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Lost Countries: A treasure trove of history from an old stamp album


A few years ago Stuart wrote a book titled All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded and the Few We Never Got Round To, exploring how Britons have fought in almost every nation on earth. A few years ago Chris wrote First Class, a quirky look at British history through its stamps. We were both fascinated by the idea of teaming up to write a history of countries that no longer existed. The more we thought about it, the more obvious it became that one of the most effective routes to approaching it would be through the pages of a notional stamp album.

Imagine you have inherited, among a whole heap of other possessions, an old stamp album, and you open it for the first time and glance through it. It contains some names you know, but many you've never ever heard of – strange, exotic, amazing names – and below each is a smattering of stamps. You want to know more about the countries, the colonies, the regions, the places that carried the names, and about the history of the governments and the rulers who ordered these stamps to be made and of the people who used them. Who were they; what happened to them?

We got hold of an old stamp album – Chris was given one by a great uncle who had collected as a boy back in the Edwardian era – and began leafing through it. Bizarre names began leaping out at us, and we set out to explore their histories, and to tell the most interesting and unusual ones. Then we thought of some other places that had more recently gone the way of these Lost Countries. Here are some examples of both…

Danish West Indies. Neither of us knew, before opening the album, that the Danes had had colonies. Colonization doesn’t seem very hygge… But they did, in 1672. (Many years later, they also produced some beautiful stamps for the colony, featuring a sailing boat.) The islands remained Danish until 1917, when the USA bought them $25 million. Today they are a lot better known now as the US Virgin Islands.

On the subject of islands, the Ryukyu Islands run in an arc from the south of Japan to the north of Taiwan. They have long been coveted by Japan and China. Despite this, the Ryukyu Islands developed their own special identity, the Ryukyu Kingdom, which kept its independence until 1874, when the Imperial Japanese Army, flexing its muscles, invaded. You will probably have heard of at least one of the Ryukyu Islands from World War 2 history: Okinawa.

Stellaland is one from the old album. It probably existed for less time than any other stamp-issuing entity. It was founded by Dutch settlers in 1882, and named after the great comet that appeared in the sky in the autumn of that year. Like the comet, it soon vanished: Stellaland was on a strategically important highway between what is now Zimbabwe and South Africa. Cecil Rhodes did not want such a place controlled by Boers. By 1884 it wasn’t. Only a simple set of stamps remains.

The stamps of Cundinamarca bear witness to the turbulent history of Colombia (and of South America generally). It was once a Spanish colony, then an independent state, then part of the United States of Colombia (the USA hasn’t always been the only ‘United States’ in the world).

On the subject of ‘United States’, some islands in the Mediterranean were once ‘the United States of the Ionian Islands’, and issued stamps with Queen Victoria’s head on (and no denominations – you were supposed to know which of the three stamps was worth what). British control of the islands lasted long enough for these stamps to be printed and for cricket to take root on Corfu, then they were given to the King of Greece in 1863 as a coronation present.

Fernando Poo has made generations of schoolboy stamp-collectors giggle. Its history is, sadly, less funny. An island off the Western coast of Africa, it was colonized by various European nations, from which they ran their slave trades. It ended up in the hands of Spain, who issued Fernando Poo stamps for nearly a century. Spain clung onto it until long after most other colonialists had departed Africa: the island finally became part of Equatorial Guinea, and subject to one of history’s most terrifying dictators, Francisco Nguema.

Stamps tell stories from Russia’s 1917 revolution. This was not the tidy affair some histories to make it out to be; it was more the start of a bloody five-year Civil War. During much of this war, large parts of Russia were controlled by anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ forces – with support from the West. Many of these areas issued their own stamps, in an attempt to assert their freedom from Moscow. These issues were, of course, short-lived. Perhaps the most intriguing story is that of the Czech Legion, a group of allied soldiers marooned in Russia after Lenin quit the war, who had to fight all the way across Siberia to find a route home (by ship from Vladivostok). When they weren’t controlling the Trans-Siberian railway or capturing the Imperial hoard of gold, they issued attractive stamps.

Around the same time, Italian poet and adventurer Gabriele D'Annunzio set up his own mini-state at the northern end the Adriatic at what is now Rijeka in Croatia. In Italian, the place was called Fiume. Elegant, art deco stamps were issued. D'Annunzio's rule in some senses foreshadowed that of Mussolini. He remained in power in Fiume until the Italian government ordered a battleship to fire shells at his palace.

Stamps of long-forgotten entities also offer perspectives on modern politics. Today's Libyan state is a comparatively modern invention which is one of the reasons it is in now such chaos. Even in the last century, the area was divided at times into Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Each has its own distinct history – and differing sets of stamps tell each one’s tale.

By Chris West and Stuart Laycock

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