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The Funafuti Provisionals: What Really Happened Back Then in 1916?

By Michel Forand

This article first appeared in Maneapa, Journal of the Tuvalu and Kiribati Philatelic Society,
Issue Number 38, Third Quarter, 1988, pp 61-74.

Funafuti MapAS EVERY TKPS MEMBER KNOWS, the Tuvalu government has been severely criticized for allowing the unnecessary Leaders of the World stamps to be released by the hundreds. But not too many people remember that Funafuti was, once before, in the limelight of philatelic indignation. Just over 70 years ago, there was an outcry among stamp dealers and collectors in Great Britain and Australia when it was learned that the postmaster at Funafuti, having run out of high-value stamps, had surcharged a small number of low-denomination stamps to be used on parcels that had been brought to the post office for mailing. This action raised a storm of protests, so that, after listing the three surcharges -- usually referred to as the Funafuti Provisionals - for a few years, Gibbons decided to withdraw the listing in 1923. (To the best of my knowledge, the Scott catalogue never listed them.)

Today, only the Bridger and Kay “Commonwealth Five Reigns” catalogue (the 1980 edition is the most recent) lists the Funafuti Provisionals, arguing that “most of these stamps were used on parcel mail” and that “they have maintained a degree of respectability perhaps by virtue of the acceptance… of copies by H.M. King George V for his collection.”

The surcharging of stamps was no small matter in those days. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some postmasters had been known to sell scarce provisional surcharges to selected dealers and collectors, provoking the anger of those who were left in the cold. And varieties that were even scarcer (double or inverted surcharges, etc.) always seemed to end up in the collections of a few wealthy people. Even when the surcharging was for totally legitimate purposes, there was always the suspicion that those who had secured copies had obtained them by favour. Surcharges applied to the stamps of the Cayman Islands in 1907 were among those which created “scandals” at that time.

Often, collectors, dealers, and journal editors were all the more indignant because these practices occurred in remote places that were perceived to have low postal requirements. Funafuti certainly matched that description, as its population in 1916 was said to consist of about five or six “Europeans” (i.e., Britons) and 300 natives. Typical of the reaction to the surcharging of the Funafuti Provisionals was this comment by Whitfield King & Co., a well-known stamp firm in England, in a letter to the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands: “The whole proceeding seems to be so fantastic and absurd that we can scarcely believe it is anything but a joke or [a] hoax.”

The story of the Funafuti Provisionals has been told a number of times. One of the most recent accounts is to be found in Don Vernon's Philatelic Handbook of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, published in 1973, which provides a detailed listing of the copies known or believed to exist.

There are three different types, all on stamps of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands:

    • ld. red, King George V (Sc. 15, SG 13), surcharged “2/-” (2 shillings) in black;
    • 2½ d. blue, Pandanus tree (Sc. 11, SG 11), surcharged “2/-” in red;
    • 2½ d. blue, Pandanus tree (Sc. 11, SG 11), surcharged “3/-” in red
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