The Spanish Influenza of 1918 in Colonial Africa: Lessons for Today’s Coronavirus Pandemic

By Isaac Samuel

THE Spanish influenza began in January 1918 in Haskell County, Texas – US,  from where it was carried by newly recruited soldiers to the overcrowded and unsanitary US military camp of Funston, Fort Riley Texas. There was however a similar pneumonia outbreak in Texas camps of LoganBowie and Travis between September and December 1917. 

The influenza was then carried by American allied troops to the trenches in Europe where they were fighting in World War 1 (WW1), devastating thousands of troops in April 1917. It then moved to the United Kingdom (UK) in May then onto China and Japan before briefly subsiding, to only mutate into a more contagious pandemic a few months later in August of the same year. Such was the devastation on life that one half of the world’s population – then a billion people – was infected, killing an estimated 40 -100million, with a fatality rate well over 2.5%. Its lowest death toll estimate dwarfed both the combined combat and non-combat deaths of WW1 (around 20 million deaths).

By the time the second wave made landfall in Africa, bodies were being piled up in corridors of Philadelphia’s morgues. Mothers were clutching their sickly children beside their husband’s corpses, and a nauseating stench streaked out of the overcrowded city’s health facilities.

The “Spanish” flu is a misnomer which resulted from the censorship by the US and European war-time press leaving the neutral Spanish media as the only source of the first reports of the disease. While the US and European press, either sugar coated the truth and adopted strict self-censorship, the story of the pandemic which had already killed hundreds of British and French troops had already been circulating in Europe at the time. 

On August 15th, 1918, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Mantua, arrived at the Sierra Leone city of Freetown, then the capital of the British colony. Freetown had grown to become one of the biggest coal exporting stations in West Africa and a major port. Two-hundred of the ship’s sailors who had recently contracted the influenza guided a crew of hundreds of Sierra Leonean labourers as they loaded coal into the ship’s bunkers and the ship set sail. Less than two weeks later, by august 24th 1918, the port’s physicians started noticing a number of people with influenza related symptoms. Shortly thereafter, two Freetowners died of pneumonia. Three days later on August 24th, 600 labourers failed to appear for work with most of them taking care of the sick or having succumbed to the disease themselves.

The epidemic raged on in September peaking at 74 deaths on September 8th at which point the local officials estimated that up to one third of Sierra Leone’s population had been infected. By the end of that month, up to 3% of the entire population had died.

A ship from Freetown took the virus to the Cape Coast and Accra. Three weeks later it was in the colonial railway system, built to exploit raw materials from the interior of the country, but was instead now hauling back hundreds of infected but unsuspecting passengers into the interior. Those not on the train travelled by bicycle, camel, horseback or on foot until the most remote villages were reached.

ISeptember 1918, the flu arrived in South Africa aboard two wartime troopships, the ‘Jaroslav’ and ‘Veronej’, both carrying about 1300 men of the South African native labour contingent who had fought in the French trenches. Both ships had docked at Freetown. The authorities took basic precautions to isolate those infected but didn’t screen most of the cases and allowed those visibly heathy to go home.  The virus tore through the entire region of Southern Africa at an even faster rate than it had done in Europe; leaving an estimated 300,000 South Africans dead – roughly 6% of the entire country’s population. It was called ‘umbathalala’ – the isiXhosa word for death; bodies lay where they fell, on the roadside or in the bush, herds of cattle and sheep strayed unattended, crops went unharvested. An eerie hush descended upon the country. The disease hit the miners at Kimberly particularly hard where over 300 died each day. Segments of the colony’s then pre-apartheid white population blamed the disease on the African labourers while some Africans thought it originated from the whites as a way of exterminating Africans. The former called for restrictions on movements of the latter with towns requiring Africans to obtain a clean bill of health before being allowed  in and authorities searched bushes for “sick natives” based on pseudoscientific claims of the African being more susceptible to the disease. This process among other racially segregative laws, was the start of the apartheid policy. 

In Botswana, then known as Bechuanaland, 4-5% of the population was struck down. The disease was known as ‘leroborobo’ or ‘semgamaga’ (the disease which kills many people).

In Swaziland, 1% of the population died. 

In Namibia, known then as South West Africa, the disease arrived in October along the war-time railway line. Within one week up to 8% of the population of the capital city Windhoek, had died. Most of them were Africans that had been concentrated in segregated and crowded locations. It was called ‘kaapito hanga’ (it came as fast as a bullet) by the Otjiherero people.

In October, the disease moved on to Zimbabwe, known then as Southern Rhodesia by rail travellers returning from the war.

In November, it then moved onto to Malawi, known then as Nyasaland where the population had been weakened by large wartime labour recruiting, causing even higher mortality rates by December.

Back in West Africa, the disease spread to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, in September. It was brought by approximately1360 infected Brazilian sailors, 108 of whom died soon thereafter. Days later on 18th September, it swept through the Ouakam military base in Dakar striking down 155 people over the following month.

The American ship, SS Shonga with its influenza-stricken crew, reached Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, on 31st august and reached Accra by September 3rd where sixteen cases from the ship were immediately hospitalised on landing and the crewmen quarantined. It was unfortunately too late, the disease spread to dock workers and to African patients at the same hospital where the original cases were undergoing treatment. The disease spread so fast that within two weeks, schools and churches were closed, markets dwindled, public meetings were cancelled and normal business came to a standstill. Thirteen thousand (13,000) people in the city of Accra were infected. It then advanced into the interior cities of Kumasi and Bole killing tens of thousands more. Over 60,000 people in Ghana died, about 4% of the entire population.

Arriving in the Nigerian capital of Lagos from the Gold Coast on September 14th, the ‘SS Bida’ docked with hundreds of its infected passengers, quickly fanning out through southern Nigeria and later the entire colony, killing a total of just under 500,000 people out of the entire colony of 18 million. In the Etiki region, the disease was known as lululuku (killing by sudden stroke) with Europeans accused of bringing the infection.

By the end of September, the disease had arrived in eastern Africa at Mombasa on a ship from Bombay in India, sweeping through the region and killing 2-5% of the population. In Kenya, it took 150,000 people.

In Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, over 100,000 died. The Zanzibari authorities attempted to protect the country through quarantine but the effects elsewhere were devastating as entire towns fell sick. It raged on for weeks in cities like in Nakuru and in southern and central Tanzania it killed as many as 10% of the population.

Then, almost as quickly as it had appeared, the Spanish influenza disappeared with cases typically dropping off by the third month of the pandemic.

The late 19th century and early 20th century was a period of great social upheaval in Africa, it was a time when the continent was violently thrust onto the global theatre through the combined actions of centuries of European wars of conquest, the frequent outbreaks of epidemics brought by Europeans like tuberculosis, bubonic plague, small pox, measles, and syphilis and famines which combined, killed millions between the 1880s and 1910s. However, these were dwarfed by the Spanish influenza which, in less than one year, killed an estimated 2.4 million Africans (about 1.8 percent of the continent’s population) of which 2.2 million were in sub-Saharan Africa, where the mortality rate exceeded 2.3%. The Spanish influenza was Africa’s second deadliest event only exceeded by Leopold’s mass atrocities in the Congo that killed an estimated 5 –10 million Africans.

A combination of several factors contributed to the rampant spread and effects of the disease in the midst of colonialism, segregated living, education and worship places and the asymmetrical way in which social control measures were imposed on the Africans vis-a-vis the European settler populations.

Such a climate of racism and mistrust further fuelled the disease, in South Africa. Africans avoided flu vaccinations (which were largely ineffective against the pandemic anyway). The African public’s trust in western medicine had by then been eroded by, among others, the actions of Sir Almroth Wright who, contrary to his claims of curing pneumonia among South African miners in 1914, was instead killing them, and the failed inoculation of Rinderpest which also killed instead of saving the African’s herds of cattle.

In Zimbabwe, African churches and schools were ordered to shutdown while white churches and schools stayed open leading to even more mistrust in the soon to be quasi-apartheid state of Rhodesia.

By then, to most South Africans and most Africans in other colonies, colonialism and western medicine were associated with pestilence, death, famine and failure.

In Nigeria and the Congo, Malawi and South Africa, several alternative Christian sects emerged. In Nigeria, over 50 sects emerged including the Cherubim, Seraphim and Aladura.  In Congo, a movement led by Simon Kimbangu emerged. In Malawi there was a revival of the Watchtower movement. In South Africa there was a proliferation of Zionist churches nder the leadership of of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, George Khambule and Eliyasi Vilakathi.

Nigerian agricultural produce and farming systems were affected by the population losses which saw a shift from the labour intensive yam farming to cassava, exacerbating food shortages. In Sierra Leone, rice production more than halved and food shortages sparked an increase in prices.

In Ghana, men grounded the grain and took care of their sickly wives. People who’d recently moved to towns returned to their subsistence life in the villages. Many of the Nigerians who had embraced the new transport system and the urban life brought by the railway lines were now weary of adopting them, briefly abandoning it along with western medicine and technology.

The influenza left an indelible mark on Africa; demographically, psychologically and socially, however, it surprisingly left few political causalities. In Ethiopia, the Abyssinian empire’s capital of Addis Ababa was particularly hard-struck with one British official writing in 1918 that “The Abyssinian Government was completely disorganised and incapable of attendance to official business” but the empire survived another two decades after. In some of the worst hit cities like Dakar and Freetown, the population soon exploded in the following years and in Southern Africa the more racial segregation restrictions and laws similar to those started during the pandemic were enacted. In most colonies years later, the disease was but a minor nuisance for the colonial administrators; they trained fewer doctors, spent even less on building more hospitals, and continued to crowd native populations into even less sanitary living in even more segregated cities.

Like its effects on most of its survivors, the Spanish influenza was a painful but quickly forgotten memory that soon faded away only to be remembered in the stories of the few who lived long enough to recount its ravages once similar pandemics emerged decades later.


The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History: John M. Barry

Mismanaging Mayhem: How Washington Responds to Crisis edited by James Jay Carafano, Richard Weitz

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it. Gina Bari Kolata

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918: Alfred W. Crosby

Pale rider : The spanish flu of 1918 and How it Changed the world: Laura Spinney

AIDS, South Africa, and the Politics of Knowledge: Jeremy R. Youde

A New ‘Imperial Disease’: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-9and its Impact on the British Empire: David Killingray 

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19 in the Gold Coast: K. David Patterson

Landscape, Environment and Technology in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa edited by Toyin Falola, Emily Brownell

Updating the accounts: global mortality of the 1918-1920 “Spanish” influenza pandemic:  Johnson NP, Mueller J.

An introduction to the medical history of Ethiopia: Richard Pankhurst,

A History of the Church in Africa: Bengt Sundkler, Christopher Steed

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