The court case against four Western tourists who stripped off at the top of a Malaysian sacred mountain has been given added spice by claims from a local politician that their action caused an earthquake that killed 18 people. His rationale was that they had angered the spirits of Mount Kinabalu.
It is easy to mock, and other Malaysian politicians have distanced themselves from linking the natural disaster to the tourists’ behaviour, but we should remember that the need to find some divine retribution behind the suffering inflicted by disasters is deep-seated, and was common in Britain until relatively recently.
After we were struck by the worst storm in our history in 1703, Queen Anne declared it was because God felt a ‘heavy displeasure’ at our wickedness. Even though thousands were killed, especially around our coasts, it was no good feeling sorry for ourselves, she said. We had behaved so badly, we were lucky the storm was not even worse.
When cholera struck in 1832, the British government announced a series of days of fasting and humiliation during which the nation would confess its sins and beg for God’s forgiveness. It did not halt the disease, which raged for another year and killed about 60,000 people.