DCStamps Investigator – What Makes a Country “Dead”

Issue #3
Jan 27, 2018
Michael Adkins

This week I continue the discussion about the definition of a “dead country.” In Issue #2 of the DCStamps Investigator, I provided my “very loose” definition of a country:

Any governmental, political, colonial, military or revolutionary entity which had control (or legitimately attempted to have control) over a region of land and it’s people.

This week we move to the second part of the definition – what makes it “dead.”

What Makes a Country Dead?

For a country to cease to exist, one must be able to identify two things.
1) what event or situation caused the country to end, and
2) what new country did it become.
This is where a good understanding of history and geography is needed. If you read through my articles at DCStamps, you can see that I always try to include the answer to both of these questions.

To help me with my determination, I put together a list of the major events which would signify the death of a country. Although not exhaustive, here the list:

  • Annexation of a country into a another. – Examples include Danzig into Germany, Crete into Greece, and the Far Eastern Republic into the U.S.S.R.
  • Countries joining together to form a new single entity. – Examples include the entities which formed Yugoslavia and the Republic of India.
  • Overthrow or withdrawal of colonial or external rule. – examples include the Grand Duchy of Finland, British Ceylon, Portuguese Mozambique, and French Indochina.
  • Defeat or withdrawal of occupational forces. – Examples include the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Chilean occupation of Peru, and the British occupation of Batum.
  • Overthrow or elimination of an absolute monarchy such as an empire or a kingdom. This does not include a change in dynasty or a constitutional monarchy. – Examples include the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Kingdom of Hejaz.
  • Major changes in colonies, territories or provinces which expanded, shrunk, or combined them to form new distinct entities. – Examples include the British colony of Lagos, French Cochin China, Nyassa Company and Zululand.
  • Major territorial changes caused by colonial restructuring in a region. – Examples include Upper Senegal and Niger splitting into the French Colonies of Upper Volta, Niger and French Sudan. The separate colonies of Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria joining together to become the British Colony of Nigeria.
  • Change of the controlling country of a colony. – Examples include German Togo to French Togoland and German Kamerun to French Cameroun and British Cameroons.
  • End of a revolutionary entity (either success or failure.) – Examples include the General Wrangel’s White Army in South Russia, the Theriso revolution in Crete, the Confederate States of America, and the Carlist revolution in Spain.
  • Reinstatement or loss of legitimacy of a Government in Exile. – Examples include Vichy France, Polish Government in Exile and the Philippine Commonwealth in exile.

The ones I continue to wrestle with on this list, are Revolutionary Entities and Governments in Exile. Both are important in the history of a nation. Many are obvious ones which need to be included in any dead country list, such as the Confederate States of America, Vichy France or a multitude of the entities which cropped up during the Russian Civil War. However, there are also more subtle, but no less interesting entities like the Autonomous Republic of Epirus or the Theriso revolution in Crete. Maybe I will include a discussion on this topic in a later post.

part of Africa on an old German globe

A Rose By Any Other Name …

First of all – a fun trivia question. There are two countries in the world that have “the” as the first word in their official name. What are they?

Ok, now for the point. For many philatelists, there is one obvious omission to the list given in the previous section. The change of the name of a country. There are many reasons that a country changes its name, but not all of them were because a country ended. Here are a few examples of both:

New Countries which Changed their Names

There are certainly county name changes that were due to a the end of one entity, and the beginning of another. Examples include:

  • Cambodia to Khymer Republic to Kampuchea back to Cambodia – all of the changes were due to country shattering events, such as revolutions.
  • Burma to Myanmar – after a takeover by a military junta the name was changed. The name change is still controversial today.
  • Transjordan to Jordan – Jordan changed its name when it received full autonomy after the end of the British mandate.
  • Bechuanaland to Botswana – The country of Botswana was born at its independence from British colonial rule.

Name Changes not Related to the End of a Country

Many times, countries changed their name for political purposes or to promote national pride. These were not as a result of a major change in the country. Examples include:

  • Siam to Thailand – this name change is interesting with a complicated political history. The name Siam was changed to Thailand in 1939, back to Siam in 1944, and back to Thailand in 1948.
  • Persia to Iran – Iran is merely the Farsi word for Persia. In 1935, the Iranian government begin requesting that countries refer to the country by its Farsi name rather than the English. Diplomatically the name change was gradual, but the country changed the name on its stamps in 1936.
  • Ceylon to Sri Lanka – Ceylon gained independence from Britain in 1948. In 1972, the legislature decided to rename the country to Sri Lanka to remove the last remnants of its colonial history.
  • Upper Volta to Burkina Faso – Upper Volta gained independence in 1960. In 1984. it was renamed to express it’s African, rather than colonial roots. Burkina Faso means “Land of Incorruptible People.”
  • Dahomey to Benin – The name was changed by 1975, by its military leader Mathieu Kerekou, fifteen years after its independence.

I fully understand that stamp collectors who are entirely philatelically minded, consider the contents on the stamp as most important aspect of their collection organization. However, as a dead country collector, it’s the stamps place in history that takes precedence. A name change is certainly historically interesting, but that alone doesn’t constitute the death of a country and the formation of a new one.


I hope that this post was helpful in your understanding of the primary differentiation between a dead country collector like me, who views stamps in the context of their history, as compared to a philatelic stamp collector, who views the stamp entirely on its own. Neither is right or wrong, and I believe both perspectives are important to the hobby.

Next time, I will discuss some interesting aspects of identifying stamp issuing entities by their overprints. But until then, whether you agree with my thinking or not, I would love to hear from you.

This entry was posted in DCStamps Investigator. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to DCStamps Investigator – What Makes a Country “Dead”

  1. Hello Michael,
    Thank you for the thorough explanation, this is a field which can’t be explained with simple rules. Korea’s name has changed several times, but I agree that the name itself can’t be particularly important. Living countries can change their names without any other real change. After independence the Republic of Dahomey became Benin and the Republic of Upper Volta became Burkina Faso.

    Also, how others name a country can be very different from the inhabitants of that country. Take Nederland/Netherlands versus Holland. Or United Kingdom, Great Britain or even (as we often still do in the Netherlands) England. Of course, these last three names are actually different entities legally speaking, but people usually mean the same with these names. (But since British stamps don’t mention any country at all we don’t have to worry about this, I guess.)

    You could add Norway to the Belgian example, or the Netherlands. Vichy France is also a dead country, even though “France” is of course not.

    But: Korea. Or Corea. Or Corée, Chosun, Choseon. In South Korea they refer to Korea as “Hanguk” or “country of the Han people”, on North Korean stamps you can read (in Korean) “Chosun” (Choseon). But at least these two countries, the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK; North Korea) are living countries, since 1948.

    You mention the 1905-1910 period. In the Korean Postage Stamp Catalogue (published in South Korea) there are no stamps listed for this period. That makes the argument relatively easy of course: if there are no stamps produced then there is nothing to collect. But from a legal point of view you could be right in arguing that this was a separate (and now dead) country.

    I would like to add two “dead countries” to the Korean list: the “People’s Republic of Korea” (PRK) which was in existence for two months (Aug/Sep 1945) and the “United States Army Military Government in Korea” (USAMGIK) which existed from September 1945 until August 1948. The PRK never published stamps (I think…), but the USAMGIK did.

    Best regards,

    • Michael says:

      Thanks Ivo
      Actually I thought I had included your to suggestions, although I call them Russian Occupation of North Korea, and the US Occupation of South Korea.

      Also, as you are a expert in this area, I find a Russian Occupation of North Korea listed in Stanley Gibbons (1946-48), and the catalog lists 13 stamps. Have you every seen these stamps? Do you have any info on them?

      Regards Michael

  2. “Overthrow or elimination of an absolute monarchy such as an empire or a kingdom. ” Interesting point. Does this in your opinion mean that the change from the Kingdom of Korea into a Japanese Government General created a “dead country”? Of course the problem is that the word Korea was continually in use for/during the Kingdom era, the Japanese Government General era and of course now in the name of both republics, which makes it look like nothing changed during these 100+ years. Therefore: DC or not DC?

    • Michael says:

      Hello Ivo
      Welcome to DCStamps
      Good question.
      First of all, from the standpoint of a country, the name is irrelevant. Here are a few examples.

      • Nigeria – When the British granted independence to the Colony of Nigeria on 1 Oct, 1960, it became a new nation on the world stage — the Republic of Nigeria was born. At the same time, British Colony of Nigeria died. Everything changed for that new nation, and the fact that both are called Nigeria doesn’t matter.
      • Persia – In 1932, Persia (they used the French “Persanes” on stamps) asked the diplomatic community to begin using the Farsi word for Persia rather than the English, nothing changed. It was the exact same country deciding to refer to its country in its native language. I would argue, however, when the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah, everything changed, the old Iran died, and a new, entirely different county emerged.
      • Germany – or is it Deutschland, Allemagne, Tyskland, Vokietija or Německo?
      • Hawaii – When Queen Lili’uokalani of the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in an American backed coop in 1893, the Kingdom ceased to exist. The American revolutionaries tried to convince the US government to annex the islands, but were unsuccessful. Therefore, the group of expats created the Republic of Hawaii, with Samuel Dole as President. To me this is an entirely a different country, lead by foreigners who took over the country. The was no reason to rename the island chain.
      • Belgium – When Nazi Germany overrun Belgium in 1940, they occupied the country for 4 years. I consider the occupation a different country, as it was controlled by an external military force. When they were liberated in 1944, Belgium reappeared and German Occupied Belgium became a dead country. I guess the hard question is whether Belgium died in 1940 and a new country emerged in 1944. Of course not. It was just placed on hold for a bit.

      I hope these examples help explain my thinking.

      Regarding Korea. I would consider that the Kingdom of Korea became a Dead Country when it was occupied and established as a Protectorate of Japan on 17 Nov, 1905. Then, I would consider that the Japanese Protectorate of Korea became dead in 1910, when it was fully annexed into the expanding Japanese Empire. Since it emerged again in 1945, things really have gotten complicated, and today’s situation is nothing like the former Kingdom, even if they use the historically regional name.

      These are some examples of why I try and define countries based on history, and on who controls the people and the land, not the name.
      Sorry for the long winded explanation, but I hope this helps you understand how I view things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *