Category Archives: Sierra Leone

Other Names of the Spanish Flu

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 63-65:

When the flu arrived in Spain in May, most Spanish people, like most people in general, assumed that it had come from beyond their own borders. In their case, they were right. It had been in America for two months already, and France for a matter of weeks at least. Spaniards didn’t know that, however, because news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale (French military doctors referred to it cryptically as maladie onze, ‘disease eleven’). As late as 29 June, the Spanish inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, was able to announce to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid that he had received no reports of a similar disease elsewhere in Europe. So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spain was neutral in the war, and its press was not censored. Local papers duly reported the havoc that the Naples Soldier left in its wake, and news of the disruption travelled abroad. In early June, Parisians who were ignorant of the ravages the flu had caused in the trenches of Flanders and Champagne learned that two-thirds of Madrileños had fallen ill in the space of three days. Not realising that it had been theirs longer than it had been Spain’s, and with a little nudging from their governments, the French, British and Americans started calling it the ‘Spanish flu’. Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. ‘Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the “Spanish fever”,’ railed a doctor named García Triviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were (they did bind and chain the Indians they subjugated, but they probably did not–as the legend claimed–feed Indian children to their dogs).

Further from the theatre of war, people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Some names reflected a people’s historic relationship with flu. In the minds of the British settlers of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), for example, flu was a relatively trivial disease, so officials labelled the new affliction ‘influenza (vera)’, adding the Latin word vera, meaning ‘true’, in an attempt to banish any doubts that this was the same disease. Following the same logic, but opting for a different solution, German doctors realised that people would need persuading that this new horror was the ‘fashionable’ disease of flu–darling of the worried well–so they called it ‘pseudo-influenza’. In parts of the world that had witnessed the destructive potential of ‘white man’s diseases’, however, the names often conveyed nothing at all about the identity of the disease. ‘Man big daddy’, ‘big deadly era’, myriad words meaning ‘disaster’–they were expressions that had been applied before, to previous epidemics. They did not distinguish between smallpox, measles or influenza–or sometimes even famines or wars.

Some people reserved judgement. In Freetown, a newspaper suggested that the disease be called manhu until more was known about it. Manhu, a Hebrew word meaning ‘what is it?’, was what the Israelites asked each other when they saw a strange substance falling out of the sky as they passed through the Red Sea (from manhu comes manna–bread from heaven). Others named it commemoratively. The residents of Cape Coast, Ghana called it Mowure Kodwo after a Mr Kodwo from the village of Mouri who was the first person to die of it in that area. Across Africa, the disease was fixed for perpetuity in the names of age cohorts born around that time. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example, those born between 1919 and 1921 were known as ogbo ifelunza, the influenza age group. ‘Ifelunza’, an obvious corruption of ‘influenza’, became incorporated into the Igbo lexicon for the first time that autumn. Before that, they had had no word for the disease.

As time went on, and it transpired that there were not many local epidemics, but one global pandemic–it became necessary to agree on a single name. The one that was adopted was the one that was already being used by the most powerful nations on earth–the victors in the Great War. The pandemic became known as the Spanish flu–ispanka, espanhola, la grippe espagnole, die Spanische Grippe–and a historical wrong became set in stone.

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Filed under Brazil, Britain, disease, France, Ghana, Iran, Japan, language, nationalism, Nigeria, Poland, Sierra Leone, Spain, U.S., war, Zimbabwe

Early Liberian Colonists vs. Indigenous Peoples

From Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today, by Alan Huffman (Penguin, 2004), pp. 45-48:

In creating its Liberian colony in 1820, the American Colonization Society used as a template the colony of Sierra Leone, immediately to the west on the coast of West Africa. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, had been founded thirty years earlier by English philanthropists as a home for freed British slaves, many of whom had originated in America but had won their freedom by fighting for the crown during the American Revolution. West Africa was chosen for the colonies for several reasons, but primarily because it was known as the “slave coast” and was the general area of origin of large numbers of slaves, including the majority of those who ended up in the Americas. Historians estimate that approximately sixty million Africans were captured as slaves in West Africa from the first recorded slave sale in 1503 to the end of the trade in the mid-nineteenth century. Of those, an estimated forty million died before arriving at their destination.

Until the establishment of the two colonies, the territory that would become Liberia had been held by indigenous tribes, many of which were (and in some cases continued to be) active in the slave trade. In hindsight, it was a recipe for disaster….

In January 1820 the society’s first chartered ship, the Elizabeth, set sail from New York for West Africa with three society agents and eighty-eight emigrants aboard. The ship first landed in Freetown, then made its way along the coast to the future Liberia, where the colonization effort got off to an inauspicious start. Within three weeks all of the society’s agents and twenty-two of the immigrants had died of fever. The survivors were evacuated to Freetown. Undeterred, the society organized two more voyages and began buying additional land, sometimes under threat of force, from tribal chiefs along the coast. According to historian [Mary Louise] Clifford, U.S. officials struck a deal with indigenous tribes that allowed the tribes’ active slave trade, which would have meant that as freed slaves were arriving to settle in Liberia, new slaves would have been setting sail. The colonization society board rejected the deal, however. A compromise that gave the coastal region only to the immigrants, and apparently made no mention of the slave trade, was accepted, but when the immigrants actually landed they met armed resistance and so moved farther down the coast, where they were again attacked. Some escaped to Freetown while others remained trapped within crude, hastily built fortifications. Only a small group persevered….

By the end of 1822 a tenuous peace was negotiated between the settlers and the tribes. Soon after, colonization society officials rebuked the immigrants for what they considered to be a poor effort at self-sufficiency. Clifford wrote that the settlers considered farming too closely akin to the slavery they had known in the United States, yet they had few other economic options aside from trade, which was dominated by the tribes.

To engender a sense of purpose, and because the colonization society was having difficulty finding leaders who would remain in place, the group named the colony Liberia and sought to regiment its government on the local level. The colonists began bartering for more coastal land and eventually took control of most of the valuable slave trading ports. By 1830 more than 2,500 immigrants had arrived in Liberia from the United States, and the next year the state of Maryland incorporated its colonization society, distinct from the American Colonization Society, and appropriated money for its own colony.

Even as the colonization effort was getting on its feet, opposition in the United States grew. The concept of colonization was challenged by both white abolitionists and free blacks who argued that African-Americans had earned a stake in the United States, and that repatriation was tantamount to deportation. Those concerns would still be echoed in 1851, when Frederick Douglass, in a speech to the Convention of Colored Citizens, attacked colonization, saying, “But we claim no affinity with Africa. This is our home … The land of our forefathers.” African-Americans, he said, “do not trace our ancestry to Africa alone. We trace it to Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen, to Frenchmen, to the German, to the Asiatic as well as to Africa. The best blood of Virginia courses through our veins.”

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Filed under Britain, Liberia, migration, Sierra Leone, slavery, U.S.

Wordcatcher Tales: Brown brown, Poda poda, Upline

Among the more interesting words of Sierra Leone Krio that I learned from reading A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), were the following.

I took turns at the guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course taking more of the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them. [p. 121]

Where was I from? What was it like growing up upline? Upline is a Krio word mostly used in Freetown to refer to the backwardness of the inner country, its inhabitants, and their mannerisms. [p. 184]

The call for prayer from the central mosque echoed throughout the city, poda podas crowded the streets, their apprentices hanging on the open passenger doors and calling out the names of their destinations: “Lumley, Lumley” or “Congo Town …”. [p. 190]

Most reviewers gush over the book, as a story that needs to be told, no matter how embellished it may have been.

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Filed under anglosphere, language, Sierra Leone