Here’s a shortened extract from Stranded in the Six-Day War about how the seafarers on trapped ships in the Suez Canal created their own stamps – miniature works of art.
Soon after their arrival in the Bitter Lake, some seafarers began to create their own GBLA stamps to stick on their letters – tiny, hand-crafted works of art made using a variety of materials found on board. Home-made stamp making required remarkable ingenuity. It continued throughout the time the ships were in the Suez Canal. Different methods were used, all involving painstaking work. Some stamps were drawn by hand, and printed using inks, crayons or even coffee grounds for colour. Other stamps were produced from potato cuts or carved from linoleum, and then coloured with inks.
The Poles were the masters of stamp creation. Captain Brian McManus commented that the Boleslaw Bierut’s Third Engineer, Kassimir, was a talented artist and it took him more than two months to make a set of stamps. He produced the 14 Ships Issue in February 1968 – 14 different stamps showing each of the ships: ‘Hulls, accommodation, funnels, mast, derricks and cranes and all distinguishing features are shown in their correct proportion’. They were all accurately coloured and showed the national flag. It was an extraordinary achievement to do all this at the scale of a postage stamp.
Each series of stamps had a theme; sport was a popular subject. The ships took it in turns to host sailing regattas and produced stamps to commemorate the event.
The stamp designers frequently created stamps that were relevant to life in the Suez Canal. For the first Christmas on the Bitter Lake, Captain Kudrna printed stamps with a Christmas-tree motif. There was clearly a big demand at this time of year. The stamp creators also celebrated anniversaries, marking the passage of time stranded in the Bitter Lake. Looking back, Captain Bryan Hill remarked, ‘Somehow there never seemed to be a dearth of quite logical occasions to celebrate and therefore a stamp issue to mark the event.’
World events in stamps
Some stamps recorded life in people’s home countries and the wider world. In July 1969, a Polish electrician designed a GBLA stamp to mark the landing of the first human being on the Moon. Through their art, the seafarers maintained their connection with their homelands and the world outside.
‘Mailed on Board’
Since the seafarers used different currencies, paying for stamps was complicated. After a while, it was agreed that joining the GBLA entitled a member to a regular supply of stamps. In addition to the postage stamps, the ships were given identical rubber ‘Mailed on Board’ stamps, displaying an anchor with a ‘14’ on it, double stripes to represent the Suez Canal, the GBLA initials and the name of the ship.
Returning crew members often took post back to their country, where the shipping company added national stamps and forwarded the letters. The rest of the time, once a letter had a GBLA stamp on it and had been franked ‘Mailed on Board’, it was cancelled by the vessel’s post office and sent to an Egyptian post office where Egyptian stamps were added.
According to Captain McManus and Captain Hill, mail was sometimes franked by the Egyptian postal authority with only a GBLA stamp on it. Captain Hill believed this helped to prove the ‘independent sovereignty of the GBLA’ – as if the 14 ships formed a separate little nation in their own right.