7 Nov 2018

How NZ took influenza to Samoa, killing a fifth of its population

6:07 pm on 7 November 2018

"There is a sickness on this boat," a passenger cried from the deck of the SS Talune as it steamed into Apia on 7 November, 1918.

The sickness was the Spanish flu, and as the Talune made its way along the Pacific from Auckland, the virus had raged through the decks. By the time it entered Apia, several passengers had come down with it.

The steamship Talune at the Napier breakwater in 1908.

The steamship Talune at the Napier breakwater in 1908. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/2-080543-F

Despite many other Pacific ports having already imposed quarantine, the New Zealand administrators in Apia waved the steamboat in.

"The ship's captains didn't notify the officials, or the officials were notified and tried to sweep it under the carpet or didn't behave in the way that they should have," Damon Salesa, from Auckland University, said.

As the Talune's passengers fanned out, so did the disease. People went into Apia town. Others rode goods wagons up into rugged interior. A Christian missionary walked from village to village along the coast, taking a hacking cough with him.

Within days, people were dying. Within weeks, entire villages had died. Within two months, about 8,500 people were dead - a fifth of Samoa's entire population.

"If you imagine the New Zealand experience, when you combine the people who died in the First World War and the influenza epidemic, probably 3 or 4 percent of the New Zealand population died, and that was horrific," said Dr Salesa.

"Between 22 and 25 of Samoa's population died in just a matter of weeks."

Assoc. Prof. Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa

Assoc. Prof. Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

"It was an event that could have been avoided," said Victoria University's Dame Winnie Laban, a former New Zealand government minister. "The absolute neglect around allowing a boat to go into Samoa knowing full well that passengers on board were very unwell with influenza."

'Bodies Everywhere'

Where Europeans settled in the Pacific, epidemics often followed soon after. Throughout the 19th century, the Pacific had endured outbreaks of measles, mumps, influenza and a host of other diseases imported from the other side of the world to which they had no immunity. But the influenza epidemic of 1918 stands as one of the worst outbreaks ever recorded anywhere in the world.

For two months, Samoa was crippled. Families retreated to fale that were sealed with thick mats. There was a food shortage because crops withered with no one to tend to them. Businesses shut, some to never reopen.

"Our family were traders on Savai'i and had one of the biggest operations in one of the main villages called Fagamalo," said Tony Brunt, a photographic historian. "Great Uncle Andrew ran that, but he died during the epidemic. His wife had died just a bit earlier and that whole business collapsed after that."

A mass grave in Samoa.

A mass grave in Samoa. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tipi Autagavaia

According to diary entries and newspaper reports, towns and villages fell silent, the only sound the scratching of dirt on spades, as those who could dug mass graves; the only traffic was the carts that circled daily to collect the bodies.

"Samoa was falling apart," said Dr Salesa. "There's not enough people to bury the bodies. Whole families are distraught, grieving. Whole families die."

One eyewitness described in the Samoa Observer: "Every house was closed up with mats and inside the gloom, the suffering of the inmates was pitiable to behold. Some lay withering on the ground, some were found covered in mats, sweltering in agony beneath the coverings, others lay in silence.

"Here and there a sheet of tapa cloth covered a form, recumbent and still, indicating only too well that the foul disease had finished its work."

In one village, Sale'aumua, 100 people died. All funeral tradition was thrown aside as people raced to bury the bodies. Some fales in which entire families died were just set alight.

"My father said at the age of 8, he was one of the few people in the village that didn't get affects at all," said Albert Wendt, the renowned Samoan author who researched the epidemic for his 2003 novel, The Mango's Kiss. "So they had to help the other physically able people remove the bodies of the dead relatives and friends and so on, and bury them.

"They had to put them on the road for the wagons to come around and collect them."

Emeritus Professor Albert Wendt.

Emeritus Professor Albert Wendt. Photo: SUPPLIED

Along the southern coast of Upolu, the story was the same. At Lalomanu, 88 people died. "My grandmother was in Malaela and in her village and the next door village, 65 people died," said Mr Brunt. "I'd be surprised if there were more than two or three hundred max in those villages."

In Apia, a chief had died. The 17 rowers of the longboat that came to collect his body died soon after. Of the thousands of casualties, many were elders and chiefs, or matai, who held much of the knowledge and oral history that informed Fa'a Samoa.

Dr Salesa said that of the 30 Faipule, a body of the country's chiefs, only seven survived the epidemic. Those two months devastated Samoan knowledge, culture and society in a way that lingers today.

"It was absolutely devastating," said Professor Wendt. "You lose most of your leadership. You lose a lot of your work power. Brainpower. It took families and villages years to recover.

"Some families lost their children, so they had go later on to other relatives and adopt some of the children to bring back so their matai titles could continue, so their lines could continue."

New Zealand's role

Four years before the influenza epidemic, the German flag was lowered and the New Zealand one raised in central Apia. New Zealand forces had wrested control of Samoa from Germany in one of the first acts of World War I. Samoans, of course, had no say in this.

For Wellington, the annexation was part of a long-held ambition of several governments to have an empire in the Pacific, with New Zealand at its centre.

“Administrator of Samoa, Colonel Robert Logan, reading a Proclamation of occupation at the flag-raising ceremony in Apia on 30 August 1914 (31 August Eastern time). This was the morning after the occupation of German Samoa by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.”

Robert Logan, reading a Proclamation of occupation at the flag-raising ceremony in Apia on 30 August 1914 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/4-017522-F Photographer: Malcolm Ross

But what followed was a military administration of bumbling incompetence, with a military ruler, Colonel Robert Logan, who became renowned for his racism and indifference to the Samoan people. Within months, laws were enacted to ban Chinese people. Chinese men were soon prohibited from entering any Samoan home.

When the epidemic hit, New Zealand's reaction exacerbated the suffering, and acted as a touchstone for the Mau independence movement, which gained significant traction in its wake.

Colonel Logan repeatedly blocked attempts to set up aid stations. He laid the blame for the epidemic with Samoans, saying the high death rate could have been attributed to them not being willing to treat themselves. He let the Talune leave Samoa, spreading influenza to nearby Tonga, albeit to a lesser extent.

( Learn more about Robert Logan and his rule of Samoa in this episode of RNZ's "Black Sheep" podcast )

When the principal of a boarding school asked the administration to provide food for sick children, Colonel Logan was quoted as saying: "There is a dead horse at your gate, let them eat that. Great fat, lazy loafing creatures."

But what outraged most was the contrast between Samoa and nearby American Samoa. When the epidemic was declared, the Americans imposed strict quarantine for all vessels entering the territory. There were no deaths in American Samoa.

When the epidemic was ravaging its neighbour, American Samoa offered to help by sending a team of medics and supplies. Colonel Logan rejected it.

Dame Winnie said 100 years on, Samoans have not forgotten how New Zealand responded.

"When you have a tragedy like this that wipes out 22 percent of the population, there's a gap that's incredibly painful," she said. "All Samoan families were impacted."

The Centenary

On the main road into Apia sits a church with a weathered grey concrete memorial outside. Beneath a line of palms and in the shadow of the bush-clad hills, the mass grave at Vaimoso is one of the starkest reminders of the terror of 1918.

Several concrete rectangles engrave the lawn, and at end a concrete cross towers above.

You have to squint to read the weathered writing on the blackening marbled plaque: "IN SACRED MEMORY OF THE PERSONS WHO DIED IN THE INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC 1918."

Tony Brunt said the memorial is one of the few that's marked in Samoa. He estimates that only about 0.01 percent of all who died had any kind of memorial, let alone marker.

But no one in Samoa has forgotten.

Wednesday was a public holiday in Samoa to mark the centenary, the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, led a national church service, and a new fence was unveiled at the mass grave at Vaimoso.

New Zealand's government said it would commit US$1.35 million to refurbish a nurses' training facility in Samoa.

At the church service, Tuilaepa said there was no intention to shame or apportion blame, as that couldn't compensate for life lost.

In 2002, then Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised to Samoa for the government's actions in the epidemic, and other atrocities it committed - like the 1929 Black Saturday massacre in Apia. Dame Winnie, who was at the apology as a member of Miss Clark's government, said it was significant, but it was not an end.

Dame Winnie Laban.

Dame Winnie Laban. Photo: RNZ/Denver Grenell

She said that while shame or blame is unhelpful, New Zealand can't be allowed to forget its colonial legacy in the Pacific, especially as it's current foreign policy tries to emphasise the narrative of a benevolent friend.

Both Professor Wendt and Dr Salesa agreed.

"I think even today the recovery is continuing," said Professor Wendt. "But we don't teach it in our schools. We often forget, you see.

"In many ways, we don't teach the unpleasant aspects of our history, but we have to."

"This history is not enough appreciated," said Dr Salesa. "New Zealand has a Pacific history which it prefers not to remember because we are not the good guys in it."