Friday, September 18, 2009

Messages in Miniature

Postage stamps were originally used as denotation of the prepayment of postal charges. Back in the 19th century stamps issued usually depicted heads of state, crests or flags and occasionally commemorated an event. In the 1920s this changed, when governments began to realize that postage stamps, by conveying cultural or political messages, could also be used as an inexpensive communication medium that could have a real impact on their citizens and on the people of other nations. Symbols like the communist emblem of scythe and hammer, swastika, heroes and heroines etc., together with inscriptions or slogans aimed at national identity-building and at spreading of official government views, started playing a very forward part in stamp design. This is one of the reasons that led many governments to issue more and more stamps.

Stamp issues could have unexpected side effects. For example, on 29 June 2005 Mexico released a set of five stamps to commemorate Memín Pinguín, a well known comic book character in Latin America. African-American groups and US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson were enraged over these stamps because they portrayed 'an urban black boy with large lips, bugged-out eyes and monkey-like gestures that smack of "Sambo-type" images'. Even the White House and Congress got involved. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the stamps' images 'have no place in today's society'. Mexican President Fox was baffled by the US reaction and stated: ' I would suggest to them that first they read the magazines, get the information and then express publicly their opinion. We know that all Mexicans love the character.' He also stated that the US had a total lack of knowledge of and respect for the Mexican culture. Mexicans have never interpreted cartoon character Speedy Gonzales as being offensive.

Postage stamps have also been used in territorial issues. For more than half a century postage stamps have played their part in the sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the UK over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas Islands and in occasionally overlapping Antarctic territorial claims. Although Article IV of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty puts aside any disputes over territorial claims as long as it is in force, there are seven countries with historic claims prior to the Treaty. Of these countries Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, UK and New Zealand issue postage stamps on a yearly base to back up their claims.
Lately the war over stamp issues between Argentina and the UK is hotting up again. In a letter dated 23 April 2009 sent to the UN Secretary General, Argentina rejected "the attempt by the United Kingdom to issue postage stamps on behalf of the so-called and illegitimate 'governments' of the Malvinas Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the alleged 'British Antarctic Territory'" In its reply dated 19 May 2009 the UK stated that it stands by its decision to issue postage stamps from the disputed territories of and around the Falkland Islands, and said that it had no doubt about its sovereignty over the disputed territories, and referred to Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty of which both the UK and Argentina are parties to. On the 'Day of Argentine sovereignty rights over Malvinas, South Atlantic islands and the Antarctic sector' (10 June 2009) Argentina commemorated June 10, 1829 when the nascent Argentine government created the 'Political and Military Command of the Malvinas islands and adjacent areas to Cape Horn on the Atlantic ocean' with a set of stamps.





Another interesting aspect of postage stamps is that by looking at how well postal, telegraph and telephone services are run, you can tell how stable a government in a country or territory is. In the case of the Falklands this for the moment is clear.



-
Jack Child : Miniature Messages : The Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps. Durham : Duke University Press, 2008. [Not available at the Peace Palace Library]
- Falkland Islands
- Falklands propaganda philately
-
History of the Falklands
- Falkland Islands Sovereignty Question [Peace Palace Library Catalogue Titles]
- Postage Stamps Tell the Tale
- Sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (Wikipedia)
- Stamps issued by Argentina related to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands

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