September 1918: After four difficult years, war-weary Bermudians were beginning to hope that the end of the First World War was near. By war’s end, some 80 Bermudians, whether fighting with the Black Bermuda Militia Artillery, the white Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps or with other Allied armies—Canadian, British or American—would die in khaki. At home, the island’s economy had been hard hit for the duration as the flow of tourism, so promising on the eve of the conflict, dried up.

That September, news had just come through of the death of Rifleman J.F.Burrows, machine-gunned in battle as he fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Amiens, France. Despite such grim news, Bermudians dared to dream of better times as the Royal Gazette headlines spoke of Allied victories at St. Quentin, and the society news spoke of good attendance at a Red Cross tennis tournament at Happy Valley and at a fete in St. George’s. And there was heroism on the home front: Goodwin Gosling had saved a drowning child who had fallen into Hamilton Harbour at the sheds, and an early September hurricane slowed to a tropical storm which inflicted comparatively little damage.

Bermuda, however, was about to be invaded by another of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence was about to form a ghastly duo with War in the form of the Spanish flu epidemic. War is always a breeding ground for disease, and a flu outbreak had struck both sides of the Western Front with ghastly impartiality in the spring of 1918. By late summer, the H1N1 virus in question had mutated into a more deadly and infectious form as it spread globally. Whether that mutation first emerged in army camps in Kansas or southern England or in Asia has never been established. The disease was dubbed the “Spanish flu” because the uncensored press in neutral Spain were able to report its initial spread in a way that the press of war nations could not.

The accounts of Spanish flu made grim reading. Rapid onset of headache, cough, sore throat, fever, congestion, joint and stomach pain, and possible pneumonia could be fatal within days. We now know that the young were even more vulnerable than the old. Ironically, their robust immune systems could be triggered to mistakenly attack the organs themselves. Treatments were palliative: medicine in 1918 mistakenly attributed the Spanish flu to a bacterium. Not until the mid-1930s did science isolate the virus. Vaccines developed before that date were thus ineffective. The development of lifesaving antibiotics to fight pneumonia was decades away.

Authorities in Bermuda, among them Governor Sir James Willcocks and Dr Eldon Harvey, the Medical Officer of Health, were worried. Epidemics were a traumatic memory. In the 1860s and on other occasions, for example, Bermuda had suffered yellow fever epidemics spread by mosquitoes. Scores of victims died in a welter of blood and vomit, especially among the British soldiers and sailors stationed there. The military cemeteries at both ends of the island sprouted grim mass monuments to their fate. Any infection from the outside world inevitably came by sea—at this time, the only means for cargo and passengers to reach the island. Quarantine of incoming vessels was essential and quarantine stations had been established decades before the First World War, first on Ports Island and then on Coney Island. A ship flying a yellow quarantine pennant had always prompted fear across the island.

Civilians rapidly began to fall ill, first in Somerset, then Pembroke, then St. George’s. By October 8th, there were at least 500 cases in Pembroke alone.

But here War and Disease partnered in a sinister waltz. Dr Harvey inspected incoming civilian vessels offshore and could quarantine them if illness was found on board. But under martial law, in force for the duration of the war, naval and Allied wartime shipping were exempt from compulsory quarantine regulations. And Bermuda was an unavoidable port of call for numerous British and American naval vessels, many from ports where Spanish flu had already struck.

Sixty-five-year-old Dr Harvey, widely respected but overworked by his many duties (he was also Medical Office for the Insane Asylum, among other things), knew that medical facilities on the island of some 20,000 were completely inadequate to cope with an epidemic. There was a military hospital at Prospect and a naval hospital at Ireland Island to serve the British forces but for civilians, only a small (less than twenty beds) and inadequately equipped Cottage Hospital at Happy Valley, Pembroke, and a tiny Nursing Home. No black medical staff were employed at the underfunded and understaffed Cottage Hospital. A promised new hospital, bruited about since the mid-1890s, had had construction halted at the outbreak of war as supplies and funding dried up. Local parish boards of health had meagre funds available for relief measures in medical emergencies. Colin Benbow has written, for example, that Devonshire Parish had less than ten pounds available for nursing or relief supplies in early September 1918. In short, the island was a mid-Atlantic way station for disease.

What were, in effect, plague ships were not long in arriving. The naval ship USS Tallahassee set sail from a Florida port declared flu-free after she had earlier had sailors sick with flu. Healthy her crew might have been on departure, but she stopped in the Canal Zone and in Cuba where flu was prevalent. As the ship arrived in Bermuda on September 14th, symptoms of flu rapidly appeared among her crew, even as the captain of the cargo/passenger ship SS Chicago, which had just left Bermuda en route to the Azores, fell ill and died of flu as the disease swept his ship. The hard-pressed Dr Harvey had not inspected the Chicago as she was not subject to quarantine and there were some 30 ships in port at the time.

Meanwhile, one Tallahassee sailor, Rees Williams, was transferred to the Royal Naval Hospital on September 16th. All in vain. He died on September 23rd. By that time, there were 72 cases on board ship. Moreover, a soldier in the East Yorkshire Regiment had fallen ill by September 15th. Private Vernon had travelled from Prospect on the steamer to Boaz Island, back and forth with sailors and Dockyard workers, and by September 17th, a British army sergeant at Prospect was taken ill. Thirty-seven flu cases were in Prospect hospital within four days, and the Naval Hospital was soon crowded with 44 flu victims from Dockyard and HMS Donegal, with 155 more by the beginning of October.

Civilians rapidly began to fall ill, first in Somerset, then Pembroke, then St. George’s.

Children wearing masks during the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.

By October 8th, there were at least 500 cases in Pembroke alone. Ironically, the Cottage Hospital soon had to close as many of the staff contracted flu, as did a Devonshire nurse and one of St. George’s physicians. The diary of 24-year-old Emily Gray of Paget, a daughter of the white elite who taught at Bermuda High School for Girls, recorded the falling away of most of the activities of her gender-restricted life—tennis and bathing parties were cancelled, choir practices and church services were called off or vestigial. Her school, like others across the island, closed for the duration, and when she travelled to town, she breathed camphor in an attempt to protect herself. The advertising columns of the Royal Gazette soon featured tonics and other nostrums making baseless claims to be flu preventatives or treatments, while the editorial columns advocated fresh air and refraining from alcohol.

Many Bermudians were far more affected by the epidemic than Emily Gray. As businesses, clubs and other institutions closed in lockdown, poor Bermudians found themselves unemployed and in dire straits. The mullet were spawning off St. David’s, but there were soon no fishermen well enough to catch them. Dockyard projects stalled. The island had no social safety net to speak of, and few labourers had financial reserves or even stored foodstuffs after four years of wartime downturn. The House of Assembly voted one thousand pounds for relief, primarily to enable the parish vestries, the only mechanism of local governance and social relief, to set up relief centres to distribute soup, eggs, milk and gruel to the needy. The white, middle-class chapters of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire began volunteer kitchen and distribution work at various centres on the island, including the Glebe School in Paget, the Sailors’ Recreation Rooms in St. George’s, St. Augustine Mission on Smith’s Hill and Somerville in the west end.

The needy were numerous: by the third day of operations in Warwick, for example, a hundred persons were being fed daily, and a call for food donations went out. Emily Gray delivered supplies to the black workman’s cottages on a nearby estate, recording in her diary on October 15th: “Soup kitchen. Brought down a huge basket load [and I] could hardly carry it on my bicycle.” Four days later, she wrote “A Vickers boy at the cottages is very ill, and they have been trying for two days to get Dr Brown, who hasn’t come yet…”

An American Red Cross poster urging the wearing of masks during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918

The death toll mounted. In one October week in Pembroke, there were 29 funerals, and the horse-drawn omnibus in the west end had a coffin on the benches. In one churchyard, an aunt and her young nephew were buried within a week. The courts and the steamer to Ireland Island ceased operation, and the black fraternal lodges, like so many organisations, ceased to meet. The flu was no respecter of race or social rank. The death of Arthur Eastman, the popular West Indian bartender at the New Windsor hotel and long a waiter at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, was shortly followed by that of A.A.H. Moore, the hotel proprietor. John Hamilton Barnes, the keeper of the St. George’s jail who had devotedly tended to eight sick prisoners, caught the flu himself and died. Frederick Aubrey, a well-known carriage driver in St. George’s, remembered as always “obliging,” died in early October. Days later, his wife Fanny also died of flu, leaving their four young children orphaned. Numerous parents of young children died, even as Bermudians received news of the deaths from flu overseas—in New Jersey, in Canada and in England—of local boys serving in the forces. The body of one of them, Percy Dickinson, was returned from Canada to his widow and young child for burial.

The accounts of the Spanish flu in the columns of the Royal Gazette chronicled the bizarre as well as the bereavements. S.S. Toddings, the editor, reported that one man, delirious with flu, had tried to drown himself in St. George’s Harbour and was rescued by a passerby. One Pembroke man, also deranged, threatened his wife with a saw and smashed up their home before “setting out for town” where he became drunk and even more disorderly—the law wisely deferred any possible punishment until he had recovered. At St. George’s lookout, a pod of whales was mistaken for a gathering of German U-boats—nerves were evidently raw from the stresses of pandemic and war.

More positively, the pandemic brought some increased social consciousness to a racially and economically divided island. Relief work meant that clergymen and middle-class whites, especially women, were visiting the homes of the poor in unprecedented numbers. The stark revelations of the lack of sanitary conveniences, overcrowding, and hunger there shocked many. The Royal Gazette editorialised about “the unsanitary state of many poor districts where human beings herd together like animals,” their “flimsy structures” the fault of “avaricious landlords” and the absence of building codes. Reverend Groves of Pembroke shocked readers telling of a family of four, all sick, in an airless 10-foot square space with only an aged grandmother to care for them. He encountered sick children with no blankets to cover them and no proper sewage facilities. In another North Shore cottage, a man, his wife, his father-in-law and his sister lay ill in a single room. Canon Marriott at the Anglican Cathedral preached a sermon that reminded listeners that “slums” were not restricted to big cities, declaring the “need for better conditions of life on these islands.” Soon, Governor Willcocks was publicly espousing the need for improvement to public health measures, reminding Bermudians that a 1911 bill for more efficient public health services had never been passed.

Printed in The Royal Gazette on September 28, 1918.

The IODE and other female relief and nursing volunteers received many tributes from the pulpit and in the press for their efforts as the west end relief stations alone handed out 7,056 food portions in one week. The Royal Gazette gently reminded readers that these capable female volunteers did not have the vote and offered this suggestion: “Might not…our law be so amended as to admit at least one woman to membership in each Parish Vestry [,] that body having supervision of local health conditions.” Sadly, of course, this meant only one white woman should be admitted to membership. But in reality, all women were decades away from the vote no matter how many meals the relief kitchens turned out.

As November arrived, the flu cases began slowly to ebb, with St. George’s, St. David’s and Tucker’s Town, the latter still undeveloped and rather isolated, experiencing a late surge. By mid-November, schools had reopened, and the Supreme Court began to sit once more. Bermudians had not had much time to focus on the war news in the midst of epidemic, even with upbeat headlines like “Germans In Full Retreat.” But on November 11th, Emily Gray wrote in her diary: “Peace has been declared! One can’t realize it but it is so all the same. I have never seen Hamilton so upset and so gay. Flags everywhere. …[at] the Public Buildings, the Governor proclaimed peace. We cheered and cheered again, and the band played all the national anthems, a half-holiday.” Even pouring rain could not dampen spirits, and the next day a crowd turned out at Hamilton dockside to greet six volunteer Bermudian soldiers as they returned home at last.

Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918

What was the legacy of the flu epidemic? Some lives were changed forever, with widows and orphans struggling to cope, their loved ones lost to them. All in all, 139 Bermudians died of flu, a substantial number for a small island. (Bermuda’s COVID toll is about 165 deaths, but the island’s 2023 population was triple that of 1918.) The legacy of many Bermudian families is stories of the losses and hardships brought by flu, just as the sufferings of the COVID pandemic will long be with us. Randolf Williams, who has written the history of King Edward Hospital, pointed out that the Spanish influenza epidemic was a strong incentive for finishing the new hospital, which finally opened in 1920. Bermudians resumed efforts to get a regular liner to serve Bermuda in the postwar era, so that desperately needed tourism could help jump start an economy ravaged by war and disease.

The colonial authorities commissioned a report on “Sanitary and Medical Matters” from Dr Andrew Balfour, a British medical expert, who advocated mosquito eradication and a full-time Medical Officer for quarantine duties as well as a ban on any ships coming all the way into Hamilton Harbour for inspection. The families of some officials who died of flu were compensated by the government, including the family of Mr Barnes, the St. George’s jailer. Spanish flu was not totally eradicated and, from time to time, small outbreaks occurred and ships were quarantined.

And what of Dr Harvey, the well-loved Medical Officer who did his best? He retired as Medical Officer in 1923, the year the Balfour Report was tabled. On his death in 1926, the black oarsmen who for years had rowed him out to the ships insisted on serving as his pall bearers in tribute to him. The mourners undoubtedly remembered the devastating wartime influenza pandemic that came by sea and could not be restrained.