We left off last week by observing that by the time of Kgosi Sechele’s death in 1892 there were already environmental indicators of a coming crisis with drought and locust infestation having disrupted crop production.
By 1992 what is commonly regarded as the world’s first modern viral pandemic, the “Russian Influenza,” had also arrived in the region.
Carried by railways and steam ships, between 1889 and 1890 the pestilence spread rapidly killing about one million people globally. The aetiology of the pandemic is uncertain. For many years researchers had sought to link it with subsequent pandemics through analysis of anti-bodies in elderly people. This resulted in a 1999 study indicating that an Influenza A subtype H3, with the H3N8 suggested as the most likely candidate.
In the wake of the 2002-04 SARS outbreak, however, virologists became more focused on sequencing and comparing human and animal coronaviruses.
In the process Leen Vilgen and others, in articles appearing in the Journal of Virology in 2005-06, published their findings that two strains of the Beta coronavirus 1 species, Bovine coronavirus and Human coronavirus OC43 appear to have a common late 19th century ancestor.
Their research has been reinforced by Danish researchers Lone Simonsen and Anders Pedersen who have reportedly calculated that the human coronavirus OC43 had split from bovine coronavirus about 130 years ago, i.e. approximately coinciding with the pandemic in 1889–1890.
The Danish Broadcasting Corporation has since popularised their insights in a historical documentary. Further investigation of historical documentation has also suggested a correlation in terms of both the spread and symptoms between the Russian Influenza and the current COVID-19 challenge.
By the end of 1889 the Russian Influenza had reached sub-Saharan Africa as well as western Europe and the Americas. During December it was reported in Natal; followed in January 1890 by cases appearing in Cape Town, from where it spread into Bechuanaland.
In March 1892 the District Surgeon at Vryburg, then headquarters for both the Bechuanaland Crown Colony and Protectorate, reported the presence of an epidemic of whooping cough, diphtheria, and influenza. This development, combined with further concern over the spread of syphilis, led him to recommend that the Contagious Diseases Act be enforced at the native locations, “owing to the large number of native servants residing there.”
In June of 1892 Bechuanaland’s Administrator, Sidney Shippard, confirmed “an epidemic of what is commonly called Russian Influenza in the district of Mafeking.”
In 1895 Mahikeng’s District Surgeon continued to report: “Influenza in the form of infectious feverish catarrhs of the respiratory organs was present in the district from August 1894 to March 1895. The natives suffered considerably from Influenza and several deaths came under my notice.”
Given the lack of
Although its communicable nature had given rise to panicked headlines throughout Europe and the Americas, the few medical reports for the period show greater concern over the potential transmission of syphilis and smallpox from the black to white populations.
This despite the fact that Europeans had been responsible for introducing both maladies into the region. At a time when the identification of viruses as unique infectious agents was still a decade away, the Influenza’s pathogenesis among those with co-morbidities may have obscured its footprint.
The cataclysmic effect on all groups of the region’s next pandemic was impossible to ignore. In March of 1896 Kweneng’s crops had failed. The recurrence of drought along with the return of the locusts were unwelcome but familiar hardships. But it is doubtful that anything in the experiences of the most white-haired Bakwena could have prepared them for the arrival that same month of rinderpest, known locally as “bolwane”, a highly infectious viral disease targeting ruminants.
Kgosi Sebele responded to the epizootic by calling on his subjects to follow the colonial regime’s instruction to shoot and bury sick livestock.
This control effort was from the beginning undermined by the fact that most of the initially afflicted herds belonged to members of the “BagaMashadi” faction then resisting the kgosi’s authority, as well as the faith of Bakwena in the inoculations of their traditional doctors and the general practice of salvaging dried meat from the bovine carcasses. By mid-May it was reported that Sebele I’s own herd of some 10,000 had been reduced to just 77 beasts.
No one was spared. In May 1896 a traveller wrote:
“Hundreds of dead oxen laying in every stage of decomposition, behind the bushes- in places a dozen a batch! The whole air was vitiated by the stench of them, and amidst them we had to camp! I observed that the natives were busily skinning all the dead beasts, and apparently making biltong of the flesh...I don’t see how this country can escape a famine now- their crops have all failed from drought, and the remnants are eaten by locusts; their cattle are nearly all dead! I suppose a score of live cattle where there should have been a thousand or two! Khama alone is said to have lost 70,000 or 90,000 head.”