Famous today for the Pesta Benak, or Tidal Bore Festival, the Batang Lupar river was the site of a devastating cholera epidemic in the 1900s.
Modern-day Sarawakians might not have heard of the ‘Cholera Expedition’ that happened during the reign of the Brooke family.
But back in 1902, what was originally a military expedition against Iban rebels down the Batang Lupar river became a disaster, so much so it made headlines across the globe.
Historians and news reports back then called it the “cholera expedition” because one fifth of the 10,000 men recruited to fight against Iban rebels died of the disease.
A river runs through it
Batang Lupar flows for 275 kilometers from the Klinkang Range to the South China Sea. It has a large rivermouth and becomes shallow upstream.
The river runs through a number of towns including Lingga, Sri Aman and Engkilili. The Batang Lupar river is the only river in Malaysia which experiences the tidal bore phenomenon. Even though it happens everyday, it becomes more spectacular at king tide during dry season.
What actually happened?
Vyner Brooke, the eldest son of Charles Brooke, the second rajah of Sarawak, started his career in the then-kingdom as a cadet government officer in 1897.
He first served in Simanggang (now known as Sri Aman), then at Mukah and Oya.
In May 1900, he participated in a punitive expedition against the Muruts in Trusan. Then in June 1902, he took part in another expedition against the Ibans in upper Batang Lupar.
It was an expedition Vyner would never forget.
The expedition was to pacify Iban factions who had started a few raids against their traditional enemies – and Brooke allies – the Ibans from the lower Batang Lupar.
Branded rebels under the Brooke regime, they also refused to pay taxes or follow directives by the Brooke government to move their longhouses to the riverbank.
Charles and Vyner arrived at the fort in Lingga on June 8 where they found more than 10,000 of their Iban and Malay allies in about 800 longboats ready to fight for them.
The next morning, Vyner reported to his father that two men had died outside his bungalow.
Charles refused to listen, assuming his son was trying to escape his duty.
Then on June 9, the Rajah made his way back to Kuching leaving Vyner to carry on the expedition with two English officers, Demetrius Bailey and Harry Deshon.
Margaret Brooke’s account on the Cholera Expedition
Vyner’s mother, Margaret wrote briefly about the expedition in her book My Life in Sarawak.
“For some unexplained reason, cholera broke out amongst the force just before it had reached the enemy’s country,” she stated.
When they arrived near the rebels’ area, the force was separated into two groups. One group led by the Malay chiefs set out on foot to attack the rebels while the rest including Vyner and his two English officers were left behind.
The remaining force set up camp by the river. By this time, many had suffered from cholera.
“As the days wore on, the air was filled with the screams and groans of the stricken and dying.”
According to Margaret, it was impossible to turn back despite the fact that men were dropping dead everyday because of the “bad impression such a course would have made on the enemy.”
In the end about 2,000 men died of the disease.
She was told by the two British officers that Vyner’s presence helped to keep discipline and hope among the force.
Margaret wrote, “He was always cheerful, they said. It appears that Vyner and his two friends used to sit on the gravel bed and with a grim humour point out to one another where they would like to be buried.”
The floating bodies from the Cholera Expedition
However, the truth is some who died of cholera were not properly buried.
Although Brooke’s forces had returned successfully from battle against the rebels, they found many dead bodies and dying comrades at the camp.
Some were buried in shallow graves at the campsite while some were flung from the boats during their return journey to Simanggang.
The bodies that were brought to Simanggang were stacked into pyres and burnt.
The disease spread even more when – after hearing of the dead bodies – the upper Batang Lupar Ibans came to the campsites to cut off the heads and bring them home.
This caused more people at the upper river to get infected, with some dying from cholera.
The Cholera Expedition which made world headlines
When the Ranee first read the news about the expedition, she was in Italy.
The Italian paper had mistakenly reported that the Rajah’s son died of cholera in Sarawak, as he was leading an expedition into the interior.
“I hurried to England with my younger son, Harry, who was staying with me at the time, and when we arrived at Dover, placards at the station confirmed the report. Telegrams, however, soon put out of suspense, but I had spent a terrible day.”
Not all of the reports about the Cholera Expedition were inaccurate.
There was one which made it to the pages of The San Francisco Call on July 9, 1902 with the headline “Punitive Expedition is Attacked by Cholera”.
It stated, “While Harry de Windt has been undergoing tragic experiences in Siberia, his nephew Charles Vyner Brooke, son of Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, who married De Windt’s sister, has been having terrible time in the northern part of Sarawak.”
The news reported that more than 1,000 deaths occurred among the 10,000 members of expedition within 10 days due to cholera.
It pointed out that the intensely hot weather favoured the rapid progress of the disease.
The Singapore Free Press was more straightforward in its report on the expedition: They put the blame on the second rajah’s “arrogant stupidity” for insisting to carry on the expedition despite signs of cholera outbreak.
Plus, the paper observed that with more than 10,000 people travelling along a shallow river which they also used as drinking water, with even just one case of cholera, the rapid spread of the disease was inevitable.
The aftermath of the Cholera Expedition
According to Cassandra Pybus in White Rajah: A Dynastic Intrigue, Vyner was determined to turn his people back from the expedition.
But Bailey’s fear of the Rajah was greater than his fear of cholera so he insisted the attack must proceed.
Perhaps he was right: if only Charles had listened to his son’s plea, more than 2,000 people would have not been infected by the disease.
Margaret, however, was not that critical of his husband’s decision.
According to Margaret, the spread of this waterborne disease in the whole Simanggang area was almost fateful.
In her final note on the event, she wrote “Nothing apparently could be done to stop the disease, which disappeared as suddenly as it had come, but this calamitous epidemic destroyed nearly one-quarter of the population.”