30 Aug 2021

'The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage' charts the passage of the Spanish Flu

10:37 am on 30 August 2021

As the world continues to battle Covid-19 and New Zealand is in the midst of another lockdown let's cast our mind back to another pandemic that swept the world over 100 years ago.

The troop ship HMNZT Tahiti.

The troop ship HMNZT Tahiti. Photo: National Army Museum, Waiouru

It was called the Spanish Flu, also known as the Great Influenza epidemic.

In 1918, a ship, HMNZT Tahiti carrying over 1117 military personnel (40th reinforcements) and 100 support staff from New Zealand was ravaged by the flu.

New Plymouth influenza notice.

Photo: National Army Museum, Waiouru

By the end of its voyage, 90 percent of the 1217 people on board had the influenza virus. Seventy-eight died on board and another nine, sick on arrival in Plymouth, England on 10 September, also succumbed to the disease.

The ship set sailed from Wellington on 10 July, 1918 and sailed via Albany in Western Australia, Capetown, South Africa and then onto Freetown in Sierra Leone.

It stopped at the West African nation to replenish coal and supplies. It did not berth and no one was allowed ashore as the country was experiencing what was at the time called a ''sickness''.

A new exhibition, ''The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage" is planned to open soon at the National Army Museum in Waiouru.

Collection and exhibitions manager Windsor Jones said while the ship was loading coal at Freetown, some officers went over to one of the convoy ships which, it was later discovered, was infected and they brought the flu back to the Tahiti.

Troops on board the HMNZT Tahiti, circa 1915.

Troops on board the HMNZT Tahiti, circa 1915. Photo: National Army Museum, Waiouru

''As they left on August 26th to head to the UK they started being infected by the influenza.''

The conditions on board were very cramped.

''The problem was the troop ships were there to get troops to the front, so they had requisitioned a lot of passenger liners that would normally carry about 600-700 people, including all crew, but these were 1200 people and crew, so almost double the capacity and this wasn't uncommon because at the end of the day they were all about moving troops to the UK and onto the Western Front.

Troops sitting on the deck of the HMNZT Tahiti.

Troops sitting on the deck of the HMNZT Tahiti. Photo: National Army Museum, Waiouru

''It just so happens when there is an influenza epidemic on board, cramped conditions, lack of medical supplies, medical staff going down sick , then it becomes a really, really bad situation,'' he said.

Jones said life on board the ship would have been very tough and with only basic medical supplies.

''The reality would have been, they were expecting things like the odd cold or seasickness, which was prevalent, and so anything like a severe case of influenza, complicated by bronchial pneumonia as well, so the strain of the flu was particularly bad and they had no medicines to deal with that.''

He said as more and more people went down with the flu, the medicine they had, which was probably just general cough mixture, had to be watered down so it went further.

''They only had a limited number of hospital beds and when they were full and for those with temperatures over 102, were kept below deck and those below 102 were put above deck.''

Troops on the HMNZT Tahiti disembarking at Alexandria.

Troops on the HMNZT Tahiti disembarking at Alexandria. Photo: National Army Museum, Waiouru

Jones said to make it worse for those out on the deck, at night they were not allowed any lighting.

''They were in a submarine zone and they were very worried about being hit by torpedoes.''

He said 10 nurses on board that were travelling as passengers then had to pitch in to help.

''Tending to the sick and the dying.

''Two of the medical officers on board got sick quite badly and one with mild symptoms. It was a hell of a voyage really.

''It was nine days of hell before they reached Plymouth,'' he said.

Initially no one on board knew it was the Spanish Flu.

''Because it was the tropics they thought they had picked up some sort of African fever, as they referred to it in one of the diaries in the collection. They really weren't prepared for any major sickness and of course something like an influenza epidemic and a severe one at that.''

The exhibition charts the journey of the ship, later dubbed the death ship.

''Passenger ship, to troop ship, to death ship.''

A comparison of the 1918 influenza pandemic with the 2021 Covid-19 pandemic.

A comparison of the 1918 influenza pandemic with the 2021 Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: National Army Museum, Waiouru

Jones said it will allow those viewing the exhibition to reflect on the flu pandemic and help them understand what was going on at the time.

''Also maybe think about as we are in this pandemic today, Covid-19, that the things we see now in terms of quarantining, the isolation, the movement of people via planes and ships.

"There was no difference then. Basically the pandemic followed the paths of the human carriers. There's a real similarity to what we are experiencing today.

''Our exhibition allows the visitor to step aboard the Tahiti and experience how the conditions on that fateful journey gave rise to an outbreak of one of the largest pandemics in our history.''

Nine thousand people in New Zealand died from the Spanish Flu. This was after 18,000 New Zealanders were killed during World War I.

New Zealand's population at the time was 1.15 million.

Globally, it is estimated 500 million people were infected and between 25-50m died.

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