The Nicaragua Postage Stamp War, 1937
Philately will get you everywhere, they say, and as a boy I used to circumnavigate the world frequently as I perused and added to my collection of stamps. I suppose the rather boring hobby taught me something about geography and different currencies. I remember how dull and tedious the British stamps were at the time – an air-brushed silhouette of the monarch against a monochromatic background – in comparison with many of the foreign jobbies.
I don’t have the albums now but I’m fairly certain that I didn’t have a copy of the Air Mail stamps issued by the Nicaraguan Postal Service in August 1937. And even if I did, I doubt I would have realised that the stamp featuring a map of the country along with part of its neighbour, Honduras, in a tasteful shade of green nearly caused a war.
Borders are tricky to establish at the best of times. The Spanish conquest of Nicaragua and Honduras in the 1520s resulted in large numbers of the indigenous populations being wiped out by disease and starvation. Administratively, the territories were nominally two separate areas within the greater Central American province, known, rather grandiloquently, as the Captaincy General of Guatemala. But the precise boundary between the two areas was not really an issue whilst they were absorbed within the Hispanic empire and, in any event, rather primitive cartographical techniques, thick, often impenetrable jungle, and a thinly populated area, probably persuaded the Spaniards that it was more trouble than it was worth.
Nicaragua and Honduras gained their independence, after the dissolution of the Captaincy General in 1821, the overthrow of the First Mexican empire, into which they were then absorbed, in 1823 and the collapse of the Federal Republic of Central America in the second half of 1838.
Of course, precise borders now mattered.
Probably because they had more important matters to consider, the two countries kicked the thorny subject into the long grass or, more accurately, the deep jungle and relied on the international convention of uti possidetis juris which, to the layman, meant that newly formed sovereign states should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had. But if you couldn’t determine precisely where the border ran, it was not a great deal of help.
In an attempt to resolve the matter once and for all, the two countries agreed in 1894 that a Commission should be established to fix the border between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. When the Commission published its findings six year later, they came up with a nice line which ran along straight lines, river beds and mountain ranges but, unfortunately, it only got a third of the way to the Atlantic coast. In despair, they appealed to the Spanish king, Alphonso XIII, who awarded most of the disputed territory to Honduras.
The 1937 stamp reopened this festering sore. Whilst the map clearly showed the agreed border, the area north of the border was marked “territorio en litigio”, territory in dispute. When the first stamps reached the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, riots broke out and the police had their work cut out to prevent the Nicaraguan embassy from being stormed. Troops were sent by both countries to the disputed area and war was only averted thanks to some frantic diplomatic efforts on the part of America, Mexico and Costa Rica.
The status quo had been restored but the matter was unresolved. In 1957 a commission under the auspices of the International Court of Justice considered the matter and in 1960 reconfirmed Alphonso’s decision, awarding the disputed territory once more to Honduras. Another border commission set about fixing the precise border and did a better job than the first one, drawing a line across the 573 miles of border country.
And there matters stand to this day.