How a British ship brought rabies to Singapore

An illustration of a bird seller hawking his ware. Prof Barnard's book sheds light on other little-known facts about Singapore's past. For example, there was an active market for birds which were ferried on Bugis trading vessels from the eastern arch
An 1879 painting by John Edmund Taylor of a European woman with her pet dogs at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Throughout the 1890s, no dogs were allowed into Singapore as a result of rabies among the pet dog population, says historian Timothy Barnard, whose research is captured in his book, Imperial Creatures: Humans And Other Animals In Colonial Singapore, 1819-1942. PHOTO: WELLCOME COLLECTION

New book sheds light on human-animal interactions during Republic's colonial years

Two cruise ships in Asia were placed under quarantine last week to keep the bat-linked coronavirus at bay.

In 1884, the British crew of a ship called Oxfordshire failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the spread of another zoonotic viral disease - rabies.

The ship, which was en route to Singapore, was carrying terriers and poodles when some started convulsing and behaving strangely, noted National University of Singapore historian Timothy Barnard, who recently concluded a three-year study of human and animal interactions during Singapore's colonial years.

Some dogs were thrown overboard but the ship continued on its journey. Upon its arrival, the remaining dogs were sold to well-heeled individuals, many of whom were British personnel, at Commercial Square, which is present-day Raffles Place.

Soon, reports emerged of rabies appearing in the canine population of Singapore - in areas where Britons lived, including a military encampment near the Botanic Gardens. Rabies also affected people. More than 20 people in Singapore were bitten by these manic dogs. There were at least seven recorded rabies-related deaths, although there may have been under-reporting or misreporting and the figure may have been higher.

Associate Professor Barnard, whose research is captured in a new book, Imperial Creatures: Humans And Other Animals In Colonial Singapore, 1819-1942, said he sees echoes of the past in the coronavirus outbreak of today.

"Dogs wore muzzles and people acted on their fears, killing innocent stray dogs," he said.

But there are positive lessons from the Mad Dog Scare of the 1880s. He pointed out that quarantine practices imposed on dogs back then had a lasting impact on how Singapore would go on to deal with infectious diseases for both animals and humans.

As a result of the disease among the pet dog population, no dogs were allowed into Singapore throughout the 1890s, he said. "Then, a quarantine system was developed for imported dogs on St John's Island. This system and the island were then also used for humans including for outbreaks such as the bubonic plague in the early 1900s."

Prof Barnard's research, believed to be the first of its kind for Singapore, is a unique way of looking at the Republic's history.

In an interview with The Straits Times, in the run-up to the book's launch tomorrow at the National Library in Victoria Street, Prof Barnard, 57, said he embarked on the fauna-focused project to help make the nation's history even more relatable to the average person. The American-born historian, who specialises in the cultural and environmental history of South-east Asia, has been living in Singapore for the past 21 years.

The book sheds light on other little-known facts about Singapore's past. For instance, Singaporeans in the mid-1930s started keeping goldfish after these were brought in on Chinese vessels. Crew members would buy thousands of the fish in Hong Kong and take them to ports around the world to sell.

Singapore's well-functioning port meant that all sorts of trade, including in exotic animals, thrived.

An illustration of a bird seller hawking his ware. Prof Barnard's book sheds light on other little-known facts about Singapore's past. For example, there was an active market for birds which were ferried on Bugis trading vessels from the eastern arch
An illustration of a bird seller hawking his ware. Prof Barnard's book sheds light on other little-known facts about Singapore's past. For example, there was an active market for birds which were ferried on Bugis trading vessels from the eastern archipelago. The clutch included pheasants, junglefowl, doves, pigeons, quails and parrots of all kinds. PHOTO: ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS AND NATIONAL ARCHIVES SINGAPORE

At Commercial Square, horses were trotted out at weekly auctions.

There was also an active market for birds which were ferried on Bugis trading vessels from the eastern archipelago. The clutch included pheasants, junglefowl, doves, pigeons, quails and parrots of all kinds. The book documents how vendors, with birds on their shoulders, would try to hawk them. Parakeets retailed for 25 cents, while a talking cockatoo was more expensive, going for about $6. This was during a time when the average wage was less than a dollar a day.

Prof Barnard's research also uncovered the three most popular household pets in Singapore in the 1930s. Dogs, unsurprisingly, took the top spot, having been popularised in England in and around the 1840s as status symbols, and popular in Singapore because of the British population, among other reasons.

Birds such as lovebirds and canaries, and monkeys such as the crab-eating macaque, tied in second place.

The book also captures how the British started "taming" the island upon their arrival in the 1800s. They offered bounty for the capture and culling of rodents, which were said to have terrorised even cats, as well as financial reward for the elimination of centipedes, which overran homes.

In addition, the book chronicles a spate of tiger-related attacks from 1831 to 1930, when hundreds of people in Singapore were killed. Prof Barnard said tigers were attracted to the island as more plantations sprung up. Plantations were breeding grounds for their key prey - deer and pigs which fed on the underbrush.

A May 1850 report stated that tigers in the Bukit Timah district and along Thomson Road had attacked goats, pigs and dogs from plantation communities.

Prof Barnard said: "Reading stories about animals is always interesting, and it can help us better understand political, economic and social developments in the society in a new manner. There are many lessons we can learn from this past."

• The book is available online at https://nuspress.nus.edu.sg for $36.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2020, with the headline 'How a British ship brought rabies to Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe