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The Bay of Islands Epidemic of 1941

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Lachy Paterson
06 June, 2020

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has been described, perhaps accurately, as a one-in-100 years event, but New Zealand has a number of “scares” and lockdowns because of infectious diseases during its history.  These events have often had detrimental impacts on Māori.[1]


Māori intellectual, Tina Ngata, has recently written on the historical effect of contagious disease on Māori and its relevance to their attempts to keep the coronavirus away from their own communities.[2]  But historically Pākehā were more concerned that Māori would spread disease to them. Māori were sometimes seen by Pākehā as a weak link in New Zealand’s chain of health defences; with poor housing and overcrowding, “backward …to take up sanitary matters on most occasions”,[3] with customs that could potentially spread disease.[4] Māori, often due to poverty or lack of access, were also less likely to seek medical treatment, and epidemics could hit their communities hard.


This of course has resonated more recently with Māori protest against the limits on numbers at gatherings under lockdown, which impacted on their ability to conduct tangihanga properly for the deceased.  The Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, defended the government’s restriction, noting “a Polynesian undertaker … who [stated] how difficult in the Pasifika and Māori setting it was to keep people apart in that most difficult emotional moment… at a tangi or a funeral”.[5] 


Government decisions now may impact some particular ethnic groups more than others, but their regulations or instructions tend to be more careful around their wording. Nevertheless Māori felt targeted when marae were specifically referenced in police powers with regard to the coronavirus.[6] 


Official restrictions in the past were far blunter.  For example, a smallpox epidemic “which broke out amongst the Maoris north of Auckland in May, 1913, and which extended to Marsden, Kaipara, Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Thames, and Waikato”,[7] brought about specific travel restrictions for Māori under the Public Health Act, even for those living outside of these areas.[8]  When a typhus outbreak occurred in 1929, Māori doctor, Tūtere Wīrepa wrote on how Māori could bend their tikanga in the face of the crisis.[9]


This piece looks at another, more localised, epidemic that affected Māori during the war, an outbreak of spinal meningitis (also referred to as cerebro-spinal meningitis or fever) that hit the Māori communities of the Bay of Islands in 1941.  This form of meningitis was infectious, but did not normally impact on Māori any more than Pākehā.[10]  While restricted in its spread this disease has some similarities to the disease currently troubling us. 


Schools were closed with parents urged to keep children at home, some buildings closed, some gatherings and troop movements were stopped, people told to “stay put”, to use handkerchiefs, and “talking directly into people’s face should be avoided”.  It caused considerable anxiety in the area, leading Dr Frengley of the Kawakawa Hospital to reassure people that “there was no reason … for people to get ‘meninjitters’”.[11]


This form of meningitis was a serious and potentially fatal disease, but (unlike the coronavirus) doctors of the 1940s had recourse to sulphapyradine, a then new anti-bacterial wonder drug, more commonly known as “693”, which could be reasonably effective if patients were treated early.[12]


Dr G.O.L. Dempster took over as Northland’s Medical Officer of Health in June 1940.[13] In this role he had wide ranging responsibilities, including being the region’s “Chief of Maori Councils”.[14]


In April 22 1941, the Northern Advocate reported an outbreak of seven cases of meningitis from Moerewa, Kawakawa, Taumarere and Akarema who had been transferred to Kawakawa Hospital.  Three had died, one Māori child, one Pākehā child, and a Pākehā adult.  According to the newspaper, this was “believed to be the first time [693] has been used in New Zealand for the treatment of spinal meningitis”.


Dempster acted quickly, isolating families affected, and undertook an investigation, which found “practically all cases had been traced to a contact with one Maori home.”[15]  The following day he advertised that “all Maori gatherings, meetings, huis and tangis within the Northland Health District are hereby prohibited until further notice.”  This included Mangonui, Hokianga, Whangaroa, Bay of Islands, Whangarei, Hobson, and Otamatea.[16]


 Although Dempster believed they had contained the disease, he also closed five schools in the Moerewa area.[17] But more cases were presenting throughout May; all Northland schools were then closed, and all troop movements curtailed. Although Māori gatherings were banned, the general public remained free to move and mingle.[18] 


Anxieties were clearly setting in, with the newspaper reporting on “the arrival of a truck load of Maoris to attend the Kaikohe picture theatre on Saturday night. These Maoris it is alleged parked their truck on the outskirts of the town and walked in to attend the theatre screening which was fully patronised.”[19]  There was concern too that restrictions were unevenly applied. One commentator angrily declared “You close the churches but leave the den of the devil [i.e. pubs] open for natives to gather,” although, in fact, individual churches decided on whether to hold services or not.[20]


In May, a “highly respected Maori councillor” from Kohukohu was also prosecuted for breaching the ban on tangihanga.  The man had lost two daughters on 29 and 30 April, and was preparing to bury them at Pawarenga.  The court was told that “written notice [of the ban] was sent to Maori councillors in the north, including the defendant.”  The Northern Advocate noted that he was not prosecuted for not providing a coffin for one burial on account of the lack of wood.[21]


A gathering of about 50 natives of both sexes attended the hui, and Constable McNutt warned [the father] that the tangi should be terminated so that the people could return to their own settlements.


The father stated he “endeavoured to send the people away but they insisted upon carying [sic] out the Maori custom of staying with the dead.” His lawyer suggested “Being overwrought at the loss of two favourite daughters, he had been sidetracked from his original intentions.” 


While the Court, the police, and Medical Officer expressed sympathy for the man’s plight, the judge decided an example had to be made as “the Maoris apparently don’t realise the seriousness of this charge”.  Although he faced a fine of £200, the bench imposed a penalty of £10.[22]


Further cases of meningitis continued to appear.  These were mostly Māori children and young people, with patients coming from further afield.[23] The Kerikeri School Board concerned at a case contacted after a visit to Moerewa asked Dempster,


Would it not be better to close all the picture theatres in the district in the meantime, as natives from Moerewa area are trying to enter our local theatre every time a picture is shown.[24]


After several weeks with no new cases, Dempster lifted his restrictions, including on Māori gatherings in mid-June.[25]  But there was a resurgence of the disease in July, with the restrictions on Māori gatherings reimposed again between 7 and 21 July.[26]  


The meningitis crisis eventually waned, although spasmodic cases, and occasional deaths, continued through into the following year.[27]  It is difficult to get a definitive figure for the number of cases; some may not have been reported.  But it is clear that the disease affected Māori children and young people more heavily than Pākehā, and some of them died. 


Of course meningitis was not the worst health issue for Māori.  In October 1941, for example, there were 29 notifications for Māori cases of tuberculosis with five deaths in the North Auckland district.  The difference was that the meningitis outbreak was not normal, whereas TB was an ongoing disease.  This led to a racialised response to meningitis.  Pākehā may also have been used to TB within Māori communities and not felt overly threatened by it, whereas, like smallpox earlier in the century, they feared that Māori would transmit meningitis to them and their children.


In 1941, Māori were specifically targeted with restrictions because, unlike Pākehā church services or pubs, the Government Health Officer saw their hui, and the customs practiced there, as likely to spread disease. Similarly in 2020, the government sought to limit hui, such as tangihanga, for the same reasons, and because they did not trust Māori to take necessary precautions.  However, in the face of Māori protest the government was eventually forced to moderate their position.  While the Bay of Islands meningitis outbreak was quite a different disease to the current coronavirus crisis in New Zealand, we can see resonances from the past in how things have played out today. 


 Image: Northern Advocate, 13 May 1941, p.7.


[1] For instance the 1918 Infuenza pandemic. See Jeanette King, “Ko te mate urutā – ka mua, ka muri”, Te Aotuhi: the Aotahi blog, (11 May, 2020) (acccessed 29 May, 2020)

[2] Tina Ngata, “COVID-19 and the Māori duty to protect”, The Overland (7/5/2020) (accessed 29 May 2020)

[3] “Public Health and Hospitals and Charitable Aid: Report Theron by the Inspector-General of Hospitals and Charitable Institutions and Chief Health Officer”, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives [AJHR], H-13, 1914, p.60.

[4]Thames Star, 25 August 1928: 5.

[5] New Zealand Parliament, “Oral Questions to Ministers (continued)”, Hansard Debates, (accessed 27 May 2020).

[6] See Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill,; Radio New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2020).

[7] AJHR, H-13, 1914, p.1.

[8] AJHR H-13, 1914, p.33. For an example of travel restriction notices, see Woodville Examiner, 1/8/1913: 4.

[9] This included avoiding hongi and kissing, and to wash after shaking hands, when visiting those with typhoid fever. Te Toa Takitini, 1 March 1929: 950.

[10] For example, in a more widespread epidemic in 1942, 852 Pākehā caught the disease with 111 dead, but only 80 Māori with six dead.  “Department of Health Annual Report.” AJHR, 1943, H-31, p.2.

[11] Northern Advocate, 5 May 1941: 6.

[12] John E. Lesch, The First Miracle Drugs: How the Sulfa Drugs Transformed Medicine, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.187-8.  Penicillin was later used to treat meningitis, and a vaccination was been available since 1987. Ananya Mandal, History of Meningitis, (accessed 20 May 2020); Martin G Myers, “The History of Vaccine Development and the Diseases Vaccines Prevent” in Gregg N. Milligan, Alan D. T. Barrett (eds), Vaccinology: An Essential Guide (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015) p.20.

[13] Northern Advocate, 18 June 1940: 4.

[14] These bodies, set up in 1900, had originally administered Māori settlements, with health being a major concern, but which had largely fallen into abeyance.  See Northern Advocate, 13 September 1940, p.3. One of Dempster’s first activities was to revive the Pewhairangi District Maori Council which had not met “for a long period”. “Chief among the business dealt with was the confirmation by the council of all the village committees under its control.”

[15] Northern Advocate, 22 April 1941: 4.

[16] Northern Advocate, 23 April 1941: 4.

[17] Northern Advocate, 23 April 1941: 4, 6.

[18] Northern Advocate, 29 April 1941: 6; 1 May 1941: 4; 5 May 1941: 6; 6 May 1941: 4; 8 May 1941:4, 6; 9 May 1941: 6; 12 May 1941: 6.

[19] Northern Advocate, 5 May 1941: 6

[20] Northern Advocate, 9 June 1941: 2

[21] Northern Advocate, 14 May 1941: 9.

[22] Northern Advocate, 14 May 1941: 9.

[23] Northern Advocate, 21 May 1941: 6; 23 May 1941: 4; 2 June 1941: 4; 3 June 1941: 4.

[24] Northern Advocate, 3 June 1941: 4.

[25] Northern Advocate, 13 June 1941: 1; 16 June 1941: 1; 17 June 1941: 6.

[26] Northern Advocate, 3 July 1941: 4; 7 July 1941: 1; 22 July 1941: 1, 4.

[27] Northern Advocate, 1 September 1941: 4; 10 September 1941: 4; 24 October 1941: 4; 25 October 1941: 4; 6 November 1941: 4; 13 November 1941: 2; 17 November 1941: 4; 3 January 1942: 2; 23 May 1942: 2.

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