall – was in England.

Brooke knew the disease was contagious, so he insisted on everyone who had never had the disease to keep out of his room.

He trusted an Arab man named Sheriff Moksain who knew some local treatment to take care of him.

There were also Captain John Brooke (James’ nephew) and his three loyal Malay servants as well as Arthur Crookshank and Reverend Andrew Horsburgh at his attendance.

James Brooke
This was what Horsburgh about the event:

“Having heard that the Rajah would not allow any of his relations to attend upon him from fear of their taking the disease, I wrote to Captain Brooke and offered to nurse him. Captain Brooke first thought I had better not, as I might introduce the disease into the mission school; but early next morning I received a note from him asking me to go over and see the Rajah.

I found him in the height of the disease, and I need not describe the unsightly appearance, but at the same time I could not help being struck with the sharpness of his clear blue eye.

The fever was very high, his mind was so continually wandering that it was difficult to make him understand anything; yet he could generally be recalled to a subject by a direct address, and he could then express himself clearly upon it.

As I entered the room he saw me and called out, ‘Don’t come here! Have you had smallpox? Have you had it? Have you had it?’ to which I bluntly answered ‘Yes.’ I told Captain Brooke after leaving the room that I thought the Rajah very ill, but that I had seen as ill recover.

I had been reading in some medical publications that it was now the custom to treat fevers with wine and brandy, and I explained to Captain Brooke what I thought, and showed him the authorities on which I formed my opinion, for Mr. McDougall, who was then in England, had a medical library which we missionaries all studied.

I accordingly proposed that he should have some brandy, and Captain Brooke assenting, I mixed some with water and put in some things to make it taste like medicine, and brought it to him.”

The Rajah refused to take the ‘medicine’ for his smallpox

He resolutely refused to take or even to look at it. ‘For God’s sake, Rajah,’ said Captain Brooke, ‘do take it’, and he pleaded earnestly that he should.

He at last was so far moved as to what it was, so I told him that was quinine in it.

‘Anything else?’ I fenced with the brandy as long as possible, but before his eager and half angry questioning I was obliged at last to confess it.

This was enough, he turned his face to the ceiling, help up his hands, and exclaimed, ‘Whoever heard of brandy in smallpox!’

In the afternoon he seemed to be getting weaker, and I made up a stimulating prescription, which was given in one of the medical books, told Captain Brooke of it, and begged him to use his influence to get the Rajah to take it.

At Captain Brooke’s entreaty he took it, and it soothed him and gave him a little rest.

I continued to give the Rajah food and stimulants, but he did not like my pressing medicine on him and from the hands of Mr Crookshank especially he would not take what he would not from me.

James Brooke’s first letter after his sickness

It was not sure how long Brooke was sick in his bed. Nonetheless, the first letter he wrote to his friend John Templer in England dated on June 28, 1853.

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He wrote, “For fifteen days I lay raging with fever, or shivering with the cold water, which they threw over me in my bed – my mind wandering, and without sleep, lingering between life and death. My constitution triumphed over disease, and after a prolonged sleep, brought on by a dose of opium, given me by Crookshank, I woke sensible to the loathsome state to which I was reduced; literally from head to foot I was seemed with this frightful disorder; and feeble as an infant, I strove to reconcile myself to the will of God, who had afflicted me.”

While the rajah was able to survive the disease, his face was scarred for life. In the same letter he sent to Templer, he stated “Since then I have been improving, and am now clear of the disgusting part of the disease, though I fear, my friends must learn to know me under a different face to any I have yet worn towards them.”

Even though the vaccination against smallpox had already been discovered in 1798 by British doctor Edward Jenner, it is odd that Brooke did not have himself vaccinated.

Vaccination against smallpox was finally introduced in Sarawak in the 1860s.

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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