1918 HMAT Boonah tragedy echoes in current cruise liner crises

The refusal to allow cruise liner Artania to dock in Fremantle echoes of the quarantining of HMAT Boonah in Fremantle for ‘Spanish flu’ in late 1918.

The troopship_SS Boonah

HMAT Boonah

The sagas of cruise liners and COVID-19 infections are occurring around the world. This is an issue of pressing interest for Australia. At the forefront of the minds of Australians is the recent quarantining of Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan, the current Ruby Princess cruise liner infection debacle, the 100s of Australian’s trapped on cruise liners anchored off the North and South American coasts, and the direction of six foreign cruise liners along the NSW coast to leave Australian waters and return to their home ports. Just over one hundred years ago, HMAT Boonah arrived in Fremantle, WA, arrived with over 300 Australian soldiers infected with ‘Spanish flu’.

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, or ‘Spanish flu’ remains among the greatest natural disasters of recorded history. Emerging in Europe in the final months of the Great War, in little over a year the pandemic swept around the world, killing approximately 80 million people, at least four times more than the deaths caused by the First World War. Few families or communities escaped its effects and possibly 25–30 per cent of the world’s population was infected with influenza in 1918-1919.

While its exact origins are still debated, it’s understood that the “Spanish Flu” did not come from Spain. The name seems to have arisen as reporting about influenza cases in war-affected countries was censored. However, as Spain was neutral, frequent stories appeared about the deadly flu in Spain.

It’s unlikely that the Spanish Flu changed the outcome of World War I, because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected. However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.

During 1919 the ‘Spanish Flu’ resulted in about a third of all Australians becoming infected and nearly 15,000 people being dead in under a year. These figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914–18. More than 5000 marriages were affected by the loss of a partner and over 5000 children lost one or both parents. In 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s population had influenza, more than 4000 people died, and in some parts of Sydney influenza deaths comprised up to 50 per cent of all deaths.

It wasn’t just the influenza pandemic victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back ‘Spanish Flu’ for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919. But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.

The 1200 troops on-board HMAT Boonah was the last Australian troop ship to leave Fremantle, WA bound for the trenches of the Western Front in World War One. But it wasn’t the battlefields of Europe that claimed dozens of their young lives, instead meeting their fate with Spanish influenza in Perth’s southern suburbs.

As the last troop ship to leave Australia sailed towards Europe, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Three days the HMAT Boonah docked in Durban, South Africa to re-coal before heading back to Australia. Although the Aussie troops weren’t allowed to go to shore in Durban, they mingled with local men re-coaling the ship to buy ostrich feathers as souvenirs. This encounter proved a deadly mistake for dozens on-board infected by the ‘Spanish flu’.

As the disappointed soldiers sailed back across the Indian Ocean, they referred to themselves in the Boonah Buzzer, an on-board publication produced by the soldiers, as part of the ‘too blooming late brigade’. The Boonah Boomerang, or The Log of the Lucky Ship, another on-board publication, recorded that one man had already been lost at sea after becoming delirious and jumping overboard in the night. By the time the troopship reached the shores of Fremantle, Western Australia on 11 December 1918, more than 300 of the men on board were infected.

The HMAT Boonah wasn’t allowed to dock in Fremantle and initially the soldiers were refused permission to disembark and was left anchored in Gage Roads. The disease had not yet affected Western Australia, and the authorities were hesitant to allow the troops to disembark. The conditions aboard were very poor and overcrowded. The food was of very poor quality, the potatoes so bad that the doctors ordered them to be thrown overboard. It would have been heartbreaking for the Perth soldiers to come so close to home soil, to actually see the lights of Fremantle, and to know there family was waiting for them and they couldn’t leave the ship. The contingent of WA soldiers was on the verge of revolt.

Woodman's Point - today

Woodman Point Quarantine Station – today

After a few days anchored in Gage Roads, after much public outcry, approval was granted for 300 of the most unwell soldiers to be ferried to the nearby Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station. It took three days for the sick men to be off-loaded but the next problem was a lack of medical staff to tend to them.

With no medical staff to care for the soldiers, authorities desperately turned to a ship of military nurses on board SS Wyreema, also on its way back to Australia. The SS Wyreema from Sydney included a group of forty Australian army nursing sisters bound for Thessalonica (Salonika). The SS Wyreema turned around at Cape Town when Armistice was declared and arrived back at Fremantle on 10 December 1918.

The small station was soon overrun with sick troops, who were set up in tents outside. Meanwhile Woodman Point was becoming seriously over-crowded. Built to take 30 patients at most, it was now housing 600. Then people started dying.


Sister Rosa O’Kane

Sister Rosa O’Kane was selected as one of the 20 volunteers to tend the infected soldiers at the Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station Hospital. It was at the Quarantine Station that she contracted ‘Spanish flu’ and was the first of the hospital staff to die on 21 December 1918. Her death was deeply felt, and served as a tragic omen to her hard-pressed colleagues. Of the 20 nurses from the SS Wyreema who volunteered to care for the infected soldiers, 15 contracted the Flu, and four made the supreme sacrifice––Army staff nurses Rosa O’Kane, Doris Ridgway and Ada Thompson, and civilian nurse Hilda Williams. The tragedy also claimed the lives of 26 soldiers.

The HMAT Boonah was quarantined in Gage Roads for nine days. Cases of influenza continued to break out on the ‘Boonah’ and the number of men sent into quarantine rose to 381 and the death toll had already reached 8. The men still in quarantine aboard the ‘Boonah’ tried to make the best of things. However, the Boonah was an iron vessel and little shade was provided for the large contingent still on board. Some started fishing and caught a number of sharks and large fish some of which were deposited in the ship’s pool to keep them fresh.

The press soon took up the case of the men stuck on the ship. The WA government wanted to take the troops to Rottnest but the Commonwealth insisted they stay at sea until the ship had been clean of new infections for 24 hours. To be a clean ship, it had to be clean of infection for 24 hours. However, everyday fresh cases were discovered. The Returned Servicemen’s Association threatened that if the men weren’t brought to shore on Rottnest Island, they would go out in boats and take the men themselves. Then, all of a sudden, on 20 December 1918, because of the political furore that was taking place, the ship was declared clean. This was completely untrue because when the HMAT Boonah cleared Fremantle Harbour, but before it reached Port Adelaide, where the men disembarked, another 20 cases were discovered.

Torrens Isnald Quarantine Station_SLSA B-43143

Torrens Island Quarantine Station, Adelaide

Most of the dead were buried at Woodman Point, south of Perth. In the 1980s they were moved to Hollywood War Cemetery in Nedlands. However, the graves of nurses Rosa O’Kane and HG Williams still remain. In the century since, the surroundings are overgrown with bushland, but the graves are maintained by the Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp.


I’d like to consider myself a friend of Woodman Point. In January 2020, I spent a beautiful, windy, blue-skied Perth afternoon guided through the restored buildings and museum displays of Woodman Point Quarantine Station. Past president of the Friends of Woodman Point, Jenni Carder and her daughter also took me on a rare visit to the grave of Sister Rosa O’Kane. Few people know of this vital institution that served Australia well from the opening in 1886 until it finally closed in 1979. There are few commemorations to remember the devastating pandemic. However, the restoration of Woodman Point Quarantine Station serves as a reminder of Australian soldiers and nurses who died of ‘Spanish flu’.


Nine News image

In Perth, the combination of the city’s relative isolation and effective state border quarantine control ensured that ‘Spanish flu’ didn’t appear significantly there until June 1919. Perth experienced a spike in infections after crowds gathered to celebrate Peace Day on 19 July 1919.

It seems to be for a country surrounded by water, the management of nautical entry would have been better developed since the Boonah Tragedy of 1918.

Woodman's Point @ Isolation Hopital

Leaping into the last day of summer

Happy Birthday.pngThe last day of summer signals the season turning, time moving on. But every four years there’s an extra day between the end of our southern summer and the beginning of autumn. 29 February is a day to contemplate time passing.

My beautiful daughter was born on a leap day. Four years ago, she was five years old in leap years. No longer a Leap Day calendar.jpgteenager. Today is her sixth birthday. We always celebrate her birthday on the last day of our Australian summer. This is an evocative time as it is when you are supposed to celebrate life, to get out and about – and live.

Our daughter’s birth 24 years ago brought a transition for her mother and I. No longer just the two of us. Now mother, father and child. A new family.

Faculty of Engineering.jpgOur daughter spent her fifth leap year studying Engineering in Prague. We are all so very proud of her. Our adventuring daughter of the Great Southern Land. But for her the seasons were all topsy-turvy in the northern hemisphere. Her fifth birthday was the last day of winter. Then came her special day, her interregnum – 29 February 2016.

The next day was spring.

We spent a beautiful spring afternoon in Prague with her not long after her last leap birthday. Prague is a city that appears to have slipped through time without the wear and tear of the world acting upon it. It missed most of the devastation that major European cities dealt with during World War 2, and is home to PraPrague Clock.jpggue Castle, and the historic Charles Bridge. The Old Town Square is a spectacle in itself. The 1410 Prague Orloj on the Old Town Hall is one of the few still working astronomical clocks of medieval Europe, after having been saved by locals from a Nazi arson attempt. On the zodiac face of this magnificent clock religion meets science where death in the form of a skeleton strikes the hour while figures of all 12 apostles step out above the action.

Thinking of leap days always reminds me of Frederic from ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. As a child he had been apprenticed to a band of tender hearted, orphaned pirates by his nurse who, being hard of hearing, had mistaken her master’s instructioFrederic.jpgns to apprentice the boy to a pilot. Frederic, upon his 21st birthday, rejoices that he has fulfilled his indentures and is now free to return to respectable society. Poor Frederic was born on 29th February 1856 and though he was apprenticed to a band of pirates until he turned 21 on 1st March 1877, his apprenticeship is until his 21st birthday, which won’t be until 29th February 1940, when he’ll be 84 years old. Frederic then swears to the love of his life that he will return in his 80s and marry her.

Of course, Gilbert is wrong in his maths. The action in ‘Pirates’ can’t be taking place on 1st March 1877. For Frederic to be 21 on 29th February 1940 the contract must have been signed on 1st March 1873, as there is no leap year in 1900. Beware the fine print in any contract.

For millennia humans had no need or word for second, minute or year, though on a larger scale there were the seasons. They changed gradually, predictably. The sun, moon and shadows were the only clocks humans had, apart from the clock within – the beating heart, measuring out our brief lives.

When agriculture arrived with the need to prepare for planting or, as in Egypt, an annual flood, the astronomers came into being. And the pace began to quicken. With the rise of civilisation there arose a pressing need to keep track of the passage of time and plan for the future.

The first Babylonian calendar was made up of 12 lunar months of 29 and 30 days. This was later adapted by the Romans. However, using the moon is not an effective way to divide up a year. By 46 BCE, the Roman calendar was running 90 days behind the seasons. Julius Caesar was advised by astronomers to ditch the lunar system and define a year according to the sun. He did but he also added an extra day every four year as his new Julian calendar was about 6 hours short of a true solar year.

After all this, the Julian calendar was still 11 minutes longer than a real year. This doesn’t seem much but by the mid-16th century the calendar Gregorian calendar.jpghad moved ahead 10 days. The problem was the shift made it difficult to establish when to celebrate Easter. Pope Gregory XIII’s solution was to remove leap years from the last year of centuries not divisible by 400, and remove 10 days from October that year. In doing this the calendar now gained only half a minute a year. The Gregorian calendar had arrived.

Calendar’s give humans a grasp of chronology, a sense of what happened, in which order, a way forward. Chronology is important as knowing the exact order in which events occur helps us understand the cause and the effect of those events. This allows us to step back and view the ‘big picture’ of our history – how and why events unfold in the way they do, and how they are related.

The traditional view of history as a study of the family tree of kings and queens, lists of dates, and a single, agreed narrative, have been superseded. One of the strengths of history now is it is contestable. You have to weigh evidence to find out ‘what really happened’, not merely read a textbook interpretation of it. Yes, facts and dates are still important. Yes, there should be some established certainties. But there are spaces between those certainties – and those spaces are often the most interesting, the most thought provoking – to explore.

Calendars and time are not based on human needs but within astrophysical occurrences. Human versus Nature. The age-old struggle. Through most of history, time was fixed by astronomical reference points. The Earth spins once, let’s call it a day.

No more.

Now the absolute reference has shifted from the stars to the atomic beams in their vaults. Particles are considered steadier than planets. Never mind the uncertainty principle as it is the heavens that can’t be relied on. Stars drift. The Earth shivers ever so slightly. With the oceanic tides acting as brakes, our planet slows in its rotation by fractions of a second each year. These anomalies matter in a time-gripped age.

We human beings of the twenty-first century are obsessed with time. It rules our lives. Think about this. Time use to depend where you were on the Earth. Before 1883, people used a sun clock to tell solar time. Each community kept its own time, basing that time on the sun’s position in the sky. But the sun always moves across the sky. Noon in one town would be four minutes later than noon fifty kilometres to the east. According to solar time, it’s noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. In 1883, to regulate time for the sake of railroad schedules, the United States adopted what is called standard time, designating time zones and requiring all communities within a time zone to keep the same time – even though the standard time didn’t quite match solar time.

No matter what, the Earth continues to slow.

My wife and I were chatting with our daughter through Facebook messenger on the morning of her fifth leap birthday. She had just walked the few blocks from her University College at the Czech Technical University to the Engineering Faculty building. As she hovered outside the revolving front door she FB messengered us on her mobile phone, all in a flurry. Her hair was covered in snow and she complained she didn’t know what the etiquette is for entering a building when you are covered in snow. Do you have to shake it all off first, do you wait until you get inside, or is there some other arcane ritual unbeknownst to an Aussie girl? It was quite funny really. Brisbane girl hits Central Europe in winter. They say that Prague in the winter is not for the faint hearted.

shivering earth.jpgSeason turning into new season and time passing. Leap years came about because of the need to align our Gregorian calendar with Earth’s revolutions around the sun. I’m a big fan of bringing about overarching order from chaos.

Leap days let us know how small we humans really are in the scheme of things. Perhaps it’s a good thing to be reminded there are bigger forces around us. The transition of seasons will happen, simple, ancient, true. No matter whether you’re ready for it or not, no matter what political party is in power, no matter the state of the economy, the great old Earth turns regardless.

Leap days are corrective measures to bring humans and nature back into alignment. And yet it is these little spaces between certainties that are often the most interesting and thought provoking. So let’s take a collective leap into that last day of summer and all embrace a little uncertainty in our lives.

The cold case of Germanicus – 2000 years ago today

2000 years ago today, the greatest Roman emperor that Rome never had was allegedly assassinated. The Roman general Germanicus was heir to his adopted father Emperor Tiberius. As a famous general, and a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he was widely popular and regarded as the ideal Roman long after his death. To the Roman people, Germanicus was the Roman equivalent of Alexander the Great due to the nature of his death at a young age, his virtuous character, his dashing physique, and his military renown.While in the eastern provinces, he came into conflict with the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnia Piso. During their feud, Germanicus became ill in Antioch, where he died on 10 October 19 CE, at only 33 years of age. His death has been attributed to poison by ancient sources, but that was never proven. Seutonius relates that he had “dark stains” covering his body and “foam on his lips,” which he seemed to suggest was poison. Supposedly, after Germanicus’ cremation, his heart had been found intact among the charred remains – “a heart steeped in poison is supposedly proof against fire.” This is of course nonsense by modern scientific standards

Germanicus’ death aroused much speculation, with several sources blaming Piso, acting under orders from Emperor Tiberius. This was never proven, and Piso later died while facing trial. Intriguingly, once Piso had died, the investigation into the assassination of the next Roman emperor stopped. There has never been identified a definitive assassin of Germanicus.

Tacitus says Tiberius was involved in a conspiracy against Germanicus, and Tiberius’s jealousy and fear of his nephew’s popularity and increasing power was the true motive. Suetonius went on to write: “According to the general verdict, Tiberius craftily arranged Germanicus’ death with Gnaeus Piso as his intermediary and agent.” This is unlikely as following Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany, he was given command of the eastern provinces – a sure sign he was intended to rule.

What is more likely is that Sejanus, the son of Tiberius’ first Praetorian Prefect Strabo and now leader of the Praetorian Guard in Rome, had a hand in Germanicus’ death. The ever ambitious Sejanus may have wanted to eliminate Germanicus because he believed that he himself could one day be emperor. It is highly unlikely that Tiberius and Sejanus worked in collusion, as a few years later Sejanus was behind the murder of Tiberius’ son, Drusus. The style of Drusus’ murder was similar to his cousin and adopted-brother Germanicus’ and would not have happened if Tiberius was implicated in Germanicus’ death.

Perhaps one of the oldest of cold cases may be solved with the discovery of the ‘Memoirs of Agrippina’, written by his daughter Agrippina the Younger. We know the ‘Memoirs of Agrippina’ once existed as they were referred to in the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, as well as mentioned by Pliny the Younger, however there are no extant versions that survived beyond antiquity. We can only hope.

RIP, Germanicus Julius Caesar.

Nicholas Poussin, The Death of Germanicus (1628), oil painting. Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts.