LAUNCH OF IN A TIME OF PLAGUE:
MEMORIES OF THE SPANISH FLU EPIDEMIC OF 1918 IN SOUTH AFRICA
SPEECH BY PROF HOWARD PHILLIPS (Editor) – 9 January 2019
With the publication of this book by the VRS as its 100th volume in its 100th year of existence, my professional career as a historian has come full circle, for 42 years ago, in 1977, I began research on the Spanish flu epidemic in South Africa after inadvertently stumbling upon this little-known topic in the course of investigating South Africa during World War I as a possible doctoral subject.
After talking to my father who was 4 at the time of the epidemic in 1918 and hearing him recall being laid up with flu alongside his 6 siblings in his parents’ double-bed, I quickly realised that there were much older people still around who had lived through the cataclysm of ‘Black October’ (as it was called in South Africa) as teenagers or even adults and that I should gather their memories sooner rather than later on account of their advanced age. Accordingly, in May 1978 I conducted my first interview with a flu survivor, Dr J.P. Duminy, the former Principal of UCT but in 1918 a 21-year old MA student at the then brand-new UCT. The rich and vivid nature of his recollections (recorded on a cassette tape) alerted me to the likelihood that an abundance of graphic tales remained locked up in peoples’ memories, never spoken about for decades. From this revelation flowed another 170 first-hand accounts from across the country in the form of either more oral interviews or from letters written in response to appeals which I made in the press and on radio for memories of ‘Black October’.
This volume includes 88 of these primary sources (supplemented by 39 more collected earlier on by an English historian). Together they portray a country under siege for close to a month, its daily routine paralysed as its citizens literally struggled against being overwhelmed by the epidemic engulfing the country, an epidemic which carried off some 6% of the population and laid low another 50-60%. The memories which I gathered spelled out the trauma of those weeks vividly and unforgettably: the sight of Scotch carts filled with corpses under a tarpaulin, trundling down Adderley Street; mass graves in Kimberley into which bodies wrapped only in blankets were piled; schools, churches and cinemas in Bloemfontein shut to try and prevent the disease spreading; whole families lying dead in their house or hut on the Cape Flats and in the Transkei; the fear triggered by hearing a sneeze or cough close by; the queues of desperate people waiting outside hastily-established relief depots to collect soup, bottles of a rapidly-concocted pink ‘flu mixture’ and lemons; the frightening rumours of deaths and of ominous, unnatural portents.
Here are extracts from two accounts which appear in the book, recalling these horrific days. The first comes from an interview which I conducted in 1978 with Mr C. F. C. Cassisa who in 1918 was a 7-year old living in the ‘Little Sicily’ area below Somerset Road in Cape Town. He recalled,
I would run up to the corner of Alfred Street and Somerset Road … [where] I witnessed something which is very vivid in my mind still. The people all along [the road] were, to all appearances I would have taken [it] they were drunk, just dropping like ninepins. It must have been just a coincidence that I was there at the time when there was a Scotch cart, or they called [it] a Scotch cart or a dray cart, with two men. They were leading this cart and horse, not driving it from the seat, and in it would be bodies. And they would say, ‘Here’s another one’, and they would pick it up and, one-and-two, and heave it into the Scotch cart. And at the time, they would stop for a drink – brandy, Picardi brandy, I remember that very well, my father used to get it – and they would have a swig, and suddenly one says, ‘Oh, there’s somebody there’, and I think I might have shouted, ‘Mister, that man is calling for help’, and I would see an arm in this [pile of] bodies, trying to get itself out [and] pull it out. [And they would] put it [a corpse] up against a wall and [they would] put a tag on him or something. I know they did something to his front …. And that’s all I remember because I was wrenched from the back – I forget now who it was – and I got a terrible beating. (p. 30).
The second extract is from a letter written in 1972, recalling the Spanish flu’s ravages in Kimberley 54 years earlier, in 1918. The author, Mauritz Kachelhoffer, was 8 at the time:
[A]t the time when the dread epidemic swept the country, a tale went around that an Indian butcher flew a kite with a piece of liver attached to it, and when he brought it down again, the liver was black from the germs of the Spanish influenza. An “old woman’s tale”, no doubt, but I give it for what it is worth. (p. 85).
With such stark personal memories the book is filled.
But their accounts spoke too of the volunteers of all classes who ran these depots and undertook house-visits and emergency work, pitching in to try and stave off the disintegration of communal life. ‘They gave everything …. They helped us very well, I must say that. We cannot have a quarrel with whites about that’, declared a ‘coloured’ man of 99 whom I interviewed in 1978. ‘They are not the whites of today. They were not the same … Now they all want to be on top’ (John Granger interview, p. 34).
Not only what these survivors told me came as revelations, but often so did the circumstances in which I conducted oral interviews: inside a hut in deep rural KZN where an 88-year old Zulu woman, in the midst of recalling World War I, suddenly burst into a contemporary song about ‘Influenza’; in the hall of a Pietersburg old-age home where I was ‘mobbed’ by 20 or more white-haired retirees eager to relate their experiences of ‘Black October’ to me; outside a Moravian mission station in the Transkei, watching as elderly parishioners slowly appeared over the surrounding hills in response to the sounding of the mission church’s bell which the missionary had told them the previous Sunday would be the sign to come to the church to talk to a visitor (i.e. me) about ‘ifeva’; in the foyer of a convent (which was as far as I was permitted to go) to listen to a Dominican nun, Sister Dympla, recall, in her lilting Irish brogue, what it was like to have the Spanish flu:
I remember the worst part of it to me was the thirst. I was sick, very sick [but] when I was getting better, I could have drunk a river dry. And it left us very weak … [A doctor] did prescribe … something which came out of a bucket … which wasn’t too very pleasant … I don’t know what [medicine] we got and what’s more I don’t think we cared.’ (p. 63).
What this volume does then is to put on record once and for all these very striking personal recollections which are unique, for almost everyone who had such experiences themselves has now died. They are, literally, the voices of a now-vanished generation. Moreover, the book places these memories into a wider global context, of a sweeping pandemic which enveloped the world in 1918-19, killing 50 million+ people, creating orphans on an unprecedented scale and leaving survivors bereaved and traumatized. The number of dead far dwarfed the number killed in World War I (12-14 million), yet it is the latter which, paradoxically, has left its mark on history and memorialization not the former. Public memorials to soldiers who died in that war dot the landscape all around the world, but public Spanish flu memorials are few and far between, apart from individual gravestones. (In South Africa there are only 5 – at the old De Beers Dynamite Factory at Somerset West; at the Port Elizabeth Municipal library; at the Nurses’ Home at Kimberley Hospital; outside the AVBOB offices in Bloemfontein; and in Montagu on what were once the grounds of the Dutch Reformed Church).
I hope that this book will at last put South Africa’s worst health disaster into context and also into our historical consciousness, and thereby help us make sense of those fragments of family memory of ‘Black October’ which have come down to us.