DCStamps Investigator – What is a Country?

Issue #2
Jan 16, 2018
Michael Adkins

Since the DCStamps Investigator is all about “dead countries”, I feel that it is important to dedicate the first few issues to discussing the term.

Defining a Dead Country

What is a Dead Country? While the answer seems obvious, when I began putting real effort into organizing my collection, it quickly became complicated. In my first attempt to make a list of dead countries, I ended up with more questions than answers.

Of course, some countries where easy, such as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Kingdom of Hejaz, or Central Lithuania. But what about a colony, is that a separate country, or merely an extension of the controlling country? What about a puppet government such as Manchukuo or the Far Eastern Republic? If they didn’t really have control, were they a country? And, if colonies and puppet states are considered as separate countries, how far down the rabbit hole do I go. What about military occupations? Revolutionary governments? Or even entities like the China Treaty ports or League of nations Plebiscite areas?

With so many different kinds of entities and complex situations, I realized that unless I developed a common set of rules and definitions, I would never complete the list. And to be honest, as I continue to research the various countries and regions, I am still changing my list and tweaking the definitions.

As a result, I set out to answer two fundamental questions:
1) What is a country?
2) What does it take for a country to become dead?

This week I will discuss the first.

What is a Country?

A basic question, with a complicated answer, even today. Let me offer an example from a different realm — travel.

As one who is obsessive about geography and world travel, I find it fun to keep track of countries I have visited. Changing planes at an airport without really entering the country doesn’t count. I am frequently asked by friends and people I meet, “how many countries have you been to?” To me, the answer depends on what you define as a country.

Let’s take Guadeloupe, the beautiful island in the Caribbean Sea. I have been to Guadeloupe, the people are friendly and the island is beautiful. Guadeloupe is not a country, it is part of France and the EU. Therefore, since I have visited Guadeloupe, I can say that I have have been to France, and can check France off in my travel log — right? Humm, well that just seems – wrong. But I guess it is no different than Hawaii being part of the United States.

In fact, although the situation is somewhat different, you can also visit the Netherlands and the United Kingdom just by cruising around the Caribbean. They are considered autonomous overseas territories, but not part of the EU. While Guadeloupe doesn’t issue stamps anymore, Dutch territories such as Aruba do. Does that make Aruba or Guadeloupe a country, no — its complicated.

Back to the discussion at hand. In developing my definition, I decided that I wanted a geographic / historical definition, not a philatelic one. The stamps we collect exist within a historical context, and if we want to better understand our stamps, we need to understand what was happening in the region at the time. I also wanted a fairly broad and loose definition of a country, even if it was messy, primarily because the movement of nations in our world is a messy process.

Here is my current definition:
“Any governmental, political, colonial, military or revolutionary entity which had control (or legitimately attempted to have control) over a region of land and its people.”

Of course, if you collect stamps, banknotes, legal documents, etc. from a country, it needed to have issued such items to collect them. However, that doesn’t determine whether or not an entity is a country. For us stamp collectors, we have to realize that not all counties issued stamps, and not all stamp issuing entities were countries. For example, Thurn and Taxis wasn’t a country, rather it was a private mail carrier service contracted by other countries to handle their mail.

In order to help me better understand the historical context of a “country”, I categorized each of them into various categories. My current list of categories are:

Empires – A single supreme authority which had an extensive group of states or countries under its authority (e.g. Imperial Russia, the Austro-Hungary Empire, the German Empire or the Ottoman Empire)
Nations – An independent, self-governed sovereign nation (e.g. Hawaii, Hejaz or Orange Free State)
City States – An autonomous city, which existed as a sovereign nation (e.g. Danzig, Hamburg, or Bremen)
Resurrected Countries – An independent country which ceased to exist for more than 40 years, and later rose again (e.g. Lithuania, Georgia or Armenia)
Semi-Autonomous States – A state with limited autonomy under the control of an empire or larger country. (e.g. India Princely States or the Grand Duchy of Finland)
Colonies – A territory separated, but subject to a distant ruling power (e.g. Obock, Kiauchau, or Cape Colony)
Puppet States – A “country” proclaimed to be an independent nation, but in reality was controlled by a another government (e.g. Manchukuo, Italian Social Republic and Bohemia and Moravia)
Military Occupations – A nation or territory occupied and controlled by foreign military forces (e.g. Bushire, Japanese Occupation of Malaya, or the Allied Occupation of Baden)
League of Nations Mandates – Territories from the defeated Ottoman and German Empires after WW1, which were given by the League of nations to an Allied country to administer. (e.g. Palestine, Tanganyika, or the Territory of New Guinea)
International Zones – Territories under a broad international control and administration (e.g. Tangier International Zone and West Berlin)
Plebiscite Regions – A treaty of Versailles region where a vote was taken by the local population to determine national alignment (e.g. Upper Silesia, Marienwerder or Allenstein)
Revolutionary Entities – A revolutionary government, army or group formed by locals that attempted to overthrow, radically change or separate from an existing country. The entity counts whether or not it was successful (e.g. Confederate States of America, Theriso Revolution in Crete, Autonomous Republic of Epirus)
Government is Exile – The legitimate government of a country occupied by a foreign power, but is operating remotely in a friendly country. The legitimacy needs to be recognized by a portion of the international community. Over time, a government can lose legitimacy based on international recognition (e.g. Polish Government in Exile, WW2)

The problem with rules is that they are often made to be broken. One entity which doesn’t fit into my definition of a country is Foreign Post Offices in another sovereign nation, such as Offices in Turkey and China, or China Treaty Ports. I include them at DCStamps, primarily because I think they add to the history of both the nations who issued them and the nations where they were used.

A few of the entities which issued stamps not included in the definition of a country include:
– Local/Provisional Issues (e.g. where stamps were issued primarily as a stopgap for supply shortages)
– Private Issuers (e.g. Russian Steam Navigation & Trading Company and Thurn and Taxis)
– Siege issues (stamps used during a military siege, such as found during the Boer Wars)
– Concentration Camp issues

I am certain that I have probably over-complicated things, but I guess all “specialists” do – it kind makes us feel important.

The World has Changed since 1850

In 1850, the world was dominated by Empires, Kingdoms, Republics, Colonies and Native lands. A lot has changed since then: the “Scramble for Africa” colonization frenzy, the collapse of Empires, a multitude of regional wars, two World Wars, globe rattling revolutions, and more. Collecting items such as stamps or banknotes from countries that appeared and disappeared from the world stage, offers an extremely interesting hobby. I hope you will join with me on the journey, and be part of the discussion about this fascinating area.

In the next DCStamps Investigator we will discuss what makes a country “dead.” Until then, take a look at this map, which shows the world situation in 1850 – indeed a lot has changed.

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10 Responses to DCStamps Investigator – What is a Country?

  1. Robert Brew says:

    Hi Michael,

    How do you feel about Carpatho-Ukraine? Controversial I know, but they had a region they had been controlling for a few months, a president, a parliament, a national flag and an anthem – too bad the last four were only for a day. The Scott catalogue used to list it as it’s own country, with just one stamp, but then folded it into Czechoslovakia because the stamp was released in Prague. But that’s a philatelic decision, not an historical one, no?

    Glad to see you back,

    • Michael says:

      Hi Bob
      Yes I consider Carpatho-Ukraine as a dead country. I thought it was on my list on the site (I have it in my excel spreadsheet list), but it is not. I will be adding it under Central / Eastern Europe.
      Thanks for the good catch, and it is good to be back.

  2. Jim Jackson says:


    I think you should have an “exceptions” category where you cover a philatelic entity because you want to, and you make the rules. LOL

    There I would put the House of Thurn and Taxis. Seems a shame not covering them – they have existed since what 1248? They even had a board game named after them. 😉

    • Michael says:

      Hi Jim
      There are always exceptions.

      Thurn and Taxis is indeed historically interesting (at least from a philatelic standpoint). I read somewhere that Thurn and Taxis was the Postmaster General of the Holy Roman Empire. Going down this route, one could also collect other private postal services such as the Russian Company of Navigation and Trade (РОПиТ) and the Central American Steamship Company. They issued stamps and some even issued banknotes. In fact, I have stamps from both Thurn and Taxis and РОПиТ in my collection.

      I have thought a lot about private companies, but honestly still can’t classify them as countries. That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have a place at DCStamps for such entities. But they just don’t currently fit into my collecting interests.

      Jim, I will be looking for experts to contribute to the Investigator in the future, maybe you could write up a feature on these entities and stamps.

      By the way, we own the game of Thurn and Taxis. Fun, with the right people.

  3. Excellent! Keep up the good work!

    Recently took the decison of continuing a universal Schaubek album edited in 1939 I inherited. My expertise area is Germany and its colonies but I am slowly filling the gaps of the Schaubek as a side dish and unrushed.

    Greetings from the former Argentinian Confederation (now Argentina) hehe


    • Michael says:

      Hola Juan
      Welcome to DCStamps. It is great to see experts visit the site.

      To me, stamp collecting is meant to be taken slowly, although it is probably a little slower for me than most. The reason is, when I organize the stamps in my collection, I need to create album pages, scan my stamps and put together a digital album for display. Also, I try to do the research on the country and the stamps. But I love it, as you can see from DCStamps.
      Don’t be a stranger

  4. Pablo says:

    Thanks, it gives me a lot to think about regarding my own collecting. (I try collect a stamp from every active country, which has its own similar and different problems).
    Just a little correction: The State of Buenos Aires was totally independent from the Argentine Confederation between 1852 and 1862, when they issued their own stamps.
    Meanwhile, the states of Córdoba and Corrientes were part of the Argentine Confederation. They issued their stamps before the issue of the national ones

    • Michael says:

      Hola Pablo
      Welcome to DCStamps. I am glad it causes you to think about your own collection, I do this as well when it comes to deciding which countries to collect, especially as I learn new things from my research. For example, I acquired a very nice collection of Martinique years ago, but when I finally realized that the status of Martinique really hasn’t changed since it officially became a Department of France in 1797. (with the exception of being under British occupation in the early 1800’s). Eventually I will sell them, but that is for another day.

      Regarding Buenos Aries and the Argentine Confederation, I haven’t done much research on the history of this region yet, so I greatly appreciate your insight. As you can see, I have some reprints of these stamps, as real ones are way too expensive. I can see where the Argentine Confederation and Buenos Aires would remain on my Dead Country list, but I will need to rethink Córdoba and Corrientes, as they might fail my criteria of a “country.”

  5. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for explaining the different types of countries, But I am still confused about some of them.

    I am working on the Stamps of the World website where postmarked stamps are placed on the current “live” country page, but under the appropriate dead country heading on the page.

    Can you tell me if you include Republika Srpska as a country? Or is it classed under Bosnia and Herzegovina, and if so for what reason?

    And what about Hutt River Province and Rainbow Creek?

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

    Many thanks,

    • Michael says:

      Hi Sheryll
      Now you know why it is complicated. I would include the Republika Srpska as a country. Only time will tell whether it will be a Revolutionary government, a puppet government of the Serbs or nation of it’s own. That is one reason I limit the date of my dead country list to be those that ceased to exist before 1960. At least he have some history to help sort it out.

      I chucked a bit when you mentioned Hutt River Province and Rainbow Creek. There are lots of these “micro-nations” around, In fact, I had a great lunch a couple of years ago in Republic of Užupis (a micro-nation in Vilnius Lithuania). I do not count these sort of entities.

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