No point returning this mail to sender.
BJØRN BERGE COLLECTS POSTAGE STAMPS FROM COUNTRIES THAT NO LONGER EXIST, FROM LABUAN TO VAN DIEMEN’S LAND AND OTHER NON-PLACES IN BETWEEN.
Stamp collectors have a reputation for being a little particular about the objects of their affection: as a rule of thumb, the more pristine the stamp, the greater its value. Bjørn Berge has a different view. “An unused stamp isn’t especially exciting,” he writes in Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 18401975. “The more signs there are of handling and of life, the more valuable it feels.”
What Berge does share with his fellow philatelists is a love of the rare. Indeed, the 50 stamps featured in Nowherelands might qualify among some of the rarest: each belongs to a country that no longer exists. Some of these places were around for half a century, others only a few weeks. All bothered printing their own tiny, envelope-bound emblems.
This wasn’t a purely practical measure. As Berge writes, propaganda was often at play. “Countries will forever try to present themselves exactly the way they want to be seen: as more dependable… or better at the business of government than they actually are.” The Sultanate of Upper Yafa is a good example: despite lacking a working postal system, the Middle Eastern state issued its own stamps in 1967, giving it the appearance of a stable, mail-carrying nation. Cape Juby pulled off a similarly enterprising stunt in 1919, when it printed its own name over unused Spanish stamps and claimed them as its own.
Though each stamp paints a positive image of its state, many belie a dark past. The first Van Diemen’s Land stamp was issued not long after the British claimed victory in the war against the state’s Aboriginal inhabitants. Meanwhile, the peaceful-looking crane featured on Manchukuo’s should bring a shudder to anyone who knows their Chinese history. (Thousands in the Japanese puppet state were killed in a series of lethal biological tests.) Others are less sinister, such as Eastern Karelia, which fought (and lost) the Soviets for independence in 1922. But few are unmarked by violence of one kind or another.
The stories behind each of Berge’s stamps are as diverse as the former countries that printed them. Uniting them is what they represent: a failed dream. One that was willed into existence – however briefly – by a piece of paper and some ink.
Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 is out now through Thames & Hudson.