Coconut stamp design - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen

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Affinities with Africa continued after the Zanzibar definitives, in a Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (KUT) design. It has a subtle but striking similarity to the coconut definitive: the background sunset shading.

Printed by the same firm of De La Rue at around the same time as the coconut definitive, this stamp was designed by A. Ross (Edward Mosely comm.) and presents itself as more flamboyant cousin of the coconut definitive.

The heavy lion, bold letter strokes and loudly decorated medallion frame give it a hint of Art Deco, a style characterized by bold colours and bold geometry that is much less common on the stamps of the British Empire than on those of continental Europe and Latin America.

The author has a few gripes about the KUT design. The coconut palms, having fronds that are too thick and straight, are less realistic than those in the Malaya stamps. Their leaning trunks and asymmetric heights also make them more pictorial than architectural, giving the stamp a less commanding disposition than the Malaya issues. Furthermore, the oval seems excessively elongate for the proportions of the king's bust.

Some, however, prefer the KUT design over the Malaya one, citing the former's striking colours and stronger pictorial narrative through the presence of more trees and the lion among other landscape elements.

While the essays for the Malayan stamps were produced in 1933 or 1934, a stamp design competition was held in 1934 for the KUT definitives (Coulton 2001). Of course, the design ideas themselves might have been circulating prior to those dates.

Did one influence the other? And did one or both of them take inspiration from Zanzibar?

The investigation deepens with the state of Bhopal on the Indian subcontinent, one of whose unadopted essays (not shown) bears an uncanny resemblance to the KUT design. Thought to have been designed by T.I. Archer, this essay features a tiger instead of lion, and generic trees instead of coconut palms.

And what to make of this? A London address embellished with a scene from Africa, with a lion and coconut palms looking very much like those on the KUT stamp. This furs-and-seal-skins dealer was in business since at least the first half of the 19th century, according to The London Gazette, but the date of the design itself is unknown. Could this be the common ancestor of the KUT and Bhopal designs, the source of inspiration to a British designer working on tropical stamps?

And did the Zanzibar design evolve independently after all, subsequently morphing into the Malayan coconuts while exchanging “genetic material” with KUT to take on the "sunset" trait common to both?

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, the Cayman Islands had their own Realist bicoconut designs apparently unrelated to the African and Malayan branch(es) of the "evolutionary tree". This one is proportionally very different from the KUT and Malaya issues. A huge Imperial State Crown makes it top-heavy, while identical and relatively unremarkable conch shells—each almost as large as the king’s head—occupy the spaces where one would expect to see the denomination. The coconut trees, arguably the most majestic elements in the design, are crammed into narrow margins, disproportionate to their size in real life.

In 1938, one of the denominations of the Cayman Islands KGVI definitives again featured two coconut palms flanking the scene. It was even more awkward this time. The king's portrait is stuck between the leaves, high above the beach, and the palms can't "sway in the wind". The palms are possibly a different variety from the Malayan ones.

The neighbouring island of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea seemed to have been influenced by the Cayman's tree-top portrait and extra pairs of smaller palms. But when Jamaica issued its version in 1956, the palms had been fixed. They now looked more natural, complete with slanting trunks seemingly swaying in the sea breeze. But there's something even more impressive. Like the Malaya issue, the designer effectively portrayed the coconut palms as structural elements supporting the monarch's vignette while retaining their botanical realism. Alas, the coconuts appeared on only the lowest denomination in the whole set.

All the designs evaluated so far are from the British Empire, but their rivals the Dutch produced their own bicoconut for their colonies too. This Queen Wilhelmina definitive (1913–1938) was designed by Jan Veth and engraved by D. Harting (Schiller & de Kruyf 1940). It was printed by Joh. Enschedé, who were acclaimed type founders as well. But botanical illustration apparently wasn't their forte. If the palms on the Malayan definitive are flimsy, as Easton reckoned (Halewood 2007), the ones on this stamp are much worse. They are spindly even by coconut standards, and one frond on each palm is awkwardly pushed out of position by the vignette. The trunks are shaded with vertical lines, which are erroneous from a botanical perspective. The trunks are also uncomfortably squashed against the vignette, perhaps to make space for the fronds. Distant mountains are a nice touch, but there's a lot of dead space at the top and bottom of the stamp, filled in by heavy Greco-Roman slabs and generic texturing. The tallish aspect ratio doesn't help—see discussion of ratios. It lacks local flavour too. The design was used in the Netherlands East and West (Suriname and Curaçao) Indies. It boasts the distinction of being the most well-travelled bicoconut, having voyaged east across the Eurasian landmass and west across the Atlantic from its birthplace in Europe. As fate would have it, the great war brought the Malayan coconuts to the Netherlands East Indies, whence they became the new envelope gems and assured the supremacy of the De La Rue design in the Far East.

[image coming soon]

In my opinion, the Dutch had greater success with coconut stamps in the West Indies. This 1927 Queen Wilhelmina exudes stylistic unity, being distinctively Art Noveau in the graceful curves of botanical morphologies. One can't really blame the palm fronds for aspiring to more luxuriance than in real life. Unlike the Malayan coconuts, the design is finely recess-engraved with low contrast. This goes well with the placid character of Art Noveau.

It would seem that coconut palms were a fairly popular backdrop for tropical definitive stamp designs. But the Malaya bicoconut is unique among its peers. It is the only one that showcases two coconut palms without any other foliage or animal. It is so well-designed that there is no need for space-fillers. In the end, the track record speaks for itself. The African, Caribbean and Dutch designs never attained the kind of universality that the coconut definitive enjoyed.


I am grateful to Tash Kreditanstalt for discussions that improved this article.


Almost an afterthought: the coconut palm as a space-filler?
Dr Sun Yat-sen, Taiwan 1947.

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