An Infestation of Rats and Centipedes
Do you see lots of rats in the scene of early Singapore on page 14? Why do you think the artist drew so many rats? There is good reason for that. Read on and find out.
Early Singapore was a colourful place, with merchants and pirates, coolies and colonials. But it was also full of animals. Sometimes there were so many of them, there would be a plague and the people had to deal with them as best as they could. Munshi Abdullah, the famous scribe and linguist of 19th century Singapore wrote about such an occasion.
In the 1820s while William Farquhar was still governing Singapore, there came a great infestation of rats. Do you see them picking at food and crumbs on Pg 14 of The Little Singapore Book? There were so many rats they overran warehouses and homes, chewed through the wood, stole food and ransacked the godowns. Even Munshi Abdullah’s pet cat was attacked by a pack of large rats one night. So big were they that their hefty weight could knock a person down if he wasn’t careful out walking at night.
They were a real nuisance and people began to complain.
But without rat catchers and pest busters then, what could Farquhar do? First, he asked everyone to try to catch the rats. But all they did was complain and hope their neighbours would do the deed.
Seeing that the rat problem was still there, Farquhar then offered to pay one ‘wang’, or coin, for every rat caught and killed. With this reward, everyone sprang into action and started catching rats with every ingenious idea they could think of. For about a week, thousands of dead rats were brought in every morning, and Farquhar was kept busy paying the people a wang for each dead rat.
But the numbers never fell. There were as many dead rats brought in every morning. Could people be bringing the same carcasses in day after day?
So Farquhar ordered a large trench to be dug and all the dead rats were buried. This seemed to do the trick. From that day, fewer and fewer rats were caught every day and soon, the plague of rats was over.
But it was peaceful for only a short while.
Soon after, people in Singapore became bothered by centipedes. Have you been bitten by one before? It can be very painful.
That’s what happened to lots of people when they were walking along Singapore River, or even when they were at home. The Munshi complained that all he had to do was sit at home for a while, and a few fat centipedes would drop from the ceiling onto his lap and promptly give him a few good bites.
When Farquhar heard about this problem, he again offered a reward of a ‘wang’ for every centipede caught. This plan worked again as people once again devised ways to catch the offending creatures and made every effort to hunt them down. Hundreds of centipedes would be brought in every morning. This time, they were promptly buried. After a few days, the numbers dwindled until finally, the Munshi wrote: “The lipan (centipede) war was also ended and people ceased to mourn from the pain of their stings.”