©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, into the height of the Cold War and the Malayan Emergency, to the country's independence. It has survived plane crashes. Like no other Malayan stamp, it was used far beyond Malayan shores, even serving 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 paradise of southeast Asia, across an archipelago of more than 25,000 islands. Their crowns shaped like spandrils in classical architecture, the palms ensconce a sculpted bust of stately marble and stone, an art form whose origins can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece.

The top of the frame is decorated with corner motifs. This kind of decoration was at a time popular in ephemera such as letterheads and labels (see Clouse & Voulangas 2009). As a late generation X unfamiliar with traditional Malay architecture, I wondered for a long time what these things were. At first I thought they represented the thatched roofing of jungle huts. A friend said they looked like bananas. Eventually, it dawned on the city bumpkin that they were the ornamental wooden roof eaves or papan meleh found in traditional Malay houses across the archipelago.

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.

Coconut palms on the island of Palawan, in the Philippine archipelago.
Featured on the cover of The Collectors Club Philatelist (Lin 2018f).
Photo/graphics: Lin Yangchen

The coconut definitive is an epitome of De La Rue's "stylized pictorialism" (Finlay 1974), developed to fit the constrained space of small-format letterpress. See my comparative critique of bicoconut stamp designs from around the world. No art comes without opposing views, however; I know someone who finds the combination of the king with coconut trees incongruent, while the great philatelist John Easton had an adverse reaction to the ‘two feeble palm trees’ (Halewood 2007). Yet anyone who has seen coconut palms in a hurricane will know that they are anything but feeble.

In this medallion of the king, whose design originated in the stamps of Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1913, the bottom-left portion of the frame is ever so slightly flattened, as if it suffered a blunt impact. 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 towards the top of the medallion have been thickened to contrast with the brightly "lighted" top of the head and make it more three-dimensional. The lines are slightly slanted upwards from left to right, and the slant becomes steeper farther down the medallion. The steepening appears to stem from the thinning down of the background lines as they go from left to right to create the perceived brightness gradation in the background, especially around the height of the king's upper face. As the engraver worked his way downwards, he inadvertently or deliberately increased the slant to keep the white spacing uniform.

The author also speculates that these lines may have been engraved using a pantograph (see Lush & Skinner 2018), which helps produce and miniaturize regular patterns (see my comparison to tigers and zebras). The slanting could have had something to do with mechanical creep in the pantograph.

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 (below) that flourished from the Renaissance to the early 19th century (Coombs 1998), and very close to the traditional and intimate photographic portrait ratio of 10 × 8. In the 16th century, a gift of a portrait miniature was a highly personal show of favour (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). See Malay states for the coconut definitive's own flowering of portrait miniatures.

Arthur Wellesley, 1808. Painted by Richard Cosway.
GNU Free Documentation License

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. Early essays of the Penny Black were actually square, with "POSTAGE ONE PENNY" squeezed in along the bottom (Hahn 2008). The design was subsequently lengthened vertically to accommodate the separate lines "POSTAGE" and "ONE PENNY" at the top and bottom (Lowe 1979). This overall layout can be seen in the coconut definitve. The 1.19 ratio suits the portraiture and is easy to handle. 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.

The coconut definitive nearly went to the grave with King George V. When Edward VIII inherited the throne on the death of George V 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). The king agreed to this (Gunn 1983), but the Colonial Office eventually overruled it (Gunn 1989).

In 2017, however, the author acquired on eBay a CMYK halftone "replica" of what appeared to be a KEVIII essay based on the coconut definitive. The face is shaded with the dashed lines characteristic of recess printing, instead of the continuous lines found in the actual letterpressed coconut definitives. Weirdly, the typeface in the denomination tablets is identical to that on the actual coconut definitives, except for the numeral 0. This 'essay' has never been reported. Fellow philatelists have suggested to me that it could have been the work of David Horry FRPSL or Scott Visnjic. Horry (2001) published a collection of imaginary stamps that looked like real ones, including "stamps" of Edward VIII. Visnjic (Chen Chung Yuan), a Taiwanese artist, has stoked controversy in the philatelic community over his prolific output and marketing of "high-quality replicas".

The same bogus portrait seems to have appeared on another design, the 1940 Nigeria definitive. Martin (2019) bought it from a dealer who had bought it as part of a collection from a deceased estate, but that was as much as anyone knew.

The portrait looks very similar to that on an actual stamp issued in Canada in 1935 (above right) when Edward VIII was the Prince of Wales. It was derived from Bertram Park's studio photograph (below) of the prince in the uniform of the Seaforth Highlanders (Mackay 1997). When he became king, Edward VIII approved this portrait for his new stamps. The portrait made it to colour trials for British stamps, but the king suddenly rejected it without giving a reason (Mackay 1997). The essays went missing, and Mackay (1997) chronicles in detail the chain of correspondence between Buckingham Palace and the post office as the latter tried desperately to trace them. It never found them. It isn't clear, however, whether any of the essays were of the colonies. There were 60 essays (Mackay 1997), quite a large number.

Edward VIII was an adventurous maverick who wanted to serve on the front lines in World War I, but was prohibited from doing so for fear that he would be captured and used as a pawn. He was a University of Oxford dropout who disliked court protocol and befriended Adolf Hitler. When George V died, he (Edward VIII) had all the clocks at home reset to the correct time; his father had had them 20 minutes fast (Mackay 1997). He decided to give up the throne so that he could marry the twice-divorced woman he loved. They remained married until his death.

King Edward VIII abdicated on 11 December 1936. The Colonial Office ordered all KEVIII essays and stamps to be urgently destroyed, for fear of stoking a philatelic frenzy (Gunn 1983). Only a few escaped into the market. For some reason, the authorities fell back on the coconut design in the Straits Settlements for Edward's successor, George VI. Perhaps they got fed up and didn't want to waste any more time and money. The coconut definitive was saved.

George VI (1895–1952) finally ascended the throne in 1936. The king's bust was based on a photograph taken on 15 December 1936 by Bertram Park (Barker 1978a). The engraver made George VI's hair darker than that of his predecessor, as was the case in real life—George V had brown curls, versus the almost black mane of George VI.

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. The use of fine lines to create light, shadow and texture is a tradition that goes back to the ancient woodcuts of centuries gone by (Blum 1940).

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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