Malaya coconut stamp essays - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen

previous: handcut typefaces | next: African origins | back to table of contents

The genesis of the coconut definitive was triggered by the formation of the Malayan Postal Union in 1934, which required new stamps carrying the inscription MALAYA in Roman characters in accordance with Universal Postal Union regulations. The coconut definitives were among the very first stamps to herald a new era and foretell the future administrative unification of a culturally heterogeneous peninsula that would in turn kindle their astonishing diversification.

The design evolved from numerous essays prepared sometime between 1933 and 1935 at the Survey Department of the Federated Malay States and Straits Settlements in Kuala Lumpur, most likely by Edwin J. McNaughton (Norris 1985), who had recently won a stamp design competition (Low 2011). See Dewey (1963), Mekie (1977) and Norris (1985, 1988, 1995, 2003, 2010) for details.

Norris Type V (Norris 2003), one of the seven subtle variations on the coconut theme, printed by zinc-plate photolithography (Wood 1948) on thin glazed paper, in a section of the Survey Department whose primary task was to reproduce maps (Norris 1985).

The portrait of the king follows a photograph by the Vandyk studio of London, which was also used in essays for Britain’s Silver Jubilee issue of 1935. But the king, himself a philatelic connoisseur, preferred the Nyasaland profile and chose it for the final designs. In the author’s opinion, the flamboyant, almost funky look of the Vandyk-based portrait in the coconut essays, exacerbated by the complicated but unsophisticated cross-contour rendering, matched neither the simplicity nor the cultural flavour of the rest of the design.

The typography of STRAITS SETTLEMENTS differs subtly from the issued version. Particularly noteworthy are the arched diagonal leg of the R, and the first E whose top horizontal stroke is shortened to accommodate closer letterspacing of ET. MALAYA, on the other hand, has yet to undergo its transformation from the thin and uniform metallic strokes seen here to the woodcrafted letters of timeless vintage.

Although the exact method of printing is unclear, the design was probably transferred to the zinc plate via photographic projection on a light-sensitive coating on the plate. The areas of coating not cured by light were then washed away, followed by chemical etching of the exposed zinc in those areas (Norris 1985). The design could now be printed using an ink with differential adherence to the cured and etched areas.

These ‘protostamps’, presented in some ten different colours, may have been meant to demonstrate the department's stamp-printing capabilities (Reeves 1988), or as a matter of expediency given spare manpower in the department during the Great Depression (Norris 1985). Security printers Thomas De La Rue were eventually invited to print the actual stamps while the Survey Department handled the rubber tokens used at the time to control the rubber supply (Cockburn 2017).

The birthplace of the universal coconut duty plate.
Survey Department in Kuala Lumpur, a Mughal-Gothic building constructed in 1910.
modern-day decline

Compared with the issued stamp, the essays look more cluttered, while the palm fronds are unrealistically wispy and homogeneous. Furthermore, the background shading fills the entire sky behind the palm trees from ground up, lacking the sunset lighting that would eventually impart the magical atmosphere to the issued stamp.

One of the author's teenage cousins says the issued stamp is simpler and more 'enduring to the eye' than the essay, and the author's grandmother concurs. On the other hand, a fellow philatelist prefers the essays over the issued stamp, on account of the more three-dimensional look of the king in the former.

An interesting detail that De La Rue retained from the essays is the "fluctuating asymmetry" of the coconut palms, to borrow a concept from biology. Structures like human faces deviate slightly from perfect bilateral symmetry due to environmental factors, but retain their overall symmetry and attractiveness. Similarly, the palms in the coconut definitive are not perfect reflections of each other, having fronds in non-mirroring positions. The designer clearly favoured realism.

Yet De La Rue departed from the essays in daring ways. In the production version of the coconut definitive, the medallion touches and indeed overlaps slightly with the rest of the graphic, perhaps to minimize the occurrence of white gaps, but leaving little room for misregistration. Furthermore, reduction of clutter in the design apparently took precedence over regal formalities, with the omission of the crown. The coconut definitive is one of the very few stamps on which the British monarch goes crownless.

The coconut definitive nearly went to the grave with King George V. When Edward VIII took over on George's death in 1936, photographic essays of new colonial definitive designs were prepared (Barker 1978a). Some colonies had lobbied to adapt their existing designs rather than adopt the new standardized design commissioned by the Colonial Office (Gunn 1983, 1989), but had been unsuccessful. The coconut definitive was saved only when Edward VIII abdicated on 11 December 1936, forcing the Colonial Office to order all essays and any stamps so far printed in the new designs to be urgently destroyed for fear of stoking a philatelic frenzy (Gunn 1983). For some reason, the authorities then fell back on the coconut design in the Straits Settlements for Edward's successor, George VI.

A CMYK digital "replica" the author acquired from an eBay seller in 2017, carrying the portrait of KEVIII. This is remarkable as KEVIII essays based on the coconut definitive design have not been reported. The "0" in the denomination tablets differs from the typeface on actual stamps.

See the Malay states for post-war coconut essays.


previous: handcut typefaces | next: African origins | back to table of contents
Powered by SmugMug Log In