A new book looks at political history through the vintage stamps of short-lived countries.
You may be able to buy Forever Stamps in the U.S., but a stamp can never truly last forever.—because the government that issues it might not be around forever. A forthcoming book called Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 examines 19th and 20th century international politics through the lens of vintage stamps once used to send mail in countries and territories that no longer exist, like the Panama Canal Zone (once a U.S. territory, now officially part of Panama) and the French protectorate in Morocco (which lasted from 1912 to 1955). Check out 11 different historic stamps from these since-dissolved postal authorities below.
1. THE REPUBLIC OF SOUTH MALUKU
Historically, the Maluku islands (also known as the Spice Islands) were incredibly valuable as the only place in the world where clove and nutmeg grew, and European powers jostled for dominance there starting in the 16th century until the Dutch East India Company gained control of the region. Shortly after Indonesia became independent from the Netherlands in 1949, the South Moluccas declared their own independence, hoping to become an autonomous state. The resistance was quashed by soldiers from the Republic of Indonesia, but the Republic of South Maluku still exists in the form of government-in-exile based in the Netherlands.
2. SOUTH KASAI
South Kasai was a state that tried to secede from the newly independent Republic of Congo in 1960. It didn’t reject the sovereignty of the federal government entirely at first, but aimed for more self-governing powers. It did, however, declare its own president and prime minister, adopt a constitution, and print stamps. In 1962, increasingly authoritarian South Kasaian president (and architect of the secession movement) Albert Kalonji was deposed by a military coup, and the province was reintegrated into the Congo.
Manchuria, a region of northeast China near Korea, was controlled by the Chinese emperor until the 1900s. In the 1930s, Japan invaded and created a puppet state there, called Manchukuo. (Japanese propaganda preferred to call them brother nations.) Only a few years after its 1932 founding, Manchuko became the site of Japanese chemical and biological weapons testing, largely carried out on Russian and Chinese civilians. Around 10,000 died as a result of the experiments before the program ended in 1945. The region was reincorporated into China that year after Imperial Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces.
4. THE GERMAN-OCCUPIED CHANNEL ISLANDS
Guernsey and Jersey together are known as the Channel Islands, due to their position in the English Channel between the UK and France. Now the islands operate their own independent postal service, but both used British stamps up until 1969—except for a brief period when the Germans occupied the region during World War II. The German forces recruited local artists to create postage stamps for the occupied islands, and many took the opportunity to subtly stick it to the Nazis, incorporating elements of British seals and anti-German abbreviations like Vs (short for “V for Victory”) and AA and BB (short for “Atrocious Adolf” and “Bloody Benito.” The one from Guernsey above (issued in 1941) features the coat of arms of the British king at the time, George VI, imagery that the Germans failed to recognize the significance of. And can you spot the V in the Jersey stamp? (It's inverted above the price.)
5. THE PANAMA CANAL ZONE
In 1903, Panama leased the U.S. the area that would become the Panama Canal, as well as the five miles of land on either side of the canal. The Canal Zone was governed by an appointee of the U.S. president until 1979, when it was finally turned back over to Panama. (This stamp was made in 1931.) The Americans still had their hands in the isthmus’s trade route for decades to come, though. The U.S. continued to be involved in operating the canal until 1999.
6. THE TUVAN PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC
The Tuvan People’s Republic was an independent country from 1921 to 1944 before becoming part of the Soviet Union. Originally called Tannu Tuva, the region had historically been under Chinese, Mongolian, and Turkic rule before becoming a Russian protectorate in 1911. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, it declared independence. However, no other countries recognized its sovereignty. It eventually became an official Soviet satellite state and was later incorporated into Russia.
Inini was spun off as a separate colony from French Guiana—then a penal colony—in 1931, but it didn’t really make its own stamps. The inland colony issued French Guianan stamps with an overprint like the one above (created in 1929, when it was still a territory within the larger state of French Guiana). Inini was meant to be exploited for its natural resources, and the French had designs of setting up bustling agriculture, mining, and forestry industries there. The project never really got off the ground, and in 1946, both Inini and the rest of French Guiana became an “overseas department” of France, a status it retains today.
Allenstein wasn’t really its own country, per se, but in 1920, it got to independently decide its fate. In the wake of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, any of the northern European region’s residents over the age of 15 got to vote whether it became part of Weimar Germany’s East Prussia to its north or part of Poland to its south. In order to publicize the important upcoming vote, Allenstein issued stamps that would become worthless after the issue was decided four-and-a-half months later in August 1920. In this case, an overprint of a German stamp of “Mother Germania” says “Treaty of Versailles.” After an election plagued by large-scale fraud, voter intimidation, and fears that Poland would fall to Lenin soon anyway, Germany won the election with almost 98 percent of the vote, and Allenstein became part of East Prussia.
9. THE REPUBLIC OF BIAFRA
From 1967 to 1970, Biafra existed as a coastal state sandwiched between Nigeria and Cameroon, the result of conflict between Nigeria’s Muslim majority and the Christian Igbo population in the country’s southeast. It became a sovereign state in 1967, named after the Bight of Biafra along its coast. In 1968, it began using Nigerian stamps overprinted with the name Biafra, but later began making its own unique stamps like the one above, printed on the country’s first anniversary. Biafra didn’t last long as a country, in part because the continental shelf off its coastline contained valuable oil deposits. It was incorporated back into Nigeria is 1970.
10. THE BRITISH SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS
Located in the waters between South America and Antarctica, the South Shetland Islands were a hotspot for whaling and seal hunting throughout the 19th and early 20th century. In the early 1900s, Britain laid claim to the territory, but largely ignored the islands until the 1940s, when Chile and Argentina began staking their own claims. In 1944, worried that Argentina might allow the Nazis to set up a base there, the British stationed their own forces on the islands, swiftly issuing stamps to make their dominance clear. They used stamps from their nearby territory in the Falkland Islands with an overprint that read “Shetland Islands.” The stamps included a portrait of King George VI and, in this case, a research ship called the William Scoresby that was used in Britain’s military operation there. The South Shetlands are no longer under British rule, though—or anyone else’s. Per the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, they and the rest of the Antarctic continent can be used by any country (for peaceful purposes, that is).
11. EASTERN KARELIA
Finland declared its independence after the Russian Revolution in 1917, delineating its borders in a treaty with the new Soviet Union in 1920. But these new borders left majority-Finnish Eastern Karelia stranded in the Soviet Union. The Finns of Karelia rebelled, but the resistance was largely quashed by February 1922. Just before they admited defeat, they issued stamps like the one above, which were only valid for a little more than two weeks between January 31 and February 16 of 1922. Eastern Karelia became an autonomous Soviet republic later that year. These days, it’s part of the larger Russian federal republic of Karelia.
You can preorder Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 for $16 on Amazon.