Spanish Flu

Spanish Flu
Cavtat, c. 1920

As the world is witnessing the gradual loosening of the measures concerning COVID-19, the pandemic of our time, let us reflect on the time when another global pandemic was in full swing. The pandemic in question, commonly known as `Spanish flu’, took place roughly a century ago. As a result of globalization and wealth of information, the current pandemic has been filtered through the lens of sensationalism to such extent that even the oldest among us claim that it is an unprecedented phenomenon.  However, the historic data testify to the contrary. The Spanish flu is still the worst recorded pandemic in the last two hundred years. One can only hope that it stays that way.

As one evil is always followed by another, at a time when the world was exhausted by the consequences of the First World War, a devastating pandemic appeared, claiming three times as many lives as the war itself. The mortality was highest among children up to 5 years of age, adults between 20 and 40 and older than 65 years of age. Consequently, more young soldiers died from the pandemic after the war than during the war. There were no vaccines and antibiotics; the treatment of those afflicted was confined to so-called `non-pharmaceutical interventions’: isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, the use of disinfectants and the limiting of public gatherings.

The pandemic lasted for three years – from the beginning of 1918, when the first cases were recorded in America (not in Spain, after which it was named) until the middle of 1920, when the entire world population was exposed to the virus, and people either died or acquired immunity.

The story of the origin of the name `Spanish flu’ is a rather interesting one. Namely, Spain declared neutrality in the First World War. While the rest of the world was surrounded by news of the war, the Spaniards reported in the newspapers of a devastating disease which was ravaging the country, calling it `French flu’. The flu was also present in other countries, which were preoccupied with the reports concerning the war rather than with the news of a new disease. The origin of the pandemic has remained a mystery to this day.

Spanish Flu
Village treasury building in Čilipi, 1918
From: Kapetanić, Niko. 2008. Konavle na starim razglednicama 1898. – 1944.

Konavle was also affected by this global pandemic. Various sources say that it reached Konavle in the summer of 1918, but that it did not last for three full years – it disappeared at the end of that same year, reaching its peak in November. At that time, all the parishes recorded a large number of infected people. The Cavtat parish priest, The Reverend Father Ivo Božić, writes: `this deplorable disease affected the whole parish, especially Cavtat, and almost two-thirds of the locals were temporarily bedridden, and some even died, as can be seen from the death register. As he states, the disease spared no one, and the symptoms were: `chills in the back, fatigue and a high fever up to 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit)‘. The common complications were bronchitis and pneumonia, almost inevitably resulting in death. In the Čilipi parish chronicle, it is written that the month of November was the worst period, during which 18 people in their prime died.

Remembering her mother’s stories of that time, one of our narrators shared the following one: `My mother was young when Spanish flu was around, so she would tell me stories about the way things were back then. She was twenty years old and she would go around and help those who were infected. They would all lie around the house, struck with fever, and beg for water. She would bring water, pour it into their glasses and pots and give it to them. Before entering their houses, she would smear herself with ashes, and she would wash her hands up to the elbow with vinegar when leaving the houses. You had to be careful because there were more sick people than healthy ones. Everyone then drank hot mulled wine and they gave it to the children to drink as well. They said that it protected you from the Spanish flu… There were families that were completely wiped out. When I was a child, there was a house in the neighbourhood that no one entered, and through the window you could always see the same tablecloth on the table. Like most children, we were curious, but the fear was greater… The whole family died from the Spanish flu except for one child. The boy was taken by relatives to America, and when he came back as an adult, he sold the house.

Another narrator reminisced about her father, who survived a severe infection which gave him no respite until `black blood burst from his nose, when he was returning home from Cavtat via the upper Zvekovica‘.

Spanish Flu
Račić Family Mausoleum

In those months, the Konavle residents also fought the bandits from Montenegro and Herzegovina in addition to the Spanish flu. Taking advantage of the situation, the bandits tried to plunder the border villages. These events were recorded in the Pločice parish chronicle: `During this time, bandits from Montenegro and Herzegovina began entering Konavle. None of the Konavle people were killed, and everything went well thanks to the fact that our people were all well-armed”.

Although the records show that the disease more or less subsided at the end of 1918, it was still present in the world and claimed many lives. In fact, one of our most famous cultural monuments from the beginning of the 20th century was built as a direct consequence of the Spanish flu. In 1918, the Račić shipowning family from Cavtat was preparing for a wedding celebration in Rome, where the father and two children fell ill and died. In the following year, mother Mare also died, and the family’s money was left to a foundation. Part of the money was used for the construction of the Račić Family Mausoleum at the St Roch Cemetery. The choice of the site for the mausoleum has a symbolic dimension, since St Roch is a saint traditionally invoked against the plague and other infectious diseases.