The 1918 influenza pandemic

Page 6 – Māori and the flu, 1918–19

Historian Geoffrey Rice suggests that higher death rates among Māori (about eight times that of Pākehā) may have resulted from lower immunity, due to their isolation from colds and other minor respiratory ailments in the past, as Māori were then a largely rural population. He suggests that lower standards of housing, clothing and nourishment amongst Māori communities at the time also put them at greater risk.

Accounts of the devastation in Māori communities during these difficult times are hard to come by, particularly because Pākehā journalists did not often cover the plight of isolated rural Māori communities during the crisis. Below are a few rare examples.

Heartfelt descriptions

Aperatama Rupene wrote to the editor of the Auckland Star in December 1918 with a heartfelt account of the impact of the epidemic on Māori communities. Descriptions of how Māori were hit by the flu are fairly rare, making this a valuable letter.

Rupene reminded readers that while many a Māori had ‘stood shoulder to shoulder with his pakeha brother’ during the Great War that had just ended, some Waikato men had been imprisoned for resisting conscription in protest against the confiscation of their tribe’s land after the wars of the 1860s. The letter continued: ‘in most Maori homes today there is weeping and desolation. Boys have died across the war, whole families have been wiped out by the influenza, and there are many aching hearts because these boys are in gaol’.

Rupene expressed concern that the health authorities had not shown sufficient foresight. Many Māori communities were being left to ‘rely upon their own knowledge of herbs and remedies to cope with the dread scourge’.

A few days later another letter writer, Mihinga, reiterated Rupene’s sentiments. ‘We natives are weeping and wailing for our dear boys killed at the front, for the boys in gaol for not donning the uniform, and our people who have passed away through the influenza epidemic’. Mihinga added: ‘Te Kuiti was the only township which took an interest in the poor Māori during the epidemic’. A number of doctors and nurses had worked amongst the Māori: ‘These people helped save many Maoris and did a lot of work in the hour of need… For all the natives, I thank those who helped during the epidemic, especially the ladies’.

Fighting the flu in the King Country

The effort to battle the epidemic in Te Kuiti involved two best friends, one Māori and one Pākehā, who were also sisters-in-law. Several temporary hospitals were set up when the epidemic struck, including one for Māori at Te Tokanganui-a-noho Marae. (Te Tokanganui-a-noho is an important wharenui given by Te Kooti to Ngāti Maniapoto as a gesture of thanks for their hospitality after they gave him sanctuary in 1873).

One of those who led the effort to save Māori from the epidemic was Dr Samuel Zobel. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, Zobel had graduated from the University of London and arrived in Auckland in June 1907. In 1908 he began practising in Te Kuiti, where he worked until his death in 1936.

The woman in the middle of this image is Marion (Mereana) Hattaway (née Marion Tangata, and sometimes anglicised to Marion/Marianne/Mary Ann Leonard). From Peria in the Far North, she was probably the first Māori qualified nurse. She and her friend Emma Hattaway had both worked at Auckland Hospital, nursing soldiers who had returned from the South African War. One of these soldiers was Emma’s brother Victor Hattaway, who Marion married in 1904.

Emma had come to Te Kuiti to set up the town’s first hospital, presumably to be near her brother and sister-in-law, who were already living there. When the influenza pandemic hit, Emma and Mereana became leaders in the fight to help people – Emma nursing Pākehā at the Te Kuiti Temporary Hospital and Mereana in charge of nursing at the ‘Pa Hospital’ at Te Tokanganui-a-noho.

Forty-eight people were nursed at the marae, of whom nine died. By 30 November 1918 there was a ‘decided improvement’ in the situation. Nurse Mereana Hattaway and a ‘willing band of supporters’ were ensuring that ‘all arrangements for the welfare of the patients are running smoothly and well. It is reported that the epidemic, as far as the Native race is concerned, has spent its fury in this district’.

In the wider King Country there had already been 118 Māori deaths by 30 November.  That day, a Maniapoto Council Joint Health Committee meeting was held, with a very strong representation of local Māori. The district was divided up amongst a number of Māori inspectors, who were to visit all the kāinga in their area the following day. They would distribute disinfectants and medicine, check that the communities had enough food, and report back that evening. The inspectors were also to provide lists of people who needed medical attention, while the secretary of the committee would supply food to those who needed it. A week later it was reported that all this had been done; ‘the epidemic is now held in check and it is hoped that it will soon be stamped entirely out.’

While Māori in Te Kuiti did not come through the epidemic unscathed, the efforts made to assist them, particularly by ‘the ladies’, were appreciated.

Although the worst of the epidemic was over by the end of 1918, deaths continued. One Te Kuiti person who died in the later part of the epidemic was the Ngāti Maniapoto chief Hari Wahanui. In April 1919 he attended a hui in Auckland Domain to welcome home the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion, including one of his sons who had been away for four years. Presumably infected at the event, Wahanui died a few days later in Te Kuiti. He had been cared for by Dr Zobel, who had served the Māori community so well earlier. The family were not allowed to hold a tangi in case this spread the disease further.

Māori influenza memorials

Māori communities struck by the epidemic would never be the same again. Two Ngāti Maniapoto marae – Te Ihingarangie at Waimiha and Te Koura north of Taumarunui (which were two of the marae visited by the Māori inspectors in early December 1918) – erected remarkable memorials to their people who died.

The great Ngāti Tarāwhai carver Tene Waitere carved two very similar memorials for these marae, with carved square wooden pillars and figures standing on the top. One of the most prominent carvers of his era, Waitere contributed to the revival of Māori arts in the first half of the 20th century. He was one of those who had survived the 1886 Tarawera eruption by sheltering in the house Hinemihi, on which he later worked, along with other notable houses and projects.

‘We Maoris … resent such language’ – Tuahiwi (North Canterbury)

At a meeting of the Canterbury Hospital and Charitable Aid Board in late February 1919, in the aftermath of the epidemic, a nasty quip was made about Māori. During a discussion of the need to clean up ‘Maori pas’ to avoid another epidemic, a woman member of the board suggested, ‘Why not start by cleaning up the Māori mas?’ [in other words, Maori women].

This unpleasant play on words led to a rebuke from W.D. Barrett, a Māori from Tuahiwi near Rangiora, who recounted his marae’s experience of the epidemic. The Tuahiwi marae belongs to the Ngāi Tūahuriri hapū. Barrett wrote that the Tuahiwi Māori:

resent such language, and think it is a slight on all us Māoris, and most uncalled for, as during the influenza epidemic our Māori pa was far cleaner than the major portion of Christchurch, and probably cleaner than the woman interjector’s home, as nearly all the Māoris in the Tuahiwi Māori pa were down with the influenza, but not one death occurred there, which, I think, speaks for itself. The Māori mas feel very much the slight cast upon them. Looking on the sad side of things, it does seem hard that some of the Māori mas, whose sons have bled and died on the battlefields of Gallipoli and Europe, for the liberty of us all, should have such unkind things said about them. There are mas and homes in Māori pas that would do credit to some Europeans.

Although Barrett said no Māori died at Tuahiwi, Mrs Ruiha Teaika Korako (Kelly), the wife of Tehau Korako did die during the epidemic (on 15 November 1918). She was very well known in the Kaiapoi district and had been heavily involved in the war effort in her area, including being secretary of the local branch of the Lady Liverpool and Mrs Pomare’s Maori Soldiers' Fund. Even though her husband became gravely ill, he chaired the local committee dealing with the epidemic.

Reports agreed that the epidemic was well managed at Tuahiwi. Despite this, those living there were discriminated against. Christchurch health officials interpreted instructions from the Health Department to mean that Māori could not travel without a permit, which could only be obtained in Christchurch. Some were allowed to board the train, but then put off it and left to make their own way home; one woman had been travelling to visit her sick son in hospital. Geoff Rice has noted that in fact only people travelling to tangi needed permits.

How to cite this page

'Māori and the flu, 1918–19', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/influenza-pandemic-1918/maori-and-the-flu, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Mar-2019

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