When the influenza death ship the SS Talune berthed in Apia, someone on board shouted a warning in Samoan: "On this boat there is sickness".

But no one took any notice and the ship was not quarantined by the New Zealand rulers of Western Samoa. People sick with influenza they had caught in Auckland before the ship began its Pacific run in late October 1918 were permitted to go ashore when it arrived in Apia 100 years ago today.

According to historian Ryan McLane, the first death was of a young female servant of a family travelling on the ship to the New Zealand colony. She died within a day or so of going ashore.

The Talune carried the 1918 pandemic influenza virus from Auckland to Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The Talune carried the 1918 pandemic influenza virus from Auckland to Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Six major chiefs boarded the Talune to meet guests and relatives. Four were dead within weeks - along with a quarter of Samoa's population, the highest death rate of any colony or state in the pandemic.

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McLane says the ship also infected Fiji, where 5 per cent of the population died, and Tonga, which lost between 4 and 8 per cent. In New Zealand, the 9000 deaths from the pandemic were 0.8 per cent of the population.

Queen Street just filled with people. It was one mass of laughing, crying, coughing and obviously sick people

The influenza pandemic that began in 1918 infected a third of the global population and killed 50 million. A milder pandemic is thought to have started among soldiers in Kansas early in the year and quickly circled the world. A more virulent second wave of what was mis-named "Spanish Flu" broke out on the Western Front in July. It affected the middle-aged and young adults the worst and with an extreme immune overreaction made its fatal victims turn blue-black.

Many believed it was brought to New Zealand on the ship Niagara, whose passengers when it arrived at Auckland on October 12 from Vancouver included Prime Minister William Massey and his deputy Sir Joseph Ward. Other evidence suggests it may also have come with soldiers returning from World War I, or on other ships, or have broken out from changes to a flu virus already in the country.

The pandemic seemed to burst out in Auckland in late October, marked by a rapid increase in the daily death toll, followed about a week later by Wellington and Christchurch.

The late Mele Ioelu, of Auckland, remembered the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic in her native Samoa.
The late Mele Ioelu, of Auckland, remembered the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic in her native Samoa.

Mele Ioelu, before she died in Auckland in 2015 aged 104, recalled to the Herald the devastation caused by the pandemic in the Samoa of her childhood.

"People were walking on the road looking drunk," said Ioelu, speaking in Samoan, who was 8 at the time of the pandemic. "They would be swaying from side to side and suddenly drop to the ground, dead. So many people were dying … it got to the point they had to gather the dead and bury them in one grave, immediately. There was no time to carry out our proper rituals."

Her daughter, Afioga Sadiq, said her mother spoke often of the pandemic, which killed Ioelu's grandparents. "People wrote stories or wrote songs about the time and Mum would sing it to the children or grandchildren."

McLane said the mis-handling of the pandemic by Samoa's New Zealand military rulers, including not accepting aid from American Samoa - which was successfully quarantined and lost no one to influenza - fuelled bitterness against the colonial administration and the push for independence, which came in 1962.

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On November 8, the day after the Talune's Apia landing, Auckland and much of New Zealand broke into a spectacular, spontaneous celebration in the mistaken belief that World War I had ended. A news agency, based on the erroneous statement of an American rear-admiral in France, had reported an armistice had been signed with Germany.

The leading New Zealand historian of the pandemic, Geoffrey Rice, citing an eyewitness account, told the Herald that newspaper sellers outside its Queen St office had shouted out the news.

His book, Black November, written with assistance from Lynda Bryder, features the recollections of Ida Reilly, who in 1918 was an Auckland telephone exchange operator. "As if by magic," Reilly said, "Queen Street just filled with people. It was one mass of laughing, crying, coughing and obviously sick people."

A Herald reporter, captivated by the spectacle, wrote in the following day's edition: "Unprecedented scenes of spontaneous enthusiasm were witnessed in Auckland …" Soon after 9am, "the news had come across the wires, and within an incredibly short time, a veritable pandemonium of rejoicing reigned.

"The people simply took matters into their own hands. As no official confirmation of the news was received from the Governor-General, the authorities hesitated to declare a holiday, but this was quite immaterial.

"As soon as the news came through, the staffs of the majority of business places walked into the streets, and did not return, and a general holiday was observed, the only institutions remaining open being the banks.

"Fire brigade and factory sirens, church bells, school bells, train and steamer whistles, tram and motor gongs, and everything else capable of producing a loud noise, sounded frantically."

The Queen St crowd cheered and sang the national anthem, New Zealand and British flags were run up poles and draped about shoulders. Bands played in the afternoon and there was a procession of returned soldiers.

NZ Herald report of the false armistice celebrations and influenza deaths. Source / NZ Herald, National Library
NZ Herald report of the false armistice celebrations and influenza deaths. Source / NZ Herald, National Library

Janet Fenton, who in Rice's book described the death of a friend after he had gone "a funny dark purple", said she was sick herself by the time of the false armistice. She and a friend "staggered out of bed" to join others going into town from Mt Eden. "But it was no good, we had to be carried home to bed. We were skin and bones …"

By bringing together thousands of the sick and the well, the false armistice - three days before the real thing on November 11 - fostered the spread of influenza. And the revelry had hampered efforts to help the sick.

Dr Joseph Frengley, acting chief health officer of the Health Department, was appalled by the large false armistice celebrations, which would have helped spread the influenza pandemic.
Dr Joseph Frengley, acting chief health officer of the Health Department, was appalled by the large false armistice celebrations, which would have helped spread the influenza pandemic.

A horrified Health Department all but decreed there should be no Auckland celebration when the real armistice happened.

Acting chief health officer Dr Joseph Frengley said that big gatherings would be "most undesirable" in view of the still extreme seriousness of the epidemic as shown by the large number of fatalities.

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The armistice came into effect at 10.30pm on November 11 New Zealand time (11am on the 11th in France). The Government was told late that night and announced it the following morning, Tuesday the 12th.

Aucklanders complied with the authorities, delaying their celebrations until the following year, but processions or large gatherings took place in Wellington, Christchurch and many other places.

November 12 was Auckland's worst day of the epidemic: 83 people died.

There were so many bodies by mid-November that Victoria Park became a temporary morgue, with the dead wrapped in sheets or canvas bags. From November 13 to 20, special trains ran twice a day to take corpses to Waikumete Cemetery, where most were buried without headstone in an area marked 70 years later with a monument.

The memorial at Waikumete Cemetery marking the burial site of many of the more than 1000 Aucklanders who died of influenza in the 1918 pandemic. Photo / Martin Johnston.
The memorial at Waikumete Cemetery marking the burial site of many of the more than 1000 Aucklanders who died of influenza in the 1918 pandemic. Photo / Martin Johnston.
Sisters of Mercy, brothers, and lay staff of the emergency influenza hospital set up in 1918 at the Catholic schools in Vermont St, Ponsonby. Photo / Auckland Catholic Diocesan Archives
Sisters of Mercy, brothers, and lay staff of the emergency influenza hospital set up in 1918 at the Catholic schools in Vermont St, Ponsonby. Photo / Auckland Catholic Diocesan Archives

Temporary hospitals were set up, including at the two now-closed Catholic schools in Vermont St, Ponsonby - where 86 patients, including three nuns who helped with the nursing, died - and St Joseph's School in Grey Lynn, where improving patients were sent to recuperate.

In Samoa in 2002, Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised to the country for New Zealand's "inept" colonial administration, including allowing the Talune to dock with influenza on board.

Professor Nick Wilson and colleagues, writing in an Otago University blog on Wednesday, said the influenza apology should be extended to Fiji and Tonga, and New Zealand could help in upgrading Pacific island pandemic plans.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has today announced support for a memorial and the refurbishment of the nurses' training centre to mark the centenary of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic reaching Samoa's shores.

New Zealand was supporting the repair and redevelopment of a site in Vaimoso cemetery, near Apia, which would be a national memorial to the Influenza epidemic, Peters said.

The New Zealand High Commissioner to Samoa was representing the government at commemoration services in Apia today.