Australia's returning World War I veterans, reduced by sickness and trauma, were uniquely susceptible to the Spanish Flu.
Some fell ill on the voyage home, others were infected in one of the outbreaks that gripped Australia in 1919.
Unlike COVID-19, Spanish Flu killed people in the prime of their life. There was an indignity to this, especially for veterans. How could war heroes who had survived Gallipoli and the Western Front make it home against the odds only to sicken and die from a mysterious virus? Some 15,000 Australians died from Spanish Flu, but due to quarantine measures, only 171 of these were Tasmanian. But when a different strain of flu killed a similar number on Flinders Island in the 1830s, Tasmania's surviving Aboriginal population was all but wiped out.
There were 244 Aborigines exiled to the Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island. Most were veterans of the Black War, Australia's bloodiest frontier conflict. Well over 200 colonists and 600 Aborigines died in the seven-year struggle that culminated in 1830 with the infamous 'Black Line'.
The war finally ended on New Year's Eve 1831 when George Augustus Robinson, a missionary guided by a band of Aboriginal envoys, secured an armistice with the 26 survivors. Among them were 16 seasoned warriors, almost all of whom bore the scars of musket balls and bayonets. One was even missing his arm. His name was Tongerlongeter, a charismatic chief who Robinson immediately recognised as a man of importance. A big man, besmeared with red ochre from ankles to dreadlocks, and with his dead son's skull strung about his neck, Tongerlongeter made an impression on all who met him. In exile, the celebrated warrior quickly rose to become the remnant tribes' primary leader. Robinson, when he became commandant at Wybalenna, relied heavily on him as an intermediary and advisor. The exiles had suffered much, but they found reassurance in their leader, who Robinson had renamed King William after Britain's reigning monarch. But there was a virulent 'devil' lurking on Flinders Island. The resident Aborigines, who had already lost most of their kin in the war, were now assailed by what they believed was an evil spirit. They called it Wrageowrapper, and it was picking them off one by one.
Before being exiled, the Tasmanians had largely avoided introduced disease by limiting interaction with the newcomers and living exclusively outdoors. But at Wybalenna they were surrounded by Europeans and forced to live in cramped quarters. Sickness descended upon them almost immediately. While the death toll fluctuated from year to year and petered out in the 1840s, Wrageowrapper was never far away.
Because Tasmania had been free of endemic diseases prior to colonisation, Aborigines lacked immunity to introduced pathogens. Like Spanish Flu, the virus that assailed the Tasmanians disproportionately afflicted the "strong hale and robust", often killing them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Before the advent of modern medical interventions, victims experienced severe pain. Tongerlongeter did his best to comfort the afflicted. There was a strong belief at the settlement that the skull of the great chief's son had healing powers, and it was routinely sent for whenever a fever set in. While the presence of the chief and his grisly relic no doubt gave comfort to the sick, few recovered. By 1847, the year the settlement was closed, 80 per cent of the exiles had died, the vast majority from influenza.
But just as the white man's bullets failed to kill Tongerlongeter, so too did their diseases. In 1837, on the same day his namesake died at Windsor Castle, Tongerlongeter aka King William died of what was almost certainly a burst appendix. When anyone died at the settlement, there was much sorrow and wailing, but this was different. The great man's demise had "thrown a gloom over the whole settlement." Robinson too "felt deeply oppressed with grief." And with "the chief dead and the people without an adviser", he despaired: "Where will they find another?" But the virus didn't care. That year, 31 Aborigines died at Wybalenna.
Not only was the Wybalenna pestilence more deadly than Spanish Flu or COVID-19, but the missteps of authorities in dealing with these more recent scourges were also mild by comparison. The often lax quarantining of WWI veterans was criticised at the time, but no one even attempted to quarantine veterans of the Black War. Instead of isolating the sick, surgeons drained pints of their 'bad blood' as family and friends squeezed in around. The victims of the epidemics that ravaged Wybalenna were people who had put up a resistance mounted with nothing more sophisticated than spears, clubs and shrewd tactics. Per capita, white Tasmanians suffered more casualties during the Black War than during WWII. What's more, Aborigines made a laughing stock of the colonial government by nimbly dodging the Black Line. Against a backdrop of such impressive achievements, it is unnerving how quickly and easily these remarkable men and women were felled by a novel virus. And so it is with us today. Our species' achievements are nothing if not impressive, but below the technological veneer, we are made of the same stuff as the Tasmanians. And like them, our vulnerabilities have been shockingly exposed.
- Nicholas Clements, University of Tasmania Adjunct School of Humanities Researcher