Niuafo’ou – Tin Can Island







Quick reference

General issues: Postal region Tonga 1983-Present

Country name on general issues: Niuafo’ou

Currency: 1 Pa’anga = 100 Seniti

Population: 520 in 2011

Political history Niuafo’ou – Tin Can Island

Postal history Niuafo'ou - Tin Can Island

Please click on the image to enlarge

Niuafo’ou is an island located in the southern Pacific Ocean. Niuafo’ou is of volcanic origin – the top of a volcano with a crater lake at its center. The population is Polynesian. In the 15th century Niuafo’ou became part of the kingdom of Tonga, which it is until today. The Dutch were the first Europeans to explore the island in 1616. Further sporadic contacts followed in the 18th century. Missionaries settled on the island in the first part of the 19th century. As part of the kingdom of Tonga, Niuafo’ou came under British protection in 1900.

The major event in the modern history of Niuafo’ou was the eruption of the volcano in 1946. The eruption was sufficiently violent for the Tongan government to evacuate the entire population to Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. It was not until 1958 that the first people were allowed to return to Niuafo’ou – eventually about one third of the population returned.

Economically, the population largely relied on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Small scale coconut plantations were set up in the late 19th century for the production of copra. The population was around 1 300 just prior to the evacuation in 1946. Currently the population is around 500.

Niuafo’ou is difficult to access because it has no natural harbor. Ocean going ships cannot anchor and even small boats have difficulty. Accessibility increased significantly when an airstrip was built in 1983.

Postal history Niuafo’ou – Tin Can Island

Swimmers with outward letters.

Swimmers with outward bound letters.

In world postal history, Niuafo’ou gained fame as Tin Can Island or Tin Can Mail Island. Because the island was so difficult to access, no mail could be collected or delivered. To solve the problem, William Travers, a plantation manager who settled on the island in 1882, developed the practice of tin can mail. He arranged for passing ocean going ships to seal inward bound mail in a tin can. The can would be thrown overboard and picked up by swimmers. Outward bound mail was wrapped in oil greased paper, tied to sticks and brought to the ships by swimmers. The practice was continued by others, most notably, in the 1920’s, by Charles Ramsey, also a plantation manager, who was the only European to act as one of the swimmers.

Swimmers with inward letters.

Swimmers with inward bound letters.

The practice of tin can mail gained world fame due to the initiatives of the German trader Walter George Quesnell who settled on Niuafo’ou in 1928. He commercialized tin can mail, seeing the interest the practice might raise among stamp collectors. Initially he applied hand stamps to outgoing letters reading ‘Tin Can Mail’. Subsequently, he arranged for passengers from passing cruise ships to be able to send him self addressed covers to which he would apply stamps and cachets before sending them on. The practice appealed to tourists. Soon cruise ships would stop by the island several times a week and, to share in the profits, cruise ships started to apply their own cachets to covers sent to Quesnell.  The practice also appealed to stamp collectors and tin can mail covers have become collectors items. In the 1930’s, the swimmers were replaced by canoes, due to the dangers for the swimmers in the shark invested waters. Quesnell reports that he sent as many as one and a half million letters while active on the island.

The practice of tin can mail was interrupted in 1946 when the island was evacuated. When the islanders started to return, the practice was resumed in 1962. An end came to the practice in 1983, when the airstrip was built. On Niuafo’ou, the stamps of Tonga were used, until – probably not in the least as a compensation for the loss of income out of the tin can mail – Niuafo’ou was granted the right to issue its own stamps in 1983 under the supervision of the postal authorities of Tonga. The stamps issued since then are aimed mainly at the thematic collectors market.

In evaluating tin can mail one has to say that the vast majority of the covers were created for the tourists business and the stamp collectors market. At the same time, the practice was legitimate as it constituted the only way to send mail to and from the island until 1983. Obviously, genuine covers are much more sought after than philatelic covers.

Postal history Niuafo'ou - Tin Can Island

1937 – Tin can mail philatelic cover – front

Postal history Niuafo'ou - Tin Can Island

1937 – Tin can mail philatelic cover – Back

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