This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff and affiliates of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department. Like the first, second, and third posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. The following post is written by Heather Martin, Librarian for African and African American Studies.
Where do you begin when writing a blog post about global pandemics in Africa –the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, containing over 60 sovereign states that claim to govern speakers of somewhere between 1200 and 3000 different languages? And how do you choose from the many infectious diseases that have ebbed and flowed across the face of the continent over its millenia-long history? If an undergraduate student came to me with such a broad topic for a term paper, I would advise them to focus their idea. Then I would work to help them come up with a topic that is still interesting, but much more manageable with the resources at hand. That is why I have chosen to write a blog post about the effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Africa: a much more historically-delimited topic, which has received less scholarly attention (and is, therefore, of potential interest to other researchers); and a topic that can be addressed with multiple Africa-related print and online source available at Duke Libraries (and, is therefore, do-able).
To begin, it is necessary to point out that English-language academic monographs on the “Spanish flu” in Africa are practically nonexistent, possibly due to the challenges of conducting research of the scope necessary to produce a truly pan-African study. Even scholarly journal articles about the topic typically have a narrow focus related to one aspect of the pandemic in a single country or geographic region of the continent. For example, K. David Patterson’s 1995 study of “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in the Gold Coast,” which was published in Transactions of the Ghana Historical Society (and is made available to Duke students, faculty, and staff via Duke Libraries’ subscription to JSTOR), focuses on the way the pandemic affected different socio-economic classes within the borders of that specific nation-state. But, as we all know by now, global pandemics respect no internationally-agreed-upon boundaries.
In order to get any sort of insight into how the 1918 influenza pandemic impacted multiple African countries, we need to turn to a working paper written by Jan-Bart Gewald, Professor of African History and Director of the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands. In an open-access publication entitled Spanish Influenza in Africa: Some Comments Regarding Source Material and Future Research (also available in print at Duke Libraries), Gewald “first draws attention to the social impact of Spanish flu in Africa” by reviewing articles that cover South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia. He then illustrates how the British Colonial Office records available in the National Archives can expand on previous scholarship. For example, he uses the records to pinpoint the introduction of influenza into Sierra Leone via the warship H.M.S. Mantua, which docked in Freetown in August 1918. Workers who transferred coal to the ship became ill and the disease spread from there. Finally, Gewald taps the Colonial Office records to provide insight on the influenza pandemic in Gambia and Nigeria as well. Thanks to Duke Libraries’ paid subscription to Confidential Print: Africa, 1834-1966, a research database that provides access to the United Kingdom’s Colonial, Dominion and Foreign Offices’ confidential correspondence relating to Africa, patrons who wish to pursue the line of research mapped out by Gewald can examine these very same colonial records for themselves.
British colonial records provide one type of primary source about the influenza epidemic in Africa. Another are the first person, eyewitness accounts by survivors, such as those collected in Howard Phillips’ In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish’ Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa. These recorded interviews of 127 South African survivors of ‘Black October’—so called because the flu epidemic claimed some 350,000 lives (or 5% of the population of South Africa) in six weeks in September-October of 1918—provide unique, intimate, first-hand accounts of what these men and women saw and heard, how they coped medically, materially and psychologically and what mark this experience left on their lives.
However, in order to form a complete picture of what happened in Africa at the time of the flu epdemic, it is not enough to focus on the records left by colonial administrators and white settlers. It is also imperative to identify and utilize primary sources from indigenous Black Africans. For example, in an article entitled “Global Explanations versus Local Interpretations: The Historiography of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Africa,” from the journal History in Africa (available via Duke Libraries’ subscription to Project Muse), Matthew Heaton and Toyin Falola stress the importance of oral histories from indigenous Black Africans as an underutilized source base for countering the standard narrative about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which simply assumes that the Spanish flu in Africa followed the same course as it did in other countries. Getting access to indigenous African oral histories is another question, however. Luckily, a classic introduction to The Oral Literature in Africa, by Ruth Finnegan, is now available freely online thanks to Open Source Publishers. The book’s bibliography includes a section on web-based reference material, with links to international scholarly organizations that hold recordings of original African stories and songs.
Although it cannot serve as a substitute for a primary source like an eyewitness account or a colonial government report, works of fiction written by Africans about the African experience is one way that readers can get a sense of what it may have felt like to be there. For example, in Elechi Amadi’s novel, The Great Ponds (1969), the influenza pandemic of 1918 serves as a silent backdrop to the story of two native African villages that go to war, resort to kidnapping, and rely on religious ritual in a fight over fishing rights to a disputed pond. While this story is not based on a documented historical incident, Amadi draws from oral traditions that form the collective memory of Nigerians’ experiences with the influenza pandemic.
Amadi’s novel is frequently cited as an example of African and indigenous experiences of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There are brief references to “slave raiders” of the past and to “trading with white men,” but the narrative focuses on the people of the rival villages and how their fight over ownership of a pond is minimized when influenza, which they call wonjo, ravages their area, causing mass death regardless of clan or village affiliation. In contrast to the British colonial records, The Great Ponds presents a more personal view of life leading up to the influenza outbreak in Africa. As is the case with other great works of literature, its truth-value cannot be judged by the same standards as the works produced by professional historians. Amadi’s novel strives for something both more local and more universal. It is up to each individual reader to decide whether the author succeeds in achieving his goal.