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Epidemic: the story of Robert Logan

Black Sheep is a new Radio NZ series about the shady, controversial and sometimes downright villainous characters of New Zealand history, presented by William Ray. Here he introduces the story of Robert Logan, the NZ administrator of Samoa in the early 20th century, whose incompetent response to the influenza pandemic has coloured NZ-Samoa relations ever since.

Imagine if one fifth of all the people you know suddenly died.

Let’s say you closely know about 200 people. Friends, coworkers, family – maybe a few local shopkeepers. Within a few weeks 40 of them are dead. Imagine how you would feel burying 40 people who were close to you.

Now, how would you feel if the people in charge stopped doctors from trying to save your loved ones?

For Samoans living in the early 20th century this wasn’t a hypothetical question.

On 7 November 1918 a ship called the Talune brought a virulent strain influenza to Samoa from New Zealand. Over the next few months at least 8500 people died.

The steamship Talune at the Napier breakwater in 1908. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/2-080543-F

In most countries the death toll from that disease, often called Spanish Flu, was around 2-5 percent. In Samoa the death rate was more than 20 percent.

“We can barely understand what that does to a society”, says Damon Salesa, Associate Professor of Pacific Studies at Auckland University. “There are not enough people to bury the dead. There are not enough people to feed and care for the living.”

The suffering of the Samoans was exacerbated by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Logan, the 51-year-old military administrator who was in charge of Samoa at the time of the outbreak.

“He seemed completely lost in how to cope with this sort of thing,” says Mike Field, author of Black Saturday: NZ’s Tragic Blunders in Samoa. “The New Zealand medical officer and his wife tried to set up aid stations and Logan insisted they be closed down.”

Robert Logan, reading a Proclamation of occupation at the flag-raising ceremony in Apia on 30 August 1914 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/4-017522-F Photographer: Malcolm Ross

There was no cure for the 1918 influenza so it’s debatable if medical help would actually have prevented many deaths, but Damon Salesa says Robert Logan’s response to the outbreak still deeply affected Samoans. “It would have made an enormous difference to how Samoans saw New Zealanders… what they saw from Logan was simply that he appeared not to care.”

Logan was even hostile toward Samoans suffering from the disease. He’s reported to have said this to a school principal after being asked to deliver food to sick children at the boarding school.

“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.”

Mike Field thinks Logan’s actions hardened Samoan opposition to New Zealand rule. “They petitioned London to say ‘these New Zealanders don’t seem to know what they’re doing’… they asked for direct rule from London,” he says.

That request, and others like it, was turned down but Damon Salesa says New Zealand’s mishandling of the outbreak was a touchstone for the Mau movement, which sought independence for Samoa.

“It is no accident that they build their headquarters right by the mass graves. That is one of the great wrongs they feel New Zealand committed against Samoans, overseeing the mass mortality of the influenza epidemic.”

A group of Mau supporters, including Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III (dressed in white), gathered around the office of the Mau. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: PAColl-0691-2

Samoans continued to peacefully protest New Zealand occupation – even in the face of violence, including an incident known as “Black Saturday” in 1929 where NZ police armed with rifles and machine guns opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing at least eight people.

Mike Field believes New Zealanders owe Samoa a debt for not taking up arms and drawing us into a bloody guerrilla war. “Had they chosen to do that the nature of the South Pacific would have been completely different.”

Listen to the full Black Sheep podcast to hear how Robert Logan passed racist laws against Chinese people living in Samoa, and why the 1918 influenza outbreak is still affecting people living in Samoa today.


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