Were these weird stamps ever used? The short answer to the question is ‘Very much so‘. I have recently seen a large holding of commercial covers of Tonga dating from the 1960s and bearing many different frankings from the myriad of self-adhesive stamp issues. An absolutely riotous experience I must add.

Tonga was the world’s first country to issue self-adhesive stamps, and I recall the consternation in Philately when the Gold coinage set was issued in 1963. This series was rapidly followed by many and varied self-adhesive stamp shapes including hearts, maps, crosses, bananas, and so on, replete with overprints and surcharges to ensure that the Tongan Post Office was invariably way ahead of we Philatelists. Like most of us at the outset, I was bemused by this prodigious output of Tongan material. Certainly it would not be difficult, or prohibitive in expense, to assemble a complete collection of these stamps in unused condition. Finding the same stamps used on commercial covers? Now there’s a challenge.

So who uses Tongan self-adhesives? The collection I recently saw confirms such stamps are widely used by all and sundry; I noted usages by indigenous and transplanted locals, tourists, Government, general commerce, even missionaries. Let’s take a look at some.

Figure 1.Have a heart (or two)

The second series of self-adhesives, issued in 1964, was heart or map-shaped (see Figure 2) for the Pan-Pacific South-East Asia Women’s Association Meeting in Nukualofa. Figure 1 shows a combination franking of the heart-shaped 3d x 2 and regular 2d from the 1953 Pictorial series, used from Nukualofa to Samoa in June, 1966. 8d was the ½oz airmail rate and the correspondence was between the local and Apia offices of Morris Headstrom Ltd. The self-adhesives are cancelled by the bold ‘NUKUALOFA / TONGA / FRIENDLY ISLANDS ‘ handstamp, wisely introduced to facilitate cancelling of the embossed gold foil self-adhesives. Value : $25 (stamps off cover 50c).

Figure 2. Old and new currency combination

Tonga converted to Decimal currency in 1967 and Figure 2 shows an unusual combination of the map-shaped 10d and surcharged 2 seniti on 4d pictorial, used in 1968 from a Church School at Nukualofa to a firm in South Melbourne. From the same correspondence in the collection there are 1/1d immediately pre-Decimal and 11 seniti post-Decimal airmail rates. Value : $35 (stamps off cover 25c).

Figure 3. King Taufa’ahau IV gets his head on a coin and stamp simultaneously

Absolute domination would appear to best describe the relationship between the coin-stamps and the cover in Figure 3. Issued in 1967 for the Coronation of King Taufa’ahau IV, the 2 seniti denomination x 5 in combination with 1966 Centenary of Tupou College and Secondary Education 1/2d on 2d overprint, another old/new currency item, was for the ½-1oz airmail rate, on this occasion for a 14 Jan 1969 article of correspondence between two houses of commerce. Value : $35 (stamps off cover 60c).

Figure 4. Heart and red cross bound for Mariana Islands

Tonga had by 1970 set the pace for the rest of the world in terms of unusual designs for its self-adhesives. Only Sierra Leone rose to the challenge when between 1964 and 1971 it produced self-adhesives in various formats. Those seemingly unlikely stamps were inviting enough to in recent years attract leading Australian Philatelist, Geoff Kellow, to take up collecting Sierra Leone QEII stamps and their usage (to 1971 Republic). Geoff is probably better known as editor of Brusden-White’s ACSC series than he is as a specialist in Sierra Leone, although in that capacity he has elevated his collection (expanded to include KGVI issues) to National exhibition status. For Tonga, by 1970, we had a stamp in the shape of a cross, appropriately enough for the Centenary of British Red Cross. The 7 seniti denomination in Figure 4 combined with heart-shaped 9d surcharged 3 seniti and overprinted for Fifth Death Anniversary of Queen Salote were for 10 seniti ½oz airmail to Mariana Islands. Sent from Nukualofa 18 Jun 1971 apparently by a U.S. tourist. Value : $25 (stamps off cover 35c).

Figure 5. Who thought up these designs?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but some of the designers of Tongan stamps probably would have enjoyed equally successful careers in advertising. Figure 5 shows the creative 1971 25th Anniversary of UNICEF 50 seniti x 4 together with 1974 Airmail 38 seniti Red Shining Parrot, and a 1972 coil 3 seniti for a 2 pa’anga 41 seniti registered airmail to Hawaii from Nukualofa in January 1976. This appears to be late use of the UNICEF stamps but came from the Bank of Tonga and is no doubt commercial. The bank may have maintained its own stamp stocks for indiscriminate use, or perhaps stocks of this stamp (amongst others – see Figures 7 and 9) languished unsold at the G.P.O. for a period? I don’t have adequate information to calculate the breakdown of the airmail/registration rates for this item and the other two Bank of Tonga covers featured this month. Perhaps a reader can assist? Value : $45 (stamps off cover $5.70).

Figure 6. No banana shortage in Tonga

Self-adhesive coil stamps were issued in 1969, and why shouldn’t they be in the form of a banana. Seemed like a good idea at the time. The 11 Dec 1974 usage of no less than nine examples of the 1972 printing of the 1 seniti shown in Figure 6 was for the 9 seniti airmail rate to N.Z. for a greeting card. We know it contained a card (the time of year it was posted suggests for Christmas) as it is a ‘Hallmark’ envelope and the flap is unsealed in order to conform with postal regulations to qualify for this concessional rate. Value : $25 (stamps off cover 90c).

Figure 7. Shake hands, it’s another triumph of design

Along with innovative design, Tonga appears to have had no shortage of ideas to base a stamp issue upon. For aficionados of stamp usage this is a great outcome. What better way to misspend one’s collecting lifetime than chasing down as many examples as possible of stamp usage! Figure 7 has issues for no less than 1972 Merchant Marine Routes, 1973 Silver Jubilee of Scouting in Tonga, and 1975 Centenary of Tongan Constitution. Another Bank of Tonga to Hawaii item, this time rated 2 pa’anga 5 seniti. Value : $45 (stamps off cover $8.40).

Figure 8. Yet another knockout design from Tonga

Tonga’s very busy stamp designers ensured that most if not all popularly collected themes were introduced. Figure 8 shows the token boxing sport star-shaped entry from the 1975 Fifth South Pacific Games, Guam, series. Another late usage, in 1980, the envelope is a ‘P & O’ generic suggesting the writer was a cruise tourist. The 32 seniti rate paid airmail to Australia. Value : $20 (stamps off cover 85c).

Figure 9. Four shape configurations in one

A highlight of the collection this article is based upon is the large number of highly franked registered items from the Bank of Tonga correspondence. Figure 9 is franked 2 pa’anga 98 seniti, and includes the 2 pa’anga 1975 F.A.O. Commemoration, the highest denomination stamp issued by Tonga to that time, which must be very uncommon on commercial cover. Value : $60 (stamps off cover $6.30). I know of at least three serious collectors of modern Tonga commercial usage who would leap at the opportunity to buy this cover at my valuation.

Figure 10. Scarce formular aerogramme

The collection contains a small number of varying types of formular aerogrammes, which were required to be franked with stamps to become legitimate for postal use. Such items of stationery were available in Hotels, on cruise ships, from local retailers, etc, the example in Figure 10 being of U.K. manufacture (Croxley brand). An attractive July 1976 franking from visiting tourists to friends in Australia bearing appropriate 17 seniti rate for the service, in the form of 1975 Centenary of Tongan Constitution 5 and 12 seniti. Value : $25 (stamps off cover 40c).

Love them or hate them, it is clear that Tongan self-adhesives served legitimate, and reasonably frequent postal service. Not an astonishing revelation perhaps when one considers that, after all, stamps generally were issued to serve a postal purpose (aside from raising the odd bit of revenue from easily duped stamp collectors). I’m one who does like these stamps, used on commercial articles only of course, and find the vibrant, often outrageous designs rather appropriate for the ‘Friendly Islands’ in tropical paradise. If I didn’t already have enough on my Philatelic plate I’d not hesitate to collect modern Tongan commercial covers.

Rod Perry has been a philatelic trader since 1962. He founded Rodney A Perry Auction Galleries (now Millennium Philatelic Auctions) in 1971. As a collector he has exhibited nationally and internationally. Rod prefers his used stamps on cover and likens taking a stamp off its original cover to converting a tree to woodchips.

Published by kind permission of the author
First published in Stamp News (July 2006)