The 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in Corozal, Belize: An Unclaimed Letter Rediscovered
Grant D. Jones & Joel Wainwright
April 21, 2020– Belize is presently facing the most serious public health crisis experienced by any living Belizean. Fortunately, as we write, the country still has only 18 confirmed, positive cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus.(1) Thanks to the quarantine, the transmission of the virus outside of Belize City and San Ignacio has been slow. If the quarantine and public health measures are followed assiduously, there is reason to hope that COVID-19 will spread very slowly and not overwhelm the medical system. Of course, the social and economic costs of this crisis — the social isolation, crash in tourism, and slowdown of trade, to say nothing of illness and possible deaths — are significant, with their own costs and consequences. These are hard times. It is normal to feel a sense of deep disorientation.
One potent tonic for this sentiment can be found in historical reflection, which can provide a sense of direction or at least a bracing sense of hope. Recall that this is not Belize’s first experience with a public health crisis caused by coronavirus. Just over one century ago, Belize was devastated by the 1918-1919 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Like COVID-19, the H1N1 virus entered the human community from another species, then rapidly spread around the world. It was far more devastating, however, resulting in 20 to 40 million deaths.(2)
From September 1918 to March 1919, the flu crossed the entire Caribbean, causing an estimated 100,000 deaths regionally.(3) It entered Belize (British Honduras) in late September 1918, at the same time as Jamaica, Panama, and Guatemala.(4) The flu spread across the colony from south to north, beginning in Dangriga. It brought devastation to all the district towns, striking Corozal, Orange Walk, and the surrounding Maya villages especially hard.(5) An estimated 200 people had died by February 1919 in the Corozal District alone. In Orange Walk, the dead numbered 330. These are likely underestimates since colonial state institutions were skeletal in the out-districts. The author of the February 1919 report on the consequences of the flu, Colonial Surgeon (and archaeologist-ethnographer) Thomas Gann, acknowledged that he had no data on its effects in rural Toledo, since “it was impossible to reach the Indian settlements of the interior [to provide] relief measures”. Across the colony, people died so quickly, and under conditions of such distress, that many bodies were buried hurriedly on the margins of their homes or villages.(6)
In 1977 or 1978, while living in Corozal, coauthor Grant Jones came into possession of an old envelope under long-forgotten circumstances. Apparently empty of contents, the envelope remained among Jones’s files until March of this year, when he noticed its 1919 postmarks. Much to his surprise, he found a tightly folded letter inside which provided surprising new information about the flu pandemic. This fascinating letter, dated February 20, 1919, is written in formal English on one page of thin, faintly lined paper, apparently a page torn from a school notebook. It was signed in Corozal by Nassaria Hassock, who was writing to her daughter, one Mrs. Francis John, with an address in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She pleaded for news of her daughter’s condition and reported details of the dreadful impact of the flu on Corozal Town, where the Hassocks resided at that time.(7) The text of the letter reads (with spacing approximating the original) as follows:
Corozal. February 20th, 1919
Mrs. Frances [sic] John
My dear Daughter, Your letter dated June 16th/17 reached us Sept 19/18, and we were all astonished that you never received three letters sent you by me. We are all anxious to know whether you are alive, for the “Flu” has killed so many persons here & hearing how rapid it was all over the W.I. we will be so glad to hear from you.
I am sorry to inform you that your Uncle Theodocio and my mother, Señora Leonora your grandmother both have died. Donatila got married to Leonido Sabido in August last. She too was very ill, but has re-covered. My goddaughter Laura is dead and also her mamma Herminita. Laura left me a child but John & family want to take the child away.
My godson Modesto is also dead. I have taken Fidelia from Mrs Alice Ireland & have her at home.
Ethel Matura’s little baby is also dead. Mrs. White & hers are very well, so also is Alex & John. Now this is the fourth letter I am sending you, and if you get it write me quickly. All the family and friends send love to you. If you want to come write us saying directly how much it will cost – the name of your post office, and when you desire, so that we may do what we can to help you. Frances, Mrs. Messiah’s daughter is dead; also Mr Chase. Papa & myself join in love to you and Mr John.
Your affectionate mother,
A letter like this provides us with an extremely valuable record, for it provides a singular glimpse into the human sentiments during the 1918 flu. Yet, like most historical documents, it provides no certainties. We offer a few observations, recognizing that these are hypotheses.
The text and language employed provide a few insights into the family and the social position and subjectivity of its author. Nasaria, the author’s given name, is Spanish (but Anglicized as ‘Nassaria’), indicating that she was probably among the mestizo settlers who moved to the region during the Caste War of Yucatán. We assume that her husband was one John Hassock, who was possibly an investor in the region’s nascent small-scale sugar production. During the 1910s the British community in the Corozal region was very small. Her English writing is fluid, suggesting a relatively high level of education for a woman in 1919—yet the stationary is not formal, and there is little evidence that Ms. Hassock had a particularly wealthy background. Her reference to Spanish names (such as “your Uncle Theodocio and my mother, Señora Leonora”) in her family implies that her birth family was part of the Spanish-speaking community of Corozal. Perhaps Ms. Hassock, having been married to a wealthier Englishman, had been educated in Belize City? We can only speculate.
Regardless, the letter is a record of tragedy. It notes no fewer than eight deaths. So many children are orphaned that conflict arises over how many the living can care for (for example, “John & family want to take [Laura’s] child away”). The mother has written three times before to her daughter but had received no reply. Given that this, “the fourth letter”, returned five months later to Belize City via New York City from Trinidad, unclaimed and presumably unopened—it seems likely that the daughter and her husband had also died in the pandemic. This is literally a dead letter, finally to come alive a century later.
Curiously, in August 2013, Amandala published a request from Ms. Nayeli Parra of Mexico for genealogical information about members of her mother’s side of her family. She requested help from readers “to locate our family in Belize …. The name of my grandfather was John Hassock, my granduncle is Simeon Agapito Hassock, and there is also Greta Ruby Hassock.”(8) No response to her request was recorded in Amandala. We have attempted to contact the author of the letter but have not received a response. We hope that readers who have knowledge of the people whose names appear in this letter from 1919, as well as their descendants, will feel free to share that knowledge with Amandala and the authors of this report.
Ms. Parra’s request ties the family described in Nasaria Hassock’s 1919 letter to John Hassock and Simeon Hassock, who were almost certainly the sons of the elder John and Nasaria Hassock. The younger John Hassock was a Corozal voter in 1938.(9) Simeon Agapito Hassock, educated in London, was an attorney, magistrate, elected legislator for Belize District, and eventually Attorney General.(10) As the Editor of Amandala noted in reply to Parra’s 2013 letter, he was “a Senator appointed by the Opposition NIP in 1965, and perhaps again in 1969. He was a Deputy Leader of the NIP at the time the party entered an alliance with the PDM and the Liberal Party to form the UDP in September of 1973.”
The discovery of Ms. Hassock’s touching letter reminds us all of the tragic toll of every highly contagious disease. It also provides a testament to the need for personal communication in times of crisis. In 1919, however, any written communication was painfully slow, knowledge of the wider world’s experiences virtually non-existent, and medical understanding of diseases woefully inadequate. But even with today’s scientific knowledge and instant communication systems, the power of personal experience remains no less moving and important than it was a century ago.
Grant D. Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina. He has published extensively on the social and cultural history of Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala with a focus on the Maya. Joel Wainwright (email@example.com) is Professor of Geography at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He is author, most recently, of Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of our Planetary Future (Verso), winner of the 2019 Sussex Prize for International Theory.
1 Given the lack of widespread testing, this may be a significant undercount. Still, the covid-19 situation in Belize is much better than we would have anticipated.
2 The typical name, the ‘Spanish flu’, is a misnomer, since the virus did not enter the human community in Spain, but in the USA or China (the scholarly debate has not resolved this issue). We will call it the ‘1918 flu’. The complete genetic sequence of the 1918 flu virus was recently sequenced: Reid, A., Fanning, T., Janczewski, T. and Taubenberger, J. 2000. Characterization of the 1918 “Spanish” influenza virus neuraminidase gene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97(12), 6785-6790.
3 Killingray, D. 1994. The influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 in the British Caribbean. Social History of Medicine 7(1), 59-87.
4 Vollmer, S. and Wójcik, J. 2017. The long-term consequences of the global 1918 influenza pandemic: A systematic analysis of 117 IPUMS international census data sets. Accessed 17 April 2020 at https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-con...nfluenza-pandemic_Vollmer_and_Wojcik.pdf
5 Gann, Thomas. 1918. Report on the recent epidemic of influenza, Minute Paper 3527-18, accessed 17 April 2020 at https://ambergriscaye.com/forum/ubb...nish-influenza-in-british-honduras.html.
Gann’s 1918 report is our source for data in this paragraph.
6 For an account of this practice at San Pedro, see https://www.ambergristoday.com/content/25-years-ago/2007/december/06/epidemic-san-pedro.
7 The stamps on the envelope remind us of the complex international (US-centered) pathways involved with communications at that time. The letter was sent from Corozal on 02/20/1920, received Belize City same day; postmarked New York 03/14/1919; received Port of Spain 03/25/1919; certified “unclaimed” and departed Port of Spain 03/31/31; received New York 06/17/1919; departed New York 07/10/1919; received Belize City 07/20/1919.
8 See https://amandala.com.bz/news/simeon-agapito-hassock-family-tree/
9 See https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00011470/00005/550?search=hassock
10 On Simeón Agapito Hassock, see Macpherson, Anne. 2007. From Colony to Nation. U Nebraska, p 172; also, this curious 1974 cable from the US Embassy, accessed 21 April 2020 from Wikileaks: https://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1974BELIZE00463_b.html
=================The Epidemic In San Pedro
Did you know that there was an epidemic in San Pedro many ago? Well, don’t get scared that you missed it if you moved here around 1980. This epidemic actually occurred in 1918. It was part of a worldwide epidemic known as the Spanish Influenza that started right after World War I in the trenches of France. In a short time it reached the colony of British Honduras (Belize).
Back then, it would take a year for such a virus to make its way around the world. Although the virus probably originated in China, as do most flu virus variants, this flu appeared first in the British trenches on the Western Front in April 1918, then among German forces a few days later, then among French troops; it was thought the disease was caused by the horrible conditions of trench warfare.
At least 21 million people died worldwide, more than were killed in the fighting in the First World War. (Some historians say that large numbers of flu deaths went unreported in less developed countries. Recent research has shown that as many as 20 million people could have died in India, raising the death toll to between 40 million and 50 million.)
It was called the Spanish flu because it was first officially noticed in Spain in May 1918. It went on to kill an estimated eight million people there.
Soldiers returning home from the trenches at war’s end didn’t come back alone. They brought with them the flu virus. Although the flu normally kills the very young and the very old, this epidemic was most virulent among those aged 20 to 40. In some communities, it was a criminal offence to shake hands. Gatherings of more than six people were banned. Schools, theatres and other public buildings were closed.
The virus was tracked along international shipping lanes, from Europe to North America, then to Asia, Africa, Brazil and eventually the South Pacific.
Now in the age of international jet travel, a virus can spread in a few days. Epidemics are unpredictable in their timing but they do occur in cycles. And most scientists agree we’re due.
Danny Vasquez, a Sanpedrano, wrote his memoirs telling us that when the flu arrived in San Pedro the men squeezed the lime juice and mixed it with rum and took that as medicine. He jokingly remarked that one day he and three men drank one bucketful of rum mixed with lime juice. The first one to die as a result of the flu was one Manuela Villanueva. Then there were two Sansorez followed by one Julio Tolosa.
Danny recalled that at first there was one death a day but then there were two and then three deaths per day. The policeman ordered that the church bell not be rung as was customary so that the villagers would not be alarmed. At first the villagers bought some pine lumber from Alamilla’s Store but soon they ran out of lumber. Then they wrapped the dead on a piece of cloth and gave them a decent burial. Then the food was getting scarce. Those who were healthy got some fish and coconuts to be consumed. One villager, Francisco Verde grew arrowroot in the Basil Jones Area. This was ground to make flour. Before the epidemic nobody liked this to eat, but during the epidemic, everybody loved it.
Danny recalls that towards the end there were ten people dying each day and they buried their loved ones at night so as not to continue to scare the villagers. By the end of the epidemic which disappeared like a mystery about half of the population of San Pedro had died.
Other folks tell us by word of mouth that since so many people died and there being no coffins, a lot of people were buried in their own yards all over the village. That is why if you dig anywhere around the village you are almost sure to find some skeletons. This is probably the result of the Spanish Influenza epidemic that occurred more than twenty five years ago in the year 1918.Ambergris Today