Monday, July 13, 2020

Leopoldville 1918 – “La Grippe Espagnole”

I recently heard a piece on U.S. National Public Radio about Brian Melican's article in the New Statesman entitled, “A tale of three cities: the places transformed by pandemics across history(Melican, Apr. 20, 2020). His research examined the plague in Marseille in 1720, cholera in Hamburg in 1892, and Spanish Influenza in Ostersund, Sweden in 1918.  In this time of Covid-19, I wondered how Kinshasa fared during the Spanish Flu, or “Grippe Espagnole”, epidemic in November 1918.
Kinshasa circa 1918 - the central business district (now Ave. de la Nation)
Leopoldville, and Kinshasa, (the two were separate and distinct polities at this time), were coming out of four years of world war, which had negatively impacted the economy.  In fact, the outbreak reached Stanley Pool the day after word of the Armistice in Europe.   Although Congolese Force Publique troops had defeated the Germans in their colonies of Kamerun in 1914 (Aug. 3, 2014) and Tanganika in 1916, the War continued to be a significant burden for the Congo. German submarine activity in the South Atlantic had curtailed imports, and more importantly, suppressed exports upon which the colonial economy depended.
Kinshasa in 1919
In mid-November 1918, the first cases of Spanish Flu were reported in Leopoldville.  While the contagion is acknowledged to have come from ships originating in Europe calling at the port cities of Boma and Matadi, the virus was simultaneously spreading to up-river communities in the east of the colony, particularly from the mining cities of Katanga, which were infected via the railroad from South Africa.  As early as October 16, 1918, the Vice Governor General of Katanga issued an Ordonnance providing measures to take to contain the “Spanish Influenza” virus.
The public market in Kinshasa, located opposite the current Poste Centrale on Blvd du 30 Juin.  
Note railway line to Leopoldville in upper left provided the right-of-way for the future Boulevard.

The virus quickly spread in Kinshasa, then Leopoldville and across the river to Brazzaville.  In its centenary history, the Catholic church recorded that 250 Congolese died in Kinshasa, 150 in Kintambo (Leopoldville) and 500 in Brazzaville.  Catholic missionaries could only provide hot water as treatment for victims.  The British Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) reported that hundreds died, 3000 fled back to their home villages, spreading the contagion.  The Congolese population of Leopoldville was estimated about 5,000 at this time.
The port at Kinshasa
The American Baptist mission in Kintambo saw students in its preparatory primary school scattered by the influenza in November, although classes did resume by January. Dr. Catherine Mabie, writing about the impact on the mission’s  hinterland around Leopoldville noted:

“Spanish influenza found its way into the river and despite all quarantine regulations has spread like August grass fires over the entire country.  The hungry, ill-nourished native fell easy prey to its ravages. Many villages have been decimated.  Some have lost more heavily even to a fifth or fourth of their population. Station day and boarding schools have been closed and pupils returned to their towns, but January finds the plague well-nigh spent and schools reassembling”.

By the beginning of 1919, the epidemic had reached Stanleyville from the Katanga while the strain originating in Leopoldville had infected Congo River communities as far upstream as Bumba, 250 kilometers downstream from Stanleyville.
The original hospital for Congolese in Leopoldville.  Now known as l'Hôpital du Rive.
The government imposed strict limitations on travel and transportation between cities and rural areas. Shipping on the river was suspended for three weeks.  This had a knock-on effect on other economic activity and the food supply chain for Congolese workers in the city failed. Only direct intervention by local authorities prevented famine.  Schools closed.  Death among prison inmates was particularly high. Medical facilities were rudimentary. The only hospital serving Congolese was located in Leopoldville on a site just above the rapids (now known as l'Hôpital du Rive, above), and its 100-bed capacity was stretched to more than 300. In addition, a small dispensary was located in Kinshasa (Nov. 26, 2012).
Quarantine facilities for tuberculosis patients
In a letter to the Tribune Congolaise in April 1919 after epidemic had subsided, a Kinshasa resident reported there were:

“Very few deaths among the white population.  The scourge found a well-prepared fertile ground among the native population where death does its massive harvest; shall we ever know how many of these poor misérables died of this epidemic. The situation was already precarious in the light of the fact that famine was threatening certain regions like Middle Congo and Lower-Congo and Mayumbe.  Many Blacks died from these regions because, being underfed, they could not put up any resistance again: death!  They could be seen collapsing in the streets and dying at the very spots where they fell after long hours and hours of agony”. 
(Tribune Congolaise, April 17, 1919, cited in Sabakinu, 1984, translation in the original)
 Kinshasa cité, possibly Ndolo (Barumbu), note river on horizon.
In its annual presentation to the Belgian Chamber of Deputies in 1919, the Ministry of Colonies focused on the economic consequences of the epidemic -- citing nearly 3,000 tons of exports idled up river from the port at Kinshasa out of an annual shipment of 30,000 tons. The Chamber was also apprised that the expected shortfall in tax revenues in 1919 was also due to the pandemic. The report acknowledged that it was impossible to determine how many Congolese died across the colony because the Ministry only reported cases specifically treated in its medical facilities, which were primarily located in the European towns. However, 60% of those treated were flu cases, of which 4.8 % died, and the Ministry estimated that hundreds of thousands of Congolese perished.  Out of an estimated six million people in the colony, the death toll from the epidemic would be upwards of 300,000.  The New York Times, reporting from Brussels on April 24, 1919, cited estimates of as many as 500,000 deaths among Congolese.
Another view of the Kinshasa cité.
The colonial government public health system was already coping with on-going epidemics of sleeping sickness, infantile paralysis, cholera, small pox as well as influenza. Sleeping sickness was a major challenge, because it devastated the Congolese workforce necessary to keep the colonial economic machine going. The colonial health service had an extensive monitoring system in place, checking arrivals on river boats, and imposing quarantine.  By February 1919, the epidemic had eased in Kinshasa and Leopoldville.
Quarantine camp for Small Pox victims.
The influenza pandemic was transformational for Congolese urban dwellers. As the author of the report to the Chamber in 1918 observed, the higher salaries offered in cities did not compensate for inadequate housing, insufficient and mediocre food, exposure to accidents and risk of disease.  Belgian labor policy considered the Congolese to be lazy and therefore formal work was seen as a moral obligation and contributing to the colonial civilizing mission.  The virulent flu epidemic reinforced these apprehensions among Congolese, and the author argued, labor policy must increasingly be responsive to self-interest rather than relying on compulsion.
Another view of the Kinshasa business district (Now Ave. Isiro).

  • American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, 1919. Annual Report.
  • Baptist Missionary Society, 1919, Annual Report.
  • Belgium, Chambre des Représentants, « Rapport annuel sur l’activité de la colonie du Congo Belge présenté aux chambres législatives », 1918 & 1919
  • Cornet, René-Jules, 1971. Bwana Munganga, Academie Royale des Sciences d’Outremer.
  • L'Eglise Catholique au Zaire: un siècle de croissance (1880-1980), 1979. Edition du secrétariat de l’épiscopat. 
  • Sabakinu Kivilu, 1984. “Population and Health in Zaire during the Colonial Period from the End of the 19th Century to 1960”, Transafrican Journal of History, Vol. 13, pp. 92-109.


  1. Fascinating, thank you! I don't know where you get all these historical photos.

  2. Very interesting article.Informative. Well researched article. Many thanks Mwana mboka.👍🏾🙏🏾

  3. Super , votre site ! Je suis arrivé à 4 mois à Léo, en octobre 1950. Mon Papa a travaillé à la Citas (Avenue Paul Hauzeur, aujourd'hui Wagenia) Puis il est passé à la Cenwarran (Kingabwa, Route des Poids Lourds) qu'il a dirigée jusqu'en 1975 (àLubumbashi) Les Congolais rencontrés à Bruxelles sont étonnés de mon Lingala me surnomment aussi Mwana Mboka! Bravo ! Thierry

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