Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Hy Brasil

Hy Brasil is an island in the Atlantic, somewhere over the horizon from Ireland, Iceland and the Azores, that has been sighted several times since the Middle Ages and has given rise to many legends. Said to have towns with towers of gold, thought to be often shrouded in mist, it has been identified with the Fortunate Isles that the Celts believed lay in the sunset regions to the West, and with the fierce, fair and free lands that Viking voyagers discovered. It was last seen in the late 19th century, but continued doubt about its existence has meant that it has been removed from most maps and atlases.

Scottish author Margaret Elphinstone published a splendidly-imagined novel set on the legendary isle and its smaller sister islands. In her Hy Brasil (Canongate, 2002), she creates a many-dimensioned version of the realm, with its mixed heritage from all the lands of the North Atlantic littoral, its obscure, half-mythic origins, its colonial pride yet independent spirit, its modern dilemmas as a new nation.

A skilful story-teller, she brings in many relishable themes; spying, smuggling, conspiracy, a volcano, rebellion, exile, roads taken and not taken. Through the travel notes of a self-aware, but still learning, young woman, the charmingly-named Sidony Redruth, we discover the eminently convincing history, legends and culture of the island: but we are also drawn to understand the human qualities and foibles of the island characters.

This is indeed a Hy Brasil that might have been. The author also slyly includes a good few enjoyable references to other literary islands and seafarers. But most deftly of all, she invites us to think about the nature of imagined worlds and their relationship to lived experience. A book in which a fantastical premise is given fine substance, it will linger with the reader long after.

In tribute to the book, a Hy Brasil postage stamp was issued in 2005 in an edition of just 200 copies, with the kind agreement of Margaret Elphinstone. Designed by Cohn Langeveld, a well-regarded artist of the fantastic, the 2/6d stamp commemorates the first Viking voyages to the island, and depicts a dragon ship with sail aloft approaching the volcanic land.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Lost City of Z


“Could it be, I pondered, that besides the Incas there were other ancient civilizations in this continent – that the Incas themselves sprang from a greater, more widely spread race whose traces, at present unrecognised, might yet be found here and there…Was it possible that in the unknown heart of South America there still lived descendants of the old races? Why not?”


“I had by this time heard in several places vague traditions about remains of the ancient civilizations, and my imagination was stirred by them to such an extent that the urge to investigate was becoming more and more insistent.”


“The existence of the old cities I do not for a moment doubt. How could I ? I myself have seen a portion of one of them – and that is why I observed that it was imperative for me to go again. The remains seemed to be those of an outpost of one of the bigger cities, which I am convinced is to be found…”


“Whether we get through, and emerge again, or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing’s certain. The answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps of the prehistoric world – may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know….”

Colonel Percy Fawcett, Exploration Fawcett, edited by Brian Fawcett(1953)

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett DSO FRGS went missing in 1925 deep in unexplored Brazil, in search of the lost city he called “Z”, accompanied by his eldest son Jack, and Jack’s friend from school-days, Raleigh Rimell. The mystery of their disappearance has never been satisfactorily solved, despite a number of claimed explanations, apparent clues and false trails.

The Colonel Fawcett commemorative stamp was produced to honour the memory of the explorer and his persistent quest after an elusive vision.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Bletting Medlars - With Care

The medlar is the true decadent's fruit, a fine and rare delight but only when practically putrescent, achieved by the arcane ritual of “bletting”. A friend sent me a box one year from their garden and the Royal Mail obligingly bletted them en route, so that the brown parcel had slightly sinister dank stains upon arrival.

They are rarely offered for sale as they are so hard to keep and to transport, because of the delicate matter of the bletting. So I thought I should like to grow some myself, and some years ago ordered a tree from Appleby, which as well as the fruit offers us beautiful star-white blossoms and, in autumn, leaves of old gold.

Medlarians seem to delight in trying to describe their taste, such as “fig-and-honey”, “apple sauce with leaf mould”. There are literary references in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (a bawdy one), and in Saki, D.H. Lawrence and Nabokov, and three at least that I have noted in decadent or fantastic literature.

The medlar is evoked in the first line of aesthetical poet Theophile Marzials’ ‘Pastoral’, although here it is the tree’s white flower that is praised, pale and gorgeous as a lotus. In J. Meade Falkner’s The Lost Stradivarius, the rakish diabolist places his dark violin next to a dish of medlars, sent from his country house, hinting at his own decadence. And in Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, the ardent visionary Lucian paces in reverie in the rectory garden from the quince tree to the medlar, taking symbolic steps from golden lustre to sombre mould.

Two labels, or 'etiquettes', have been issued in the Strange Stamps series, marked 'Bletting Medlars - With Care', for use in posting boxes of the fruit to friends.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The First Antarctic Postmaster

There had been many voyages to the southern polar zones in Victorian times and even earlier, but by Edwardian times the race was well and truly on to explore, survey, map and lay claim to the last unexplored continent: and of course to reach the South Pole itself. The first stamp issued in the Antarctic was part of one of the most determined and courageous expeditions ever in that inhospitable land.

This first philatelic landmark was the work of the expedition led by the 33 year old Ernest Shackleton, which left Britain in his ship the Nimrod on 23 November 1907, and arrived in New Zealand sixteen days later. While there, along with all the other preparations for the expedition, Shackleton took time to be sworn in as a New Zealand postmaster, surely one of the most renowned figures to hold that position. Ernest Joyce, a member of the shore party responsible for the stores, dogs, sleds and the zoological collection, deputised as postmaster when Shackleton was not present, and probably did most of the postal work.

The new postmaster was given a supply of the standard New Zealand 1d red ‘universal postage’ stamps, depicting a female figure as an emblem of trade. These were in panes of sixty (broken down from the original sheets of 240). The stamps had been overprinted vertically in green with the words “King Edward VII Land”, reading upwards. The overprints were carried out by the New Zealand Government Printing Office and by Coulls, Culling & Co. in New Zealand. There were 24,000 copies of the stamps. To regularise them as official issues, specimen copies were sent to the offices and all the countries of the Universal Postal Union.

King Edward VII Land, a great polar peninsula projecting into the Ross Sea, had been discovered and named by the Scott expedition of 1901-4, in which Shackleton took part. This was the segment of the Antarctic, claimed by New Zealand as a Dominion of Britain, where Shackleton planned to land. The stamps were to be used for expedition mail and also, of course, for souvenir post for philatelists and polar enthusiasts. As well as the stamps, the postmaster was kitted out with date-stamps, a postmark canceller and of course an accounts book. The circular postmark read “BRIT, ANTARCTIC EXPD” and was used with black ink.

The Nimrod left New Zealand on 1st January 1908. Until it reached the ice edge, the ship was towed by the S.S. Koonya so that it did not use valuable coal that it might need if it encountered difficulties. In this, as in all his expeditions, Shackleton was a master of careful planning. The Koonya returned to New Zealand on 15 January 1908, carrying the very first batch of Antarctic mail with it.

Shackleton’s vessel carried on alone off the polar coast, heading for King Edward VII Land. But the ice was greater than anticipated and the mission was unable to make a base at its intended landfall. The voyage therefore continued, crossing the Ross Sea, and eventually ending up on the opposite headland at Cape Royds on February 3. This was actually in a different slice of the Antarctic, named Victoria Land, although to the public one expanse of ice sheets and white peaks would probably look much like another.

The expedition, of course, did not have any stamps overprinted Victoria Land and so still made full use of the King Edward VII Land issue. That slight technicality did not seem to bother the postal authorities or collectors, not least because of the incredible achievements of the expedition in its polar exploration.

Probably the greatest achievement was the epic trek, led by Shackleton himself, towards the South Pole. Under harsh conditions and with superhuman determination, this reached to within 100 miles of the Pole before turning back because of dwindling supplies and growing exhaustion. Many people now think this was one of the bravest decisions ever made. A lesser leader than Shackleton might well have pushed on, putting lives at risk for the sake of glory. It took real courage and responsibility to turn back so close to the goal. At the point where they turned back, Shackleton defiantly left a sheet of the King Edward VII Land stamps, enclosed in a brass tube, embedded in the ice.

But this wasn’t the expedition’s only achievement. Its members also conquered the great polar peak of Mount Erebus and a second over-land journey was made to the South Magnetic Pole. Valuable scientific and topographical surveying was also accomplished. The expedition returned to New Zealand on the Nimrod in March 1909. On his return, Shackleton was given a knighthood by the King whose name he had honoured as the first postmaster for King Edward VII Land.

He later went on to lead several other expeditions in the Antartctic, including the most famous, on board Endurance, during 1914-16, when he safely brought back his whole crew even though the ship was badly damaged and they were marooned in terrible conditions. It was while on one more foray, an attempt to circumnavigate the Antarctic by sea in 1922, that Shackleton died of a heart attack. He was buried on the island of South Georgia.

Varieties in the placing of the overprint are common because of the way it was done – thirty stamps at a time. However, a rare variation, presumably a production error, is a double overprint. A more mysterious variation is that some of the postmarks exist in green ink, whereas the expedition supposedly had only a black ink pad. Philatelists even went so far as to pester Captain Joyce, a man who might have had other things on his mind after several journeys in severely sub-zero temperatures, about the green ink postmarks, but he could not account for them.

The Shackleton expedition’s King Edward VII Land issue started a whole history of Antarctic philately. Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic expedition of 1910-1913 also carried stamps with it, this time overprinted Victoria Land. And in more recent times, of course, various south polar territories (British, Australian, New Zealand’s Ross Dependency) have issued stamps of their own, and other countries, such as Argentina and Chile, have used their own national stamps to stake out and reinforce their polar claims. Add to this the stamps commemorating polar expeditions, and the collecting field is quite large.

As so often, Antarctic themed stamps can also help remind us of forgotten history. How many people know that the first ship to over-winter in the Antarctic was Belgian, part of the Belgica expedition of 1897-9 ? Led by Flemish Captain Adrien de Gerlache, it spent about fifteen months on the coast of Graham Land. Two Belgian stamps commemorating the expedition were issued in 1947. One of the crew members was a young and eager Norwegian – Roald Amundsen, later the first man to reach the South Pole. There are even fantasy issues reminding us that, had history been different, other countries might have joined the Belgians: I have seen a Polish Antarctic Territory and a Lithuanian Antarctic issue.

However, none of this subsequent history can detract from the achievement of the Shackleton expedition that began in January 1908, nor its primary place in the philatelic history of Antarctica.

Friday, 27 May 2016

By Airship Across Unknown New Guinea

Could the Great War of 1914-18 have been averted? There have been many speculations about how different decisions by the statesmen and diplomats might have made a difference. Were Germany and Britain really doomed to come into conflict? One little- known episode in the very year of the war shows the two nations planning to co-operate on a joint expedition to map unknown territory. If it had gone ahead and shown them successfully working together, with tales of comradeship and daring shared by citizens of the two countries, might the public mood back home have changed?

Such is the tantalising possibility offered by the German-English Airship Expedition to New Guinea planned for the Summer of 1914. Germany, through the determination of Count Zeppelin, was a pioneer in airship design and manufacture. But it was a latecomer in the drive to acquire overseas possessions. Britain lagged badly behind in making airships, but had a vast empire and a record of exploration.

The terrain of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific was mostly dense jungle, and full of unmapped rivers, marshes, lagoons, ravines and mountains. Surveying on foot was virtually impossible. So the idea was to photograph and map the land by airship. As well as the scientific and geographical gains, there was a potential commercial one: the project hoped to identify areas where large coconut and tobacco plantations could be developed. The expedition could also collect meteorological data to aid aircraft and shipping.

The plan had been hatched by Lt Paul Graetz, an explorer who had already written about his exploits in crossing Africa by car in 1908-9, a project in which the Kaiser himself took a special interest. He had inspected the vehicle, a specially constructed 45 horsepower machine which could hold enough fuel for over six hundred miles, and asked for regular reports on Graetz’s progress. The officer in the East African forces had journeyed from Dar-es-Salaam, then in German East Africa, through British colonies to Swakopmund, on the coast of German South West Africa. He had made a point of noting how this linked the two German colonies, with British consent and support for the journey. Both the Kaiser and King Edward VII sent him congratulatory telegrams.

The large Pacific island was largely undeveloped. The European population was small –just a few hundred – and consisted mostly of missionaries, a few officials, planters and traders, and the drifters that inevitably, for reasons of their own, found their way to places remote from too much interference. The indigenous population had an extraordinarily distinctive and rich culture, with an almost uncountable number of different languages.

There was, of course, a military and naval interest in the New Guinea airship scheme: if colonial rivalries burst out into war, knowledge of the interior and of the coast would be invaluable. Already Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands were divided between four powers. The Netherlands held the western half of Papua New Guinea, and the Australian State of Queensland had annexed the south-eastern quarter, bringing in a reluctant British interest, since Queensland was still a Crown colony. The north-eastern portion was a German colony that had been named Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. Further afield, French Pacific territories were not far away: the USA had begun to acquire islands for guano production and strategic interests; and a resurgent Japan was already extending its influence in the region.

But the ostensible reason for the expedition, and indeed it may genuinely have been the principal impulse, was scientific. The Kaiser was keenly interested in ethnographic reports on his colonies: every survey, for example, was required to record on wax cylinders and return to Berlin the voices of the native peoples, capturing their language and customs. The expedition personnel were to include members competent in a wide range of scholarly disciplines. As well as surveyors and photographers, it was proposed to collect botanical, geological, meteorological, oceanographic and zoological data and samples. There would also supporting engineering and mechanical staff and a small detachment from the German Navy. The supposed British involvement was from a “Colonel Smith”, said to be interested in investing in the project and in carrying out photographic work.

The plan was to make an initial base at the mouth of the fully navigable River Sepik, where it flows into the Bismarck Sea in NE New Guinea, within German territory. The survey would then start by surveying the coast and identifying sites to set up temporary stations where the airship could dock and take refuge in adverse weather conditions. The scientists could also be accommodated here to catalogue their findings in between flights. There would also be warehouses for supplies. From each station the airship would explore inland in carefully plotted segments, keeping always within reach of its base. There was tentative agreement to permit temporary airship stations on the coast of the Dutch and British colonies. This appealed to the diplomats, who urged the importance of co-operating with the other European nations on the expedition. This would help to allay suspicions about its purpose, and gain vital logistical support.

Once the segments of surveying from each temporary station had been completed and the results of each compared, the expedition, building on its experience so far, would next go further into the interior to cover any country not so far mapped and photographed. This was the rather more hazardous element of the plan, for the airship would be more at the mercy of sudden storms, and its supply chain would be extended much further.

The expedition was sufficiently well advanced to have special stamps designed and printed to raise funds and promote its plans. The 2 pfenning blue labels depicted a sunlit airship rising over palm trees, with the title ‘Deutsch-Englische Luftschiffexpedition’ and the legend ‘Z. Erforschung V. Neu-Guinea’ (“To Explore New Guinea”). The stamps would no doubt have also been used on envelopes posted back to stamp collectors and supporters around the world. Similar labels were issued by British expeditions to Mount Everest and the Antarctic. The combination of adventure, the allure of the airship, and the chance to get letters from a philatelic wilderness would have proved very appealing.

Alas, it was not to be. Even as the plans were being made, the two countries were drifting into war. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June precipitated a diplomatic crisis that led to war involving all the European Great Powers on 28 July. The war soon spread to their colonies across the world. Australian troops invaded and soon occupied Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and the nearby German Pacific islands: the Japanese took those to the north. None were ever to return to Germany. After the war, unofficial “mourning stamps” were issued for each colony, in black.

As for Lt Paul Graetz, he served as a fighter pilot on the western front, and launched a civil airline after the war. He died in the Baltic port of Travemünde, near Lübeck, in February 1968, in a house he named "Afrikaruh" ('African Rest').

The war was not quite the end of the German presence in New Guinea, though.

When it broke out, Lt Hermann Detzner, with a corps of native troops, was on what was described as a “surveying expedition” on the borders between the German and Australian parts of the island. This might have been linked to the planned airship project, but was probably also partly a spying opportunity. He did not hear of the war until much later, and claimed to have eluded capture by pushing further on into the interior. His book Vier Jahre unter Kannibalen : Von 1914 bis zum Waffenstillstand unter deutscher Flagge im unerforschten Innern von Neuguinea ("Four Years Among Cannibals: under the German flag in the unexplored interior of New Guinea from 1914 until the Armistice," Berlin, 1921) made him a hero who had kept an undefeated corner of the world for his country. Some of his claims were later disputed both by Australian officials and German missionaries on the islands, and he conceded he had written a “fictional account” of his adventures.

And ironically, there was another survival of Germany’s presence in the Pacific. Unserdeutsch, a pidgin version of German learnt by local children in an orphanage run by missionaries, joined the hundreds of other languages spoken on the islands, and is now as endangered as many of those, as its speakers die out and no-one new needs to know it. Today it has less than a hundred speakers, and is studied by ethnologists alongside the native tongues.

(c) Mark Valentine 2016


With thanks to ‘Planspiel: Mit dem Luftschiff Neuguinea vermessen’ (Game Plan: Surveying New Guinea by Airship) by Golf Dornseif.