By Michael Field
Here is an extract from my work, a small part of the horrific story of influenza in Sāmoa....
In Sāmoa there is a prayer for grace that predates Christianity.
‘This light is for you, O king and gods superior and inferior! If any of you are forgotten do not be angry, this light is for you all.
‘Be propitious to this family; give life to all; and may your presence be prosperity.
‘Let our children be blessed and multiplied. Remove far from us fines and sicknesses.
‘Regard our poverty; and send us food to eat, and cloth to keep us warm.
‘Drive away from us sailing gods, lest they come and cause disease and death. Protect this family by your presence, and may health and long life be given to us all.'
Friends and family of those aboard were sitting on boats beside Talune. Tuatagaloa from Faleālili was meeting his daughter: ‘When the doctor was on board the ship and we were lying alongside Talune I heard Falielo, a Sāmoan native call out from the ship, “there is sickness in this boat!” Falielo died in the epidemic. . .When the yellow ﬂag was down I went on board the ship and the first thing l saw was a Sāmoan girl lying in a very weak condition. The name of the girl was Ta‘u. . . . l walked to where the girl was lying on the ship and she could not talk, she was breathing quickly. I saw there were many sick people on board."
The warning had been heard by many Sāmoans that morning. Six Ali’i were among those who boarded the ship as soon as it was cleared. Four would be dead within a month. Among those going ashore was the pastor Paul Cane. He was, later he confessed, ‘in a perfect state of prostration’ but Atkinson had not checked him. Cane went straight to the Bank of New Zealand and onward to the trader, Olaf – ‘Fred’ – Nelson.
‘He looked very sick; in fact, he was foaming at the mouth, and his face betrayed the fact he had been suffering from some terrible disease for some time,’ Nelson said.
Cane told him he had Spanish influenza. He was taken to hospital and survived.
Logan believed that Cane was the agent who spread the virus through Sāmoa. Its highly unlikely that he was the sole agent.
Atkinson was called to the Churchward home where Ta’u’s condition was worsening. She complained of a pain in her heart and soon after died.
‘In one or two days there was a family of four including a baby of ﬁve months old ill and the baby died,’ he later said. ‘I became a little afraid and wondered if anything had come by the ship. Of course, we knew on opening our mails that it was prevalent in New Zealand and got frightened then.’
Sāmoanische Zeitung editor James Ah Sue had read the mail quickly; ‘With the incoming steamer arrives the news of a serious outbreak of inﬂuenza in Auckland, the malady having assumed epidemic form. Mrs George Churchward, who left New Zealand by the last boat intending to make a prolonged stay there, has returned home, having contracted the disease in its milder forms. Another resident of Sāmoa who has returned home as a consequence is Mr John Ah Sue, brother of Jas Ah Sue.’ The 25-year-old died on Monday 11 November 1918. His father died the following month of influenza.
Inaction prevented any chance of sparing Savai’i which had it within four days. Logan said the rapid spread resulted from the Sāmoan passengers off Talune going from the ship directly on arrival to villages all over Sāmoa.
On Armistice night, crowds gathered on Beach Road to celebrate with a bonfire and burning an effigy of the Kaiser (in Auckland most public gatherings were banned due to influenza). Nelson felt sick during the evening and went home: ‘That was the beginning of an attack which kept me in bed for four months.’ Nelson was to lose his mother, sister, only brother and sister-in-law in the space of six days. He lent his company’s truck to carry the dead to graves. Sāmoanische Zeitung carried reports and family notices which told of the deaths of many senior matai, and their families. W.C. Dean, an old and prominent merchant, died the same day as his adult son. Sam Meredith published a death notice recording the names of seven close relatives.
Prominent leader Toleafoa Lagolago notified the death of his mother, brother, two of his sisters, his brother’s wife and a nephew. A fautasi or whale boat came from a village to pick up the body of a matai who had died in Āpia. None of the 17 men who rowed the fautasi returned home; they all died in Āpia. The Fono a Faipule had 31 members when Talune arrived; only seven survived. LMS reported that all but 12 of the 40 members of its Toeaina or Council of Elders had died. More than 100 village pastors and many active lay deacons were dead; ‘In many villages we have lost all our lay workers… just at this crisis when Sāmoans are faced with far reaching political changes they have lost at one fell blow not only all their leading pastors and teachers but the majority of the more experienced and sagacious chiefs, and with them from 20 to 25 percent of the entire population.’
George Westbrook wrote of a young girl staying with his family who went home to visit her father and mother on hearing they were unwell; ‘She chatted with them, and slept between them, and when she woke up in the morning they were both dead.’
An LMS pastor left Āpia to walk along the ‘Upolu north coast, taking up a cash collection for the church. As he went West from Āpia to Mulifanua he spread inﬂuenza. Among the ﬁrst villages afflicted was Vaimoso on the outskirts of Āpia.
An eyewitness described one scene: ‘On inspection at this village an appalling state of affairs was disclosed. Every house was closed-up with mats, and inside the gloom the suffering of the inmates was pitiable to behold. Some lay writhing on the ground, some were found covered in mats, sweltering in agony beneath the coverings; others lay in silence. Here and there a sheet of tapa cloth covered a form recumbent and still, indication only too well that the foul disease had finished its work.’
The virus offered some gruesome deaths, noted by John Ryan McLane in Setting a Barricade against the East Wind: Western Polynesia and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. He described death with cyanosis, the hallmark of severe influenza infection: ‘The lungs filled with fluid, a bloody froth which prevented the transfer of oxygen as the inflammatory pulmonary edema worsened. When patients moved in bed, serous fluid poured from their mouth and nose. A still conscious victim might cough up a litre of pus from their lungs daily, trying to keep the passages clear. Lungs became so full of fluid and silent to auscultation that doctors were convinced their stethoscopes were broken. First the lips and nail-beds of patients darkened, followed by ears, nose, and tongue; finally, further extremities such as the fingers and cheeks lost oxygenation. In some cases, the trunk actually turned an indigo color.’
The pandemic produced many cases, around the world, of people collapsing and dying within hours. Known now as a cytokine storm, it is a drastic immune reaction between cytokine or proteins and white blood cells. In simple terms, particularly in young people, immune systems would overreact to the virus, flooding the lungs with fluid.