Smallpox epidemic kills 55

8 April 1913

Smallpox vaccination certificate
Smallpox vaccination certificate (Archives New Zealand)

Mormon missionary Richard Shumway arrived at Auckland from Vancouver on the steamer Zealandia for a hui attended by Māori from around the country. Sweating and sneezing as he pressed noses with the visitors, Shumway thought he was suffering from measles – bad enough for those without immunity to it. In fact he had smallpox, an incurable disease which quickly spread across the northern North Island.

By the end of the year the epidemic had killed 55 New Zealanders, all of them Māori. Newspapers, politicians and health officials alike viewed smallpox as a ‘Maori malady’ that was transferred between ‘unhygienic’ homes by people living in close proximity. Wherever a Māori fell ill, the Public Health Department raised a yellow flag over the kāinga. Its inhabitants were barred from travelling unless they carried a certificate showing that they had been immunised – and sometimes even when they did. Many were cared for – there was no effective treatment – by doctors, nurses and medical students in rural ‘isolation camps’.

When the Māori of Maungatautari were barred from crossing the Waikato River to visit Cambridge, an ad-hoc Pākehā militia stood by on the opposite bank in case any tried to flout the ban. A few months later, many of its members were in camp at Ōtahuhu preparing to fight another scourge – the waterfront workers whose strike was impeding the export of Waikato’s primary produce.

Restrictions on Māori movement were not relaxed until well into 1914, and Pākehā fears lasted longer. Many locals worried that the Māori volunteers for the First World War who were in camp at Avondale racecourse in late 1914 were carrying the disease.

Much worse was to come when an influenza pandemic arrived in New Zealand near the end of the First World War (see 12 October 1918 and 23 November 1918). 

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