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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Phila-Trivia: The Guano Trade and the Clipperton Island Stamps

   While the California and Alaska Gold Rushes are well known and have been immortalized in films and literature, the Guano Trade of the mid- and late 19th Century is less so, though it  played a pivotal role in the development of modern intensive farming practices and inspired the colonization of remote islands in many parts of the world. Guano, the accumulated droppings of birds or bats, is an extremely effective fertilizer and a rich source of phosphorous and nitrogen, key ingredients of gunpowder.

   Among the historic relics of the Guano Trade are the stamps of Clipperton Island, a guano-rich coral atoll which was mined by the Oceanic Phosphate Company.

   Clipperton Island was named after the English mutineer and pirate John Clipperton, who made it his hideout in 1705. The French claimed Clipperton in 1855, but Mexican forces invaded in 1897 and stationed troops there until 1917. In 1930, the island again came under French rule. The island is the only atoll in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and it lies about 670 miles southwest of Mancanilla Bay, Mexico, the nearest mainland. It comprises a ring of dead coral surrounding a lagoon, measuring less than four square miles. Numerous birds use the deserted and uninhabited island as a nesting place and therefore it is rich in guano deposits.

   In 1892, the Oceanic Phosphate Company, an American firm, began to exploit these guano deposits. It was  estimated that there were about 1,000,000 tons of fertilizing material on the island, and valued at between $18 and $20 a ton.

   In 1895, 200 sets of ten stamps, denominated in American currency, were issued by W. Frese and Company, acting as agents of Oceanic Phosphate. The set's six similar designs  pictured the atoll surrounding the year "1895", as well as crawfish and birds - the Masked Boobies which abound there.

   Initial responses to these stamps published in the philatelic press were quite skeptical, as many viewed their issuance as yet another attempt to bilk collectors. However, W. Frese and Company responded:

"...There are but a few men on the island, but we will have between one hundred and two hundred at work there later. There is no communication with any nearer point than San Francisco, and this only by means of our vessels, which sail at irregular periods, as circumstances require. Heretofore we have carried the mail for our employees, and have taken the chance of collecting for this service. On this basis we have at times carried as much as $15.00 worth of mail matter on a single voyage of one of our vessels. We found it difficult, in most cases, to make them pay this charge, and to obviate this trouble in the future we

decided to issue stamps, which must be used to prepay postage by those sending mail to or from

Clipperton Island." 
Mexican stamps overprinted
for mailings from Clipperton Island

   Presumably use of the set was discontinued following the Mexican invasion of 1897. Thereafter, Mexican stamps were overprinted for mailings from the island. 

   Whether issued for philatelic purposes or not, the set is quite scarce and is occasionally offered at stamp auctions, at which it usually sells for around $ 500.- to $ 750.-. 

    Those interested in becoming part of an international community of stamp collectors, dealers, and investors are encouraged to join the "Stampselectors" group at Facebook. The group hosts lively discussions concerning stamp investment and practical aspects of collecting, and provides a useful venue for those who wish to buy, sell, or trade stamps.      

1 comment:

  1. Interested in contact Alex for Clipperton Stamps