Once forgotten, 1918 Spanish flu memorial gains following amid Covid-19 scare in Goa
Right outside the expansive cemetery at Raia village in South Goa stood a stone structure covered in moss, overgrown weeds and creepers. It was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a wider road as part of highway expansion between Margao and Ponda, two towns in South Goa.
Little was known or spoken about the structure but its engraved inscription bore testimony to its true purpose. “E M (Em Memória) das vítimas de gripe de 1918” (In Memory of the Victims of the Flu of 1918) reads its plaque.
Until earlier this year, the stone monolith that once had a cross at the top, which had collapsed due to lack of care, was given very little attention. That changed in July-August. As coronavirus (Covid-19) cases emerged in the village, people began flocking to the memorial, turning to it to pray for the survival of near and dear ones.
On Sunday, October 11, work on restoration of the cross was completed and it was reconsecrated in a simple ceremony. Ever since, it has seen a steady stream of devotees and visitors who light candles and pray for the recovery of those ailing from Covid-19.
“The Regidor (village administrator), Olivo Costa, and village elders got together to built this structure in memory of those who had died,” recalled Margarida Tavora e Costa whose lineage traces back to Olivo Costa.
Legend has it that the village of Raia and the neighbouring village of Rachol, which is host to a Portuguese era fort and military garrison, were particularly affected by the Spanish flu of 1918 and as the bodies began filling the cemetery, the villagers had to expand the burial grounds in what would resemble a mass grave. The memorial was built atop the extended burial grounds to remember those who had perished. Locals say 318 people are believed to have died of Spanish flu in and around the village.
“If not for the events of this year, who would have thought about this memorial? Even I didn’t know it existed,” Margarida said, adding that she was inspired to take the initiative to restore the memorial with help from her extended family.
It is one of the two known memorials dedicated to victims of 1918 Spanish flu that still exist in Goa, the other one being in Salvador do Mundo.
Stories surrounding the 1918 epidemic are mainly passed down through oral tradition. Anna Antonetta Fernandes, 88, recalled through her son, Marius Fernandes, the stories that she was told by her mother of the ‘gripe’ that afflicted the land leading to a piling up of bodies in her village that were carried up the hill away from human habitation and buried without any ceremony.
In her book about health in colonial Goa, Fatima da Silva Gracias spoke of minimal effort by the government to contain the pandemic. “The first case of influenza in Goa was reported in 1917 in Bardez taluka (North Goa). It coincided with acute shortage of provisions. In Siolim (Bardez), eight to ten persons died daily. The outbreak did not attract any particular attention of the government as cases in the early period were not fatal. Able-bodied workers suffered the most on account of influenza. Pregnant mothers who suffered from influenza either died or miscarried or delivered premature babies,” Gracias said in her book.
“The inhabitants of this territory in panic would run away at the mere sight of a dead body being carried away. The Government did not implement immediate measures to control or prevent the spread of the disease,” she wrote.
Figures of how many succumbed to the flu across the colony are also hard to come by. The memorials are all that remains of the 1918 pandemic and today, they are relevant again.
“I had a vision to restore what was done by our ancestors because of our family memory. During this time of the pandemic, we have to give back and we have to come together,” Margarida said.
As to whether the memorial will still be demolished for the highway project, local MLA Aleixo Lourenço said, “There is no question of removing the Cross now, from where it stands. Whoever comes up with these ideas has an evil mind.”