The Spanish influenza did not originate in Newfoundland and Labrador, but the country’s ports, shipping schedules, and global trade relations made it vulnerable to the disease. Local harbours were ideally situated along North Atlantic shipping lanes and attracted frequent visits from international vessels. Many of these ships stopped at numerous ports along the way to pick up additional passengers or crewmembers. During the influenza pandemic, some of these people may have been infected even if they did not display any symptoms.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 03.07.013), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
This placed Newfoundland and Labrador’s population at tremendous risk because the Spanish influenza was a highly contagious disease that spread by human contact. Many people who contracted it died within a day or two of showing symptoms. These could include extreme fatigue, sudden headaches, feverishness, aching muscles, and a general feeling of being unwell.
Wartime conditions further facilitated the spread of the virus, which easily passed between servicemen fighting in cramped trenches, living in crowded quarters, and eating in large mess halls. As hundreds of thousands of troops travelled to different continents during the war or returned home after demobilization, many also carried the virus with them.
On 30 September 1918 a ship docked at St. John’s harbour carrying three infected crewmen. In the coming weeks, infected sailors also arrived at Burin and various Labrador ports. The virus quickly spread throughout the country and killed more than 600 people within five months of its arrival. Most deaths occurred in Labrador, where few medical resources existed to combat the disease and ineffectual modes of communication hampered requests for aid.
Two ships carried the Spanish influenza to Labrador: the Moravian mission ship SS Harmony and the coastal steamer SS Sagona. Although it is unknown where each vessel picked up the virus, both visited several ports where the influenza was prevalent before arriving at Labrador and both were in St. John’s at the height of the epidemic there.
The Harmony visited mission stations along Labrador’s coast each year to deliver supplies and load fish and seal pelts caught by Inuit hunters. Typically, the ship departed London for St. John’s in the early summer and spent several weeks servicing Labrador’s ports before returning to England. In 1917, however, the war disrupted the Harmony’s schedule and forced it to remain in North American waters. Unable to transport cargo to London, it instead visited New York in December 1917 and remained there until late March. The influenza had already appeared in the United States by then, although it is unknown if any of the Harmony’s crew were exposed to the virus.
The vessel then steamed to Barbados in April to pick up a shipment of molasses for Newfoundland. This provided another opportunity for crewmembers to contract the virus from infected residents. By 3 August, the ship had reached St. John’s and resumed its regular schedule. The Harmony was docked in the city’s harbour in October 1918 during the peak of the influenza epidemic. Although the public health doctor had placed some vessels under quarantine, the Harmony was allowed to depart for Labrador on 20 October. The reason for this is unclear; however, government and medical officials did not fully understand in 1918 that even people who appeared healthy could still be carrying the virus. They therefore may have approved a ship for departure without realizing that its crew could still spread the disease. Within days of the ship’s arrival at the Inuit communities of Hebron and Okak, hundreds of residents began showing signs of sickness. By the end of December, 150 people had died in Hebron and its surrounding communities. In Okak, the virus killed 204 people out of a population of 263. Survivors decided to abandon the 142-year-old community and burn all houses and buildings to the ground.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 22.03.001), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
The Sagona, meanwhile, was also docked at St. John’s in October before arriving at Cartwright on 20 October. The vessel, owned by the Reid Newfoundland Company, regularly visited communities between the island of Newfoundland and the Labrador coast to drop off passengers, mail, and other cargo. It had been in port at St. John’s for four days before departing for Labrador on 15 October. During that time, St. John’s newspapers wrote daily of the worsening influenza epidemic and Medical Officer of Health N.S. Fraser closed the city’s schools, theatres, and other public buildings to prevent the disease from spreading.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 22.05.001), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
Nonetheless, the government did not keep the Sagona’s crew in quarantine during their stay and did not prevent them from leaving for Cartwright. When the ship arrived days later, Reverend Henry Gordon, an Anglican missionary working in Labrador, recorded in his journal that some of the ship’s passengers seemed ill: “Our newspapers relate of a serious epidemic which is raging in Newfoundland and other parts of the world. One hopes that it will not reach down here, but the fact that some of the steamer’s crew are down with it looks ominous.” Many Cartwright residents were sick within days of the Sagona’s arrival, and the virus rapidly spread through Sandwich Bay, killing 69 of the area’s 300 residents.
Although Labrador’s shipping schedule helped bring the virus to its coastal communities, its remoteness contributed to the severity of the influenza epidemic there. Communication with the outside world was slow once the coastal steamers left. Few doctors and nurses were available to treat the ill and poor weather hampered transportation between isolated communities. Delays in communication prevented the Moravian Church in England from learning of the situation at Okak, Hebron, and Sandwich Bay until 19 March 1919. By then, the epidemic had ended in Labrador and hundreds of people were dead.
Although Reverend Gordon wrote the colonial government at the height of the epidemic to request help, it was not until June 1919 that the SS Terra Nova arrived at Labrador carrying a doctor, medical supplies, and lumber for coffins. Requests for help were slow to reach Newfoundland and other Labrador communities because of disruptions to the winter mail schedule. Hopedale missionary W.W. Perrett reported that he first heard from Okak on 20 February 1919.
Government action against the virus was more effective on the island, which possessed better medical resources and more advanced modes of communication and transportation. Soon after the outbreak, government officials closed many public buildings in St. John’s, including schools, churches, and meeting halls, and introduced quarantine regulations for incoming ships. Many outport communities also closed public buildings to curb the spread of influenza. By the time the epidemic was over, 62 deaths were reported in St. John’s and 170 more in outport Newfoundland.