Land, labour, and epidemic diseases – two articles on capitalist penetration of the Pacific

When the deadly epidemic of influenza swept the world in the months following the end of the Great War of 1914-18, the toll it took in the Pacific Islands was highly variable.

The Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and American-ruled eastern Samoa were untouched by the contagion, thanks to effective quarantine measures. On the other hand, the nearby islands of Western Samoa were affected worse than any other country in the world. About 90% of the population became infected, resulting in about 8,500 deaths, about 23% of the entire population. A huge toll was also wreaked in Tonga – where about 8% of the population died, and Fiji, where about 5% died.

The immediate source of the infection that spread to these islands was New Zealand; in fact, in all three cases it can be traced to a single ship operating out of Auckland, the Talune.

Union Steam Ship Company’s ship Talune in 1908. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: 1/2-080543-F

The illness had been accidentally carried to New Zealand on the Niagara, the ship which brought the New Zealand Prime Minister back from a visit to Europe in 1918, and separately by troopships which brought back infected soldiers from the European battlefields.  The epidemic became one of New Zealand’s greatest public health crises. About 9,000 people died over about six weeks. 6,400 of the deaths were pākehā, 2,500 were Māori; Māori died at about seven times the rate of pākehā.

Soup kitchen set up in Sydenham Manual Training Centre to provide food for influenza-affected households. Photo: Christchurch City Libraries PhotoCD 2, IMG0053

In comparison with the rest of the world, New Zealand was spared the worst. Although between one-third and one-half of the population became infected, the death rate was relatively low, about 0.8% of the total population. Worldwide, the epidemic killed about 50 million people, or 3% of the world’s population. Most of the deaths worldwide resulted not directly from the virus but from secondary infection by bacterial pneumonia.

The 1918 influenza pandemic was a global disaster. While the high death rate was connected to the social conditions generated by the war – large concentrations of human beings living in insanitary conditions in the trenches and on overcrowded troop transports, some of whose lungs were already damaged by chemical gas attacks, rough hospitals already overloaded with war casualties, the concealment and minimising of reports of deaths in order to maintain wartime morale, the movements of masses of soldiers across the globe in the aftermath of the war – the pandemic itself was obviously accidental, not a deliberate act of war by any of the belligerent powers.

Like all epidemics, it fell most heavily on those layers of the population with poorest social conditions, those living in damp, crowded, unsanitary housing with little access to health care, such as Māori in New Zealand. The same patterns of inequality were reproduced between countries: in India the death rate was particularly high. Worldwide, there were many problems of misdiagnosis by medical personnel, underestimation or concealment of the seriousness of the problem by health authorities, and by others whose commercial interests were served by such concealment, all of which accelerated the spread of the disease. The huge public gatherings held in many countries to celebrate the end of the war acted to spread the infection – a spike in new cases followed soon after.

Medicine depot in Christchurch. Photo: Christchurch City Libraries PhotoCD 2, IMG0050

However, in general the health authorities in the affected countries did what they could to fight the disease within the limits of the health facilities and scientific knowledge available to them.

In Samoa that was not the case.  There, it would have been a relatively simple matter to prevent the disease becoming established on the islands at all, by the use of adequate quarantine measures – as the example of American Samoa proves. Even after the disease took hold, the death rate could have been significantly reduced, notwithstanding the low level of economic development and poor health facilities, if the administration had acted to do so. It did the opposite.

Samoa had been snatched from German control by New Zealand troops in the early days of the Great War; it was at the time effectively a New Zealand colonial possession.

Harry Holland, newly-elected Labour Party Member of Parliament in New Zealand, visited both Fiji and Samoa in 1920 as part of a parliamentary delegation, less than two years after the disease had devastated the islands. He wrote later about the New Zealand authorities’ handling of the influenza epidemic that “If the Samoans had no other reason than this for their hostility to us, that hostility would be well founded … The Talune, berthed at Auckland alongside the Niagara (which brought pneumonic influenza to New Zealand), was given a clean bill of health when she sailed for Samoa, and no mention was made of the fact that she had had influenza on board at Auckland or of the outbreak of influenza in the Dominion [New Zealand – JR]. No radiograph had gone from the authorities here to the Administration at Samoa to intimate that influenza was now a notifiable disease in New Zealand. On her way to Samoa the Talune was quarantined at both Suva and Levuka [in Fiji – JR] and at least six of the passengers and a number of the crew, as well as some of the Fijian labourers (carried because their labour was cheaper than that of the Samoans), were ill with influenza. When the vessel arrived at Apia no mention was made of the quarantining, and there was no entry in the official log of the Talune on her voyage to Apia of any sickness on board, as required by law. Moreover, no temperatures were taken at Apia. If this had been done, the vessel must have been refused pratique [health clearance – JR] and possibly there would have been no epidemic in Samoa and thousands of lives would have been saved.”

Harry Holland in 1925. Photo: Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: 1/2-043531-F

Holland continues: “Even more criminal was the history which followed. Within a week’s time the epidemic was raging in Western Samoa, and death was cutting a wide swathe in the ranks of the Samoans. On November 20 the United States Governor of Eastern Samoa radiographed from Pago Pago offering help. Pago Pago is only ten hours’ steam from Apia, and there is a nationalised (naval) medical service there with up-to-date equipment. Ten hours would have brought highly-qualified medical officers and many trained nurses and orderlies to the work of life-saving in Western Samoa; and yet the offer was not accepted by the New Zealand Administration. Not only was this so, but the Administrator closed down all wireless communication with Pago Pago, and allowed no call subsequently to go out to that station for assistance. And consequently there died thousands of Samoans whose lives might have been saved but for this display of administrative criminality and ineptitude. Eastern Samoa remained immune from the epidemic, while the population of Western Samoa was decimated; and it is possible that New Zealand will never succeed in living down the memory of that crime against Western Samoa, committed in 1918.”1

Although these comments were met with a storm of rebuke at the time, Holland was not alone in making such observations, especially outside of New Zealand. Even as the pandemic still raged through Samoa, a report in a northern New South Wales paper spoke of the “helpless, imbecile state of affairs in [Apia] port” which had permitted the Talune to dock. “The feeling against those who were responsible for the introduction of this plague is intense, and the high state of efficiency dismayed by the Pago Pago administration is held up as showing what might have been done in Apia.”

In the one hundred years since that time, Holland’s imputation of the disastrous proportions of the epidemic in Samoa to “administrative criminality and ineptitude” has become the most widely-accepted explanation for the behaviour of the New Zealand authorities. In 2002, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, formally apologised to the people of Samoa for the “inept and incompetent early administration of Samoa by New Zealand,” specifically mentioning the administration’s role in the influenza epidemic.

It is easy to see ineptitude manifested in the failure of the New Zealand authorities to alert the Samoan administrator of the existence of the disease in New Zealand and the possibility of it arriving on ships. There was much bungling in the enforcement of quarantine regulations in Fiji as well as Samoa, apparently due to a wish to avoid the dire commercial consequences of quarantining ships. (In Fiji the quarantining was only partial, as the authorities responsible insisted that the illness they observed on the ship was not related to the worldwide epidemic that had been in the news: while the crew members who had become sick were not allowed ashore, some passengers were allowed to disembark, and later became ill. Thus the Talune also brought the disease to Fiji.)

There was evidence of, at the very least, a callous indifference to the fate of the Samoans, consistent with racist attitudes of imperial superiority. There was also clearly criminal behaviour on the part of certain individuals, such as the master of the Talune, Captain John Mawson, who deliberately and illegally concealed the presence of the illness on board the ship when it arrived in Apia, apparently for reasons of commercial expediency and convenience. By the time the Talune arrived in Nuku’alofa in Tonga, 71 of its passengers and crew were sick. Mawson reportedly gave the order that everyone on board was ‘to get dressed and pretend they were not ill’ in order that the steamer be allowed to unload.

Colonel Robert Logan, Apia, Samoa, 29 August, 1914, the day he assumed responsibility as military administrator. Photo: Malcolm Ross

But for all that, ineptitude seems insufficient to explain the actions of the New Zealand Administrator, Colonel Robert Logan, in not just rejecting the offer of help from Pago Pago, but also cutting off radio communications with Pago Pago to ensure that no further requests were sent or offers received. Holland was not mistaken in saying that such help might have saved thousands of lives. Although antibiotics were still unknown at the time, appropriate health care in terms of rest, hydration and nutrition could have significantly reduced the death rate from secondary infection by bacterial pneumonia, as they did in New Zealand. Many people died from starvation or dehydration, simply because there was no one able to attend to their needs for food and fluids when they were too weak from the illness to care for themselves.

It is quite possible that Logan, insecure in his rule over Samoa, was suspicious of the motives of the competing colonial power in the Samoan islands, and regarded the United States offer as unwanted interference in New Zealand’s affairs – and it is certainly plausible that he should place such considerations higher than the welfare of the Samoans. That could explain his rejection of the offer of help – but not the cutting off of all communications. That action indicates that he felt the need to cover his tracks, and that there was more involved than just negligence and incompetence. Logan’s behaviour shows that he knew his own actions were morally indefensible, which would not be the case if he were merely rejecting the intrusions of a competing power.

I find it hard to see any plausible explanation for Logan’s behaviour other than that he wished to maximise the death rate among the Samoans. Seen in this light, some of what appears to be extraordinary bungling and incompetence may not have been bungling at all, but intentional. While it is hard to prove conclusively, and even harder to know if anyone beyond Logan shared this intention, this explanation seems to fit the known facts better than any other. Logan told the missionaries running a girls’ school, who had asked for help when all but one of the 120 girls fell ill, “Send them food? I would rather see them burning in hell. There is a dead horse at your gate – let them eat that. Great, fat, lazy, loafing creatures… If you do not send me twenty-five of these girls to help dig graves, I will come back this afternoon and burn down the school… Let them die and go to hell.”2

The greatest difficulty in accepting this explanation is understanding the motive. Racist contempt for the lives of the Samoans pervaded Logan’s thinking, but that is insufficient to explain why he might want a high death rate. That question still needs to be answered. But first, it is useful to look at some historic precedents in Australia, North America, and Fiji.


By 1789, the British penal colony at Sydney Cove was teetering on the brink of disaster. The settlers had arrived fifteen months earlier. Suitable land to grow sufficient food to feed themselves was scarce, and as they expanded their cultivations, they met with increasing resistance from the Aboriginal inhabitants on whose land and fisheries they encroached. They had arrived without sufficient ammunition for their muskets, and urgent requests for new supplies had gone unanswered. The muskets themselves were becoming increasingly ineffective, as the Aborigines lost their fear of them.

A view of Sydney Cove, New South Wales, 1804. Artist: Edward Dayes

This was the context in which an epidemic of the dreaded disease of smallpox suddenly erupted among the Aborigines living nearby. While the origins and causes of this epidemic are still debated by historians, evidence has accumulated that this was a deliberate act of biological warfare, in all likelihood authorised at high levels of the command, aimed at relieving the military pressure on the settlement from the Aboriginal tribes occupying the surrounding land. (A brief discussion of the competing theories regarding this epidemic can be found here.)

We know that the settlers at Sydney Cove brought bottles of material containing the smallpox virus with them, which could have been used for that purpose. It may seem strange that they should do so, but in the 18th century this kind of material, usually consisting of scabs scraped from the skin of people who were recovering from the disease, was used to inoculate people against smallpox, in the days before the vaccination based on the cowpox virus had been invented. This form of inoculation against smallpox had been practised widely elsewhere in the world – in the case of China, since the 10th century. Although it was a risky business – some of those who were inoculated in this way caught the disease in its full-blown form and died – it did prove effective in providing protection in the event of an outbreak of the disease. (Edward Jenner published his findings on the safer cowpox-based vaccine in 1798 – this vaccine was used to eradicate the disease worldwide by the 1970s.)

When the smallpox-virus material was introduced to a population with no previous exposure to the disease, it could be devastating. In 1789 it killed possibly 90% of the Aborigines around Port Jackson on the northern shore of Sydney Harbour, and half to three-quarters of those as far to the north as the Hawkesbury River.

Jeffrey Amherst, governor of British North America. Artist: Joshua Reynolds

There were precedents for the use of smallpox infection to deliberately kill indigenous people in this way in North America. 25 years earlier, in 1763, smallpox-infected blankets were distributed amongst Shawnee and Delaware Native Americans who were besieging Fort Pitt. The goal, in the words of Sir Jeffrey Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in North America, who hatched the scheme, was “to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” In this case, the deliberate intention is clearly documented: the written records of the smallpox hospital from which the blankets were taken note that they were “taken from people in the Hospital to Convey the Smallpox to the Indians.”




  1. Harry Holland, Revolt of the Samoans, pp 2-3.
  2. The incident is recorded in testimony of the missionaries to the Samoan Epidemic Commission, and is recounted in Mau, Samoa’s Struggle for Freedom, by Michael Field, pp 41-43. The Commission expressed the opinion in its report that “Colonel Logan acted hastily, and without a full appreciation of the facts.”

2 responses to “Land, labour, and epidemic diseases – two articles on capitalist penetration of the Pacific

  1. Pingback: Cotton, slaves, war, and measles in colonial Fiji | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: Scientific medicine, the weight of history, and the measles epidemics in Samoa and New Zealand | A communist at large·

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