The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage

The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage

This is a past Exhibition that is no longer showing – see a list of our current Exhibitions here

Between the October and December of 1918, New Zealand was struck by an influenza pandemic. In two short months approximately 9,000 New Zealanders died, a devastating blow that came at the end of the Great War which had already killed over 18,000 New Zealanders and wounded thousands more.

The Spanish flu, as it was called, swept New Zealand. Deaths came as the New Zealand troops returned home at the end of the war with disease spreading initially to military camps and then the wider civil population. The origins of how it reached New Zealand have been debated but the agreed source was a ship or ships and the returning soldiers from World War I.

This exhibition focuses on a ship heading the other way, HMNZT Tahiti as it transported members of the 40th Reinforcements from New Zealand to England, fatefully stopping in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Africa) where the flu had already taken hold and quickly spread amongst the troops earning Tahiti the name of the Death Ship.

With 1,117 military personnel and 100 support staff on board the passengers quickly became infected just days after departing Sierra Leone. By the time it reached England 90% of the passengers were infected and 78 had died with a further 9 more dying after arrival. A medical inspection of the remaining passengers revealed only 260 men were fit for service.

This exhibition attempts to recreate the cramped conditions onboard the Tahiti and includes a stylised ship’s deck with ‘breakout’ rooms/spaces. It also incorporates varying artefacts from the time, and the personnel aboard. The exhibition runs until February 2023.

Click here and watch this video. Also check out 13 stories of passengers onboard the fateful voyage and find out their fate here.