©Lin Yangchen

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(former De La Rue archives)

Four decades before the birth of the Malaya coconut definitive, a strikingly similar design arose in a small archipelago off the east coast of Africa (Lin 2018f). On 1 October 1895, a sketch incorporating a hand-cut oval photograph of Sultan Sheikh Sir Seyyid Hamad bin Thuwaini Al-Busaid (1857–1896) of Zanzibar was submitted to De La Rue by the territory's Director of Posts & Telegraphs Thomas Remington on instructions from the sultan's First Minister General Sir Lloyd Mathews (former De La Rue archives). The sultan had requested for control of the post office to be transferred to his government (Krieger 2012), setting the stage for the genesis of Zanzibar's coconut definitive.

Die proofs were furnished in April 1896, and the recess-printed stamps were issued in December. The light and dark areas are generally the inverse of the Malaya design, giving the stamp a more solemn disposition. Admittedly, the coconut trees appear to be of a different variety than the Malayan ones.

Dubro (2012) regards these stamps as being quite "handsome", with striking colours. Demand by collectors and stamp dealers proved much greater than anticipated. Dubro supposed that the stamps captured the imagination of collectors around the world and projected Zanzibar as an exotic faraway land.

The sultan did not live to see himself on the first stamps of Zanzibar. He died suddenly on 25 August, suspected to have been poisoned by his cousin Sheikh Khalid bin Barghash Al-Busaid.

Zanzibar followed an Omani custom of succession where competing heirs gathered their supporters and made a dash for the palace. Khalid managed to take over the palace with 2,800 followers, and proclaimed himself sultan (Dubro 2012).

This triggered a 40-minute war—the shortest in history—with the British, who overthrew Khalid and installed Sheikh Seyyid Hamoud bin Mohammed Al-Said as sultan. Sultan Hamoud waited until 1899 for his stamps to replace those of Sultan Hamad.

Sultan Hamoud and the beleaguered palace, with his predecessor's stamp affixed on the reverse.

Sultan Sheikh Seyyid Hamoud bin Mohammed Al-Said (1853–1902)

The proportions of the Malaya coconut essay and issued stamp (black overlays) and the Zanzibar design (red) are very similar, especially the essay. It is not inconceivable that the designer of the Malaya definitive was inspired by a Zanzibar stamp affixed to a letter, and even used it as a template.

Williams (1990) noted that so many stamp designs exist today that there are bound to be chance resemblances. This is especially so when such a transcontinental species as the coconut is involved. Nevertheless, one cannot help speculating that the Malaya stamps may have some African blood, especially when the Malaya essay matches so closely.

The Zanzibar design died in 1903 when the succeeding sultan rejected the essays incorporating his portrait. No one could have imagined that it would be reincarnated nearly half a century later in another tropical paradise an ocean away.

the lost stamp

Much as it resembles the Universal Coconut Duty Plate, the Zanzibar sultan definitive was not the very first bicoconut stamp design. That distinction probably belongs to Brunei's first stamp. It was issued in July 1895, more than two months before the date of the Zanzibar essay. The Brunei stamp was widely thought to be a bogus production until documents were unearthed proving that the sultan of Brunei had authorized its release. Being valid only for local mail, it was little known outside northern Borneo.

There is no discussion of the design in the literature to my knowledge. I reckon a Mr J. C. Robertson who produced the stamps had a hand in their design, perhaps with ideas from the sultan himself. Although the coconut trees are a diminutive pictorial component, they complement the architectural framing that gives the stamp an imposing Islamic grandeur.


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