Samoa to commemorate 100 years of the influenza pandemic that killed 8,500

The mass graves of thousands who succumbed to the influenza pandemic that killed 8,500 at the cemetery behind the Vaimoso CCCS church where the commemoration service will be held 7 November 2018

By Lance Polu

APIA, SAMOA – MONDAY 05 NOVEMBER 2018: A church service and ceremony at the mass grave at Vaimoso will mark the 100 years of the influenza pandemic that killed 8,500 or 22 percent of (Western) Samoa’s population between November and December in 1918.

The Samoan Government has declared Wednesday 07 November as a public holiday, the day the SS Talune docked at the Apia harbour with passengers sick carrying the virus.

The New Zealand administrators allowed the Talune in with no quarantine checks, and at least 7,500 Samoans who did not have the natural resistance to the disease, died in less than two months.

Although the ship was quarantined at Suva, this was not mentioned on arrival in Apia and the acting Port Health officer at Apia was not aware of the epidemic in Auckland.

The steamship Talune in 1908 whose deadly voyage to Samoa 7 November 1918 resulted in so many deaths at such a short time. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/2-080543-F

By 31 December, at least 7,542 Samoan people had died and deaths from the influenza continued into 1919. A commission of enquiry calculated a final death toll of 8,500, about 22% of the whole population of (Western) Samoa.

The impact of the pandemic was amplified by the Samoan cultural response to illness as the family gathered around a sick person. The victims were mostly the strong and fit adults and left many families with a vacuum in the succession lines.

The New Zealand administrative response to the pandemic has been described as inept as the impact on Western Samoa was particularly poignant in view of the success of the American authorities in preventing the influenza from gaining a foothold in American Samoa only 80 miles from the New Zealand administered islands.

The decision to allow the Talune’s passengers to land, along with other events during New Zealand’s colonial administration of Samoa, was the subject of an apology from the New Zealand Government delivered at a State luncheon in Apia in June 2002.

Fading with time, this plaque at a memorial at the Vaimoso cemetery reads “Erected by the Government of New Zealand in Sacred Memory of the Persons who died in the Influenza epidemic 1918”

The Talune went on from Apia to Tonga, calling at Neiafu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and to Nuku’Alofa in Tongatapu, where it arrived on 12 November 1918. Within a few days of the Talune’s arrival, the disease had spread with heavy loss of life. Estimates vary between 1,800 and 2,000 died, or about 8% to 10% of the Tongan population.

After Tongatapu, the Talune sailed for Nauru, where once again the first cases of influenza appeared ashore within a few days of her departure.

The impact of the Talune’s deadly island voyage is still remembered today, and has influenced influenza pandemic planning into the 21st century. The handling of the outbreak and the indifference of the colonial administrator, Robert Logan, was a catalyst for a national movement against New Zealand colonial rule.

Few if any voyages in history, whether in peace or war, have resulted in so many deaths in such a short time.