Stamped Out

Smith Journal - - Contents - Writer Chris Har­ri­gan •

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.

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