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Stanley Gibbons Stamp Guides

Caught in the Middle: Philately of Juan de Nova

By Steve Pendleton

Continuing his travels amongst the îles éparses, Steve Pendleton moves on from îles Glorieuses to the island of Juan de Nova. This relatively unknown island, located between Madagascar and the African mainland is a haven for turtles and birds, and was a centre for phosphate mining. Like the other îles êparses, Juan de Nova is part of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories and provides an interesting philatelic history.

The îles éparses are a group of four French-owned islands in the Indian Ocean. Recently, they became a separate department of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories (FSAT). Each has a unique history, and while their philately sometimes has similarities, there are plenty of differences as well.

The island of Juan de Nova

If you are a naval strategist, you look for islands which have a potentially strategic location. That is, they control certain straits, guard the approaches to important harbours or provide safe sites from which to control or invade neighbouring lands. Historically, there have been many such places. Malta stands guard over the passage between Sicily and the African shore. Bahrain provides sanctuary for the American fleet in the Persian Gulf. Diego Garcia is a safe haven for the American navy in the Indian Ocean, as well as providing a large air base.

providing a large air base. Joining this august company, though at a much less obvious level, is the island of Juan de Nova. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, since most people don’t even know any of the îles éparses (which means Scattered Islands) exist. However, some philatelists, especially ones who collect the stamps of French Antarctica, have become more knowledgeable, even if some tend to disdain non-Polar subject material. That’s too bad because each island does have a philatelic history.

Juan de Nova is certainly placed in a strategic position; that is, it would be considered so if you were sailing through the Mozambique Channel between that country and Madagascar. Certainly, it is not as crucial to world affairs as the Straits of Hormuz or the Mediterranean. Historically, it’s been the lair of pirates, as well as the trade route for Arabian sailors from Oman to Africa. Today, huge oil tankers ply their routes around the Cape of Good Hope, since they are too large to fit in the Suez Canal.

Right in the middle of that path sits Juan de Nova. It certainly does not seem like much, since it is basically a flat coral island. It is about 5km from east to west and perhaps half that in width. Most of Fig 1 The 2014 FSAT issue depicting the Green Turtle. Juan de Nova is an important island for this endangered species it is covered with scrub forest. It does have three features of importance, however. One is that it is a home and breeding ground for the endangered Green Turtle. In common with several other Indian Ocean territories, FSAT issued a Green Turtle stamp (Fig 1) in 2014 (731). It also has birds – lots and lots of them. Although the land area is pretty small, there is a third factor that is also important. France claims a large area of the adjoining ocean as an Exclusive Economic Zone, which means fishing and other such activities are under its control.

Fig 1 The 2014 FSAT issue depicting the Green Turtle. Juan de Nova is an important island for this endangered species
Fig 1 The 2014 FSAT issue depicting the Green Turtle. Juan de Nova is an important island for this endangered species
Fig 2 The image of Juan de Nova on this 2009 FSAT stamp shows the large coral reef that surrounds the island
Fig 2 The image of Juan de Nova on this 2009 FSAT stamp shows the large coral reef that surrounds the island
Fig 3 A casualty of Juan de Nova’s coral reef is shown on one of stamps from the FSAT’s 2009 Les Îles Éparses booklet
Fig 3 A casualty of Juan de Nova’s coral reef is shown on one of stamps from the FSAT’s 2009 Les Îles Éparses booklet

In 2009 FSAT issued a pictorial book showing scenes of the îles. One of the several stamps in the publication (621g) featuring Juan de Nova shows the island from a distance (Fig 2). Also noticeable on the stamp is a very dangerous feature of the island. It lies on a much larger coral reef, which spreads out on each side. This reef creates a barrier to ships which has historically led to the island being a menace to shipping. One rusty hulk is pictured on another stamp from the book – 621h (Fig 3). There are some other notable shipwrecks, the best known, perhaps, being the SS Tottenham, which ran aground on 11 February 1911.

The first FSAT issue about the îles was a souvenir sheet (587/91), with Juan de Nova being shown on 589 (Fig 4). The images used on the stamps were detailed photos of each island from space. A few years later, FSAT issued a set of four pre-stamped envelopes with the same design, but with slightly different lettering and no indication of value.

Fig 4 Juan de Nova as shown in the 2007 Éparses Islands booklet
Fig 4 Juan de Nova as shown in the 2007 Éparses Islands booklet

In 2016 another one of these pre-stamped envelopes was issued for Juan de Nova alone. This one was to commemorate the presence of a large amateur radio (Dx) expedition which visited the island in March and April of that year. Unusually, they also added a stamp showing communications equipment. This was the same design used in the 2014 miniature sheet (734). However, that sheet was meant to note the first ‘Dxpedition’, but to Tromelin, not Juan de Nova.

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