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Tales from Tawa: The Black Death

…Many think it started with the arrival of the steamer Niagara which berthed in Auckland on 12 October 1918. It is true some of those on board were suffering from influenza; however records show they were suffering from no more than the first mild strain already doing the rounds in Auckland. Despite this, there is still the possibility the virus did indeed arrive on the Niagara…

Eve-Marie Wilson tells how New Zealand was caught up in the worst pandemic to sweep the world since the 14th Century plague.

During November 2008 the New Zealand media reported on events held to mark the 90th anniversary of the signing of the World War 1 armistice. Nowhere was there any mention this date also marked the 90th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, responsible, during the three months in which it raged, for killing half as many New Zealanders as were killed during the four years of the war. No other event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short space of time.

It is acknowledged the first and milder wave of the pandemic originated in America and was brought to France by soldiers sent to fight in the trenches. From there it spread throughout Europe rapidly mutating into the more deadly strain of the pandemic.

There has always been controversy as to how the disease arrived in New Zealand. Many think it started with the arrival of the steamer Niagara which berthed in Auckland on 12 October 1918. It is true some of those on board were suffering from influenza; however records show they were suffering from no more than the first mild strain already doing the rounds in Auckland. Despite this, there is still the possibility the virus did indeed arrive on the Niagara and once in New Zealand mutated as it did on its arrival in Europe. Nevertheless, it could have quite as easily arrived on any of a number of ships, with influenza on board, berthed in NZ about that time.

By the end of October the illness had spread over the whole of Auckland and days later the whole country had succumbed. Along with the rest of the world New Zealand was faced with the worst pandemic since the plague in the 14th century.

The Medical authorities were astonished at both the pace with which the virus spread and the speed it struck down its victims. Some collapsed at work or in the street. Fit, robust young men often died within days of getting the first symptoms. In fact, men aged in their early 30s seemed especially susceptible, further exacerbating the imbalance of the sexes created by the war. In some instances whole families succumbed. Soldiers who arrived home from the war expecting to be greeted by their loved ones instead arrived to find them dead. Adults seemed to be more easily infected than children with the result many were left orphans. Often both parents were ill at the same time, their children having to take care of them. There are documented instances of children arriving at the undertaker's to arrange burials for their parents, there being nobody left to do this. Parents of very young children were reliant on help from friends and neighbours. The tale is told of one young woman who was driven mad from having to lie next to her dead husband for days before help arrived.

The symptoms experienced were unlike any ordinary influenza. Severe pains and fever were followed by delirium and breathing difficulty leading to pneumonia, then almost certain death. Nose bleeds and loss of hair were also common. Doctors and nurses learned to recognise that death was imminent by the purple hue the skin took on caused by the pneumonia depriving the blood of oxygen. After death this discolouration became worse with the victim often turning completely black. For this reason it was often termed, ‘The Black Flu.’

Death did not occur evenly throughout the country. Some communities were decimated, while others were left largely unscathed. Overall, between one third and half the population of New Zealand was infected. In some places the death rate was as high as 80% of a town’s population, while in others there were very few deaths. The only place where mortality showed uniformity was in military camps populated mainly by men in the highly susceptible 25 – 45 age group. Within the space of two or three weeks the virus spread through the cramped barrack style accommodation of each camp before subsiding just as quickly, leaving half the population dead.
Maori fared worse than other sections of the population. Their death rate was seven times that of Europeans. There are a number of reasons to explain this. As the majority of Maori lived in isolated rural communities and rarely came in contact with the sniffles and sneezes that frequently occur in highly populated areas, they had never built up immunity to respiratory ailments as urban dwellers did. Secondly, the living conditions of Maori were considerably lower than that of Europeans. Those who visited Maori settlements during the epidemic described their houses as ‘filthy hovels full of decaying rubbish and untreated sewerage.’ Although some had European style houses, the walls and ceilings were generally unlined and rather than being repaired properly any broken windows were simply covered with a piece of sacking. The majority of Maori lived in traditional style whares made of bundles of rushes over a beaten earth floor which often became damp after rain and remain so all winter. The cramped conditions in their traditional sleeping houses created the ideal environment for the spread of viral infections.

What’s more, the Maori believed any death that could not be attributed to accident, warfare or old age was the result of the supernatural. So faced with so many of their tribe ill and dying at one time, for what they could see as no apparent reason, many just turned their face to the wall and died.

At the height of the epidemic in November, ordinary life was impossible, without enough staff to keep them going, shops, offices and factories were shut down and schools, hotels and theatres were closed by order of the government in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. Because coastal shipping around New Zealand came to a halt many towns suffered from a shortage of basic supplies such as flour and coal. At one stage the situation became so bad public transport and other essential services were crippled by sickness. Emergency hospitals staffed by volunteers were set up in schools and public halls and in some places tents. Such was the rapid death rate, and with many grave diggers and undertakers ill themselves, it was impossible to keep up with the number of coffins and burials needed. Open -air morgues were established in parks to accommodate the dead who were wrapped in sheets or canvas bags until a coffin was made out of any spare timber. Eventually coffins gave way to sacking and hearses gave way to trucks loaded with bodies.

At the height of the epidemic apart from trucks serving as ambulances and hearses, even the streets of the major cities were deserted. Ordinary life completely changed. One survivor remarked, ‘everybody was so intent on staying alive and helping each other there were no drunks, no fights, no stealing. All you saw on the street were sad solemn faces, hearses and ambulances and that terrible lost lonely feeling.’
However, when the war ended, those who were able couldn’t resist going out onto the street to take part in the armistice celebrations and to watch the parades, thus causing the disease to spread further.

No cure was ever found; the virus simply burned itself out. By late November the number of reported cases peaked. From then on less people became infected and more of those who did recovered. By Christmas it was effectively over.

Considering New Zealand, had per capita, one of the highest death rates anywhere in the world, it is strange this is largely a forgotten period of its history. There are few public monuments and there are never any ceremonies to remember the victims of this tragic event.


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