Posted in Tonga

Niuafoʻou Island, Tonga: Tin Can Island Mail



This postcard is one that I received as an envelope-stiffener within an order from an overseas stamp dealer. A very nice “freebie” as I was already familiar with the story of “Tin Can Mail”. As a pre-teen in my earliest days of stamp collecting, I spied a book on that very subject during a visit to my grandparents in San Luis Obisbo, California. Tucked inside was an actual envelope sent via this method from Niuafoʻou, the most northerly island in the Kingdom of Tonga (Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga). The postcard reproduces a painting by Chris Mayger of the collection of mail from Niuafo’ou and was used on a souvenir sheet released by Tonga to commemorate the centenary of the (almost) unique service.

Niuafo’ou is located in the southern Pacific Ocean between Fiji and Samoa, 357 miles (574 kilometers) north of the Tongatapu island group and 209 miles (337 kilometers) northwest of Vavaʻu. The island is an active volcano located on an underwater ridge 120 miles (190 kilometers) west of the line of all the other volcanoes of Tonga. The island contains a steep-sided caldera; the rim is over 390 feet (120 meters) high, rising to a height of 820 feet (250 meters) at Mokotu. In 1853, the village of ʻAhau was destroyed, killing 25 people. Lava flows from eruptions in 1912 and 1929 destroyed the village of Futu, cut off the harbor, and killed all the vegetation on the western slopes of the island. Other eruptions occurred in 1935, 1936, 1943, and 1946. The 1946 eruption was a particularly violent one and in December 1946 Niuafoʻou’s inhabitants were evacuated and resettled on the island of ʻEua. ʻEua and Niuafoʻou share many place names, showing where the resettlers went to. The first groups of inhabitants were allowed to return to the island in 1958.


The island ring encloses two lakes. The larger, Vai Lahi, is a crater lake 75 feet (23 meters) above sea level, 2.48 miles (4 kilometers) wide, and 276 feet (84 meters) deep. The lake contains three islands and a submerged island that appears when the water level drops. Vai Lahi is separated from the smaller Vai Siʻi (or Vai Mataʻaho) by a desolate landscape of sand hills. The island is covered by forest on the inner walls of the crater lake, and on the island’s eastern and western slopes. The coastline is rocky and steep with only a few stony black sand beaches. The only landing place on the island is the end of a lava flow at Futu, in the west. All the villages are in the north and east. Public places like the post office, telecommunications station and airport (Niuatoputapu Airport are in Angahā in the north, while a high school is located in Muʻa.

Niuafoʻou was put on the European maps by Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire during their famous circumnavigation of the globe in 1616. After their not so successful encounter with the islanders of Niuatoputapu, they approached this island with some more hope to find refreshments, so it was called Goede Hoop (“Good Hope”). They found black cliffs, green on top, plenty of coconut trees, some houses along the seaside and a whole village near a landing place. But the ship the Eendracht (Unity) could not anchor and they had to limit themselves with some trade with the Indians who came along in their swift canoes. That went on fine for a short while. But when the islanders tried to get away with the small sounding boat, the Dutch had to use fire force again. After this they proceeded with their trip to the west, but veering towards the north and so happened to reach Futuna and Alofi.


When copra traders set up operations on the island near the turn of the century, a method of communications became necessary. In 1882, plantation manager William Travers arrived on Niuafo’ou. He could see the passenger liners steaming past but never calling due to the steep sides plunging six miles down to the bottom of the Tongan Trench and making it impossible to anchor and hard to land even a rowing boat. Feeling cut off from communication, Travers petitioned the Tongan postal authorities to use kerosene cans or 40-pound biscuit tins thrown into the ocean as a conveyance for mail. Swimmers would deliver the mail from the island, swimming a mail or more through the wild surf while guiding the sealed tins to the waiting ships. Incoming mail was dropped overboard from the ships Once swimmers and ship exchanged their mail containers, each would be on their way.

The earliest recorded letter sent from Niuafo’ou using a swimmer from the island was postmarked on November 19, 1897. At the time, there was a brief experimentation with rocket mail for incoming mail. On occasion, the attempt was successful but often the rocket overshot the island altogether, landed in the lake in the center, or just got lost in the undergrowth. At lease once, the package of letters had burst into flames en route. The arrival of the rocket was an event that caused the entire population to down tools and watch. Then began the mad scramble to retrieve the package and collect the reward.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Arthur Tindall established a coconut plantation on the island. He arranged for the ships of the Union Steamship Company of Auckland, New Zealand, to call at Niuafo’ou to pick up and deliver mail. After Tindall left for war service in 1914, his plantation and private mail service remained. He later invited C. Stuart Ramsey who came to the island as a plantation manager in 1921. Ramsey was the only native to participate as a Tin Can Mail swimmer and completed 112 swims in 12 years. If a ship happened to pass at night it would blow its siren and the swimmers would go out as a group, one carrying a lamp. Back on shore they would build bonfires to guide the swimmers home to the tiny island.

In the 1920’s, German trader Walter George Quensell came to the island. He that the unique mail delivery system could draw interest from the philatelists. He soon produced a rubber stamp reading “TIN CAN MAIL” using a child’s printing set. In late 1927, Quensell began applying this cachet to mail received instead of the Niuafo’ou arrival postmark. These were rather scarce until the summer of 1930 as Quensell was a business competitor with C. S. Ramsey who treated all outward bound mail.

On October 21, 1930, a total eclipse of the sun was due to be best viewed from Niuafo’ou. The U.S. Navy partnered with the National Geographic Society for an expedition which brought scientists to the island for observation. They arrived in late September, employing both Quensell and Ramsey who assisted in landing supplies, weather observation, and the sending of mail. for the scientists. On the day of the eclipse, Quensell provided a cachet to commemorate the event; these were subsequently transported on the minesweeper USS Tangier, the main vessel of the expedition. One member of the expedition was Paul Diefenderfer, Director of Education in Suva, serving as chief photographer. Diefenderfer also persuaded Quensell to further develop his cachets and have rubber stamps made in New Zealand.

In April 1931, two days prior to the scheduled arrival of a ship, a native Tin Can Mail swimmer named Folau was attacked by a shark and died. Queen Salote was very upset and ordered that in the future all mail was to be collected by outrigger canoe. This was much more difficult because the boats had to be thrown from the cliff top. The crew had then to jump into the water and climb aboard. That summer, the famous naval cachet maker and dealer W. G. Crosby contacted George Quensell, sending him an green inkpad and a new rubber stamp reading “CANOE MAIL“. Quensell also produced a circular cachet at this time. In December 1933, a mail bag was actually lost at sea and was later found washed ashore on Naitamba Island, Fiji. This was the only such incident in the entire history of the mail service.

Starting in 1934, with the ever-increasing number of ships calling at Niuafo’ou, Quensell began introducing new cachets frequently and changing postmarks almost every month. He arranged with ships’ captains that if passengers mailed their letters “in the tin” with 6 pence to cover stamps and costs, he would apply his cachets before posting them on. Captains soon applied rubber stamps of their own telling the story of Tin Can Island and the ship which carried the letter. Most of the South Pacific cruise liners made a point of calling at the island as the passenger loved to watch the “natives” collecting the mail. The islanders benefited greatly from the interest that this generated because, instead of a vessel visiting once a year to collect the copra harvest, they now had visits from cruise ships as often as twice a week. These brought, not only the mail, newspapers and magazines, but fresh meat and vegetables, as well as news of the outside world.

A violent volcanic eruption occurred on September 9, 1946. The lava destroyed the village of Agaha within twenty minutes, including the post office, the recently built radio station and Quensell’s house with his entire collection of Tin Can Mail. It was three days before a passing plane saw the eruption and radioed for help. The 1,330 inhabitants were evacuated between September 27 and December 21, 1946. They eventually resettled at Eua Island, south of Tongatabu.

The evacuation, of course, ended Quensell’s Tin Can Mail service. He wrote a letter to a friend stating that during his 27 years on the island, he had sent more than one and a half million letters to 148 nations and states. His cachets had become ever more elaborate and towards the end, cruise ships brought as many as 40,000 letters a visit, mostly from the USA. After the evacuation, Quensell moved to Nukualofa where he died on March 30, 1956, at the age of 79.

After twelve years absence, more than 200 former residents returned to Niuafo’ou and began rebuilding their homes and villages. It was not until January 1962 that the Matson Line, responding to pleas from the islanders, once again added Niuafo’ou to their itinerary and resurrected the Tin Can Mail. This once again proved a great success.  However, the completion of an airstrip on the island in 1983 brought the century-long service to a final end.





I'm an American currently living and teaching English in Phuket, Thailand. I like to read, write, take photographs, and collect stamps. You can read about all of these things and more on my three blogs: Asian Meanderings, "Please, Mr. Postman!", Philatelic Pursuits, . Cheers!

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