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If you are a SHATPS member, you have access to the password protected pages Cancellations and Volcano Period


Cancellations - a list of all missionary handstamps and postal cancellations with date of usage, catalogue value etc.

Volcano Period - a list of all known cancellations, ships etc. used during the Volcano Period 1961-1963


Members of SHATPS may enter by typing a password in the box which will open. The user name and the password is the first word on page 7 of the November 2014 edition of the South Atlantic Chronicle. Type lower case letters only then click on the button (Benutzername = user name, Kennwort = password)

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+++ scarce postal history for sale +++ go to SALES & WANTS +++  

The Postal History of Tristan da Cunha


>>>>>>>>  read another Tristan da Cunha article in the American Philatelist <<<<<<<<<


It was in 1506 when the first man, a Portugese navigator saw a remote island mid of the South Atlantic between South Africa and South America on his new discovered route to


spectacular view from Nightingale Island to Middle Island (center) and Stoltenhoff Island (rear), photos 2006, published by kind permission of Philip Hicks


India. It was Tristaó da Cunha – and he named the new discovered island after himself. The distances to the next inhabitated islands or mainland are impressive: 2.800 km to Cape Town, 3.360 km to South America and 2.430 km to St. Helena. 

Today Tristan da Cunha is a member of the British overseas territory known as Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.


First map of Tristan da Cunha, cartographed by Allan B. Crawford 1938



The island, or more properly the group of several islands, are situated within a circumferential zone of about 30 km, with an out-lying island about 400 km southeast of TdC - Gough Island. They all are part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, a volcanically rich oceanic region. The island of Tristan

da Cunha comprises the top part of a volcano that rises about 2.000 m into the sky and is about 3.000 m deep. Annual temperatures range between 2 - 25°C; in the southern winter snow caps the top of the volcano. 


A jump in time forward to the early nineteenth century and we come to the era when Napoleon was imprisoned on St. Helena.  To help to prevent the possibility that the French might mount a rescue operation, returning the general to power in France, in 1816 the British garrisoned the TdC island group and so formally took possession.  The soldiers left soon thereafter when it became evident to the British government that such a rescue mission was logistically unrealistic, given the vast inter-island distance involved. However three of that original group remained, at their own requests, and settled to farm.  The number eventually grew due to the presence of the initial colonizing families being added to by shipwrecked sailors and their eventual spouses and in time the group developed into a thriving community, later to be called Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas. Today there are still only seven family names on TdC, shared amongst the roughly 260 inhabitants, each descended from one of the original seven settlers. All families survived the tough years of the 19th and early-20th centuries through barter trade with passing ships, supplying them with fresh water, potatoes, meat and livestock; money was unknown to the island until the mid-1900s 

In 1908 a first handstamp came in use, applied on the covers of the increasing population. Because no post office existed on Tristan da Cunha, the only permanent inhabited island the Tristan group, most of the mail remained without stamps and only cancelled with a handstamp in possession of the resident clergyman. When their tours of religious and social duty ended, they gave the handstamp to the successor or took it with them, perhaps as a souvenir.   


Tristan cover to England with Type II cancellation and transit datestamp of South Georgia 4-6-1920, transported by the whaler Pentaur to the next port of call: South Georgia  




Mail transport was regulated by chance as when ships occasionally visited; perhaps once a year and sometimes 18 months passed without outgoing or incoming mail.  Some mail had to travel a long way to the addressees because the next port of call could be South Africa, the Antarctic region which was frequented usually only by whalers, South America or even the Far East.  So, receiving mail and the possibility to send it was an important and exciting event in all the islanders’ lives. Until 1952 when the post office opened, about 15 different handstamps were or had been in use and often several of these were employed contemporaneously.  At times no handstamp was available due to an accident or because a clergyman had left the island with it.  Only occasionally was mail stamped and mostly this was by UK stamps, but sometimes stamps from other countries were used.  In such cases stamps were sent to islanders by enterprising dealers who requested islanders to affix them to provided envelopes and to post them by mail via the next outbound vessel. Most pre-1952 covers however were without stamps and some were transported and delivered to the addressees without their being taxed; others were taxed, allowing us today to date the item.



Tristan cover to England with Type III cachet and the postal datestamp of the Shackleton-Rowett-Expedition


In 1922 the Quest, Ernest Shackleton’s research ship, visited TdC on its way back from his Antarctic voyage (Shackleton died on South Georgia during that expedition). They used a datestamp with the inscription S-R-Antarctic-Expedition 1921, and some outgoing mail from TdC was cancelled with that postal cancellation during expedition’s 6-day visit. In 1937 the second (Norwegian) scientific expedition came to TdC.  One member was Englishman Allan B. Crawford, and a life-long friendship with the Tristanians began.  ABC, as called by his friends, returned several times and even lived a few years on the island, and of special importance this was during WWII, when all TdC handstamps were banned from use due to wartime security concerns. Instead, TdC was provided a pseudonym (Job 9, and later HMS Atlantic Isle).  In accordance with that name, outgoing mail was censored with a British ship censor marking.



500 special envelopes were printed on board of HMS Carlisles' 2nd visit to Tristan at 28th February 1937


During WWII the first newspaper was produced by ABC, the “Tristan Times”, and cancelled with his private handstamp. In 1946, ABC designed the famous “potato stamps”.  Because of the lack of currency, stamps and other goods had to be paid for with potatoes, the real “monetary” equivalent for the islanders.  Despite the early efforts of ABC, the introduction of a regular postal service with a real post office and proper stamps was refused by the British postmaster-General.  ABC also drew a highly accurate map following a professional survey of the island he completed, designed several stamp issues and eventually obtained permission for a postal authority; due honour was paid to him in 2008 with a special issue of stamps commemorating his Tristan connection.


In 1938 the islands of the Tristan group became Dependencies of St. Helena. The first Colonial Administrator acted since 1950.


After WWII the acting clergyman had his best idea and the islanders are still profiting from – to catch crayfish and to erect a canning factory. Until today the

islanders are living from the revenue of that idea. The covers produced for The Tristan Venture, the Tristan da Cunha Fishing Industry Scientific Survey Expedition 1948 are one of the rare covers of Tristan postal history.


When the first post office opened at 1st January 1952, the first stamps – overprints of the current definitives of St. Helena -

were issued and datestamps were introduced.

From now on the island was part of the worldwide postal system.


Registered Covers of the first stamp set, struck with the new Tristan da Cunha datestamp Type B - Asterix over day and month, over year, issued 1-1-1952



In 1958 the remote Tristan da Cunha was part of the global play of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. Between Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island an US nuclear bomb exploded in high altitude to test some physical phenomenon. The test was most secret and the inhabitants heard first about it several years later and it seems by luck that the nuclear impact didn’t affect the population.


scarce Formula Registered Envelope (FRE) sent 1954 from Tristan to England to Valerie Glass who left the island with the schoolteacher Mrs. Handley for further education in England. Later she returned to Tristan as the first Tristan trained nurse.

Only a small quantity was available when the Post Office opened 1952.



In April 1961 new Definitives were issued, the currency in South African Cent and Rand instead of the British Pound. Because of the revenue of the canning factory, run by a South African Company, it seems the better way to introduce money on an island, where the inhabitants were not used to own money. Because of the following incidents, these Definitives (and the South African currency) had a very short life – consequently with a high catalogue value.


Suddenly in August 1961 in the only settlement of Tristan da Cunha, Edinburgh-on-the-Seven-Seas, the ground trembled, windows rattled and rocks fell from the side of the nearby mountainside. By 10th October, the rising ground had become a new volcanic cone and threatened the Settlement nearby, so a decision was taken to evacuate the island. All inhabitants were ordered off the island and an evacuation via South Africa to England was organised.  Postal equipment and the stock of stamps were thrown into the South Atlantic by the Administrator to avoid misuse. A few days later the Governor of St. Helena (and therefore of TdC) had the laudable idea to overprint four TdC stamps kept in stock in the Jamestown Post Office, with ST. HELENA / TRISTAN RELIEF and an overprint charge.  Some of these were sold and used before an instruction from London arrived (just a week later) informing the Governor that all stocks must be taken off sale and destroyed.  This ended a honorable project having only good intentions but today such stamps/covers are one of the highlights of St. Helena philately  



Resettlement cover of the return voyage of the main group of islanders returning to Tristan on board of MV Bornholm in 1963 (right) - S.A.S. Transvaal (left) with the smoking volcano pictured on a postcard - photo taken by Allan B. Crawford



A Royal Society expedition in early 1962 studied the new volcanic cone and assessed its likely impact on the Tristanians.  After much negotiation and heated debate, in 1963 many islanders returned.  Quite a few had become ill from life in drafty living conditions and from the wet  cold of England and these wanted to return to their home and their old way of life on the island.  Expedition mail and covers of this “Resettlement Period” are collected as a specialty topic of the postal history in connection with TdC’s social history. This so-called "Volcanic Period" involving evacuation and resettlement is important because it is often what draws people to the philately of TdC, being the only thing many have heard about the region and its history.  Furthermore collecting items of that period is comparatively affordable. Today, approximately 260 Tristanians live on the island.


Since the erection of a fishing industry several fishing ships are providing Tristan da Cunha with goods and passengers and took over the transport of mail to South Africa. Because of the lack of an airport all transport had to be done by ship. First occasionally by whaling ships, later by British ships of war now the fishery ships, the South African research ship MV Agulhas has the task to provide Tristan da Cunha once a year with all necessary goods according to an agreement with England. On the other hand South Africa took on lease the  meteorological station on Gough Island. Since 1955 Gough Island is habituated by



Aerogramme posted at sea on board of R.M.S. St. Helena during a ship's visit on Tristan da Cunha at 30-1-1996, datestamped on Tristan



scientists, when an expedition started to explore Gough Island. During that expedition, a sub post office was erected and an own Gough Island datestamp came in use for about 2 years.


Despite the scheduled ship visits between Tristan and South Africa it remains very difficult to visit that interesting island, because on these commercial vessels space for passengers is rare. All additional ship visits are used to transport outgoing mail.Today, modern Tristan da Cunha has a Public Hall, a hospital, church, school house, the canning factory, a small harbor and even a policeman, fire fighters and a sea rescue vessel – and of course a Post Office with internet connection to the whole world.


If you don't know what makes Tristan da Cunha postal history collectable, I can tell you, that the knowledge of such a small community makes many pieces of postal history very exciting, because you know about all families on the island, you know all clerymen, all teachers, every ship and many visitors of the remote island of Tristan da Cunha. Regarding the history of TdC means to live with the islanders their social history - nothing in philately could be more exciting! 



modern Aerogramme with the Life, Wildlife and Landscape of the beautiful and remote island of Tristan da Cunha - available on eBay >>



But even such a remote group of islands is not free of modern life disasters as seen in March 2011, when a Greece freighter on its way from Brazil to Singapore ran aground Nightingale Island, sunk partly and was responsible for a environmental disaster. The island and the nearby smaller Inaccessible Island, populated with hundred thousands of penguins and seabirds was heavily oiled - with tenthousands of penguins.


Try it - plunge into that topic and you will be fascinated as so many collectors worldwide before!







Bye-bye Tristan - on board of RMS St. Helena










 (sorry, Allan Crawford's prename is misspelled above. It is spelled correctly with 2x "l".)

.... and a few snippets of Tristan life in 1946 .... not every day can be successful ... hard work in the Wireless station ... landing beach ... 2 crayfish for hungry stomachs shown by Tom Swain





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