Mark Humphries, a history professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has identified China as the likely epicentre of the disease. He believes it spread to Canada with members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), young men recruited by the British government to replace able-bodied European workers who could then be sent to the front lines. The British shipped the Chinese replacement workers to Vancouver before sending them by rail across the country to Halifax, and then to Europe.
Humphries’ study, published in the January issue of the journal War in History, says the need for new workers in Europe was desperate enough that one ship laden with 3,000 labourers left Weihaiwei, China, for Vancouver in 1918 despite a recruitment ban in China at the time because of the outbreak of a mysterious respiratory illness.
“British officials knew that whatever the plague was, there were Chinese labourers sick with it,” Humphries said in an interview. “And they were being shipped across Canada.”
About 50,000 Canadians would die of the contagion. Globally, an estimated three per cent of the planet’s population died between 1918 and 1920.
According to the World Health Organization, influenza is responsible for 250,000 to 500,000 global deaths each year. While most of the dead are 65 and older, however, Spanish influenza targeted young, healthy adults aged 18 to 40.
Humphries’ theory hinges on a plague that swept through parts of China in 1917. When the disease that became known as the Spanish flu appeared the following year, the symptoms were identical to those of the 1917 contagion.
“People thought it was the return of the same plague they had seen the year before,” he said. “It was investigated and it was determined in fact to be Spanish influenza. To me, that’s a smoking gun.”
Humphries’ study notes that the 1918 flu strain’s unique potency derived from a highly unusual combination of genetic characteristics that “turned the body’s immune system against itself, making it most deadly to those with particularly robust defences.”
The study follows Humphries’ acclaimed 2013 book on the Spanish flu, The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Health in Canada, and details how the virulent flu crossed Canada by rail, from coast to coast.
“In the spring of 1917 the (U.K.) Foreign Office requested that Ottawa allow the Chinese labourers to pass through the Dominion of Canada and that the government of Robert Borden arrange for their transportation,” Humphries writes in the journal article. “The Canadian prime minister agreed, but it was not a simple matter. Chinese immigration was a sensitive subject in Canada, and there were nativist fears that the labourers might try to escape while travelling across country.”
To prevent any escapes, the study states, “special Railway Service Guards from the army were placed on the trains, and guards were also stationed at the camps encased in barbed wire fences. Newspapers were banned from reporting on the movement of the CLC and the whole enterprise was kept secret.”
At the same time, Canadian newspapers were publishing reports about people “dying by the scores” in China due to “an epidemic of pneumonia.” But because of censorship, Humphries writes, Canadian newspapers were not able to report that “25,000 Chinese workers were being transported to Europe via Canada, many coming from the plague-affected areas in China.”
Spreading to port cities, the deadly flu quickly reached the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. It then re-entered Canada in a second devastating wave, traversing the country by rail once more, this time from Atlantic to Pacific.
“It travelled the rail lines very quickly,” Humphries said. “It moved from the East Coast to the West Coast in a matter of days.”
Humphries found archival documents in Britain and Canada that revealed tell-tale spikes in infection rates among both the Chinese workers being transported and the railway guards assigned to watch over them. “The Chinese origins theory best explains evidence that only falls into place when the disease is placed within its proper military context and the mobilization of peoples necessitated by the global nature of the Great War,” he concludes in the study.
“For the first time, massive numbers of people from previously isolated populations converged on the battlefields of Europe. The mobilization of the CLC may have allowed a new disease to spread in fits and starts from China, across North America, to Europe, where it mutated and then exploded along the sinews of war. In this way influenza followed the same path carved by previous epidemics. The result was the most deadly disease event in history.”
While British, French, American and German censorship sought to downplay news of an outbreak to maintain wartime morale, Spanish newspapers were free to report the outbreak, which led to the misconception that the disease was especially rampant there — which is how it came to acquire its name.
Humphries said he’s confident that China was the source of the deadly flu and Canada a key vector for its spread around the world. “It has stronger evidence than we’ve had for any kind of origin theory. I don’t think there’s the same level of evidence there for the American theory of origin or the European one.”
By December 1918, the flu had largely subsided in Canada. However, a brief resurgence in the spring of 1919 led to cancellation of the Stanley Cup playoffs in mid-series — the only time that has happened.
Although the pandemic was relatively brief, its impact was lasting. “People in Canada remained very much afraid of the flu for years if not decades after, because of the experience of 1918,” Humphries said.
He said the flu’s Canadian connection has major implications for how we perceive history.
“Canada was part of a seeding process in which the flu was seeded throughout the world,” he said. “We often don’t think of Canada as having relationships in that period extending beyond the United States and Great Britain. Canada was very much an emerging global citizen during that period, and the world was very much an interconnected place.”