On 7 November 1918, the New Zealand passenger and cargo ship Talune arrived at Apia harbor from Auckland, bringing the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic that would wipe out 22% of Samoa’s population.
“There is a sickness on this boat,” a passenger cried from the deck of the SS Talune as it steamed into Apia on 7 November, 1918.
On board were people suffering from pneumonic influenza, a highly infectious disease also known as the Spanish flu already responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths at the time, and went on to eventually record 50 million deaths worldwide.
Although the Talune had been quarantined in Fiji, no such restrictions were imposed in Samoa and the New Zealand administrators in Apia waved the steamboat in.
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.
Within days, people were dying. Within weeks, entire villages were affected and within two months 8,500 people were dead – a fifth of Samoa’s entire population.
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.
According to a 1947 United Nations report, it was ‘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.
When the principal of a boarding school asked the administration to provide food for sick children, Colonel Logan was quoted as saying: “There is a dead horse at your gate, let them eat that. Great fat, lazy loafing creatures.”
But what outraged most was the contrast between Samoa and nearby American Samoa. When the epidemic was declared, the Americans imposed strict quarantine for all vessels entering the territory and there were no deaths in American Samoa.
Colonel Robert Logan, did not accept an offer of assistance from the Governor of nearby American Samoa that may have reduced the death toll.
In 2002, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark made an official apology to the Samoan people for the actions of the New Zealand authorities.
“With regret, the decision taken by the NZ authority in 1918 to allow the ship Talune carrying passengers with influenza to dock in Apia, clearly the system and decision making were ill-prepared to prevent the incursion, spread and containment of such a major disease,” reads Prime Minister Helen Clark’s apology.
In November 2018, one hundred years on, a special ceremony was held at the memorial grounds in Vaimoso. The NZ Government announced they would be working with the Government of Samoa and the village of Vaimoso to upgrade the memorial mass grave site where thousands of victims to influenza were buried.
New Zealand also provided $2 million tala (US$1.3 million), funding to refurbish the nurses training centre in Samoa.
NZ High Commissioner to Samoa Nick Hurley had said, “One hundred years ago is a defining moment to talk publicly about what happened, to acknowledge the faults the mistakes that NZ made at the time.”