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1918 HMAT Boonah flu tragedy echoes cruise ship COVID-19 debacle

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HMAT Boonah (image by Moondyne via Wikipedia).

The refusal to allow cruise liner Artania to dock in Fremantle echoes the quarantining of HMAT Boonah in Fremantle for "Spanish flu" in late 1918, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

THE SAGAS OF cruise liners and COVID-19 infections are occurring around the world. This is an issue of pressing interest for Australia. At the forefront of the minds of Australians is the recent quarantining of Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan, the current Ruby Princess cruise liner infection debacle, the hundreds of Australian’s trapped on cruise liners anchored off the North and South American coasts, and the direction of six foreign cruise liners along the NSW coast to leave Australian waters and return to their home ports.

Just over one hundred years ago, HMAT Boonah arrived in Fremantle, WA, arrived with over 300 Australian soldiers infected with "Spanish flu".

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, or "Spanish flu" remains among the greatest natural disasters of recorded history. Emerging in Europe in the final months of the Great War, in little over a year the pandemic swept around the world, killing at least 50 million people, at least four times more than the deaths caused by the First World War. Few families or communities escaped its effects.

While its exact origins are still debated, it’s understood that the “Spanish Flu” did not come from Spain. The name seems to have arisen as reporting about influenza cases in war-affected countries was censored. However, as Spain was neutral, frequent stories appeared about the deadly flu in Spain.

It’s unlikely that the "Spanish Flu" changed the outcome of World War I because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected. However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.

During 1919 the "Spanish Flu" in about a third of all Australians becoming infected and nearly 15,000 people dying in under a year. These figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914-18. More than 5,000 marriages were affected by the loss of a partner and over 5000 children lost one or both parents. In 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s population had influenza, more than 4,000 people died and in some parts of Sydney, influenza deaths comprised up to 50 per cent of all deaths.

It wasn’t just the influenza pandemic victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back "Spanish Flu" for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919. But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.

The 1,200 troops on-board HMAT Boonah was the last Australian troopship to leave Fremantle, WA bound for the trenches of the Western Front in World War I. But it wasn't the battlefields of Europe that claimed dozens of their young lives, instead meeting their fate with Spanish influenza in Perth's southern suburbs.

As the last troopship to leave Australia sailed towards Europe, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Three days the HMAT Boonah docked in Durban, South Africa to re-coal before heading back to Australia. Although the Aussie troops weren't allowed to go to shore in Durban, they mingled with local men re-coaling the ship to buy ostrich feathers as souvenirs. This encounter proved a deadly mistake for dozens on-board infected by the "Spanish flu".

As the disappointed soldiers sailed back across the Indian Ocean, they referred to themselves in the Boonah Buzzer, an onboard publication produced by the soldiers, as part of the "too blooming late brigade". The Boonah Boomerang, or The Log of the Lucky Ship, another onboard publication, recorded that one man had already been lost at sea after becoming delirious and jumping overboard in the night. By the time the troopship reached the shores of Fremantle, Western Australia on 11 December 1918, more than 300 of the men on board were infected.

The HMAT Boonah wasn't allowed to dock in Fremantle and initially, the soldiers were refused permission to disembark and were left anchored in Gage Roads. The disease had not yet affected Western Australia, and the authorities were hesitant to allow the troops to disembark.

The conditions aboard were very poor and overcrowded. The food was of very poor quality, the potatoes so bad that the doctors ordered them to be thrown overboard. It would have been heartbreaking for the Perth soldiers to come so close to home soil, to actually see the lights of Fremantle, and to know their family was waiting for them and they couldn't leave the ship. The contingent of WA soldiers was on the verge of revolt.

After a few days anchored in Gage Roads, after much public outcry, approval was granted for 300 of the most unwell soldiers to be ferried to the nearby Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station. It took three days for the sick men to be off-loaded but the next problem was a lack of medical staff to tend to them.     

With no medical staff to care for the soldiers, authorities desperately turned to a ship of military nurses on board SS Wyreema, also on its way back to Australia. The SS Wyreema from Sydney included a group of forty Australian army nursing sisters bound for Thessalonica (Salonika). The SS Wyreema turned around at Cape Town, South Africa, when the Armistice was declared and arrived back at Fremantle on 10 December 1918.

The small station was soon overrun with sick troops, who were set up in tents outside. Meanwhile, Woodman Point was becoming seriously over-crowded. Built to take 30 patients at most, it was now housing 600. Then people started dying.

Sister Rosa O’Kane was selected as one of the 20 volunteers to tend the infected soldiers at the Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station Hospital. It was at the Quarantine Station that she contracted "Spanish flu" and was the first of the hospital staff to die on 21 December 1918.

Her death was deeply felt and served as a tragic omen to her hard-pressed colleagues. Of the 20 nurses from the SS Wyreema who volunteered to care for the infected soldiers, 15 contracted the flu and four made the supreme sacrifice: Army staff nurses Rosa O’Kane, Doris Ridgway and Ada Thompson, and civilian nurse Hilda Williams.

The tragedy also claimed the lives of 26 soldiers.

The HMAT Boonah was quarantined in Gage Roads for nine days. Cases of influenza continued to break out on the ship and the number of men sent into quarantine rose to 381 and the death toll had already reached eight. The men still in quarantine aboard the ship tried to make the best of things. However, the Boonah was an iron vessel and little shade was provided for the large contingent still on board. Some started fishing and caught a number of sharks and large fish some of which were deposited in the ship's pool to keep them fresh.

The press soon took up the case of the men stuck on the ship. The WA Government wanted to take the troops to Rottnest but the Commonwealth insisted they stay at sea until the ship had been clean of new infections for 24 hours.

To be a clean ship, it had to be clean of infection for 24 hours. However, every day fresh cases were discovered. The Returned Servicemen's Association threatened that if the men weren't brought to shore on Rottnest Island, they would go out in boats and take the men themselves. Then, all of a sudden, on 20 December 1918, because of the political furore that was taking place, the ship was declared clean. This was completely untrue because when the HMAT Boonah cleared Fremantle Harbour, but before it reached Port Adelaide, where the men disembarked, another 20 cases were discovered.

Most of the dead were buried at Woodman Point, south of Perth. In the 1980s they were moved to Hollywood War Cemetery in Nedlands. However, the graves of nurses Rosa O'Kane and HG Williams still remain. In the century since, the surroundings are overgrown with bushland, but the graves are maintained by the Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp.

There are few commemorations to remember the devastating pandemic. However, the restoration of Woodman Point Quarantine Station serves as a reminder of Australian soldiers and nurses who died of "Spanish flu".

In Perth, the combination of the city’s relative isolation and effective state border quarantine control ensured that "Spanish flu" didn’t appear significantly there until June 1919. Perth experienced a spike in infections after crowds gathered to celebrate Peace Day on 19 July 1919.

It seems to be for a country surrounded by water, the management of nautical entry would have been better developed since the Boonah Tragedy of 1918.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies Glenn on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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