Influenza 1918: the Samoan experience

Influenza 1918: the Samoan experience. By John McLane. Now that we are wondering what to do with the coronavirus, this experience of two islands with the Spanish flu is instructive.

In 1918 the Samoan archipelago was split between American Samoa (a United States territory) and Western Samoa (previously a German colony but under New Zealand governance from 1914).

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed a quarter of Western Samoans, while leaving American Samoa unscathed. Why were their experiences so different?

On 30 October 1918 the Union Steamship Company’s Talune left Auckland for its run through Polynesia. The new, more lethal influenza variant had arrived in Auckland with the spring, and several crew members were ill. On 7 November the Talune reached Apia, the main port of New Zealand-occupied Western Samoa. …

The two Samoas were in regular contact with each other, and controlled all access to the outside world through two ports: Pago Pago in the east and Apia in the west. The dangers of ship-borne disease were well known, and exclusion of many diseases, especially plague, had been implemented since the imposition of colonial governance nineteen years before. …

When the Talune docked in Western Samoa she was not put in quarantine. No word had come from Auckland by wireless, and the ship’s captain did not mention that influenza was in New Zealand. In fact, the captain instructed ill crew and passengers to hide their malady so as to prevent being delayed in Apia.

The Germans had developed their colony of Western Samoa as a commercial enterprise. European-owned plantations occupied one-fifth of the land, supported by a network of European planters and shipping agents. Three times more foreign ships visited Apia than Pago Pago. When the issue of quarantine arose, the New Zealand Governor, Colonel Logan, faced the hostility of this trading community, as well as significant logistical difficulties. Logan needed a larger infrastructure to cope with the number of ships quarantined, and would have had difficulty enforcing any such restrictive edict. …

In addition, the civilian medical staff in Samoa were both widely scattered and not well respected, and no medical advice regarding quarantine reached Logan. …

Facing a lack of experience, a dearth of instructions and an unhelpful infrastructure, Logan perceived little support. He chose to wait for directives. The port remained open. …

So a quarter of his people died, and the economy collapsed:

Western Samoa suffered the highest known mortality of any state during the 1918-1921 pandemic. At least 24 percent of the population died, and most who died were between 18-50 years of age. Half of the most productive age cohort of Western Samoa, and the chiefly and religious elites, died. Western Samoa collapsed.

But over on American Samoa:

During nineteen years of benign neglect the administration in Pago Pago had learned to act autonomously. Without oversight from Washington the naval bureaucracy had left most affairs to the traditional Samoan nobility and did not interfere in the granting of titles. The medical staff were naval officers with knowledge of quarantine. …

The absence of a trader community allowed General Poyer to impose measures without resistance, and the small number of ships visiting Pago Pago made such an effort manageable. When descriptions of the flu reached Poyer, he acted decisively. Quarantine was established, and implemented under the leadership of traditional chiefs. With modifications, the quarantine in American Samoa continued, with no fatal cases of influenza reported, until late 1921.

And the political repercussions on Samoa:

By 1921 resentments were boiling over [in Western Samoa]. An uprising, the Mau, simmered throughout the 1920s and 30s. In 1929 the Mau presented a petition to George V [of Britain and NZ] in which the ravages of the 1918 influenza were the first point of complaint.

After the experience of 1918, Western Samoa never fully accepted foreign rule. The experience of the pandemic helped maintain the Mau which, although briefly bloody, eventually settled into a constant push for an independent state. This was finally granted by New Zealand in 1962.

via Steve Sailer