What happened in Africa after the pandemic of 1918

Something as big as a plague always remakes the religious landscape.

During the long agony of the present pandemic, we cannot fail to ask what the long-term consequences might be for religion and faith. History shows how often past pandemics have reshaped religious structures, undermining older religious establishments and sparking new healing movements and sects. To take one vital example, the epochal growth of Chris­tianity in Africa owes a great deal to one precedent that is much in our minds today: the great influenza pandemic of 1918.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, African Christianity was very weak numerically and was still dominated by European mission churches. That changed rapidly with the withdrawal of so many missionaries—and an upsurge of African-oriented movements demanding adaptations to local customs and traditions. But the real revolution occurred in 1918, when influenza struck the continent. The second and much deadlier phase of the disease began in August 1918, appearing initially in ports used for transporting military personnel and supplies. One was the British base at Freetown in Sierra Leone, giving the virus a foothold in West Africa. In­fluenza raged across the continent, from Nigeria in the west to Ethiopia and Somalia in the east. As many as five million Africans perished.

Disastrously for the prestige of the colonial empires, even the most ad­vanced European medicine and science could make little headway against the disease: Africans died the same way Europeans and Americans were dying. Administrators were alarmed to find Africans blaming white people for the spread of the disease and rejecting their medicines—reasonably enough, as the quinine and aspirin freely handed out by white doctors were useless in the circumstances. Coming at a time when Africans were angry about the demands of war, the disaster boosted anti-imperial sentiment and discredited theories of white supremacy.