“State of Intoxication:” Governing Alcohol and Disease in the Forests of British North Borneo





British North Borneo, alcohol addiction, Murut depopulation, public health, tropical disease, colonial governance, Sabah, Southeast Asia


This article focuses on issues of alcohol consumption, disease and public health in British North Borneo in the 1920s and 1930s, a colonial territory along the periphery of empire. Drawing upon a range of sources – from reportage and memoranda, to local folk tales and oral tradition – it examines how the North Borneo Chartered Company administration responded to spiralling population decline and ill health amongst indigenous Murut communities. Amidst widespread economic stagnation, the company shunned vital public health infrastructure and medical aid, opting instead to govern behaviour and condemn alcohol consumption. This article shows how the company perpetuated racist assumptions concerning ostensible alcohol addiction amongst indigenous communities. It further suggests that the effects of Northern European and American temperance and prohibition movements impacted the Bornean tropics. While scholarly attention has been paid to issues of alcohol, disease and empire in the tropics, historiography has overlooked the role of lax colonial governance in semi-autonomous, atypical colonial spaces such as British North Borneo. This article ultimately serves as a vital corrective by showing how the legacies of commercial-colonial governance remain perceptible in Sabah today, a region still facing major socio-economic and public health pressures amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Author Biography

David Saunders, The University of Hong Kong

Dr David R. Saunders is a historian of imperialism in Southeast Asia, with a particular interest in decolonisation, colonial governance, technology and anti-colonialism. He completed his PhD at The University of Hong Kong, where he recently taught a course on the end of empire in Southeast Asia. David is currently working on a manuscript that aims to present a reconceptualisation of decolonisation and state formation in Malaysia.


Alagirisamy, D. (2019a). The Problem With Neera: The (Un)making of a National Drink in Late Colonial India. The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 56(1), 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0019464618816828

Alagirisamy, D. (2019b). Toddy, Race, and Urban Space in Colonial Singapore, 1900–59. Modern Asian Studies, 53(5), 1675-99. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X1700083X

Anderson, W. (2006). Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines. Duke University Press.

Arnold, D. (1993). Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. University of California Press.

Berger, M. (2020, 29 July). These countries are banning alcohol or closing bars in response to coronavirus surges. The Washington Post. (Accessed 7 November 2020). https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/07/29/these-countries-are-banning-alcohol-or-closing-bars-response-coronavirus-surges/

Black, I. (1983). A Gambling Style of Government: The Establishment of the Chartered Company’s Rule in Sabah, 1878–1915. Oxford University Press.

Butler, S., Elmeland, K., Nicholls, J., & Thom, B. (Eds.). (2017). Alcohol, Power and Public Health: A Comparative Study of Alcohol Policy. Routledge.

Carruthers, A. M. (2020). Movement Control and Migration in Sabah in the Time of COVID-19. ISEAS Perspective, 135, 1-11. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ISEAS_Perspective_2020_135.pdf

Cherry, H. (2019). Down and Out in Saigon: Stories of the Poor in a Colonial City. Yale University Press.

Colonial Reports: North Borneo, 1952. (1953). Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Cook, O. [1924, reprint] (2007). Borneo: The Stealer of Hearts. Opus Publications.

Copeland, A. J. (1935). The Muruts of North Borneo: Malaria and Racial Extinction. The Lancet, 225(5830) 1233-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(01)12582-1

Cowell, H. R. (1935, 17 August). [Statement]. (Colonial Office (CO) 531/25/8). The National Archives, UK (TNA).

De Silva, M. (2009). Javanese Indentured Labourers in British North Borneo, 1914–1932. [PhD dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London].

Dove, M. R. (1993). Smallholder Rubber and Swidden Agriculture in Borneo: A Sustainable Adaptation to the Ecology and Economy of the Tropical Forest. Economic Botany, 47(2), 136-47. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02862016

Ganesan, K., Govindasamy, A. R., Wong, J. K. L., Rahman, S. A., Aguol, K. A., Hashim, J., & Bala, B. (2020). Environmental Challenges and Traditional Food Practices: The Indigenous Lundayeh of Long Pasia, Sabah, Borneo. eTropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 19(1), 200-222. http://dx.doi.org/10.25120/etropic.19.1.2020.3734

Haard, N. F. (1999). Fermented Cereals: A Global Perspective. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations.

Handbook of the State of North Borneo. (1929). The British North Borneo (Chartered) Company.

Hanitsch, R. (1900). An Expedition to Mount Kina Balu, British North Borneo. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 34(1), 1-88.

Harrisson, T. [1938, reprint] (1988). Borneo Jungle: An Account of The Oxford University Expedition of 1932. Oxford University Press.

Holley, S. (2004). A White Headhunter in Borneo. Natural History Publications (Borneo).

Jones, L. W. [1966, reprint] (2007). The Population of Borneo: A Study of the Peoples of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. Opus Publications.

Jones, L. W. (1967). The Decline and Recovery of the Murut Tribe of Sabah. Population Studies, 21(2), 133-57. https://doi.org/10.1080/00324728.1967.10405470

Kaur, A. (1994). “Hantu” and Highway: Transport in Sabah, 1881–1963. Modern Asian Studies, 28(1), 1-49. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X00011689

Korieh, C. J. (2003). Alcohol and Empire: “Illicit” Gin Prohibition and Control in Colonial Eastern Nigeria. African Economic History, 31, 111-34. https://doi.org/10.2307/3601949

Kratoska, P. H. (1990). The British Empire and the Southeast Asian Rice Crisis of 1919–1921. Modern Asian Studies, 24(1), 115-46. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X00001189

Krishnan, P., Dali, A.M., Ghazali, A.Z., & Subramanian, S. (2014). The History of Toddy and Its Effects on Indian Labourers in Colonial Malaya, 1900–1957. Asian Journal of Social Science, 42(3), 321-82. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685314-04203006

Lim, I. (2020, 14 July). Selangor bans smoking, vaping, alcohol drinking in playgrounds, parks for health reasons. Malay Mail. (Accessed 7 November 2020). https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/07/14/selangor-bans-smoking-vaping-drinking-alcohol-at-playgrounds-parks-for-heal/1884387

Macaskie, C. F. C. (1922, 7 July). [Letter to Government Secretary]. (CO 874/938). TNA.

Manderson, L. (1999). Public Health Developments in Colonial Malaya: Colonialism and the Politics of Prevention. American Journal of Public Health, 89(1), 102-7. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.89.1.102

Massey, A. (2006). The Political Economy of Stagnation: British North Borneo Under the Chartered Company, 1881–1946. The Sabah State Archives.

Maugham, William Somerset. [1922, reprint] (2000). Far Eastern Tales. Vintage Books.

Menon, N. (2015). Battling the Bottle: Experiments in regulating drinks in late colonial Madras. The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 52(1), 29-51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0019464614561616

Merican, Z. & Yeoh Q-L. (2004). Tapai Processing in Malaysia: A Technology in Transition. In Steinkraus, K. (ed.). Industrialisation of Indigenous Fermented Foods, (247-70). Boca Raton: CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1201/9780203022047

Moo-Tan, S. (Ed.). (2018). The Diaries of George C. Woolley, Vol. 4. Department of Sabah Museum.

Noor, F. A. (2016). You are under arrest: Epistemic arrest and the endless reproduction of the image of the colonised native. South East Asia Research, 24(2), 185-203. https://doi.org10.1177/0967828X16649043

Pang, N., Lee, G., Tseu, M., Joss, J.I., Honey, H.A., Shoesmith, W., James, S., Loo, J.L., & Lasimbang, H. (2020). Validation of the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) – Dusun Version in Alcohol Users in Sabahan Borneo. Archives of Psychiatric Research, 56, 129-42. https://doi.org/10.20471/dec.2020.56.02.02

Peckham, R. (2016). Epidemics in Modern Asia. Cambridge University Press.

Peters, E. J. (2002). Attacks on a Tax: Struggles over State-Imposed Alcohol in the Villages of Northern Vietnam, 1893–1913. French Colonial History, 2, 199-216. https://doi.org/10.1353/fch.2011.0024

Pettus, K. (2019). Colonial roots of the global pandemic of untreated pain. In Koram, K. (ed.), The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, (196-215). Pluto Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvdmwxn7.13

Phelan, P. R. (2001). Head-Hunting and the Magang Ceremony in Sabah. Natural History Publications (Borneo).

Polunin, I. & Saunders, M. (1958). Infertility and Depopulation: A Study of the Murut Tribes of North Borneo. The Lancet, 272(7054), 1005-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(58)90492-6

Polunin, I. (1959, 21 May). The Muruts of North Borneo and their Declining Population. [Lecture] Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 312-26. https://doi.org/10.1016/0035-9203(59)90049-5

Radius, M.J. (2012, 22 April). The Rundum incident was more of a war than a rebellion. Daily Express (Malaysia). (Accessed 25 October 2020). http://www.dailyexpress.com.my/read.cfm?NewsID=882

Ramalho, R. (2020). Alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems during the COVID-19 pandemic: a narrative review. Australasian Psychiatry, 28(5), 524-6. https://doi.org/10.1177/1039856220943024

Richter, L. & Foster, S. E. (2014). Effectively addressing addiction requires changing the language of addiction. Journal of Public Health Policy, 35(1), 60-4. https://doi.org/10.1057/jphp.2013.44

Rutter, O. [1929, reprint] (1985). The Pagans of North Borneo. Oxford University Press.

Sasges, G. (2012). State, enterprise and the alcohol monopoly in colonial Vietnam. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 43(1) 133-57.https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022463411000695

Saunders, D. R. (2019). Dimming the Seas around Borneo: Contesting Island Sovereignty and Lighthouse Administration amidst the End of Empire, 1946–1948. TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, 7(2), 181-207. https://doi.org/10.1017/trn.2019.5

Saunders, D. R. (2020). The Friction of Distance in Borneo: Migration, Economic Change and Geographic Space in Sabah. World History Connected, 17(3). https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/17.3/Sabha.html

Schler, L. (2002). Looking through a Glass of Beer: Alcohol in the Cultural Spaces of Colonial Douala, 1910–1945. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35(2), 315-34. https://doi.org/10.2307/3097616

Shildrick, T. (2018). Poverty Propaganda: Exploring the Myths. Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt22p7hzh

Simmons, J. S., Whayne, T.F., Anderson, G.W. & Horack, H.M. (1944). Global Epidemiology: A Geography of Disease and Sanitation. William Heineman Limited.

Singh, R. D. S. (2000) The Making of Sabah, 1865-1941: The Dynamics of Indigenous Society. University of Malaya Press.

State of North Borneo Supplement to the Official Gazette. (1921). Annual Report on the West Coast Residency for 1921. (CO 648/9). TNA.

State of North Borneo Supplement to the Official Gazette. (1922). Annual Report on the West Coast Residency for 1922. (CO 648/9). TNA.

State of North Borneo, Official Gazette. (1922, 23 October). No. 15, Vol. XXXIII. (CO 874/938). TNA.

Tenom Notes. (1928, 16 May). The British North Borneo Herald. (CO 855/42). TNA, 93.

Tregonning, K. (1965). A History of Modern Sabah, 1881–1963. Singapore: University of Malaya Press.

Wald, E. (2018). Governing the Bottle: Alcohol, Race and Class in Nineteenth-Century India. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 46(3), 397-417. https://doi.org/10.1080/03086534.2018.1452546

Warren, J. A. (2013). Troublesome spirits: alcohol, excise and extraterritoriality in nineteenth and early twentieth century Siam. South East Asia Research, 21(4), 575-99. https://doi.org/10.5367/sear.2013.0176

Whitehouse, J. (1978). Of Dusun Women Entertaining. Frontiers: Journal of Women Studies, 3(3), 28-30. https://doi.org/10.2307/3346325

Williams, T. R. (1965). The Dusun: A North Borneo Society. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Winzeler, R. F. (2004). The Architecture of Life and Death in Borneo. University of Hawai’i Press.

Wong, D. T. K. (2004). Historical Sabah: Community and Society. Natural History Productions (Borneo).

Wong, D. T. K. (2009). Woolley and the Codification of Native Customs in Sabah. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11(1), 87-105. https://www.nzasia.org.nz/uploads/1/3/2/1/132180707/12_wong_3.pdf

Wong, D. T. K. & Moo-Tan, S. (Eds.). (2015). The Diaries of George C. Woolley, Vol. 1. Department of Sabah Museum.

Woolley, G.C. (1927). Two Murut Pantuns from the Dalit District, Keningau, British North Borneo. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 5(2), 366-9. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24249133

Woolley, G.C. [1936, reprint] (2004). The Timogun Muruts of Sabah. Natural History Publications (Borneo).

World Health Organisation. (2020, 27 August). Malaysia resumes polio response amidst COVID-19 pandemic. (Accessed 3 December 2020). https://www.who.int/malaysia/news/detail/27-08-2020-malaysia-resumes-polio-response-amidst-covid-19-pandemic

Yeomans, H. (2011). What Did the British Temperance Movement Accomplish? Attitudes to Alcohol, the Law and Moral Regulation. Sociology, 45(1), 38-53. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038510387189




How to Cite

Saunders, D. (2021). “State of Intoxication:” Governing Alcohol and Disease in the Forests of British North Borneo. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 20(1), 202–225. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.20.1.2021.3779