The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a territory of Australia, is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean consisting of 27 coral islands, of which two are inhabited by about 600 people. The islands, 1,700 miles northwest of Perth, are strategically important because of their proximity to shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
Tourists in recent years have discovered the islands’ stunning coral reefs, aquamarine water, and abundant sea life, so tourism is a growing industry. In 2017, Cossies Beach was named Best Beach in Australia by the editor of Best Beaches in Australia.
Geographically, there are two islands with the distinction of being called “Cocos.” There is Cocos Island in the Pacific Ocean administered by Costa Rica, which is nearly 12,000 miles from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the subject of this article. The “Keeling” in the name honors Captain William Keeling, who in 1609 discovered the islands during one of his voyages from Java to England.
The first stamps inscribed “Cocos Keeling Islands” appeared in 1963. Prior to that, stamps of the Straits Settlements were used from April 1, 1933 to March 1, 1937. During the World War II, the islands were under British military control.
When regular postal service resumed in September 1952, the stamps of Singapore were used until 1955, when the United Kingdom transferred the Cocos to Australia and Australian stamps were put into circulation. In June of 1963 the island issued its own stamps inscribed “Cocos (Keeling) Islands” (Figure 1). Its stamps are avidly collected by collectors Down Under and are valid for postage in Australia.
Figure 1. The first Cocos Islands stamps show a map of the islands (Scott 3), coco palms (Scott 4) and a dukong, a type of sailboat (Scott 5).
Going through a recent purchase of Cocos stamps, my interest was piqued when I found four miniature sheets issued in 1990 as part of the Famous Navigators set (Scott 218-221) but were not listed by Scott or Stanley Gibbons catalogs. (There is a recent update that we’ll explore here at the end.)
Scott, which refers to these as the Explorers and Their Ships stamps, does list an imperforate miniature sheet depicting the four navigators (Figure 2).
Figure 2. A Cocos (Keeling) Islands souvenir sheet (Scott 221a) from 1990 includes all four Navigators stamps in different denominations.
But I had four perforated individual miniature sheets — one for each denomination of the navigators — with two stylized compasses printed in the left and right margins (Figure 3).
Figure 3. All four Cocos Islands Navigators stamps had a minimal release as blocks of four with stylized compasses in the selvage.
Inquiries to dealers in Australia regarding the availability of the souvenir sheets showing individual navigators were fruitless. Those I contacted had no idea the sheets even existed and were extremely interested in learning more.
Further research confirmed that these four miniature sheets are a distinct and separate issue. This is confirmed by a copy of the Cocos Islands Philatelic Bureau new issue bulletin (Figure 4), which clearly lists them as a new issue. At the bottom right, the 45-cent mini sheet of Capt. Keeling is shown along with the wording, “module of 4 stamps in block; available for each denomination.”
Figure 4. A copy of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Philatelic Bureau new issue bulletin confirms the existence of miniature sheets of all four stamps in blocks of four as shown in the sketch at bottom right.
Yet, hardly anyone I contacted in Australia knew of this issue.
Additional proof that these miniature sheets with stylized compasses were a separate and distinct postal release can be found in copies of correspondence from Note Printing Australia (from its archives), the printers of the stamps for the Cocos. It lists the production of four different formats for the Navigator issue: four individual stamps; an imperforate miniature sheet with all four stamps; a sheet of 10 stamps, and modules of four. (Figure 5).
Figure 5. A production letter dated August 6, 1990 from the printing firm of Note Printing Australia. The information listed next to “Quantities” confirms that blocks of four of individual stamps were to be printed.
After many inquiries, I’ve learned that these individual miniature sheets, called modules by the printer, fell off the philatelic radar screen when released, which resulted in the majority of collectors and dealers in Australia and elsewhere being unaware of their existence. How did this happen?
Most collectors at that time ordered their Cocos new issues from the Australian Philatelic Bureau, not from the Cocos Philatelic Bureau. Cocos collectors were alerted to new releases in the Australian new issue bulletin and ordered them directly from the bureau.
When the Navigators stamps came out, the Australian bureau listed the set of four stamps, the imperforate miniature sheet, but did NOT list the four perforated souvenir sheets on its new issues bulletin. Therefore, the majority of collectors did not know of their existence, and, hence, never had the opportunity to acquire them. The only collectors who received the miniature sheets of the individual stamps appear to be those who had standing orders directly with the philatelic bureau in the Cocos Islands.
It is noteworthy that the standard Navigators stamps were printed in sheets of 10 (Figure 6) and do not have the stylized compasses printed in the margins as do the four souvenir sheets.
Figure 6. The standard Navigators issue was printed in sheets of 10, such as the $1 Captain Belcher and Samarang (Scott 220).
There was a question as to whether the Scott and Stanley Gibbons catalogs would recognize the validity of these miniature sheets and assign them catalog status.
In this regard, the following excerpt from This Is Philately, by Kenneth A. Wood, should be helpful in determining their legitimate status as issues worthy of listing: “Souvenir Sheet – A souvenir sheet is a small sheet of stamps issued for a specific commemorative purpose and having a commemorative inscription or artwork in its border.”
The four miniature sheets do have artwork – the stylized compasses imprinted on their borders are not found on regular sheets. Certainly, this fits Wood’s description of a souvenir sheet.
In summary, Graeme Morriss, editor of the Australasian Stamp Catalogue posted the following on Stampboards, an Australian based philatelic website (www.stampboards.com).
A medal-winning collector of Cocos (Keeling) Islands has advised me:
“The blocks (modules) of four were released by Cocos (Keeling) Islands Philatelic Bureau, as part of the issue along with the imperf miniature sheet and the regular sheets of 10, but were never sent to the Australian Philatelic Bureau to be included with the other issues. They were available only from the Cocos (Keeling) Island Philatelic Bureau.
“I had a standing order with them, so I naturally received them in my order. When I didn’t see them included in the formats available from the Australian Philatelic Bureau I made enquiries and was told that the Sydney Philatelic Bureau did not know anything about them.
“So it appears to me that they were kept for, and released, to standing orders directly from the Cocos (Keeling) Island Philatelic Bureau only. As such, they were indeed part of the official release of that issue from the Cocos … Hope this helps.”
I just received a positive update regarding a catalog listing for these stamps after submitting documentation regarding the existence of these miniature sheets to Stanley Gibbons and Scott. I’m happy to report that Stanley Gibbons, in its just released Australia and Territories catalog, has given the sheets full catalog status, listing them as MS227A, with the notation that the miniature sheets of four were only available from the Cocos Post Office and not from the philatelic bureau in Australia.
The same documentation was sent to the editors of the Scott catalog, who will hopefully mark the existence of these sheets as well.
So, how scarce are these sheets?
I’ve been told that there were probably fewer than 100 standing order accounts for new issues from the Cocos Philatelic Bureau in 1990, but this cannot be confirmed. However, the sheets are not to be found on price lists of major Australian dealers who stock the Islands’ stamps.
Correspondence in the Australian National Archives from the Cocos Philatelic Bureau dated July 30, 1990, indicates that apart from Australia Post (which did not receive any of the four perforated miniature sheets), United Kingdom distributor Harry Allen received 20 sets and Herrick Stamp Co. of New York 10 sets. In contrast, Harry Allen ordered 6,000 of the regular imperforate sheet and Herrick, 1,200.
So, it’s possible some collectors in the United States and Great Britain have these modern day rarities in their collection. If you have a Cocos collection, check it out.
Australia, with Australian States and Territories, 12th edition (London, UK: Stanley Gibbons, 2022)
Wood, Kenneth A. This is Philately, Volume I (Van Dahl Publications, 1982).
StampBoards.com website (www.Stampboards.com). January 22, 2020.
Vincent Sgro, a life member of the American Philatelic Society (likely for more than 50 years), is a retired publisher. He has collected primarily British Commonwealth stamps, particularly postally used copies.