Coconut definitive postage stamps of Malaya - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen

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Foliola omnia (excepto utrinque infimo) retro-plicata funt, contra ac in fequente.
the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera Linnaeus 1753

The universal coconut duty plate

There is one stamp design in British Malaya that witnessed the territory’s convoluted transition from a British colony during the Great Depression, through the Japanese Occupation in World War II and post-surrender British military rule, to the height of the Cold War and the Malayan Emergency. It is the only design to ever encompass the whole of the Malay peninsula including Singapore. It saw action far beyond Malaya's shores in World War II, survived plane crashes, and served a tour of duty on a remote coral atoll in the Indian Ocean.

circa 1900

It features, as an abstraction of Corinthian columns, a pair of the coconut palms that grew prolifically throughout the tropical archipelagic paradise of southeast Asia. Their crowns shaped like spandrils in classical architecture, they frame a sculpted bust of stately marble and stone, an art form whose origins can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece.

It is framed in the upper corners by a motif resembling the wooden roof fascia of traditional Malay houses, or the flat tapered roof tiles sometimes seen, or the roof thatching of even more primeval attap dwellings, or even leaf skirts worn by orang asli—an eclectic motif that evokes old Malayan traditions. The white horizontal beam beneath MALAYA provides structural support to the 'roof' of the stamp, which is given an appropriate shadiness through the use of white text on dark ground. The design evokes the idyllic kampong (village) life of bygone days in tropical paradise, and serves as a window to the world before our time.

Malay roof fascia.
Stock photo:

British influence? Fascia at the platforms of Barons Court (upper image) and Boston Manor (lower image) stations on the London Underground.

Orang Asli girl in a leaf skirt. Skirts fashioned out of unprocessed leaves date from Neolithic times and have been worn by indigenous peoples in remote areas of southeast Asia from Burma to New Guinea (Maxwell 2014). Published by Max H. Hilckes, Singapore.

And stirring up the nostalgia of a bygone era is the light of the setting sun visualized through the use of white space near the ground, giving way to dots and increasingly closely spaced lines in the upper part of the darkening sky.

No great design comes without its critics, however; the great philatelist John Easton took a dislike to the ‘two feeble palm trees’ (Halewood 2007).

In this engraved bust of the king, which originated in the stamps of Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1913, background lines of gradated thickness enhance the effect of light shining on the king's forehead. This was engraved at Bunhill Row in London by De La Rue veteran Leonard Vincent Phillips, who had joined the firm in 1896 and engraved every monarch from Victoria to Elizabeth II (De La Rue 1952). The background lines here are slightly slanted downwards from the back of the head towards the front of it. The origin of this tilt is unknown to the author but, as far as he is concerned, it adds to the handcrafted appeal of the stamp. To make it even better, the bottom-left portion of the medallion frame is ever so slightly flattened, as if it suffered a blunt impact.

The oval is a significant visual element, and is a near-perfect mathematical ellipse in the coconut definitive. The height-width ratio of the ellipse is about 1.24 (eccentricity 0.59), same as the European portrait miniatures of previous centuries, and very close to the traditional and intimate photographic portrait ratio of 10 × 8. Quadrilaterals have also been used in definitive portrait frames, such as the diamond-shaped frame in the 1867 issue of the Argentine Republic.

The aspect ratio of the duty plate is about 1.19, which has been the case for most small definitives of Britain and her empire since the Penny Black. The slight elongation suits the portraiture and is easy to handle; too long and it would be hard to pick up and prone to damage. There may even be some biological basis to this ratio, as Winne et al. (2015) have found that even rats prefer a ratio of 1.2—similar to the animals’ body dimensions—to the overhyped Golden Ratio of 1.618.

[images coming soon]

George VI (1895–1952) ascended the throne in 1936 after the death of King George V and abdication of Edward VIII. The king's bust was based on a photograph taken on 15 December 1936 by Bertram Park (Barker 1978a). A French-American artist experienced with line art has expressed his opinion that this design is very well-balanced, but another individual finds the two colours of this stamp jarring and the pairing of the king with coconut trees incongruent. Regardless, a work of miniature art served on a bite-sized piece of perforated paper.

The coconut definitive would, over its many years of service, traverse a kaleidoscopic colour palette and a typographic landscape encompassing the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Japonic and Austronesian language families, and present an extravaganza of portrait miniatures of Malay sultans that encapsulates the cultural heritage of the peninsula.


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