Early cartography bore the fearful notation “Here are dragons” for points beyond the existing boundaries of knowledge, often lying far out in the cold, uncharted seas. A glance at outdated globes and maps from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries yields the flip side of this coin: once-existing countries that have vanished—renamed, absorbed by their neighbors—or that have simply ceased to exist. Author and researcher Bjørn Berge’s Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840–1975 (Thames & Hudson) provides a look at fifty forgotten nations, from Obock to Sedang to Cape Juby, by considering a common factor: All of them issued their own postage stamps. The author draws upon fiction and eyewitness accounts plus historical sources, filling out the narratives contained in each stamp and giving readers a view into decades of colonialism, nationalism, rebellion, imperialism and conflicts large and small.
Berge notes in his introduction, “The stamps serve as the core evidence, providing concrete proof that the countries did in fact exist. Just as certainly, though, they lie. Countries will forever try to present themselves exactly the way they want to be seen: as more dependable, more liberal, more merciful, more awe-inspiring, or better at the business of government than they actually are. The stamps must therefore be viewed as propaganda, in which truth will always be of subordinate importance.”
The stamp issued by Eastern Karelia (in what is now Finland), a nation created during the Soviet-Finnish War of 1922, provides a perfect example. With its raging bear breaking free of its chains under a sky glowing with the Northern Lights, the stamp seems to portray a strong republic whose citizens are ready and willing to defy the Russians and fight to the death for their autonomous country. In reality, after suffering through a period of starvation and frostbite from January 31 to February 16, the rebels panicked and retreated, and a treaty was signed with Russia in the spring. The nation existed for just a few weeks, but its stamp endures.
A few stamps in the book have a less official look than we expect from legal tender: The specimen from Corrientes in South America is printed on throwaway sugar cane paper originally destined to wrap packaged goods for shipment, and the artwork is blurry and lacking in detail. Others maintain higher philatelic quality standards: The two-color stamp from Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, sports a splendid saltwater crocodile, finely engraved and printed, and a 1938 stamp from the Falkland Islands is carefully composed and designed, combining a portrait, a sovereign crown, and a sailing ship within a typographic and engraved border.
Some stamps illuminate larger absurdities and truths. The example from Upper Yafa, an African Muslim country that ceased to exist in 1967, depicts a reproduction of Edgar Degas ballerinas. Culturally inappropriate imagery (Berge notes that the ballerinas’ attire is anything but Islamic) for an entirely unnecessary item; in its century and a half of existence, Upper Yafa never had a functioning postal system. In fact, the country never had a single mailbox. But a British stamp firm, Harrison & Sons, talked the sultan of Upper Yafa into issuing stamps simply to sell them to international collectors and build up the national treasury. Greed and hubris for the win! Through examples like this, Nowherelands demonstrates with authority that even these tiny scraps of ephemera are interwoven with vital clues to culture and history along with their design.
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