Stamped With Blood

by Albert Brandt

Originally published in Coronet, June 1938, by Esquire-Coronet, Chicago.

Had Helen of Troy’s nose been an inch longer, all history might have been changed. Today it seems to us implausible that jealousy even about the most beautiful woman would start a war. But in modern times so seemingly unimportant an object as the tiny colored squares of paper with which people pay for postage have come close on several occasions to starting wars of very respectable proportions.

There was that recent flareup between Nicaragua and Honduras. In 1937 Nicaragua issued a stamp which bore a map of that little Central American nation, including some territory which Honduras also claimed. Nicaragua had marked the land “territory in litigation,” but Honduras protested there was no litigation about it, the land was hers! Nicaragua replied, “It’s ours!”

At once all factions in Honduras fell in behind the government. Radio spellbinders flung ferocious calls to battle over the ether. And outraged, hotblooded students issued a manifesto: “Fight against the dismemberment of the Fatherland!”

Back to their Nicaraguan senders, unopened, went all letters addressed to patriotic Hondurans on which the odious stamps had been affixed. At this writing [1938] the shouting and the tumult have abated, the stamps have been withdrawn, and the dogs of war sleep again—at least for the moment.

In August of this same year the government of Costa Rica refused to recognize stamps issued by the Spanish Insurgent regime. One may be sure General Franco would not let such an affront pass, were he not so busy trying to destroy the Loyalists.

In 1928 Bolivia and Paraguay issued stamps bearing maps of the respective nations—each map laying claim to the disputed Chaco. Feelings ran high and hostilities actually began and went on for several days. The League of Nations managed to patch up the quarrel, but in 1932 a bloody battle for the territory began which did not end until 1935, with the practical exhaustion of both nations.

America, too, swung dangerously close to war in a dispute in which a stamp figured prominently. At the end of the last century American capitalists had invested huge sums of money in the ore and mineral properties of Venezuela. Venezuela issued a stamp with one of those explosive maps, which showed as part of that country a large region in the Orinoco Valley. This was precisely the land to which England also laid claim as part of British Guiana. The British Lion roared indeed, and was prevented sending an army into the territory only because President Cleveland warned that America felt bound under the Monroe Doctrine to defend *Venezuela’s territorial integrity. A special message to Congress in December, 1892, reaffirmed this stand, and we stood committed to go to war if the Lion pounced on our southern neighbor. Fortunately, England was in no mood for armed conflict, and she finally agreed to arbitrate.

To “stamp” on religious sensibilities has proven even more dangerous than to arouse nationalistic hatreds. In 1898 an uprising of dervishes in the Sudan could be traced back at least in part to the issuance of a stamp depicting in its background a water lily! The flower, known as the Egyptian lotus, is sacred among Mohammedans. The situation in the Sudan, under English domination, was especially delicate because French imperialism as well as native religious zeal stood in Britain’s way.

The dervishes were outraged because the lotus occupied a position on the stamp subordinate to the foreground of a mailman seated on a camel. While all this was going on the French raised the tricolor at Fashoda in the Sudan. Fortunately for the British the French finally withdrew, but it was not until Kitchener with an army of British and Egyptian troops routed the dervishes at Omduran that the insurrection was put down.

In 1911 rumblings of revolt came from underneath a stamp, again to threaten Britain’s empire, this time in India. Ironically enough, the English were really trying to pay tribute to their Hindu subjects’ faith. The stamp in question depicted what the British intended to be an elephant. But it was so badly printed that it looked more like any other animal than an elephant and, straining the imagination, it looked like a pig—at least to the Hindus. The pig is as profane and unclean to the Hindus as the elephant is sacred. A revolt was actually plotted, and only withdrawal of the stamp pacified the populace.

When we remember that the stamp is after all only a hundred years old, it must be evident that in this relatively short span of history these brightly colored bits of paper have had an amazing effect on human belligerence. Little did Sir Rowland Hill realize in 1837, when he proposed “a small square of paper large enough to carry the postal cancellation and thinly coated on one side with glue”—little did he realize that blood might one day stain these tiny squares.

*[“Venezuela’s territorial integrity” brings to mind the current day situation of the Bush administration’s attempts to fund military protection for Occidental Oil’s holdings in Colombia. “Territorial integrity” translates as “U.S. investments”—and in this case, the investments of a private company, no less. Whose interests are really at stake?]

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