Is William Head a link to the origin of Spanish Flu?

Some 85,000 workers, recruited into the Chinese Labour Corps, passed through William Head Quarantine Station in 1917 and 1918, and thousands more when returning from the battlefields of Europe in 1919 and 1920.

Chinese Labour Corps at William Head Quarantine Station, March 28, 1918, about to embark for France via Vancouver and Halifax. Photographer uncertain. City of Vancouver Archives, Major Matthews Collection. Catalogue No. Mil P194.

Was William Head visited by Spanish influenza in 1917 or early 1918? Is it possible the Chinese Labour Corps carried the virus to Europe?

The weight of scientific and historical evidence now leans towards, now away from, an original source of the virus in north China. There was a pandemic there in early 1917 — but of what?

Even if China could be proven the origin of the “Spanish” flu,  the pandemic could have spread to Europe along several pathways. Beside the British CLC route across Canada, French-sponsored Chinese labourers numbering some 45,000 travelled westward through the Suez Canal to Marseilles. Another theory posits diffusion overland to Russia and from there to the German east front.

Some who were detained at the quarantine station (on federal authority) never left the place, and a small cemetery bears witness.

The cemetery has 35 Chinese graves but is now within William Head [Penitentiary] Institution, so inaccessible to the public.

Clues to the pandemic’s origin may be in the paperwork, if any, for those deaths.

Mark Osborne Humphries, ”Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.” War in History 21 (January 2014), pp.  51-88.

Peter Johnson, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959. Victoria: Heritage House Publishing Company, 2013, pp. 147-57.

“William Head Cemetery,” article on Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria website.