Getting stamps to stick hasn’t always been a simple task. Most stamps made after 1840 came with an adhesive gum on the back. But the gum—made from various plant products such as cornstarch, sweet potatoes, gum Arabic, and sugar—wasn’t always of the highest quality, meaning stamps often fell off letters. The U.S. Postal Service tried various gum formulas to remedy the situation, including special “summer gum” that was resistant to humidity, and “winter gum”that resisted cracking in cold, dry winter air.
Finally, in the 1960s, the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga broke the mold when it printed a series of self-adhesive stamps. Not only did they not require licking, they came in odd shapes—the most famous of which was this 1969 stamp shaped like a banana. These unusual stamps were a big hit and, for a time, became a significant source of revenue for the country. Collectors went crazy for them. In fact, they became so popular that one dealer ordered more copies of a particular stamp than had been printed. Most countries followed Tonga’s lead, and today, the die-cut, peel-and-stick stamps are the most common type of stamps in the United States.
A brief history on Tonga:
The island of Niuafo’ou is a volcanic island and is surrounded by steep lava cliffs and it is almost impossible to approach the island by ship. The first Tin Can Mail was initiated by W. Travers in 1882, when he convinced the Tongan postal authorities to place the incoming mail in a ship’s biscuit tin and have it thrown overboard to be retrieved by swimmers. Similarly, outgoing mail was placed in water-proof greased paper and carried on the end of a stick by the swimmer to the ship. Beginning in 1921, Charles Stuart Ramsey, a copra trader became involved with the Tin Can Mail Service. Ramsey swam the mail himself and made 112 trips. He was the only white man,who actually swam the mail. Walter George Quensell, who arrived on the island in 1928 began receiving requests from stamp collectors for examples of letters canceled by Tin Can Mail. Mr. Quensell then began applying special cachets in several languagesto the face and reverse of the covers on both incoming and outgoing mail.
The Tongan Island Group was first settled by Polynesians around 3000 years ago and from the 10th century, it has been ruled by a line of hereditary Kings and Queens. The current ruling family began it’s reign in 1845. Siaosi Taufa’ahau Tupou Maeakafawa established the line and became King of Tonga in 1845. He later adopted Christianityand in 1875 established a constitutional monarchy under the name of King George Toupu I. Queen Salote Toupu, thegranddaughter of George I was the third in line of the Toupu Monarchs. She ruled Tonga from 1918 to 1965 and her son, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV is the current ruler.
In 1901, in order to prevent German encroachment in the area, Great Britain established a protectorate over the Islands which lasted until 1970 when Tonga became an independent member of the British Commonwealth.
The first Europeans to discover the islands were Dutch Mariners in 1616. Captain James Cook visited and charted the Islands in 1773. The islands were also the site of the “Mutiny on the Bounty.“
The above picture shows a combination franking of the heart-shaped 3d x 2 and regular 2d from the 1953 Pictorial series, used from Nukualofa to Samoa in June, 1966. 8d was the ½oz airmail rate and the correspondence was between the local and Apia offices of Morris Headstrom Ltd. The self-adhesives are cancelled by the bold ‘NUKUALOFA / TONGA / FRIENDLY ISLANDS ‘ handstamp, wisely introduced to facilitate cancelling of the embossed gold foil self-adhesives.
The second series of self-adhesives, issued in 1964, was heart or map-shaped, as seen in the picture on the left for the Pan-Pacific South-East Asia Women’s Association Meeting in Nukualofa. Absolute domination would appear to best describe the relationship between the coin-stamps and the cover in picture below. Issued in 1967 for the Coronation of King Taufa’ahau IV, the 2 seniti denomination x 5 in combination with 1966 Centenary of Tupou College and Secondary Education 1/2d on 2d overprint, another old/new currency item, was for the ½-1oz airmail rate, on this occasion for a 14 Jan 1969 article of correspondence between two houses of commerce.
The beginnings of the postal history of Tonga can be traced to the Wesleyan missionaries, who landed in the islands in 1826, and sent regular communications back to London and Sydney from the day of their arrival. The Tongan Post Office was established in 1887, but even before then postage stamps featuring the image of King George Tupou I were produced in New Zealand.
On 23rd December, 1886, King George Tubou I of Tonga agreed to the establishment of the Tonga Post Office but even before this date, a request was made to the Postmaster-General in NZ to produce stamps for use in Tonga.
King George Tupou I died in 1893 at age 96. Having outlived both his son and grandson, he was succeeded by his great-grandson, George Tupou II (in Tongan, Siaosi Tupou II). The first stamp to bear the new king’s image was issued in 1895 (Scott 29), but the monarch did not like his appearance on the stamp. The stamp was redrawn and reissued, but the king still didn’t like it. Two years later, a new set of 15 attractive engraved stamps was issued (Scott 38-52).
King George Tupou II’s new portrait graced several denominations of new stamps, and this time he was pleased.
On June 1, 1899, the king married Lavinia Veiongo, and the royal wedding was commemorated with a postage stamp (Scott 53), perhaps the first royal wedding to be depicted on a stamp.
The 1d ovava tree-design stamp was overprinted. “T-L”: the “T” for Taufa’ahau, the king’s family name, and the “L” for Lavinia, along with the wedding date, written as “1 June, 1899.”
In 1900, Lavinia gave birth to a daughter, Salote, but Lavinia later contracted tuberculosis and died in 1902. George Tupou II chose a husband for Salote: a chieftain of distinguished lineage named Viliami Tungi Mailefihi, and they married in 1917. The king died the following year and was succeeded by Salote, only 18 years old. She became the first (and, to date, the only) queen regnant of Tonga.
Nine stamps were issued for the new Queen Salote Tupou III in 1920.
Queen Salote died in 1965, shortly after Tonga had begun issuing die-cut, circular, embossed metallic stamps that displayed images of Tonga’s new coinage and the nation’s beloved ruler. Most of the citizens of Tonga would say Queen Salote could not be replaced, but the eldest of her three sons took the throne in 1965 as King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. King George Tupou VI is the current monarch of Tonga. Long live the Tongan monarchy? Maybe, but there are Tongan citizens who are requesting the elimination of the monarchy and feudal system as a whole.
Time will tell if the royal days are numbered for this last outpost of South Pacific monarchy.