New Zealand to upgrade the memorial grave site of 1918 influenza epidemic victims

Painted and ready for tomorrows memorial service, the mass graves at Vaimoso where some of the victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic were buried. The memorial erected by New Zealand is at the back of the graveyard.

By Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – TUESDAY 06 NOVEMBER 2018: The Government of New Zealand is to help fund and upgrade the memorial grave site of some of the victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic that wiped more than 20% of Samoa’s population then.

This was confirmed by Manuleleua Asiata Ioane, one of the chiefs of Vaimoso village where the grave site is located.

Manuleleua said New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner to Samoa, HE Nick Hurley met with the village last week to discuss the project.

“Part of the project includes reconstruction of the grave site and a fence around the graves,” Manuleleua told Talamua as village men were working on repainting and preparing the site for tomorrows’ memorial service.

He said a feasibility study had already been done, and the design has been submitted to the New Zealand High Commissioners office in Apia.

At the gravesite, there are four long blocks marking the area where the victims are buried in mass graves. There is also a monument erected by the New Zealand Government in memory of those who died.

On the monument are the words “Erected By The Government of New Zealand In Sacred Memory Of Persons Who Died In The Influenza Epidemic 1918.”

Manuleleua believes the monument was built around the 1930’s and plans to upgrade the monument can become a historical and a tourism attraction for Vaimoso and Samoa in the future.

The project is estimated to cost more than $100,000 talā.

Vaimoso village chiefs, Manuleleua Lauesi, Rev. Amosa Reupena and Patau’ave Seve Ve’e who have been behind the restoration for tomorrows’ memorial service

Commemoration of 100 years
Manuleleua said it was in August 2018 that the Alii ma Faipule of Vaimoso approached the Samoan Government with regards to the anniversary.

“The Prime Minister told us that Government was thinking of the same thing and they have already met with the New Zealand High Commissioner over this event,” said Manuleleua.

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi visited the site yesterday and spoke with Manuleleua about tomorrow’s service to commemorate the 100th anniversary since the arrival of the ship that brought the epidemic that the Samoans called the Fa’ama’i Oti or Death Disease.

The service will be conducted under the guidance of the National Council of Churches (NCC), with part of the service allocated to all church ministers serving in different denominations in the village of Vaimoso.

The Influenza Epidemic
On the 7 November 1918, the New Zealand passenger and cargo ship Talune arrived in Samoa carrying people already infected by the Spanish Flu.

While the boat was under quarantine in Suva, Fiji, there was no mention of it when it berthed at the Apia wharf, unloaded its cargo and passengers then sailed again to Tonga the following day.

Being a small island, and its’ inhabitants without the natural resistance to the virus, the disease spread rapidly throughout the country given the nature of families gathering around their sick relatives.

The death toll was devastating by the day and mass graves were dug around the country and victims were buried together to avoid the disease from spreading.

The grave site behind the Vaimoso Congregational Christian Church is one of many mass graves the victims were buried.

During Samoa’s 40th independence anniversary in June 2002, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clarke apologised publicly to the people of Samoa over the handling of the influenza epidemic and other incidents while Samoa was under New Zealand’s colonial watch.