Rhode Island Around the World - International Mail
October 29, 1936 -
Tin Can Mail from Niuafoou Island, Kingdom of Tonga
To Mr. George S. Champlin - Providence, Rhode Island

(Scroll Down for Background Information, History and Text of Letter)

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View Full Size Cover Reverse


When I began collecting stamps back in 1958 at the age of 13, my primary interest was in world-wide issues. I bought stamps from the 5 & 10 and also approvals from several different stamp dealers. Of course my collection was limited by what a 13 year old boy with a newspaper route could afford. I had several different singles from Tonga, but of course "Tin Can Mail" was out of my reach. Over the years, my interests shifted to U.S. Airmails, Classics, First Days, and now postal history. I've always wanted to add an example of the "Tin Can Mail" to my collection, but now it also had to qualify as Rhode Island Postal History. I finally acquired an example addressed to Providence, Rhode Island and although only marginally related to RI Postal History, it does qualify. (Besides, any old excuse would have done to get one of these in my collection!)

George S. Champlin
George S. Champlin
owned a successful jewelry business in Providence, Rhode Island. At his death in 1980, he was a multi-millionaire and he left a trust known as the Champlin Foundation that disburses from 10 to 14 million dollars a year to various Rhode Island organizations, such as the Nathanael Greene Homestead. Tom Greene, a good friend and president of the Rhode Island Postal History Society is the administrator of the Greene Homestead. The director of the of the Champlin Foundation until a few years ago was Dave King, who had worked for George Champlin.

George had a huge world-wide stamp collection, which he donated to Brown University. Brown University receives an additional $50,000.00 a year to add new world-wide issues to the collection. Tom is one of the three trustees who maintains this collection as well as others in the John Hay Library of Brown University.

The social security record for George S. Champlin indicates that he was born on February 27, 1882 and died in January of 1980. The 1930 census lists Mr. Champlin's occupation as a Jewelry Manufacturer and the name of his wife as Mabel.

The Cover
The cover is franked with 5 different values of the 1920 Queen Salote Toupu definitive issue. They are the 11/2 Pence-Scott #55, the 2 Pence-Scott #56, the 21/2 Pence Scott #58, the 5 Pence-Scott #59, the 71/2 Pence-Scott #60 and the 1 Shilling-Scott #62. The Face of the Cover bears special cachets and markings placed by W. G. Quensell. The blue "Dispatched by Tin Can Mail" cachet is a cross between two listed types and is not listed in the identifier. I would place it at scarce. The large violet, "Dispatched by Tin Can Mail" cachet below that is listed in the identifier as "less common." This cachet also contains the latitude and longitude of Niuafo'ou Island.

VIEW: Blow-Ups of the Queen Salote Definitives 
VIEW: Blow-up of the Blue 'Dispatched by Tin-Can Mail' Cachet

The reverse of the cover reads from top to bottom; E'TAIN POT CANOT COURRIER (CIDON) NIUAFOOU ISLE TONGA (French), below that is BLECHDOSEN POST (German). Both of those markings are fairly common. They are  followed by a box containing the text, "Original Tin Can Mail Cover W. G. Quensell T.C.C.M. Man," which is listed as less common. The reverse is signed at the bottom, "WG Quensell," which signature type is listed as reasonably scarce. (The signature and the address on this cover were both hand-written by Walter Quensell, who was of German Nationality.)

The scarcity information for the cachets was obtained from the website of Peter and Betty Billingham. Betty won a Silver medal at Johannesburg for her exhibit on Tongan Philately and Tin Can Mail. SEE: Betty's Silver Exhibit Pages for further information and detail concerning the "Tin Can Mail." Janet Klug of the American Philatelic Society and a member of the Tonga and Tin Can Mail Study Circle was responsible for gathering all of the Tin Can Cachet and Marking information together in one catalog. SEE: Tonga and Tin Can Mail Study Circle.

Niuafo'ou, Kingdom of Tonga
The island of Niuafo'ou is a volcanic island and is surrounded by steep lava cliffs and it is almost impossible to approach the island by ship. The first Tin Can Mail was initiated by W. Travers in 1882, when he convinced the Tongan postal authorities to place the incoming mail in a ship's biscuit tin and have it thrown overboard to be retrieved by swimmers. Similarly, outgoing mail was placed in water-proof greased paper and carried on the end of a stick by the swimmer to the ship. Beginning in 1921, Charles Stuart Ramsey, a copra trader became involved with the Tin Can Mail Service. Ramsey swam the mail himself and made 112 trips. He was the only white man, who actually swam the mail. Walter George Quensell, who arrived on the island in 1928 began receiving requests from stamp collectors for examples of letters canceled by Tin Can Mail. Mr. Quensell then began applying special cachets in several languages to the face and reverse of the covers on both incoming and outgoing mail.

The Tongan Island Group was first settled by Polynesians around 3000 years ago and from the 10th century, it has been ruled by a line of hereditary Kings and Queens. The current ruling family began it's reign in 1845. Siaosi Taufa'ahau Tupou Maeakafawa established the line and became King of Tonga in 1845. He later adopted Christianity and in 1875 established a constitutional monarchy under the name of King George Toupu I. Queen Salote Toupu, the granddaughter of George I was the third in line of the Toupu Monarchs. She ruled Tonga from 1918 to 1965 and her son, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV is the current ruler.

In 1901, in order to prevent German encroachment in the area, Great Britain established a protectorate over the Islands which lasted until 1970 when Tonga became an independent member of the British Commonwealth

The first Europeans to discover the islands were Dutch Mariners in 1616. Captain James Cook visited and charted the Islands in 1773. The islands were also the site of the "Mutiny on the Bounty." In 1789 Captain William Bligh and 18 crewmen were set adrift off the Tongan Ha'apai Group.

The cover and letter above were sent in reply to a letter from a stamp collector; G. S. Champlin of Providence, Rhode Island. Mr. Champlin requested  a variety of  as many Tongan Stamps as possible for the two dollars he had enclosed in his letter. The letter was inserted and returned with this cover. I'm not sure if there were additional stamps included inside the envelope, however the cover is certainly franked with a very nice selection. I've also scanned the letter which is included on a separate page along with a map of the islands and a blow-up of two of the Queen Salote stamps.

VIEW: Full Sized Scan of the Letter written by George Champlin

VIEW: Blow-Ups of the 1920 - Queen Salote Definitive Issues 

VIEW:   Blow-up of the Blue 'Dispatched by Tin-Can Mail'
              Cachet at Top Left of Cover & Map of Tongan Islands
              (Previously Unlisted Design)

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