What makes a country? Architect and researcher Bjorn Berge thinks you can gather clues by looking at its stamps. In his new book Nowherelands, Berge collects the stamps of countries that no longer exist.
The book isn’t just a compendium of stamps from ill-fated nation states (many of which you’ve likely never heard of). It’s also a history, detailing the stories of 50 countries that vanished from the map from 1840 to 1975.
There’s Schleswig, located between Germany and Denmark, which graced the map for a few brief years in the 1860s–its stamp has an ovular design with the stamp’s value inscribed within it. There’s Sedang, established by a French nobleman in the then-colony of Indochina in 1888–its stamp is quite official-looking, with a seal topped with a crown. And there’s Tannu Tuva, which was sandwiched from 1921 to 1944 between the Soviet Union and Mongolia–its stamp is, quite bizarrely, of a camel.
The stamps are often emblazoned with heads of state, military leaders, and fancy seals or coats of arms. But while the presence of the historic stamps is part of the paper trail of a country’s existence, they also represent what that country wanted to be in the eyes of the world. They’re branding–propaganda.
“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,” Berge writes in the book’s introduction. “The stamps must, therefore, be viewed as propaganda, in which truth will always be of subordinate importance.”
Despite their nationalistic appearance, the stamps are also reminders of the vast catastrophe that is colonial history. The British Empire dominates many of the once-countries included in the book, from Van Deiman’s Land off the coast of Australia, to Vancouver Island in present-day Canada, to Bhopal in India, which was given limited autonomy during the British occupation of India (including a flag, army, and issuing its own stamps). The stamps from Van Deiman’s Land and Vancouver Island feature two portraits of Queen Victoria, while Bhopal’s retains some of its individuality, with a diamond insignia echoing that of the princess Shah Jahan’s ring. Bhopal tried to retain its independence when the British left India, but it was absorbed into the country in 1949 and is now part of the state of Madhya Pradesh.
These little pieces of design provide a new way to examine the ever-changing map–and once-countries like Bhopal remind us how people battle for land, for independence, and for self-determination, no matter the era.