Straits Settlements 1933–34 essays - Lin Yangchen
  • Straits Settlements 1933–34 essays

©Lin Yangchen

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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). De La Rue was 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.

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 said 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 has expressed his preference for the essays over the issued stamp, on account of the more three-dimensional look of the king in the former.

An interesting detail in which De La Rue took the cue from the essays is the asymmetry of the coconut palms with respect to each other: only the palm on the left has a frond touching the horizontal bar above it. The designer has taken care not to make the palms look like mirror images of each other. These are real trees, not stylized motifs.

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.

When Edward VIII took over the throne on the death of George V in 1936, photographic essays of new Straits Settlements stamp designs were prepared to replace the coconut definitive. The new king, however, abdicated before plates were manufactured (Barker 1979) and for some reason the authorities reverted to the coconut definitive for George VI, saving it from the grave.


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