Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

I found a book that the library had removed from its collection, entitled Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, Third Edition, edited by George Childs Kohn. It impressed me by having 454 pages of terrible things that had happened to people, none of which were current news.

I felt like writing a bit about a plague chosen at random. Today’s plague appears on page 337.

The Samoan Influenza Epidemic of the 1800s

His name was John Williams, and he arrived aboard the ship dubbed Messenger of Peace. The Messenger of Peace had been built by 1827, for the use of the London Missionary Society. The original plan was for the ship to deliver “the necessities of civilized life, including clothing, flour, tea, and sugar,” which only makes me think about how they didn’t bring coffee but that’s just me, what we’re discussing here is that he did bring influenza.

Here’s the John Williams in question, gesturing to remind us, everybody makes mistakes.

The ship was built on one of the Cook Islands, built from local mahogany that was not the best choice for building a ship. It was built by people who didn’t know how to build a ship. It sounds like pretty much a clusterf@ck from the jump.

The Messenger of Peace, as she appeared when leaving Rarotonga for Tahaiti Page 43.jpg
Here’s the Messenger of Peace.

It bore a flag with a blue background and a white dove.


Leaving Aitutaki, note Dove of Peace flag
Here you can sorta see the flag.

In 1832, a hurricane threw the Messenger of Peace into a four foot deep hole, and 2,000 locals helped push her back into the sea. Were they being nice? Did someone hold a gun to their heads? I have no idea.

Messenger of Peace hove down at Vavau, Samoa for repairs
Here you can kind of see when the ship was all whoopsy-daisy, toward the left

Later that year, old Peace sprang a leak, and her crew got to bailing, so that there was only four feet of water in the ship. They had a hell of a time finding where the leak was, which I didn’t know was a thing that happened with ships, but remember, this ship was built by people who knew only slightly more about building a ship than I do.

You can read a book about how John Williams (goodness, the Brits just refuse any nod to creativity with their names), and read about how he bravely saved Polynesian souls, or you can stick with me and hear about the Samoan Influenza Epidemic of the 1800s.

These two Samoan guys, Uea and Niumanga, were basically kidnapped by Williams et al, and taken to Tahiti. They were afraid they would be eaten, but instead after a time of hanging with the Europeans, they were returned to their island of Niue. It was a European plan to “borrow” people, wine em and dine em, and then return them home, hoping they’d tell their friends that Europeans were full of good ideas. However, this time, their friends got influenza, and were pretty sure Uea and Niumanga had given it to them. (I mean, they probably had.)

Uea and Niumanga had different fates: one was killed by his neighbors, and the other escaped on a whaling ship. Hopefully it was a nice whaling ship.

George Turner wrote in 1861: “The natives at once traced the disease to the foreigners and the new religion … ever since there have been returns of the disease almost annually … in some cases it is fatal to old people and those who have been previously weakened by pulmonary disease”.

Influenza reared its ugly head in 1837, 1839, 1846, and 1891. Let me warn you that this wouldn’t be their worst experience with influenza, which would happen (as it did all over the world) in 1918. At one point, people were worried that these diseases would completely wipe out Samoan culture, but here’s a teeny bit of good news: they didn’t.

Here’s a song by a Samoan hip hop artist, King Kapisi.

Here’s that Samoan hip hop artist discussing missionaries.


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