Looking Back at the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Colonial Indonesia

Colonial Indonesia was hit especially hard by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–1919, with the highest death rate in Asia after India. History PhD candidate Ravando recently published a book (in Bahasa Indonesia) on this subject, drawing upon archives of the Dutch colonial Civil Medical Service and the contemporary Chinese-Indonesian press. In this blogpost, Ravando examines responses to the pandemic in colonial Indonesia. How did people understand what was happening, and what measures were taken to handle the pandemic?

Long before the outbreak of the COVID-19, the world was repeatedly struck by various types of virus and bacteria. The Spanish Flu of 1918–1919 was the deadliest pandemic in modern history, killing 50 to 100 million people within just a few months (Johnson & Mueller 2002). Colonial Indonesia was not spared. For decades, the standard figure given for the number of deaths in the colony was around 1.5 million. But a 2013 study, based on detailed research across a range of colonial archives, has indicated that this figure may need to be revised upward dramatically to as high as 4.26 to 4.37 million deaths (Chandra 2013). The death rate was the highest in Asia after India.

The Spanish Flu hit colonial Indonesia in two waves. The first wave spread between June and early September 1918 when the virus was still mild and caused low morbidity and mortality rates. Pangkatan port in North Sumatra was the epicentre of the infection before it spread to Java and Borneo. In just a few weeks, the Spanish Flu had struck Tanjung Pandan (Belitung) and Weltevreden (Batavia). In June alone, the virus was calculated to have contaminated five per cent of the total population of Surabaya. Meanwhile, the Indies government reported that the Eastern part of the Indies was largely free from the pandemic, although several newspapers like Sin Po and Tjhoen Tjhioe already reported the attack of the pandemic in Makassar and some other cities.

Map of colonial Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) 1941. Source: H.E.C. Robinson Pty Ltd, National Library of Australia, MAP G8070

The second wave, estimated to have taken place from the end of October to December 1918, was more massive and deadly. In some regions, the pandemic continued until February 1919. During this second wave, the influenza virus swiftly infected people across various regions in colonial Indonesia, from Sumatra to Celebes, Maluku, the Lesser Sunda Islands, and even Papua. Because of how rapid the transmission process was, the Civil Medical Service reported that “there are almost no areas in the Dutch East Indies that are not infected by influenza)”.

How, then, did people understand what was happening? And what measures were taken in response?

Between Mysticism and Logic

When the Spanish Flu pandemic was first identified in colonial Indonesia, many people understood this as a form of punishment or divine retribution. Some thought the pandemic was caused by violations committed against holy sites or through eating dog meat, which is prohibited in Islam. Many saw the disease as a sort of natural law, or a curse caused by greed, bad behaviour, and various other immoral acts (Brown 1987, 244–246). Therefore, they attempted to cope with the pandemic by using traditional rituals, rather than following modern medical guidelines. Some believed the only way to get rid of the disease was to perform cleansing rituals to neutralise or ward off the evil spirits. In this context of low government intervention many people turned to mysticism, which had deep roots in Indonesian culture, as the best solution to combat the Spanish Flu.

Each ethnic group in colonial Indonesia turned to their own systems of belief to deal with the pandemic. The ethnic Chinese, for example, held toapekong processions during the first wave. Toapekong (Tua Pek Kong, Dabogong) is one of the deities of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean folk spirituality. Toapekong, whose name literally means ‘Grand Uncle,’ is regarded as the ‘God of Prosperity’. At the time, many people believed that toapekong was the representation of the spirits of Chinese pioneers who offered protection to those who relied on him. According to the historian Jack Meng-Tat Chia, the multifaceted cult of toapekong takes three forms: toapekong can be a representative of sworn brotherhood; a Sino-Malay god; and/or a sinicised deity. In Indonesia the term toapekong is sometimes applied generally to images of deities, and in some areas to temples or festivals. In Kudus in Central Java, toapekong was a parade performed by the local Chinese with the aim of expelling bad things, like disease (Meng-Tat Chia 2017; Stenberg 2019).

These parades were usually held several times within a space of one or two weeks. People believed that this practice was powerful enough to ward off the disease. During the ritual, they commonly also begged for heavy rain because they were sure the prolonged drought that had hit the Indies since early 1918 had caused the virus to spread more quickly through flying dust. They were confident that heavy rain would wash away the Spanish Flu. Ironically, the processions contributed to spreading the virus. Sin Po, the largest Chinese-Indonesian newspaper at that time, reported that thousands of people who gathered on the streets to watch the ritual either transmitted or became infected with the virus.

Cover of Ravando’s book, Perang Melawan Influenza: Pandemi Flu Spanyol di Indonesia Masa Kolonial, 1918-1919 (Kompas, 2020)

Taking a rather brave stance Sin Po bluntly criticised the ritual and even called the tradition irrational and of no useful benefit. “People who could use their logic”, one article asserted, “would understand how useless it was and how money was wasted to hold the procession.” Sin Po also criticised various Ping An (salvation) ceremonies, like laying flowers and incense while praying or bowing before deities. Chinese communities held this sort of ceremony often and in many places across the Indies during the pandemic. Meanwhile, in Sukabumi, there were calls for all residents of the city’s Chinese quarter to simultaneously perform the hioto (altar of incense) prayer on 2 December 1918 as a means of tackling the pandemic. Sin Po and several other Chinese newspapers, however, called this a nonsensical action which would not bring any benefit.

Meanwhile in Wonogiri, Central Java, a rumour spread that catfish could be used as an effective antidote to the Spanish Flu. The story began with a man in Pagutan, Wonogiri, who claimed to have spent seven nights by the river, praying for the safety of his family from the malicious pandemic. On the seventh night, at midnight, so the story went, he was approached by two spirits in the form of small children who were carrying fish containers (kepis). The spirit told the man that they would spread heat and cough in various places. Afraid, the man then asked what medicine could be used to combat the disease, to which they answered, “catfish”. According to Sin Po, fishmongers had deliberately made up the story so as to boost their profits. Within a few days of the rumour’s appearance, catfish became a rare item at the market, and its price in Wonogiri skyrocketed from five cents to 30 or 40 cents per piece.

Traditional and Herbal Medicines as Solutions?

During the second wave of the pandemic, hospitals and clinics were overloaded. Many patients were turned away because of a lack of available beds. Doctors were perplexed about what to do as they had never encountered anything like this. They strived to treat the illness with the drugs they had on hand, like quinine and aspirin. But low levels of literacy and awareness of health care practices meant that people turned to traditional or herbal medicines as there was no vaccine or definitive medication that could be used to treat the Spanish Flu.

Details on these traditional medicines can be found in Sin Po, which also often quoted from or republished articles from other newspapers on this subject. For example, Sin Po cited an article from Djawa Tengah, a Chinese-Indonesian (Peranakan) magazine in Semarang, Central Java, about the efficacy of aloe vera (ilat bojo) as a cure for fever. The washed aloe vera leaves were boiled with a mixture of rock sugar until it resembled grass jelly. The influenza patient was instructed to drink it every afternoon. If the pain became severe, then the dose was to be increased. Several newspapers guaranteed the efficacy of this potion and it was reported that many people recovered after taking aloe vera.

In another article, Sin Po also mentioned boiled clove water as an effective medicine to treat headache, and lime combined with soy sauce for cough. The paper reported that many people recovered with these remedies. Nevertheless, while this traditional treatment was proven to be quite effective in treating a variety of mild symptoms, it was no help when it came to treating symptoms which had developed into complications. Until the Spanish Flu vanished from Indonesia, there was never a truly effective remedy to ward off the pandemic. To this day, many Indonesians still use these herbal medicines.

Failing to Learn

In 1920, the Commissie voor de Volkslectuur (Commission for Popular Literature, also known as Balai Pustaka) published two books on the threat of influenza and how to prevent infection. The first book, Lelara Influenza (Influenza Disease), used Javanese wayang (shadow puppetry) characters to convey its message. The main protagonist was Punawakan, the four clown servants of the Javanese hero or heroine, which consisted of Semar, Petruk, Gareng, and Bagong.

Cover and contents of Lelara Influenza, published by the Balai Pustaka in 1920. Source: Lelara Influenza. (Weltevreden: Balai Pustaka, 1920)

The use of wayang as a means of disseminating information was quite effective for educating people about the importance of health and hygiene. In one report, the Burgerlijken Geneeskundigen Dienst (Civil Medical Service) claimed that the mortality rate in Cilacap, Central Java, had decreased significantly after the local authority decided to socialize the book extensively.

The second book, Awas! Penjakit Influenza contained a similar storyline, this time rendered in low Malay. Both publications depicted the central role of doctors as saviours who recommended the right medication to people infected by the Spanish Flu.

It was the colonial government’s strategy to shift society’s paradigm about doctors and Western medicines so that people were expected to abandon traditional medications that could not be scientifically proven. However, the strategy was too little too late. By the time both books had been published, the Spanish Flu had already begun to subside. Meanwhile, millions of people had died.

Over a century has passed, and yet in some ways, when we look at the handling of COVID-19 in Indonesia, we find that little has really changed. Once again, in a difficult situation full of confusion, we find people appearing who claim to be able to ward off the coronavirus by performing bizarre rites which have only made things worse. Many have also refused to believe in scientific treatments and consider COVID-19 a conspiracy or a hoax. Unfortunately, this is a problem that is in evidence in many places across the world, even in countries with advanced healthcare systems.

At the end of 2020, while countries like Australia and New Zealand had entered the process of recovery, the COVID-19 problem remained severe in Indonesia. This circumstance can be attributed in part to the damage done by various controversial and misleading statements made by state officials and by the emergence of many false experts, who have only exacerbated the already challenging situation. Unfortunately, it looks as though the current Indonesian government have made many of the same mistakes that the colonial government made some 100 years ago.

Si Pandjang (the main character) asks for assistance from a doctor before eradicating the influenza pandemic. Source: Awas! Penjakit Influenza (Weltevreden: Balai Pustaka, 1920), p5

Ravando is a PhD candidate in History, in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies (SHAPS) at the University of Melbourne. His thesis examines the Chinese-Indonesian newspaper Sin Po (1910–1965) as a lens to explore the political movements and transnational connections of Chinese-Indonesian society in colonial Indonesia. He is the author of Perang Melawan Influenza: Pandemi Flu Spanyol di Indonesia Masa Kolonial, 1918–1919 (2020) which examines the Spanish Flu pandemic in colonial Indonesia.

Select Bibliography for Further Reading

  • Brown, Colin, ‘The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 in Indonesia’ in Norman G. Owen (ed.), Death and Disease in Southeast Asia, Explorations in Social, Medical, and Demographic History (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 235–256.
  • Chandra, Siddharth, ‘Mortality from the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Indonesia’, Population Studies 67.2 (July 2013), pp. 185–193.
  • Chia, Jack Meng-Tat, ‘Who is Tua Pek Kong? The Cult of Grand Uncle in Malaysia and Singapore’, Archiv Orientalni 85 (2017), pp. 439–460.
  • Pausacker, Helen, ‘Presidents as Punakawan: Portrayal of National Leaders as Clown-Servants in Central Javanese Wayang’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35.2 (June 2004), pp. 213–233.
  • Johnson, Niall & Juergen Mueller, ‘Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 Spanish Influenza Pandemic’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (February 2002), pp. 105–115.
  • Ravando, Perang Melawan Influenza: Pandemi Flu Spanyol di Indonesia Masa Kolonial, 1918–1919. Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas, 2020.
  • Stenberg, Josh, Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019.

Feature image: Si Pandjang (the main character) asks for assistance from a doctor before eradicating the influenza pandemic (detail). Source: Awas! Penjakit Influenza (Weltevreden: Balai Pustaka, 1920), p5