This Universal Disease Reached Our Home

How did the Latvians face the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Brazil?

A week ago Brazil completed 100 days of lockdown. Our country is the second largest Covid-19 hub in the world, accounting 55,000 deaths. Latvian communities in Brazil had to cancel their events because of public health concerns. For the first time in 70 years, the LBBA will not hold the yearly Latvian Congress. The traditional Līgo party in Nova Odessa was canceled, as well as the Latvian Meetings in Curitiba.

Although alarming, 2020 is not the first time Latvian Brazilians face a global pandemic. 102 years ago, the dreaded Spanish Flu plagued Brazilian cities and piled up corpses on the street – and threatened the young latvian colonies in Brazil.

Thanks to the Letters from Rio Novo Archive, we can get a sense of what the colonists thought at the time. On the website are numerous letters exchanged between friends and relatives. In this article, we will only highlight the parts concerning the Spanish Flu, but the complete letters can be accessed by clicking on their respective headings (place and date).

As we have already discussed in previous articles, the first immigrants from Latvia arrived in Brazil in 1890, creating the colony of Rio Novo, in the state of Santa Catarina. In the following decades, several of these colonists spread throughout the south and southeast of Brazil, building cities like Ijuí, Urubici and Nova Odessa.

The epidemic was brought to Brazil by English sailors in Rio de Janeiro in September 1918. But the Brazilian authorities neglected the news of the alarming pandemic that engulfed Europe. At the same time, the population was ignorant of the danger that was to come. It didn’t take long for the disease to reach exorbitant figures. In Rio de Janeiro, 600 thousand fell ill, 66% of the city.

In the year of the pandemic, some Latvian students from the colony of Rio Novo studied in the capital. The first mention of the dreaded disease was in a letter written by Pastor Karlis Leimanis (Carlos Leiman) to his friend Reinalds Puriņš (Reynaldo Purim), who at the time studied at the Theological Seminary of Southern Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro.

Karlis Leimanis (Riga, March 7, 1880) was pastor of the Baptist Church of Rio Novo and director of the colony school.

Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, October 27, 1918

The rumors here, coming from Rio, are to frighten the world. What’s the reality there? Has the “Hespanhola” reached the College yet? Is it still working? We closed our school even without reasons of “bigger force”, because here the “one” does not inspire fear, but the people are alarmed and are the worst. What is your destination for holidays? Already decided? I am proposing a deal to Mr. Reno – If he accepts …? I don’t know – but I want to know your opinion – directly and frankly.

Reinalds Puriņš, born in the colony in 1897, attended the same school and church that Leiman was a pastor. Almost like a mentor, they were both great friends and discussed the issues of the colony. Reinalds had left Rio Novo the previous year, 1917, to study theology in Rio de Janeiro.

The next mention of the infamous disease was made by her sister, Olga Puriņa, in a letter from Rio Novo:

Olga Puriņa (Rio Novo, 1901), Reinalds’ sister, lived in the colony with her family.

Rio Novo, December 18, 1918

(…) It has been a long time since we heard from you, and that is why we did not know where you had been on vacation. The letter of 18 November was lost, as well as that of 7 October.


(…) The letters are probably lost, since several ships were not allowed to enter the port of Laguna because of many passengers with the “disease”. So, no wonder that so many letters were lost.

We are all healthy. None of us got this disease. Here in Rio Novo some caught the flu and in Orleans some have already died, but none of us. Some are so afraid that they will not leave their property to avoid getting the disease, but I often go to Orleans and I didn’t get anything.

Weeks ago the Griķi were sick, but nothing serious. Old Somers is very sick, but not with the flu. So Lūcija sent Dad to make the coffin. Dad was there with the Griķi all day and we were worried about the possibility that he got the disease, but nothing. Well, there would be again [the possiblity].

(…) [Jurgis Karklis] said that in Porto Alegre people die like flies and that vehicles walk around the streets picking up corpses – more than a thousand a day, which makes it impossible to bury everyone. In São Paulo and Rio it is also the same; he was saved because he carried a glass of cresol close to his nose at all times. But he is gaudy, very pompous. (…)

The colony’s relative geographic isolation – close to the coastal mountain range – delayed the arrival of the disease for only a few months. While entire Brazilian cities were devastated, the settlers only knew about the news from travelers. The first infections among Latvians began on Christmas 1918.

Olga Puriņa. Unfortunately, the letters sent by her brother have not been preserved.

Rio Novo, January 8, 1919

(…) This time I have nothing good to write to you. We would be doing well if it weren’t for this epidemic, this universal disease, which reached our home. You may have already forgotten about this disease, but it is only now that it has come this far.

This epidemic has been in Orleans for a long time and here in Rio Novo too, but here at home it started with a headache and tiredness, body slack. As the day was very hot, I thought it was because of that. The other day I had nothing more, just a little cough, and so my illness gave way with a good sleep. Lūcija had to lie down on New Year’s eve. Arthur and Mamma after the New Year. We are hardly bedridden, but only with a lot of cough. But with Papus [“dad”, Jānis Puriņš], who always held on while the others were sick, started on Sunday and he went to bed- and it’s longer than us all together. Today it looks a little better.

It seems that there was no home where no one was sick. Now the Klaviņi and Leimani are sick. Here in the colonies it is not so strong, but there in Orleans several Brazilians have already died due to this disease; also many, after having a hard time, came to recover.

In Orleans, two “hospitals” were improvised: one at the cinema and the other at Jurkis Jakobsons’ house. Some Latvians who went to visit these places said that in a place like this it is very likely that the patients will only get worse and will hardly be able to heal, as there is not the slightest ventilation: the windows are all kept completely closed and it gets hotter inside than a sauna.

(…) [About Christmas festivities] Visitors were not as many as the other years; one explanation is that due to the flu epidemic, several people have avoided gatherings, (…)

[Written on the side:]
9-1-19 – Today I received the newspapers from 12/14/18. Letter, none. I will have to wait longer. Sincere memories from Olga.

Fortunately, Olga’s family survived the epidemic. However, the disease took some of the older settlers. It is not known how many Latvians died due to the Spanish flu of 1918, but reports seem to indicate that colonies were not hit as hard as cities.

Olga passed away due to hookworm complications in 1926.

Rio Novo, February 5, 1919

(…) We are thankful now, thank God, all are healthy and we can all work again. As I already wrote in another letter, that “Spanish” [Spanish flu] settled in at home, but now he’s gone and not all of us were very affected. The one who stayed in bed the most was Paps who stayed a whole week.

Work, as always, we have too much. (…)

[Postcard dated with Orleans’ stamp: 12 February 1919]

Old Somers died on December 20 at the Griķi’ house and the funeral was the following day. Recently, he was so bad that he didn’t recognize anyone and couldn’t move.

Jurgis Karklin, as I already wrote, is at home, but now he doesn’t hear the great “pompe” telling those great things, nor does he talk about leaving. (…)

Then, by the end of 1920, the pandemic slowly loosened its grip. Without hospitals or any aid, the latvians survived the Spanish Flu. The Colony withstood this arduous test of resilience and continued to be the home of the many, many immigrants who had made Brazil their home. However, this was not the Latvian’ last encounter with the disease:

Karlis Leimanis, before being pastor of Rio Novo, had run away from home to live among natives. The rest of his life he was a missionary in Paraná and Bahia.

Castelo (ES), July 25, 1921

Yesterday I arrived back from Vitória, where I spent a whole month traveling, I am now leaving behind 9 more leagues on horseback [almost 60 kilometers], I will be home on Saturday to start classes on Monday.

The weather is very cold and rainy and the people are sick with the Spanish flu. (…)

So it leaves us – those who live today – the task to learn from our ancestors. No matter how desperate or worrying the following years become, we can always look back and see how different, but how similar, our lives are. In the future, it will be our turn to tell our stories to new generations. The Covid-19 pandemic will become one of many challenges in the history of Latvians Brazilians. So, it is up to us to learn and preserve these stories to be told in the future.

Cover image: 1918 field hospital set up at Club Athletico Paulistano in 1918 / Reproduction
Autor: Andreis Purim
Special thanks to Alice and Arvido Purim