The Spanish flu in the Pacific

By David Sutton

On 24 November 1918, HMAS Encounter embarked from Sydney laden with supplies and medical staff. The vessel was on its way to provide medical assistance to Pacific islands affected by Spanish influenza; this was Australia’s first overseas disaster relief operation.

H17506 – Portside view of HMAS Encounter during the First World War.

“Spanish flu”, as it was known, spread across the globe with alarming speed. While it is unknown exactly where the virus originated (France, China, the United States and Britain have all been suggested as potential sources of the outbreak) the movement of troops during the war created perfect conditions for it to spread far and wide. An estimated 20 million people died as a result of the First World War; at least 50 million died during the influenza outbreak that followed.

When the pandemic reached the Pacific in November 1918 it caused widespread havoc. It is estimated that upwards of 8,500 people, some 20 per cent of the population, died on Samoa alone.

P02789.002 – A wounded Australian soldier with two masked Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses outside the flu ward at the Randwick Military Hospital, c. 1919.

HMAS Encounter originally set out to come to the help of Tonga, but ended up also providing assistance to Fiji and Samoa. Arriving in Apia, the capital of Samoa, on 3 December 1918, Encounter’s crew volunteered to unload supplies in dangerous and heaving seas. Once ashore, Australian medical teams – assisted by locals, British settlers and a New Zealand garrison – spread across the islands to help out anyone they could. When Encounter arrived in Tonga a few days later the worst of the flu had passed, but the Australians were able to unload much-needed medical supplies and food, as well as leaving a medical relief team on the island to assist overworked local medical staff.

Since HMAS Encounter’s operation in the Pacific, providing overseas humanitarian aid and disaster response has become a prominent and integral part of the activities of Australian Defence Force.


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