The Kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific is spread over hundreds of small Polynesian islands located in three main groups running roughly from north to south comprising Vava’u, Ha’apai and the main island of Tongatapu, location of the capital at Nuku’alofa. Although it was never a British colony, the Kingdom of Tonga remained under Britain’s protection until attaining independence within the Commonwealth in 1970.
The first 1p, 2p, 6p and 1sh stamps featuring a profile of King George Tupou I, Scott 1–4, were produced in 1886 by New Zealand’s Government Printing Office in Wellington on contemporary NZ Star watermarked paper. They were reprinted during 1886-88 with many variations in shade and perforation. Postal rate changes in 1891 required “FOUR PENCE.” and “EIGHT PENCE.” surcharges on 1p and 2p stamps (Scott 6–7), applied by the Star Newspaper in Auckland.
Because of a perceived risk of fraudulent surcharging, two small stars were applied locally to 1p and 2p stamps in 1891 (Scott 8–9). The small quantity of these overprinted with 3, 4 and sometimes 5 stars are priced (in mint condition only) by Scott and Gibbons.
Figure 1 shows five of the King George Tupou I stamps and surcharges. All stamps and surcharges issued prior to 1895 were printed in Auckland or Wellington.
Figure 1. Tonga’s 1886-92 first issues showed the royal profile of King George Tupou I as on the 1-penny stamp at left, Scott 1 — first of many Tongan stamps afflicted by overprint overload. Having failed to produce 4p stamps, a two-line surcharge met that need in 1891, along with the first overprint error (the missing period after “PENCE”) Scott 6-6a. To keep spurious surcharges from quadrupling the value of 1p stamps, two weeks later remaining stocks were overprinted with corner stars to foil fakers, creating Scott 8 and 8d.
A color change for 6p stamps in 1892 from ultramarine to orange yellow was followed by two new designs: a Coat of Arms used on 1p and 4p stamps (Scott 10–11) and a frontal portrait of King George Tupou on 2p, 8p and 1-shilling values (Scott 12–14). The 1p was bisected in 1893 to meet a revised 2½p postal rate (Scott 10a), and is scarce.
During 1893–96, Tonga released unprecedented numbers of provisional surcharges to meet frequent shortages due mainly to postal rate revisions. In 1893, color changes in the Coat of Arms and King Tupou designs were implemented to avoid confusion with other denominations. A variety of typefaces were used to apply ½p on 1p, 2½p on 2p, “FIVE PENCE” on 4p and 7½p on 8p surcharges and were placed on sale (Scott 15-20). The need for provisional stamps continued in 1894 with ½p on 4p, ½p on 1sh (brown), 2½p on 8p and 2½p on 1sh (green) surcharges applied sideways. For ½p use, the 4p red brown Coat of Arms was astonishingly overprinted vertically with “SURCHARGE HALF-PENNY” in two lines, Scott 21.
Similar 1p, 1½p, 2½p, 7½p surcharges were required in 1895. All were applied to a special printing in light blue of the 2p King Tupou stamp.
Figure 2. King George Tupou II “was reportedly dissatisfied with his portrait” on 1895 definitives such as the 5p, Scott 31. He was presumably pleased with his picture on 1897 bicolors including the 2½p at right, Scott 42.
Yet another series of ½p, 1p, 7½p surcharges on slightly modified 2½p stamps was released following the introduction of 1p, 2½p, 5p and 7½p featuring King George Tupou II (29–32), including the 5p bright blue pictured on the left in Figure 2. The 18-year-old great grandson of Tupou I was reportedly dissatisfied with his portrait, insisting on a more flattering image to be placed on sale as soon as possible.
The final provisionals issued in mid-1896 (Scott 36–37) are beyond the means of most intermediate-level collectors. An old office typewriter was used to print two-line “Half- Penny” overprints in italic violet lettering. The overprints in English and Tongan were applied to previously surcharged 1½p and 7½p on 2p light blue stamps, including Scott 37c in Figure 3. Few, if any, of the scarcest errors on these stamps are known to have been sold for postal purposes.
Figure 3. Lacking ½-penny stamps, Tonga scrambled to provide them in 1896, resulting in Scott 37c at left. This “Half- Penny” violet typewritten surcharge on red “SURCHARGE 7½d.” reads up on 2p a King George I full face portrait reprinted in a blue lighter than the olive gray in which it had been first been issued earlier as Scott 11. Also hard to decode were Tongan Official stamps of 1893, like the “7½ d”- surcharged red “G.F.B.”-overprinted 8p stamp at right, Scott O9.
Large carmine “G.F.B.” overprints for “Gaue Faka Buleaga” (On Government Service) were applied in 1892 to 1p, 2p, 4p, 8p and 1sh designs reprinted in ultramarine and placed on sale in February 1893 (Scott O1–O5). The five stamps were later surcharged sideways with ½p, 2½p, 5p, 7½p, 10p surcharges using very large fonts which almost entirely defaced the stamps (Scott O6–O10), including the 7½p on 8p, shown at right in Figure 3. These stamps for Government mail were in use for a very limited period, accounting for their higher values in used condition.
De La Rue engraved 14 definitives from ½p to 5sh, which were introduced in 1897 (Scott 38 and 40–52), using the name “TOGA,” the Polynesian title for the kingdom.
Denominations of 2p, 2½p, 5p, 7½p, 10p and 1sh depict a much enhanced portrait of King George Tupou II, including the one on the right in Figure 2.
Figure 4. Among the other De La Rue engraved stamps issued by Tonga and engraved in Tongan in 1897 (Scott 38-52) were a 1p Ovava (banyan) Tree, 4p Breadfruit, 2s View of Ha’apai, 2-shilling and 6p Musk Parrot, and 5s Vava’u Harbor.
The remainder of this striking issue had pictorial designs, including those shown in Figure 4. The Coat of Arms on the ½p was supplemented with the Ovava (banyan) tree on the 1p, a cluster of mature breadfruit on the 4p, a musk parrot on the 2sh6p, and views of Ha’apai (2 shilling) and the harbor at Vava’u (5s).
Figure 5 shows a 3p stamp depicting the three huge blocks of limestone used in the construction of the ancient trilithon monument on Tongatapu and the source of that limestone, a coral formation illustrated on the 6p stamp (Scott 43 and 46).
Figure 5. Also featured in the 1897 set was a 3p stamp (Scott 43) showing the 11th-century 40-ton Tongatabu Trilithon—popularly called “the Gate of Tonga”—and a 6p stamp depicting the origin of the material from which it was made, Coral (Scott 46).
The 7½p inverted head (Scott 47a) is an especially notable error. Often difficult-to-identify sideways and inverted Turtles watermarks (Scott Wmk. 79) are of little interest to most non-specialist collectors.
To mark the Royal marriage in 1899, the 1p was overprinted “T – L” in Auckland (Scott 53). The letters refer to the King’s family name, Taufa’ahau, and Lavinia, daughter of Tonga’s Police Chief. Amongst a few typeface errors is the wrong date, shown as 1889 on rows 6/1 and 8/4 (Scott 53a.)
Queen Salote was only 18 years old when she inherited the monarchy from her father George Tupou II, who died at the early age of 43. The young Queen’s portrait was featured on stamps issued from 1920 (Scott 54–62). Color changes in 1924 and 1934 for 2p and 2½p denominations, respectively, were quickly supplemented with a 1½p value in 1935. Others remained unaltered except for ½p blue, which in 1934 was reprinted in green.
Figure 6. Issued in the 1920s, 2½p Queen Salote definitives were printed from two different dies. The die I version on the left has a smaller ball at the top of the “2,” while that of the die II stamp is larger, rounder and also has a spur on the lower left of the “U.”
Marked variations in the size of the ball at the upper end of the “2” on the 1924 2p stamps are the result of two different printing dies, which resulted in Scott 56 and 56a, pictured in Figure 6. A die III version, issued in 1942, Scott 75a, also is quite collectible and affordable.
A shortage of 2p stamps in 1923 led to remaining sheets of 5p, 7½p, 10p and 1sh King George II portrait design being sent to Auckland for “TWO PENCE PENI-E-UA” overprints which were placed on sale in October 1923, Scott 63-66. A subsequent shortfall required similar surcharges on old stocks of 2sh, 2sh6p and 5sh King George II stamps in January 1924, Scott 67-69.
In 1938, the 20th anniversary of Queen Salote’s accession was marked with large vertically formatted 1p, 2p and 6p stamps featuring a full-length image of the monarch, Scott 70-72. The acclaimed design was repeated in 1944 with the belated issue of 25th anniversary stamps, Scott 82-86, with the caption revised to “1918-43.”
Turtles watermarks were replaced with the Crown Agents Multiple Script CA watermark (Scott Wmk. 4) for new printings of nine denominations used between 1942 and 1949, Scott 73-81. Once again there are notable die differences on the 2p denomination. Tonga participated in general omnibus issues for the first time in 1949 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union with four stamps, Scott 87-90.
Queen Salote’s 50th birthday was acknowledged in 1950 with photogravure stamps printed by Harrison & Sons, Scott 91-93. Three designs featured updated portraits, each with a different backdrop and color.
Figure 7. Stamps from the 1951 set celebrating the 50th anniversary of Tonga’s Friendship with Great Britain prior to World War I included symbols of both nations.
Six superbly engraved stamps were issued in 1951 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain (Scott 94-99), which took place to discourage possible German advances prior to World War I. Designs of the ½p to 1sh stamps including those found in Figure 7 include oral emblems, maps of Britain and Tonga, the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s flag, a local beach scene, and heraldic badges surmounted by the royal crowns of both countries. Although HMNZS Bellona provided an attractive subject for the 3p stamp, I was unable to find evidence of this vessel’s visit to Tonga. Tonga’s first definitives since 1897 were issued just one month after Coronation Day in 1953, printed by Bradbury, Wilkinson. Values from 1p to £1, Scott 100-14, were created by James Berry, renowned for designing many New Zealand stamps. The inclusion of tiny airplanes in the scenic views was unusual. Except for infrequent visits by New Zealand’s National Airline Corporation (NAC) to Fua’amotu Airport (pictured on Scott 107), aircraft were seldom seen in Tongan skies 70 years ago.
Other designs include the Royal Palace, a fisherman casting a net, a close-up map of Tongatapu with what appears to include the road layout of Nuku’alofa, a map of the entire kingdom and the new post office. The £1 revealed for the first time the kingdom’s striking coat of arms. Spectacular Swallows Cave in Vava’u, a favored destination for vacationing underwater swimmers, is shown on the 3p stamp, Scott 103.
The 5sh “Mutiny on the Bounty” stamp shows a graphic presentation of HMS Bounty drawing away from the open boat in which Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen were set adri . Bligh failed to nd the sanctuary he was hoping for in the Ha’apai group, close to the volcanic island of Tofua.
The first new stamps for eight years were issued in 1961 to mark the 75th anniversary of Tonga’s postal service, which had issued its first stamps in 1886. The five denominations printed in photogravure by Harrison & Sons depict Tonga’s first stamp, a whaling ship and long boat, the Nuku’alofa post office, the inter-island freighter Aoniu II and a mail plane flying over Tongatapu Island (Scott 114-18).
In 1962, eight definitives from 1p to 5sh were overprinted locally in English and Polynesian to commemorate 100 years of emancipation introduced by King George Tupou I, Scott 119-26. Stocks of 2sh definitives were clearly at a low level, so postal needs were provided for as in prior decades by adding a 2sh on 3p surcharge, Scott 125.
This series was however the first indication of radical changes in postal policy, which came into full ower in 1963 with circular stamps embossed on gold foil to introduce Tonga’s gold coins, Scott 128-33. This series was quickly followed with similar heart and map-shaped stamps, soon to be followed with increasing numbers of unorthodox issues which effectively closed the album on Tonga as far as many more traditional philatelists were concerned.
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This review closes with a brief outline of Tonga’s well documented Tin Can Mail service. Detailed information is readily available from the internet and philatelic literature.
Persistent strong tidal surges made it almost impossible to deliver or send mail to the volcanic island of Niuafo’ou in the isolated Niua cluster far to the north of the larger Vava’u island group. Following unsuccessful trials involving rockets, the problem was solved in 1921 when captains of occasional passing cargo vessels were encouraged to accept letters placed in sealed biscuit tins or kerosene cans for tossing overboard to waiting swimmers who would convey them through heavy surf to the shore. Outward mail sent from Niuafo’ou was also guided out to sea in sealed containers for delivery to a waiting ship.
A distinctive and philatelic Tin Can Mail cover from Niuafo’ou Island in the isolated Niua island cluster.
It was during 1932 when collectors in America and elsewhere became aware of envelopes marked “Tin Can Mail” like the example shown here, and it was not long before postal authorities in Nuku’alofa were inundated by requests for covers. This led to the development of a locally operated marketing enterprise to produce large numbers of colorful covers adorned with numerous cachets. Many were also posted by passengers on visiting cruise ships to be picked up in sea-going canoes to be delivered.
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I wish to thank Martin Baxendale from Pacific Islands Study Circle for his helpful assistance in the presentation of this article. All items illustrated appear courtesy of the APS StampStore.
Editor's Note: The “Tonga” article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.