Around this day – 24 November – 100 years ago the Spanish influenza arrived at Safune, on the island of Savai’i. We can pinpoint this dreadful centenary because of a diary entry kept by a Safune villager, and also from the inscription on a Safune gravestone.
The two pieces of writing – one in Samoan and one in German – bear silent witness to the day the dying began, which was a day later, 25 November 1918.
The diary entry was made by Mamea Taulaga, at the village of Faletagaloa, in Safune Bay. He wrote a brief observation some time after the dying had stopped and when the survivors had caught their breath and steadied their shattered spirits. Mamea‘s writing, reproduced here and kindly shared by his granddaughter Mrs Tigaina Mamea Aurelio-Laupepa, indicates that Mamea got wind of the coming catastrophe on 17 November when he pens the words that a strange illness, “Fa’amai – Uiga ese”, was abroad. The news might have seeped through to his village on the north coast after the plague arrived elsewhere on Savai’i (it arrived in Apia 10 days earlier on 7 November on board the ship, the Talune).
Then Mamea records that the nightmare began in Safune on 25 November when the first deaths occurred. In all, he states, 52 people died in Safune Bay between the small communities of Saletele and Faleolo. One of the first to succumb to the influenza was Mrs Josephine Dāvid (nee Nelson), sister of historical figure Ta’isi O.F. Nelson.
She was the 37-year-old wife of Safune trader Mr Felix David, a German settler. She died on 25 November, as evidenced by her gravestone in the family plot at Safune, shown here. Josephine left behind seven children.
The epidemic tore through the north coast of Savai’i for about two traumatic weeks. Contemporary newspapers indicate that the total death toll for the Safune district on about 8 December was 112. The Safune district probably stretched from about Safotu in the east to Sāsina in the west.
Deaths occurred after 8 December but were declining. Some people who were ailing but in recovery mode also passed on during recuperation in the weeks afterwards. The final death toll for Safune may have been between 120-140. It’s hard to tell.
Grief and loss were not the only legacies. Through much of 1919, according to contemporary accounts, food was scarce in Safune and conditions amounted almost to a famine. This was because of the interruption to village planting that the epidemic and the loss of manpower had caused.
The photos posted here include some which show Safune several years before it was scarred by the epidemic.
Written by Tony Brunt