The influenza pandemic of 1918 (also commonly but unfairly known as the “Spanish flu”) still looms large in the consciousness of many Māori communities — and with good reason. In those communities, the devastation it left in its wake hasn’t been forgotten even a century later.
The first wave of the pandemic appeared in early 1918, and seemed to be waning by around June. But the second wave — between October and December — was far more deadly. It ripped through New Zealand in less than two months. No other event has killed as many New Zealanders in such a short space of time.
A deadly combination of vulnerability, medical inaction, and racism decimated Māori communities in particular.
In Waikato, the pandemic had a huge influence on Te Puea Hērangi in her fight to establish Tūrangawaewae marae at Ngāruawahia.
This extract from Michael King’s biography of Te Puea, first published in 1977, describes the intense three-week period when the virus overwhelmed her community at Mangatāwhiri.
It includes a first-hand account from Tumokai Katipa, Te Puea’s future husband, who buried the dead as she tended the sick.
Feelings of elation in Waikato at the conclusion of the war were shortlived. As had happened so often in the past, the white man’s peace proved more devastating.
An epidemic of influenza that affected 720 million people worldwide and took over 20 million lives reached New Zealand in July 1918.
The first wave, although widespread, produced few fatalities. The second, from late October to December, was virulent and killed over 6,700 people (more than a third of the New Zealand casualities in the war).
A Royal Commission investigating the outbreak concluded there was a “strong presumption” that the later strain had been introduced by the arrival at Auckland on 12 October of the S.S. Niagara, the same ship that had taken Te Rata to London.
On board were Prime Minister William Massey and Finance Minister Joseph Ward. As a result of their presence, the ship was not subjected to quarantine regulations then in force for infected vessels.
The stronger strain spread rapidly through the military camps and Armistice celebrations. The experience of earlier epidemics was confirmed when Polynesians displayed far less immunity to the disease than Europeans. In consequence, their population was reduced dramatically.
In addition to physical vulnerability, Māori settlements also exhibited the very features that authorities warned were most likely to spread the infection: “overcrowding”, “thronging”, “poor ventilation”, “Inadequate water supplies and sanitary facilities”, “alcoholic excess” and “fright”.
The greater Polynesian disposition for respiratory ailments and heart disease intensified the vulnerability since most influenza deaths resulted from an aggravation of such conditions. Māori communities also had few of the supplies recommended for use preventatively and to alleviate distress after the onset of symptoms (“liquid soda chlorinate gargles, face masks, prophylactic vaccination and good nourishing food”).
The consquence of all these factors was a devastating Māori death toll and death rate never accurately determined. [Peter] Buck, noting that the estimate of Māori deaths was well below that which actually occurred, called the epidemic “the severest setback the race has received since the fighting days of Hongi Hika. Influenza in three months caused more casualities to the Maoris than the campaigns in Gallipolli, France and Belgium.”
For official purposes, the number of Māori deaths registered was estimated at 1,130 or a rate of 226 per 10,000 of population — over four-and-a-half times greater than that of Europeans.* This was bad enough. But the actual total must have been far higher since Māori deaths were still not notified. Many Māori communities never saw a medical officer during the outbreak and were not asked for an estimate of fatalities.
Some of them were almost annihilated. A Pākehā visitor to the Ātiawa settlement at the headwaters of the Waitara River in Taranaki counted 140 people there before the epidemic and less than 50 afterwards.
The full extent of official negligence in Māori health was concealed. Of 111 witnesses who gave evidence to the subsequent Royal Commission, for example, not one was Māori.
There was another factor that intensified the social consequences of the epidemic even further. Previous outbreaks had taken their heaviest toll among the elderly, and, to a lesser extent, the very young.
This one, on the figures recorded, was most virulent among young adults and people in their prime. The greatest number of deaths occurred in the 20 to 40 age group, with the 30 to 35-year-old being hit hardest.
This meant, in the aftermath, whole communities found themselves without mothers and fathers, primary wage earners and active leaders. A vacuum was created that placed a greater burden on adolescence and middle-age.
Mangatāwhiri appears to have been as badly hit as any Māori settlement. The outbreak reached its peak there in the third week of November 1918, a week after the Waikato conscripts had returned from Narrow Neck.
Tumokai Katipa estimated that in a community of about 200 people, only three adults in the vulnerable age group remained unaffected, of whom he was one. The infection lasted for about three weeks, and for this time community life came to a halt. Whole families were laid up at the same time; the worst cases lay dying while others struggled from their beds to find water and perform daily necessities.
The symptoms were an unpleasantly intensified form of those produced by conventional influenza: high fever, increased pulse, mottling of the skin, headache, pains in the chest and limbs, shortness of breath, often bubbling sounds in the chest caused by a bloody froth, vomiting, diarrhoea, and what was described in official reports as “dirty tongue and foul breath”.
This last was remembered unofficially as “a burning of the mouth that left the throat and tongue dry except for a black discharge.”
Tumokai Katipa could remember no doctors visiting the settlement with assistance, no one recording the names of the dead, and a great deal of contradictory advice.
“The one doctor who was at Mercer couldn’t do much and didn’t even try. Nobody knew what they should be doing. One person told us not to drink water and we believed it for a while. Then one of the ones who was ill went mad and jumped into the river and drank water frantically. He got better. Others, my sister among them, were crying out for water, their mouths all burnt. We just didn’t know what we should have done.”
Te Puea, although ill herself, again set about caring for the sick as best she could. There were no open-air shelters at this time, the rate of infection was too high. Most people stayed in their homes. She rose from her sick bed each day and prepared boiled water and food for distribution to those families whose members were all sick. She tried to organise clean water for washing, but this was difficult — almost everybody had become sluggish and unresponsive.
“We just lived from day to day in a kind of daze,” said Tumokai. “It didn’t seem real. It got so that people hardly knew what was happening and didn’t care. We just took things as they came, that was all.”
Taking things as they came meant coping with death continuously for a fortnight. Of the 200-odd people there, Tumokai estimated about 50 died. One of the unaffected men was busy every day building makeshift coffins. Tumokai’s major job was to ferry corpses upriver in Te Puea’s launch to Taupiri for burial.
“I used to leave at about six o’clock in the morning when it was just getting light. We’d load the bodies of people who had died in the night on to the boat, which was about 20 feet long and had an old standard engine. There was no time for relatives to mourn. Most of them couldn’t anyway. Then off we’d go, two of us, chugging up the river through the fog. I tell you, it was eerie. We often thought we saw things and heard things to do with the spirits of those people.
“We’d get to Taupiri, unload the bodies, bury them in wide graves and then return to Mangatāwhiri by about four in the afternoon. Sometimes we had to turn around and go straight back with some more. Each time we got there, hello — someone else dead. This went on for two weeks. I lost a lot of my family: one of my sisters and my two brothers-in-law. People were just dying everywhere. In some ways, you know, it was harder to be the ones who went on living.”
In the aftermath, Mangatāwhiri was numbed. As people recovered, long tangis were held for the mass dead, without the bodies. Then, in December, Te Puea visited all the settlements between Mangatāwhiri and the Waikato Heads and gathered up children orphaned in the epidemic — just over 100 of them — and elderly people who no longer had relatives to look after them. It was a spectacular extension of the project she had begun six years before of making Mangatāwhiri a home for the homeless, and fulfilment of her mother’s wishes.
She could not take all the children into her own home, although she did have two or three there at a time. She made the whole community at Te Paina responsible for them and placed them with the surviving adults. She would make a point of seeing each of them every day, supervising mass sittings in the settlement’s dining hall, and being entirely responsible for their education. It was the same group she was later to take with her to Ngāruawahia.
Te Puea made her first move early in August 1921. Michael King wrote that she gathered the whole community into the hall and told them that 170 of them were to shift that month and who they were.
“I’m taking you away from these wet flats,” she said that night. “I have no idea how we shall survive — much of it depends on how we work and how the Pākehā at Ngāruawahia treat us. We may find it easier to die here than live there. But we have to go. And we are going to build a marae there that will be suitable for everybody throughout the country; a marae, that, one day, people will visit from all over the world. And we’re going to do it for Waikato and for our king.”
Te Puea’s intention for the marae at Tūrangawaewae was a papakāinga for the homeless, including those orphaned by the flu epidemic. She also feared a repetition of the smallpox or influenza epidemics would again catch her people unprepared.
She now knew about, and encouraged, vaccination, wrote Michael King. She was aware of the principles of preventative medicine. The meeting house Mahinarangi was conceived as a hospital — her dream was a small hospital, open not just to Waikato but to all Māori, where medical care would be provided in a reassuringly Māori environment, where Māori nurses would tend to patients, and where Māori rules of tapu would be observed.
*The Māori death rate during the 1918 pandemic has since been estimated to be eight times that of non-Māori.
This extract is taken (with permission) from Te Puea: A Life, by Michael King, first published in 1977.
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