Contemplate, dear reader, this image of a (cancelled-to-order) stamp, nominally from Equatorial Guinea, a tiny sovereign state on the west coast of Africa that has been grievously plundered and misruled by its leaders, both under Portuguese dominion and in the half-century since independence. The stamp is pretty enough — though the full-color reproduction of an Auguste Renoir painting of a very naked, very pink, big-bosomed young woman seems a bit, well, over the top. Can you seriously imagine a beleaguered citizen of this outlaw African state finding one of these in her or his local post office, for use on outgoing mail? Not likely. Remember all those rules set by the Universal Postal Union about what constitutes a legitimate stamp? (See blog post, September 2017.) Well, this stamp breaks most of those rules. It certainly has nothing to do with Equatorial Guinea. It’s doubtful it ever went on sale in the country, or if so was widely available for purchase. It is by no possible rhetorical stretch an emblem of Equatorial Guinean culture or sovereignty.
Ditto with the second stamp portrayed here — an image of Jiminy Cricket, the animated character from the Disney film “Pinocchio,” painting an Easter egg. Huh? Tell me why this is anything but a crass effort on the part of “Grenada Grenadines” (or better put, the philatelic agents) to cash in on the market for topical stamps. I wonder if there is an envelope bearing this stamp that actually went through the mail …
There was a time, dear readers, when most stamps were legal. Sure, there were plenty of Cinderella fantasy stamps out there, indeed since the very beginning of stamps. (Read about the satirical “Mulready” covers of 1841, in the blog post of August 2017, “The First Cinderellas.”) But these only masqueraded as postage stamps. Propaganda labels in wartime were something else, as were forgeries. For the most part, stamps were produced under government supervision, readily available at post offices for citizens to buy and use to send mail. The world of extra-legal Cinderellas was pretty tame and innocent — at least until the 1960s.
As late as 1969, my copy of the Scott standard stamp catalogue listed no “illegals” or “undocumented” or “non-standard” items. Neither did my 1971 catalogue. But by 1977 there was a short section, “For the Record,” which listed “items” that “appeared on the market in the 1960s and 1970s, and have not been listed in the Scott Standard Catalogue.”
There followed 14 pages of fine print listing hundreds of stamps put out under the names of real countries, or at least real territories, as follows:
Aden (three states), Ajman (Manama), Anguilla, Bangladesh, Barbuda, Biafra, Cyprus (Turkish mail), Dubai, Fujeira, Grenada (Grenadines), Jordan, Qatar, Ras al Khaima, St.Vincent (Grenadines), Sharjah (Khor Fakkan), and Umm al Qiwain.
A few comments on this list:
** The spurious issue from Bangladesh listed in the catalogue came from 1974. It was a suspiciously anodyne souvenir sheet and set of four stamps honoring the Universal
Postal Union. At right is an example from the set, depicting what appears to be a postal runner from Bangladesh. The scene would argue in favor of this being a legitimate stamp promoting local folkways and sovereignty. Apparently not.
Also interesting is one of the first sets issued after East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971 and became Bangladesh. The set of 15 variously depicts a flag, a map and a portrait of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The catalogue bluntly notes that the set “was rejected by Bangladesh officials and not issued. Bangladesh representatives in England released these stamps, which were not valid, on Feb. 1, 1972.” The same designs appear in the first official set from Bangladesh (examples at right) — though the nation’s name is spelled in two words — Bangla and Desh. I have not learned why the other set was rejected, and illegal. I admit I have it in my collection, though. I bought it for a couple of bucks at a stamp show. I wonder if the violent and bloody birth pangs of Bangladesh had something to do with this mixup. Peace had barely been restored and the Sheikh was released from solitary confinement only in January, a month before the spurious stamps were issued. Things never really settled down under Sheikh Mujib — earnest, bespectacled, charismatic and a dogmatic socialist. In 1975, he and members of his family were gunned down by army officers during a coup that returned the region to benighted martial law and years of unrest.
While we’re on the subject of Bangladesh, how about these provisional overprints of Pakistani
stamps? The examples illustrated here are from my collection. How could I resist spending a few bucks to acquire evidence of the first philatelic yowls from a new-born nation? The impression is that these stamps were overprinted — crudely, often by hand stamp — for use during the chaotic time between East Pakistan’s demise and the formal issuing of Bangladesh postage stamps. But if so, where are the envelopes displaying cancelled copies of these overprints? Until I find such evidence, I am inclined to dismiss or at least quarantine these examples as illegals, Cinderellas, or both.
** Stamps from Biafra, the self-declared republic (1968-71) carved out of the Igbo region of southeastern Nigeria, are in a special category — with ephemeral philatelic companions such as Katanga, South Kasai and other states whose claims to sovereignty never quite made it past global review — but who still managed to produce stamps. (For more on Katanga and other breakaways in the Congo, see the blog post “10 Interesting Anecdotes about the Congo,” March 2017.)
I don’t believe the UPU recognized Biafra’s stamps. If you find a cover with cancelled Biafra stamps, save it!
** Notice that some of the philatelic phelons putting out illegal stamps have issued legal stamps right along — like Qatar and Jordan. And what about those seven Arab Trucial states that combined into United Arab Emirates in 1972? (Want a list? They are Fujeira, Ras al Khaima, Umm al Quiwain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman.) The UAE began issuing legal postage stamps, though entrepreneurial printers had been churning out philately for years for Fujeira, Ras al Khaima, Umm al Quiwain and others. Spurious and illegal! warns Scott. Beware of all those sets honoring Winston Churchill and JFK, the Olympics, famous artists, butterflies and the rest. My Scott catalogue wouldn’t even show pictures of these “non-standard” non-stamps.
No need to play this up, but is that really a succession of Catholic-approved Pietas in these art stamps from Umm al Quiwain (below) ? It’s downright ecumenical of this Muslim sheikdom to honor Christian icons on its stamps. What next — a celebration of Jewish holidays? At right is the obligatory butterfly stamp, this one from Ras al Khaima, more or less announcing that this stamp, like the others, is pretty much illegal.
** I have to add at this point: The stamps combining “Grenada” and “St. Vincent” and “Grenadines” inject fresh Caribbean zest into the fusty realm of Cinderellas, don’t you think? Care for a grenadine? Don’t mind if I do! But a stamp from Union Island, Bequia or Mustique? I’ll pass …
Grenada and St. Vincent are surrounded by a chain of islands known as the Grenadines. St. Vincent claims the Grenadines in its neighborhood — Bequia, Union Island and Mustique, all stamp-issuing entities. The islands in Grenada’s orbit include Carriacou, Petite Martinique, Ronde Island, Caille Island, Diamond Island, Large Island,
Saline Island and Frigate Island. Thus far, there is just one overall stamp-issuing authority for “Grenada Grenadines.” While some of these islands are unpopulated, how long before they, too, become stamp-issuing entities? I shudder to think …
Now we come to Bequia, a charming island in the Grenadines of St. Vincent chain. Along with Mustique and Union Island, Bequia began issuing stamps years ago — none of them UPU-approved. And just look at the themes — a U.S. locomotive, a Cadillac … what in the world does any of this have to do with Bequia? As for the pretty butterfly stamps (see below), well, don’t they speak for themselves by now?
The 500th anniversary of Michelangelos’s birth came and went, without philatelic recognition from the United States or most other nations. For some reason, Grenada Grenadines thought it necessary and appropriate to mark the event with this stamp (right). It may have been a hit with topical collectors, but you need more than stamp tongs to grasp the connection between the long-dead Italian artist and the Grenada Grenadines — Carriacou, Saline Island, Frigate Island or the rest.
My next catalogue under review is from 1986, countries A-F. In “For the Record,” it supplies a rather short list of countries whose non-standard items appeared on the stamp market in the 1960s and 1970s: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia (Khmer), Cameroun, Chad, Comoro Islands, Congo People’s Republic, Dahomey, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea.
Some notes on this list:
** The first thing that struck me was “Cambodia (Khmer).” Were these stamps from the killing fields outside Phnom Penh? I turned to the appropriate pages in the catalogue, and found stamps issued between 1972, in the midst of the fighting, through April 1975 — the very month the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. These non-standard stamps were issued while Gen. Lon Mol was trying to hold Cambodia together in the rogue state known as the “Khmer Republic.” While southeast Asia was being bombed and bloodied, the stamps blithely paid tribute to the coming summer Olympics, the UPU centenary, Copernicus — nothing else going on around here, folks. Presumably these sets (again, no pictures supplied in the catalogue) were manufactured to be marketed to collectors, somehow. I guess it worked, somewhat. I do wonder who would want these questionable stamps from Cambodia?
And by the way, what does “Khmer” mean, philatelically, in relation to the fanatical regime that came to power in 1975? Did the blood-crazed Khmer Rouge ever get around to putting out stamps during their three years of nightmarish rule and carnage? Have I asked enough questions?
Now for some answers. The “Khmer Republic” was the ethnic and civic fig leaf for Lon Nol’s military dictatorship — short-lived, as it turned out ª1973-5). As for Khmer Rouge philately, after 1975, the Swiss blogger Victor Manta sounds authoritative when he writes:
“Many people have wondered what happened to the postal system in Cambodia after the Khmer Route came to power in mid-April 1975 and subsequently renamed the country ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ With Pol Pot at the center of power, the ultra-Maoist regime is thought by many to have caused the death of as many as two to tree million Cambodians before they were overthrown in late 1978 by Vietnamese military force.
“It is generally accepted that no postage stamps were issued by the Government of Democratic Kampuchea for domestic or international use during their control over Cambodian territory from 1975 to late 1978. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was ‘disbanded’ by the KR and no official of Democratic Kampuchea was assigned to oversee the tasks of post and communications during those years of abject terror.
“Collectors of Cambodian philately will be only too familiar with the gap in stamp catalogues for this period. Stanley Gibbons includes three small paragraphs headed, ‘Democratic Kampuchea,’ as follows: ‘… the discontinuance of postal and telegraphic services. In these circumstances no stamps were issued. Five pictorial stamps inscribed “Kampuchea” without indication of currency were publicized early in 1978. If they exist their status would be propaganda labels.’ (2004) …
“However, written domestic communications did take place in Democratic Kampuchea. Such correspondence was, once again, limited to the senior hierarchy of the Khmer Rouge. Written communications were hand-carried and no postmark or postage stamp was necessary, nor used, as far as is known at present.
“Communications from Democratic Kampuchea to any person or agency outside of the country was only undertaken, as far as is known at present, by Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. No other people within the country were allowed to enter into any form of communication with the outside world.”
There was a time when Cambodia issued some of the world’s most beautiful stamps — delicate works of art that combined expert engraving, rich and subtle coloring, and arresting subjects. Here are some I captured in images from the Internet:
It is a small philatelic tragedy within the immense Cambodian tragedy that this stamp-producing tradition was lost entirely during the terrible years of Khmer Rouge misrule, followed by the indifferent philatelic efforts of Vietnam as caretaker of the “Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.” Today, 40 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh, with the Vietnamese long gone as well, Cambodia still struggles to recover its philatelic equilibrium, and probably much else beyond that.
** I wonder if it strikes you, as it does me, that the countries either exploiting or implicated in illegal stamp production seem to be among the world’s … sketchiest states. Bhutan? Equatorial Guinea? The Khmer Republic? I wouldn’t want my homeland to be on that list.
Which brings us back to Equatorial Guinea, one of whose stamps illustrated the opening of this essay. Before wrapping up my narrative, let me share some info from Wikipedia about the last 20 years of Equatorial Guinea’s history:
“… Since the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea has become one of sub-Saharan Africa‘s largest oil producers. It is the richest country per capita in Africa, and its gross domestic product … per capita ranks 43rd in the world; However, the wealth is distributed extremely unevenly and few people have benefited from the oil riches. The country ranks 135th on the UN’s 2016 Human Development Index. The UN says that less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water and that 20% of children die before reaching the age of five.
“The country’s authoritarian government has one of the worst human rights records in the world, consistently ranking among the ‘worst of the worst’ in Freedom House‘s annual survey of political and civil rights. Reporters Without Borders ranks President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo among its ‘predators’ of press freedom. Human trafficking is a significant problem; the 2012 U.S.Trafficking in Persons Report stated that Equatorial Guinea ‘is a source and destination for women and children subjected to forced labor and FC (sic) sex trafficking.’ The report rates Equatorial Guinea as a government that does not fully comply with minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
My last catalogue at hand is from 1997. (I apologize for not consulting more recent catalogues, but for the moment, I think this one will do.) The 1997 Scott catalogue has no “For the Record” section at all.
This does not mean that the Universal Postal Union folks successfully cracked down on illegal stamps, so that today, 20-plus years later, those irritating decoys and impostors are nothing more than a historical nuisance. Sorry, folks.
More likely what it means is that the stream of bogus stamps to entice collectors to part with their money has become a flood I don’t blame the editors at Scott if they no longer feel inclined, obligated or generally in the mood to confront the whole distasteful topic. I can hardly stand to go on myself. Just one more part, soon to come, and then I’ll be done and eager to move on to uplifting and interesting stories about stamps — legal stamps!
TO BE CONTINUED