A Labrador Inuit village and the Spanish Flu

Spanish flu killed millions in 1918-1919, just as World War I came to a close. Soldiers who had somehow survived the trenches now succumbed to this galloping disease. The Labrador Inuit were particularly hard hit, especially the small northern community of Okak, founded by Moravian missionaries in 1776, and a seasonal base for Inuit.

Most of the pandemic’s victims died of the pneumonia caused by Spanish flu. Others had a more sudden death due to flu-induced pulmonary problems. These people lived only a few days and that is what happened to the people of Okak who were nearly wiped out. In fact, Inuit communities of Alaska and Labrador were among the most seriously affected populations. Researcher Svenn-Erik Mamelund found that the mortality was almost 90 percent in some Inuit communities, including Okak. In some Arctic and subarctic villages, including Okak, the only survivors were young children.

Cartwright, on Labrador’s South Coast, was also hit hard but reliable numbers are hard to come by (this is true of most remote sites that experienced the flu). In any case, thankfully, Cartwright survived. Okak did not. Some time after a little girl was rescued from a dwelling where she was surrounded by corpses and dogs crazed by hunger, the community was abandoned. It would have been too painful a place to live.

The flu had been brought to Labrador by the Moravian Missions freight ship, the Harmony, in October, 1918. Emelia Menzel Merkuratsuk, an Inuk born in Okak, recalled that people greeted the ship’s arrival in Okak with joyous shouting, singing, and even shotgun salutes. But soon afterwards, the Northern Lights turned bright red which Inuit took as a warning of a terrible illness. By the end, 161 people out of 220 were dead.

Today Okak is a National Historic Site. Most importantly, it is the quiet resting place of so many who were lost.

RESOURCES: View the stirring short film, The Last Days of Okak, produced by Nigel Markham and Anne Budgell for Canada’s National Film Board. Another good source on the Spanish flu in the north is this journal article: Svenn-Erik Mamelund, Lisa Sattenspiel, and Jessica Dimka. “Influenza-associated mortality during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Alaska and Labrador: a comparison.” Social Science History 37, no. 2 (2013): 177-229.

Subscribe to this blog. It is written by Maura Hanrahan, author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett.

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