On 7 November 1918, the New Zealand passenger and cargo ship Talune arrived at Apia from Auckland. On board were people suffering from pneumonic influenza, a highly infectious disease already responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world. Although the Talune had been quarantined in Fiji, no such restrictions were imposed in Samoa. Sick passengers were allowed to disembark.
The disease spread rapidly through the islands. Samoa's disorganised local health facilities and traumatised inhabitants were unable to cope with the magnitude of the disaster and the death toll rose with terrifying speed. Grieving families had no time to carry out traditional ceremonies for their loved ones. Bodies were wrapped in mats and collected by trucks for burial in mass graves.
The total number of deaths attributable to influenza was later estimated to have reached 8500, or 22% of the population. According to a 1947 United Nations report, it ranked as ‘one of the most disastrous epidemics recorded anywhere in the world during the present century, so far as the proportion of deaths to the population is concerned’.
Survivors blamed the New Zealand Administrator, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan, for failing to quarantine Talune and for rejecting an offer of medical assistance from American Samoa. A Royal Commission called to enquire into the allegations found evidence of administrative neglect and poor judgement.
Logan seemed unable to comprehend the depth of feeling against him and his administration. He left Samoa in early 1919 and did not return. The new Administrator, Colonel R.W. Tate (1920-23), was left to cope with survivors' immense grief and ongoing resentment.
[It is] temporary and, like children, they [Samoans] will get over it provided they are handled with care... They will later on remember all that has been done for them in the previous four years...
Logan's report on the administration of Western Samoa, 8 August 1919, IT 1/1/1D
The influenza pandemic had a significant impact on New Zealand's administration of Samoa. Many older matai died, making way for new leaders more familiar with European ways. For survivors, the incident was seared into memory. It became the foundation upon which other grievances against the New Zealand administration would be built.
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