The 1918 influenza pandemic hit every country on Earth – well, almost every country. It missed American Samoa entirely, which is interesting. It’s even more interesting when you notice that it hit the neighboring islands of West Samoa harder than anywhere else.
Worldwide, the Spanish Flu killed 3-5% of the population – lower in most developed countries, which had better supportive therapy. Medicos had no useful vaccines or antiviral agents: in fact they mistakenly thought it was caused by a bacterium. Doctors were useless, but nurses were not.
In the South Pacific, the flu was spread by the SS Talune, which regularly visited Tonga, Fiji, American Samoa, and West Samoa. Crewmen had picked up the flu in New Zealand and spread it to those ports, excepting American Samoa.
The islands of Western Samoa were administered by New Zealand, which had recently seized them from Germany. The administrator (Colonel Robert Logan) had little administrative experience (former sheep farmer) – he felt that he needed approval from Wellington for any action and he received no instructions. Medical officers also waited for instructions – none came. In addition, plantation interests were important, and they opposed any quarantine, which was also the case in Fiji. So, no quarantine. Thing went very badly: so many were sick (~90% of the population) that few were left to care for them. Since food was mostly in gardens, rather in cupboards, people starved while weak. Europeans were less vulnerable, and those that could helped, but there were relatively few in Western Samoa. 20-25% of the population died, concentrated among young adults, the highest death rate in the world.
American Samoa was physically quite close to Western Samoa, less than 100km. There were close cultural ties: people intermarried and often sailed back and forth. But the governmental structure was different. There were no copra plantations in American Samoa, so you didn’t have any powerful business interests lobbying for suicide. The US Navy ran the colony. John Martin Poyer, an officer that had retired from active duty due to illness, was brought back to active duty in 1915 to serve as Governor of American Samoa.
Both American Samoa and West Samoa had advance warning of the flu’s danger: they both had wireless sets and occasional mail.
Washington didn’t micro-manage American Samoa, not being all that interested. A policy of benign neglect was interpreted by Poyer as an opportunity to act on his best judgment, in the finest traditions of the US Navy. He imposed quarantine. That was harder that it sounds, because of the frequent family visits between West Samoa and American Samoa – but Poyer also had the support of the local chiefs, who understood how serious imported epidemics could be. The people of American Samoa self-blockaded, on top of official quarantine: they sent out canoes to stop any and all visitors. They never had a single case.
Of course there was a disaster. Some people will think that it occurred in West Samoa. Others will think that the real disaster was in American Samoa.