Tin Can Mail offers exotic and unusual collecting possibilities

Mar 22, 2010, 11 AM

By Janet Klug

Methods of communication have changed with the speed of light since the end of World War II, when messages arrived in the form of letters, telegrams and telephone calls.

And back then, phone calls were not as pervasive as they are today. We had one black phone in the center hall of the house. It was on a party line shared with five other families.

We were lucky, because not everyone had a telephone. Back then, the arrival of the mail was a much anticipated part of the day. Then, as now, our mail service was timely and dependable.

Imagine what it would be like to live somewhere so remote that mail delivery is difficult and, consequently, rare.

Thousands of tiny, inhabited islands are scattered throughout the South Pacific Ocean. Delivering mail to these islands is challenging, but the need to communicate has overcome a great many challenges.

Probably the most well known example of this is the case of Niuafo'ou Island, part of the kingdom of Tonga.

In the late 19th century, this little island was found to grow enormous, meaty coconuts that were important sources of oil used in the manufacturing of soap. This attracted the interest of traders from Germany and Great Britain who would purchase dried coconuts from the growers and ship them off the islands.

In the course of their business, the traders needed to communicate with the companies that employed them. With no radio communication, no harbor and only occasional supply ships that could bring the mail, this proved difficult.

Other vessels would pass the island, but with no safe anchorage, a mail exchange was impossible — until one day when a trader saw Niuafo'ou islanders out fishing.

They cut limbs from the native mulberry that were buoyant when put in the water, and these limbs were used to support swimmers while they spearfished.

The traders thought that if the swimmers could use poles to catch and bring back fish, they could easily use poles to go out to a passing ship and to catch the mail and bring it back.

Ships would collect mail for Niuafo'ou when they called at Nuku'alofa, the main island in the Tonga chain.

The purser on the ship would place the mail into an empty kerosene or cracker can. When the swimmers approached, the purser would throw the cans overboard for the swimmers to retrieve.

Outgoing mail from the island was wrapped in oilcloth and tied to a stick held above the water during the swim out to the ship. The ship would drop a line, and the packet of mail was tied to the line and hauled up to the ship. The mail would be placed into the mailstream at the ship's next port of call.

It was an odd system, but one that worked rather quietly and somewhat efficiently until about 1929 when a German trader named Walter George Quensell, who worked for Burns Philp and Co., began rubber-stamping his outgoing mail with the message "Tin Can Mail."

It did not take long for stamp collectors to find out about this. By the early 1930s, Quensell had a sideline business of creating outgoing mail for stamp collectors and tourists on cruise ships, which began adding Niuafo'ou to their itineraries just so the passengers could be entertained by sending mail and watching it be collected by the swimming Tin Can mailmen.

One fateful day in 1931 or 1932, one of the swimmers was bitten by a shark. The wound was fatal, and, as a result, the Tongan government decreed that swimming for the mail was prohibited.

Thereafter, the mail could only be taken to and from ships in outrigger canoes. This, too, was hazardous because of the turgid waters that surround the island of Niuafo'ou. But thereafter, the mail was marked "Tin Can-Canoe Mail." It was still a novelty, eagerly sought by stamp collectors all over the world.

Outgoing mail from the island always bore Tongan stamps. Shown in Figure 1 is an outward registered mail cover. It is unusual because it was registered, while most Tin Can Mail covers were not. It was carried aboard theM.V. Matua and bears two handstamped cachets from the vessel as well as several Tin Can Mail cachets on front and back.

Figure 2 shows an inward-bound cover, sent from the United States in 1940 and bearing a 2¢ John Adams stamp and a 3¢ Thomas Jefferson stamp from the Presidential series. Covers were sent from all over the world by collectors eager to get a Tin Can Mail cover.

Tin Can Mail became so popular that Quensell began using multiple cachets on the covers he sent out, and he frequently wrote letters to go into them.

The cachets also became more elaborate. Quensell had Tin Can-Canoe Mail translated into many languages and had rubber stamps created in those languages. Many islanders were employed putting handstamps on the tens of thousands of covers that were sent by Tin Can Mail.

WWII interrupted the Tin Can Mail service, as passenger ships were converted to troop transports and nonessential stops were abandoned.

At the end of the war, when pleasure cruising was being reintroduced, Niuafo'ou island, a live volcano, erupted spectacularly.

Islanders took refuge in the hills to avoid the flow of lava. Niuafo'ou was eventually evacuated, with the residents resettled to other islands in the Tonga group.

In 1962, Niuafo'ou islanders were permitted to return to their home island. Cruise ships again called, and the Tin Can Mail resumed as a tourist attraction.

In 1983, Tonga began issuing stamps for Niuafo'ou. A set issued in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Tonga postage stamps depicts the Tin Can Mail and Tin Can-Canoe Mail services (Scott 76-80). The 42-seniti Swimmers with Mail stamp (76) from the set is shown in Figure 3.

Today, there is a small airstrip that brings mail and supplies, but Tonga also is connected to the world through satellite communication and the Internet, neither of which involve dodging sharks just to get the latest missive from your cousin in New Zealand.

The Catalog of Tin Can Mail Cachets is long out of print, but the contents have been digitized and placed on a web site with the permission of the author.

Anyone who has an interest in finding out more about Tin Can Mail can access the catalog