The world of cocoa, through the eyes of a stamp collector

My grandmother had no shortage of hobbies: she was a keen gardener, a painter, a sculptor – and a stamp collector. And she shared her hobbies with me as a child: she showed me how to make a pot out of clay; she instilled me with a love of flowers; and, when a new series of stamps was released by Australia Post that she knew I’d like (often ones depicting Australian native birds, or children’s book illustrations), she’d buy me the set, or occasionally an entire sheet of stamps.

It’s no wonder that stamp collecting is a popular hobby, given that postage stamps are often very cheap to buy, as well as being – by definition – easy to send around the world. But, in addition to their practical attributes, stamps are often quite beautiful – or at least colourful and quirky – and they offer a tiny, and sometimes fascinating, glimpse into the life and times of their country of origin.

Although I never became a serious philatelist, I have continued collecting a small number of stamps that I find particularly interesting – mostly to do with agriculture and – of course! – cocoa.

The first postage stamps I collected as an adult were a pair from the USSR depicting my agricultural hero, Nikolai Vavilov. (Anyone who finds the concept of an “agricultural hero” surprising should do themselves a favour and read Vavilov’s fascinating and harrowing life story. I’ve previously written a little bit about Vavilov, and his amazing contribution to agronomy and genetics, in an article about the history and origins of the cacao tree.)

USSR postage stamps depicting the inspirational agronomist, Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), who fell foul of Stalin and died of starvation in prison in 1943 – a profoundly ironic fate for a man whose life’s work was to help feed millions of people.

The first stamp in my collection to depict cocoa was from one of my favourite places in the world: Vanuatu – or New Hebrides, as it was called in 1963 when this 10 centime stamp was first released:

A 1963 10 centime stamp depicting a cocoa tree and pods, from New Hebrides (which has been called Vanuatu since gaining independence in 1980).
From 1906 until 1980, New Hebrides was a British-French Condominium, which is a very unusual arrangement whereby multiple sovereign powers formally agree to share equal dominium over a political territory.

The next addition to my collection was a set of Spanish stamps, released in 1989, and illustrated by the eccentric artist Alberto Porta (also known as Alberto Pornacido, or simply as Zush).

A slightly trippy series of stamps, commissioned by the Spanish postal service (Correos) and illustrated by “Zush”. The stamps depict native South American food plants that undoubtedly changed the world: maize (or corn), tomato, cacao, and potato.

Personally, I find Zush’s illustrations (which depict native South American foods) quite disturbing – for starters, what’s with the crazy eyes on the tomato and the corn cob? Hence, I wasn’t very surprised to learn that Porta had been locked away in a psychiatric institution during General Franco’s dictatorship, emerging as “Zush”, and later declaring himself a one-man nation in the “Mental State of Evrugo” (which apparently has its own flag, currency, alphabet and prime minister. I wonder if Evrugo has its own postal service, too?). Reference: “Spanish artist proclaims himself one-man nation”.

The remaining postage stamps in my cocoa collection all come from cocoa-growing countries, including the Carribean island nation of Grenada, the South American nation of Suriname, and the West African nation of Togo:

Grenadan postage stamps from the 1960s, depicting Queen Elizabeth II, seemingly gazing at some striking red cacao pods.

Another pair of stamps from Grenada, released in 1975. These two (from a set of 20 Grenadan scenes) depict cocoa beans in drying trays, and a cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao).

A 3 cent stamp from Suriname, released in 1961, depicting a cluster of pods on a Theobroma cacao tree.

A 3-stamp set from Togo, commissioned by OPAT (the office of agricultural products of Togo) for international cocoa day (“journee internationale du cacao”), 6 June 1971. The stamps depict “cacaoyers” (cocoa); “cueillette de cabosses” (picking pods); and “sechage du cacao” (drying cacao).