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A Few Words On Stamp Collecting

30 Nov 10
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My childhood was, to say the least, not the best. So in order to avoid as much regular turmoil as possible, I would search for ways to run away, at least mentally. Early on books provided just such an opportunity – the welcome chance to escape into another world remains a constant pull for me, even today.

Listening to the shortwave radio was another way to get away. And I loved collecting stamps.

Stamp collecting was one thing I could sometimes do with my dad that didn’t involve fighting, unless he was taking my stamps, which happened occasionally. So no doubt that was part of the appeal. But the most important part of stamp collecting for me was the opportunity to travel to other places, and at least for a moment or two leave my normal life behind.

Collecting stamps was a great escape for someone with an unhappy home life. It allowed me to mentally become a new Captain Cook, exploring distant shores through little slips of paper.

Through collecting stamps I also acquired valuable knowledge, something I appreciate now as a parent. When you work with stamps, it’s hard not to want to learn more about the countries you are collecting, whether it’s the United States or Ceylon (the country adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972, but it remained Ceylon while I was actively collecting).

Perhaps it was the time period during which I was collecting. It was a tumultuous period in what was then called the Third World. Many former colonies, especially in Africa, became newly independent countries in the 1950s and 1960s (with one impetus for the change occurring here in Bandung in the 1950s – the subject of a future blog post). It was an exciting time to be a collector, with stamps from newly-minted countries so readily available.

Regardless the circumstances, through my stamp collecting I learned much about cultures vastly different from my own, as well as world geography. Stamps tell you a lot about a country’s way of life and what it holds as priorities. It seems impossible for someone to collect stamps and yet show no interest in learning about the countries that collection represents. I know this was an important part of collecting for me.

Here’s the thing about stamps. Governments reveal their national zeitgeist when they issue stamps. Generally a great deal of thought goes into the selection. In the United States, a special commission goes through thousands of public submissions to select less than three dozen new stamps issued each year. Similar processes occur in other countries.

Each year’s stamps reveal what the nation thinks of itself at that moment – a snapshot of how a country’s citizens see themselves, and often more importantly how its leaders want the rest of the world to see their country.

I was reminded of this recently when the kids had a week off from school and we visited the stamp museum in Bandung. The Bandung bureaucracy doesn’t make such visits easy. Our driver, Aris, had to inquire about its location several times before we finally found the museum, tucked away in the northeast basement corner of the regional government complex near central Bandung.

As you approach the gate there is a lovely park to the east of the government complex. Turning through the gate though, everything looked like any other government building in Indonesia – except for the old-fashioned colonial-style mailbox standing on the edge of the parking lot.

Up a set of metal stairs at the edge of the parking lot and a left turn onto an open walkway we found a couple of wooden cutouts with large representations of stamps on them, each containing a place for the kids to stick their heads. Now this is what I was hoping for. Because to be honest, selling the kids on a visit to a stamp museum wasn’t exactly easy. In an age when e-mail is now considered too slow and old-fashioned and twitter feeds and Facebook seem to rule, the mail service just doesn’t mean much to kids.

After the obligatory pictures, we continued down the corridor to a small stand holding a guest registry, where we signed in, the only Americans to have visited in many months. Then down a stairway of this old Dutch Colonial building, stepping over cables, loose boards and other signs of construction that littered the stairwell, sawdust puffing up in little clouds as we walked.

Finally we entered a basement room containing rows of wooden display cases that could frankly use a good cleaning, and dioramas that from their appearance must have been built around the time of Indonesian independence.

Clearly this museum was not a priority of the government, or whatever group served as its patron; rather, it was more of an afterthought. Which is too bad, because its contents were thrilling.

If you know what to look for, a stamp collection can speak to you, and this collection was talking loud and clear. Arranged in an odd chronological order, this particular collection has on display the pride and history of a nation.

The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English all tried their hand at controlling the Malay Archipelago, an area which today includes both Indonesia and Malaysia, and encompasses much of the spice trade of long ago.

The Portuguese set up fortified bases in portions of what would eventually become Indonesia by the 1500s. The Spanish, Dutch and English all tried to develop bases of their own, but it was the Dutch trading company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), that eventually won the competition. By 1605 the company’s forces had overwhelmed several Portuguese bases and began occupying the Spice Islands.

Fighting however continued for more than a century in the region, taking its toll on the VOC, and in 1799 the government took over control of the trading enterprise, turning the trading company’s holdings into a Dutch colony.

In addition to exporting spices, the Dutch government turned the region into a plantation, growing rice and produce for great profit, but in so doing it created a great deal of resentment through the use of forced labor.

The oldest stamp I saw in the museum was printed in 1864. Reflecting this colonial presence, it references “Wilem,” who I presume to be William III, King of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The stamps either say “Nederlandsch – indie,” or “Ned – indie.”

The theme of royalty continues until the mid-20th century. Wilhelmina, Queen regnant of the Netherlands first appears in 1891, one year after ascending to the throne. She ruled the Netherlands for 58 years, which is longer than any other Dutch monarch. That explains her constant presence on the region’s stamps until World War II.

The stamps during this period are rather bland – if not the Queen’s profile, they showed village scenes, fishermen throwing nets, and other scenes of happy life in the colony. It’s not until World War II that the stamps really become interesting.

The Japanese Imperial Army marched into the city then called Batavia on the 5th of March in 1942. The city was quickly renamed Jakarta, and all Europeans found in the city were arrested. Oddly the Japanese were initially viewed as liberators, an opinion that fast faded as their reputation as cruel masters grew.

The Japanese began quickly to issue stamps that attempted to show some level of normalcy throughout the region. Many of their stamps displayed cultural images of rice paddies, historic architecture and the area’s well-known puppets, along with images of birds and other animals.

While the Japanese were in many ways cruel, they did allow the people of the region some level of responsibility in their governance. They also promoted some nationalist leaders, in particular Soekarno and Mohammed Hatta, who were to soon become Indonesia’s first President and Vice President.

After the Japanese surrendered to the British to end their occupation, both the Dutch and the British were involved in efforts to re-colonize Indonesia. But on December 27th, 1949, the Indonesian flag was raised over Jakarta and the fighting ended. (However, August 17th, 1945, when a proclamation of independence was signed with Japanese support by Soekarno and Hatta, is celebrated as the official Independence Day)

This is when stamp collecting gets interesting. You can really begin to track the new country’s view of itself by the stamps it issues.

Stamps in 1948 were militaristic, as would be expected for a country concerned about its tenuous freedom. Soekarno first appears, with planes flying in the background. There is an odd stamp that has both Soekarno and Abe Lincoln on it, an obvious attempt to curry favor with the U.S. And stamps in 1948-49 display many images of planes, soldiers and Indonesian maps.

By 1951 Soekarno has the country in firm control, and that year features a complete series of stamps focused on the president himself. This is quite common in the development of new nations led by strong figures.

Kids begin appearing by 1954, with a series focused on what would appear to be the Boy Scouts in 1955. In the late 1950s images of industry appear, showing that the country is one focused on economic growth, another important milestone for a new country.

In 1960 Indonesia moves onto the world stage, with a series honoring World Refugee Year. The images of babies showed that Indonesia was no longer looking only inward, but outward to the broader world as well. Same for the 1962 stamps honoring the Asian Games.

The 1970s showed an Indonesia more confident in itself and its traditional identity, taking pride in its history with stamps honoring the cultural tradition of puppets, ancient costumes and traditional housing styles.

We had only a short period of time at the museum that day, but this partial listing of what we found should begin to show what can be learned about countries and their development, all from the comfort of your armchair when you’re a ten year old boy.

I only wish kids were interested in the same experience today.

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