Some lasted half a century, some only weeks, but each of the nations in Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries, 1840-1975 is now just a memory. Author Bjørn Berge relied on firsthand accounts, later historical interpretations, and the surviving stamps they issued to excavate the rise and fall of these countries. The book, out now from Thames & Hudson, explores 50 such places, each accompanied by a stamp.
“The stamps serve as the core evidence, providing concrete proof that the countries did in fact exist,” writes Berge in a foreword. “Just as certainly, though, they lie. Countries will forever try to present themselves exactly the way they want to be seen: as more dependable, more liberal, more merciful, more awe-inspiring, or better at the business of government than they actually are.”
For instance, the Sultanate of Upper Yafa issued stamps in 1967 — the same year the state was abolished — even though it had no functioning postal system. The elegant example in Nowherelands features Degas’s ballet dancers. Issuing a stamp could further project a nonexistent stability. Eastern Karelia, which endured for only a few weeks during the Soviet-Finnish War in 1922, issued a stamp of a roaring bear beneath the Northern Lights. The design by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who celebrated Finnish national identity in his work, was a fleeting but defiant statement by the East Karelian separatists against the Soviets.
“My aim is to collect a stamp from every country and every regime that has ever been active since the first Penny Black was issued in England in 1840,” Berge writes in Nowherelands. And his assembled pieces are impressive, such as a 1940 stamp illustrated with a crane soaring over a ship’s mast, a deceptively peaceful specimen from Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state that existed from 1932 to 1945. It’s best remembered for the shocking experiments at Unit 731, where thousands of people were killed as test subjects for research on biological and chemical warfare. Other stamps also belie the horrors of the imperialism that often led to the establishment of short-lived 19th and 20th-century countries: an 1856 stamp from Van Diemen’s Land, the notorious penal colony that is today’s Tasmania, portrays a youthful Queen Victoria, symbolically linking this land of confinement to its distant colonial power.
Berge concludes the brief histories on the lost countries with recommended reading, music, films, and even recipes. The section on Obock, a desert-surrounded French settlement once described by Arthur Rimbaud as a “horrible colony colonized by nothing more than a dozen freeloaders,” includes a recipe for Fah-Fah Soup, for which you will need 18 ounces of goat meat. And for each, Berge considers why the visuals were selected to represent these countries. The Channel Islands, for example, which were occupied by Germany from 1940 to 1945, have stamps that suggest printing subterfuge. One from Guernsey has a tiny “V,” similar to those being defiantly tagged on walls and lampposts by night, in the corner, with three lions slyly copied from the British coat of arms, while one from Jersey includes an inverted “V” below its image of seaweed gatherers. Yet overall the stamps revel in the pomp and glory of a great nation, even if it meant overprinting another country’s with your name, as was the case with Cape Juby (between Morocco and Spanish Sahara). Its 1919 stamp was made from unsold 1872 Spanish stamps, depicting a royal red crown.
Each stamp, with its underlying declaration that a country was organized enough for its own postal infrastructure, was an aspirational act. As Berge affirms, “The stamps must therefore be viewed as propaganda, in which truth will always be of subordinate importance.”
Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries, 1840-1975 by Bjørn Berge is out now from Thames & Hudson.