Vol. 40 No. 5 · 8 March 2018

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Blame it on New Zealand

Gavin Francis mentions the devastating impact of the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 in the Pacific, where an estimated 22 per cent of the population died in the western part of the Samoan archipelago (LRB, 25 January). As Roger Paulin writes, the incompetence of the New Zealand occupiers of Western Samoa was blamed for the arrival of influenza (Letters, 8 February). However, thanks to some interesting geopolitics, the eastern part was completely unaffected.

Imperial Germany, Britain and the United States had vied for control over Samoa in the 1880s. The dispute was eventually settled in 1899, with Germany getting the more populated western islands (Savai’i and Upolu) and the US the eastern islands (Tutuila and the Manu’a group). In exchange for giving up their interest, Britain took the northern Solomon Islands from Germany. When war was declared in 1914, the British requested that New Zealand send an expeditionary force to seize German Samoa, which it managed without bloodshed. The commanding officer of that force, Robert Logan, stayed on as military administrator of the territory for the duration of the war.

In October 1918, when influenza mortality was near its peak in New Zealand, the Pacific trading ship Talune left Auckland, bound for Fiji and Samoa. Before leaving, two crew had been discharged because of influenza, and several more crew and passengers became ill on the journey. The ship was quarantined in two Fijian ports, though local passengers did disembark and Fijian dockers were taken aboard. By the time the boat reached Apia in Western Samoa, several passengers, crew and Fijian labourers were ill, some seriously. Despite this, Captain Mawson of the Talune assured Captain Atkinson, the port health officer in Apia, that ‘all was as usual,’ despite his second officer being scarcely able to get out of bed; he also failed to mention that the Talune had been quarantined in Fiji. Within a week influenza was epidemic in Upolu and by the end of the year 7500 people had died. The Talune sailed on, with another twenty or so onboard deaths by the time it returned to Auckland.

American Samoa was only 50 km and a few hours’ sailing from Upolu. Its commandant, John Poyer, received no orders from Washington about how to respond to the epidemic, but he read the papers that arrived by ship and reviewed the daily radio briefings. At the end of October 1918, acting on his own initiative, Poyer ordered quarantine against all traffic from outside the colony. Shipping interests intensely disliked quarantining as it disrupted schedules and cost money. When a mail ship from Upolu was refused landing in Tutuila without five days’ quarantine, Logan was incensed. He cut wireless communication with, and refused offers of medical assistance from, American Samoa. Logan’s reputation didn’t fare well at the inquiry into the epidemic held in 1919. In 2002, on the fortieth anniversary of Western Samoa’s independence, Helen Clark, who was then prime minister of New Zealand, officially apologised to the people of Samoa.

Tim Cundy
University of Auckland

One-Man Ministry

Susan Pedersen writes about William Beveridge and the origins of the welfare state (LRB, 8 February). The enthusiasm for Beveridge’s policy when his report was published in 1942 is hard to convey. Everyone was talking about it, the papers were full of it and there was no end of favourable opinion from BBC commentators. Even the Daily Mail had good things to say about it. But there was some dissent. I was a 16-year-old grammar school pupil near Manchester at the time. I recall it as vividly as I recall that winter’s other crucial event, the Russian victory at Stalingrad. The excitement over Beveridge was so great that our headmaster convened and moderated a special meeting of senior boys to discuss it. This was most unusual. I don’t recall the details but I do remember the thrust of the discussion. All the benefits that Beveridge was advocating called for regulations. Wasn’t this socialism? Wasn’t Germany a socialist state, where the individual must serve the state, whereas a democracy served the needs of the individual? Which did we think was better? The Beveridge plan looked attractive now, but might it not lead to oppressive socialism? My father said our headmaster had been trying to make Tories of us.

Raymond Clayton
Stanford, California


‘The three pillars of the old order – clans, tribes and clerics – are tumbling down,’ Nicholas Pelham says of the Gulf states (LRB, 22 February). As far as journalists and commentators are concerned, the Gulf’s monarchies are always either rising or falling: they are precarious yet bullish, timeless yet strangely current, comical yet dangerous. Even on the rare occasions when Gulf-watchers go beyond palace intrigue or the rulers’ personalities, the result tends to be a mixture of hearsay, pop sociology and travel-guide vocabulary. In his own attempt to make sense of the Gulf’s changing political order, Pelham speaks of an undefined ‘tribal collective’ and the ‘petty squabbling’ that will ‘hasten their decline’. Which tribes, and what their disputes are about, we are not told. The ‘majlis’, he writes, once functioned as ‘the tribal equivalent of the town-hall meeting’. That in practice the ‘majlis’ could mean anything from a meeting in someone’s front room to an official visit to the royal court, and that it is usually held by and for people already in power or who are comfortable with the status quo, doesn’t register.

Pelham describes the new Saudi crown prince’s reading choices, and speaks with real-estate heirs and celebrity artists on the international gallery circuit, to give us an idea of what is changing and why; he talks about herds of camel, satellite TV channels that function as the rulers’ mouthpiece, and the arms trade. We do not hear from the young people, women or intellectuals that the process of change in Saudi Arabia is intended to assuage. The truth is that we still do not have a robust account of the political order in the Gulf, old or new. What we have instead are endless studies of how order is maintained. That is because the Gulf is still seen through an Orientalist lens: tribes, clerics, clans, Wahhabism, Islam etc. Arabia is merely a tasteless reflection of Renaissance Europe, or it is the result of a petro-geological miracle: materialism without ideology. What Pelham misses is the strangely secular conservatism that is becoming pervasive in Arabia, and which has put political Islam on the defensive globally. Acknowledging this phenomenon means treating conservatism in the Middle East as separable from Islam, while recognising that Arabs, particularly Gulf Arabs, are more than a product of their religious and tribal identities, or indeed their bank accounts.

Ahmed Dailami
London W8

When the Ice Melts

‘The use of fossil fuels by a slim minority of Earth’s human population is driving the collapse of ice sheets,’ Meehan Crist writes (LRB, 22 February). The implication is that Western countries are the ones using the fuels. But that is to ignore China, which has 20 per cent of the world’s population. Since 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature, global emissions have doubled and China is largely responsible. As part of its immensely successful drive to eradicate poverty it has massively expanded its consumption of fossil fuels; for example, it now burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and is on course to double its 2010 levels of coal consumption by 2030. Largely for this reason, global emissions also will grow enormously. And this is before we even get to India, which has a population and a poverty problem similar to China’s but so far hasn’t demonstrated the same competence in economic management. The idea of mitigating climate change by reducing carbon emissions was always doomed to failure, and has now failed. We should focus on adaptation instead.

David Campbell

Dinosaurs among Us

Francis Gooding appears to go along with the popular belief that the dinosaurs all became extinct (LRB, 22 February). Not so. I feed a good variety of them every day in my garden. Birds are technically classified with the dinosaurs, and are directly descended from one family that survived the Cretaceous extinction of 65 million years ago. It is true that the species of dinosaurs alive up until then are extinct, including the ancestors of today’s birds, but that is not peculiar to dinosaurs: the Mesozoic ancestors of nearly every species alive today have also become extinct, but partly live on in the genes of their modified descendants.

Rory Allen

A Woman’s Agency

Jacqueline Rose writes that since 2013, when the government introduced a fee for taking a case to an employment tribunal, there has been a 71 per cent drop in the number of sex discrimination cases (LRB, 22 February). Tribunal fees were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court last July, and the journal Labour Research notes that between July and September there was a 60 per cent increase in claims compared with the previous quarter, when the fees were still in effect. The figures are for claims of all kinds, but there is no reason to suppose the increase doesn’t include a rise in sex discrimination claims.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

Can the law be feminist?

The source on which Lorna Finlayson relied is inaccurate in many respects, but it in no way supports her fantasy that I ‘praised’ the IDF (Letters, 22 February). Her reference to it is bogus. Nor does any other contemporaneous report support her mischaracterisation. Readers will note that she also simply evades my statement that this observation, factual in character, was offered tentatively and seeking confirmation or disconfirmation at the time. Her characterisation of it is thus utterly, flatly and apparently determinedly false, as well as politically defamatory.

Catharine A. MacKinnon
University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor

All Right in the End

Philip Clark writes of the series of melodic ‘non-sequiturs’ at the beginning of the first movement of Mozart’s String Quartet K. 465, which caused the quartet to be nicknamed the ‘Dissonance’ (LRB, 8 February). It ‘all comes right in the end’, he adds, ‘as Mozart suddenly introduces a warm blast of C major’. This misses Mozart’s genius. Play a C major chord at any point during the weirdly dissonant introduction and you’ll find, to your surprise, that it fits in perfectly.

Jim Holt
New York

No New Yorker will forget

John Lahr writes that Dick Cavett ‘never set one loafered foot on a Broadway stage’ (LRB, 22 February). In 1987 and 2000 respectively he took the part of the narrator in Into the Woods and The Rocky Horror Show. On these occasions he wasn’t acting, in the sense of playing a character, but in 1977 he did replace Tom Courtenay in the lead role in Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged. No New Yorker of the time with any interest in Cavett or the theatre is likely to forget the extraordinary loathing and contempt heaped on him by the critics. His performance was called an insult to all the out of work actors in New York. In 2014 Cavett appeared in an off-Broadway play about the Lillian Hellman-Mary McCarthy lawsuit, which began with a remark by McCarthy about Cavett’s TV talk show. He played himself, a part that at last seemed to be within his range.

Rhoda Koenig
London SW2

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