Western Samoa suffered the highest known mortality of any state during the 1918-1921 pandemic

Monday, January 27th, 2020

The current efforts to curb coronavirus should remind us of the Samoan experience with the 1918 flu — or, rather, with the two very different Samoan experiences:

In 1918 the Samoan archipelago was split between American Samoa (a United States territory) and Western Samoa (previously a German colony but under New Zealand governance from 1914). The 1918 influenza pandemic killed a quarter of Western Samoans, while leaving American Samoa unscathed. Why were their experiences so different?

In late 1918 a second wave within a single pandemic of influenza was spreading throughout Asia and the Pacific. On 30 October 1918 the Union Steamship Company’s Talune left Auckland for its run through Polynesia. The new, more lethal influenza variant had arrived in Auckland with the spring, and several crew members were ill. On 7 November the Talune reached Apia, the main port of New Zealand-occupied Western Samoa.

In 1918 the two Samoas had been divided for nearly twenty years. The United States had sought American Samoa for Pago Pago harbour, a protected anchorage and coaling stop. Western Samoa had become a German colony, and under German rule efforts were made to increase its economic viability and attract European settlers. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Britain had asked New Zealand to occupy Western Samoa to prevent its use by German naval forces.

The two Samoas were in regular contact with each other, and controlled all access to the outside world through two ports: Pago Pago in the east and Apia in the west. The dangers of ship-borne disease were well known, and exclusion of many diseases, especially plague, had been implemented since the imposition of colonial governance nineteen years before.

How then to explain the differing responses to the approach of the pandemic? When the Talune docked in Western Samoa she was not put in quarantine. No word had come from Auckland by wireless, and the ship’s captain did not mention that influenza was in New Zealand. In fact, the captain instructed ill crew and passengers to hide their malady so as to prevent being delayed in Apia.

The Germans had developed their colony of Western Samoa as a commercial enterprise. European-owned plantations occupied one-fifth of the land, supported by a network of European planters and shipping agents. Three times more foreign ships visited Apia than Pago Pago. When the issue of quarantine arose, the New Zealand Governor, Colonel Logan, faced the hostility of this trading community, as well as significant logistical difficulties. Logan needed a larger infrastructure to cope with the number of ships quarantined, and would have had difficulty enforcing any such restrictive edict.

This disinclination to act also had an institutional element. Western Samoa had been taken by New Zealand only four years before, and Logan had received little guidance regarding the territory. In addition, the civilian medical staff in Samoa were both widely scattered and not well respected, and no medical advice regarding quarantine reached Logan.

German administration in Samoa had undermined traditional local authority by taking away the distribution of chiefly titles and reducing the stature of these leaders in local eyes. Thus when New Zealand forces assumed control they found a diminished set of traditional power bases, too weakened to act as effective proxies.

Facing a lack of experience, a dearth of instructions and an unhelpful infrastructure, Logan perceived little support. He chose to wait for directives. The port remained open.

American Samoa presented a different set of circumstances. During nineteen years of benign neglect the administration in Pago Pago had learned to act autonomously. Without oversight from Washington the naval bureaucracy had left most affairs to the traditional Samoan nobility and did not interfere in the granting of titles. The medical staff were naval officers with knowledge of quarantine.

To officials in Washington, American Samoa was a naval station with an incidental indigenous population. There was scant need for traders to maintain a permanent presence in the colony and no effort to attract settlers. This facilitated the American Governor’s use of quarantine: the absence of a trader community allowed General Poyer to impose measures without resistance, and the small number of ships visiting Pago Pago made such an effort manageable. When descriptions of the flu reached Poyer, he acted decisively. Quarantine was established, and implemented under the leadership of traditional chiefs. With modifications, the quarantine in American Samoa continued, with no fatal cases of influenza reported, until late 1921.

In contrast, Western Samoa suffered the highest known mortality of any state during the 1918-1921 pandemic. At least 24 percent of the population died, and most who died were between 18-50 years of age. Half of the most productive age cohort of Western Samoa, and the chiefly and religious elites, died. Western Samoa collapsed.


  1. Adar says:

    Pacific Islanders and Eskimo really hit hard by the pandemic of 1918. Entire areas almost depopulated. As it was for the native Hawaiian or the American Indian when contact the outside world was first made.

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