COLUMN | A long legacy of the “death ship” [Grey Power]

The steamer Talune at the Port Chalmers graving dock in New Zealand, sometime during the 1890s (Cropped from original public domain photograph)

It might be an unfortunate term, but the world is now busy conducting something of a “post-mortem” of the Covid pandemic, seeking to learn what was done right by the authorities, and what hindsight has shown could have been done better. In the UK, the “leaking” of a huge cache of social media exchanges between the then-Health Minister and others has provoked a furore about the value of the policies of locking down the population, the long-term economic and health consequences of which are now being evaluated. These public inquiries and investigations are now being repeated around the world as science and politics (and often even the media) collide over the strategies that were adopted by the respective governments as they sought to contain this worrying pathogen.

Why were some parts of the world far stricter than others over their adherence to quarantine and lockdown policies? Australia and New Zealand used their relative geographic isolation to keep the rest of the world at bay for far longer than most. However, the island states of the Pacific Ocean operated the strictest quarantine rules of all, effectively preventing any movement of their populations until they believed all risk of infection had disappeared.

Even with the direst emergencies, like the undersea volcanic eruption that covered Tonga in ash, no emergency service providers were permitted to disembark from ships and aircraft laden with aid for the population, when they arrived. Strict quarantine was maintained regardless.

“As for the reasons for the rigidity of the quarantine policy of these states, a clue to the attitude of their authorities may be traced to a single fatal voyage that occurred all those years ago.”

It has been suggested that distant memories of an earlier pandemic, the 1918 “Spanish” influenza that killed more people than did World War I, tended to inform the authorities of the need for the most robust response. And in the aftermath of that global conflagration, with huge numbers of people moving around the world, the spread of that pandemic (which, unlike Covid, was fatal to a far younger demographic) accelerated.

Left to me by my late uncle, a cadet at the time, is a photograph of the dazzle-painted British India liner Takada, her upperworks crammed with returning troops, arriving in Melbourne. What is, of course, invisible is the influenza pathogen that was already at work aboard the ship, just one of many transmitting it around the world.

As for the reasons for the rigidity of the quarantine policy of the Pacific Island states, where even their seafaring labour forces were effectively “exiled” for the entire duration of the Covid pandemic, a clue to the attitude of their authorities may be traced to a single fatal voyage that occurred all those years ago. It is summarised in the recent book Leith-built Ships by Ron Neish, published by Whittles, primarily to celebrate the memory of a shipbuilding industry that flourished in that Scottish town.

“The impact of Talune’s deadly voyage is still remembered today, and has influenced pandemic disease planning into the 21st century.”

One of those many vessels built in those yards was the little steamer Talune, which was completed in 1890 and taken over for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand. After her long delivery voyage, the ship operated in trans-Tasman trades before settling down onto regular voyages between the islands and New Zealand. This trade was interrupted by the war, but she had resumed her regular lifeline service in 1918 when she left Auckland at the beginning of November on a round voyage with cargo and passengers to Fiji, Tonga, Nauru, and Western Samoa. She had departed the New Zealand port, where Spanish flu was already raging after two sick crewmembers had been landed and several more had been affected by the time of the ship’s arrival in Fiji.

The account revealed that while the ship remained in quarantine in Suva, passengers and cargo were landed before the vessel departed for Western Samoa. According to the same account, by the time the ship reached Apia a few days later, most of the 90 Fijian labourers taken to work cargo in the outports were ill. Despite this, the vessel was granted pratique in Apia and the ship once again disembarked passengers and cargo before proceeding on her deadly voyage, with only the most cursory attention paid to the health of those aboard.

By the end of the year, 8,500 people, some 22 per cent of the population of Western Samoa, had died from the contagion, some 2,000 deaths had been recorded in the Tongan archipelago, and in both Fiji and Nauru, deaths occurred within days of the vessel’s departure. Small wonder that the vessel, which remained in operation for a few years more, became known as the “Death Ship”.

“The impact of Talune’s deadly voyage is still remembered today,” the author notes, “and [it] has influenced pandemic disease planning into the 21st century.”

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.