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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Cable Stamps - Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Thanks to Bill Glover for providing the stamp images and text for this page.

All material on this page is copyright © 2005 Bill Glover

CablePostcardObverse.JPG (126186 bytes) CablePostcardReverse.JPG (153194 bytes)


Prior to the use of Barrel Mail one way of getting a message to the outside world by cable station staff on Cocos was by what is now known as the "Cable Postcard." Staff would send a message to Perth via cable where it would transcribed onto a postcard and dropped in the post. It provided a relatively quick way of acknowledging the receipt of mail by a member of staff on Direction Island.

Cocos 2s Jukong.JPG (21897 bytes) Cocos 25c TSS Islander.JPG (23837 bytes) Cocos 50c RMS Orontes.JPG (21659 bytes)
Cocos 35c Barrel Mail.JPG (26893 bytes) Cocos 55c Barrel Mail.JPG (25122 bytes) Cocos 70c Barrel Mail.JPG (24440 bytes)
Cocos Barrel Mail FDC SS.JPG (346509 bytes) COCOS Cable ships.JPG (101359 bytes)
Scotia Cocos Keeling 33c 1985.JPG (29270 bytes) Scotia Cocos Keeling 40c 1976.JPG (21995 bytes) Patrol Cocos Keeling 80c 1985.JPG (29536 bytes)
Cocos 36c Ayesha.JPG (30372 bytes) Cocos Barrel Mail FDC Set.JPG (161149 bytes) Cocos 70c Direction Island.JPG (27208 bytes)
COCOS Incoming Barrel Mail 5 Jan 51.JPG (168556 bytes) COCOS Incoming Barrel Mail 5 Jan 51 Cachet.JPG (62143 bytes) Cocos Outgoing Tin Can Mail 5 Jan 51.JPG (186219 bytes)


Cocos (Keeling) Islands

1963 8d Map of Cocos (Keeling) Islands   1985 33-80c CS Scotia, CS Anglia, CS Patrol
1963 2/- Jukong 1985   FDC for above
1976 25c TSS Islander 1987 36c Ayesha
1976 40c CS Scotia 1987 70c Direction Island
1976 50c RMS Orontes and Barrel Mail 1951   Incoming Barrel Mail
1984 35-70c 75th Anniversary of Barrel Mail 1951   Outgoing Tin Can Mail
1984 S/S 75th Anniversary of Barrel Mail 1950   Cover brought in by TSS Islander
1984   FDC for the above      


The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of 27 coral islands situated between latitudes 11° 49' and 12° 12' S and longitudes 96° 49' and 96° 56' E. They were discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling, a Royal Navy commander and agent of the East India Company, while returning to England with a convoy from the Dutch East Indies.

The islands remained uninhabited until 1826 when Alexander Hare, a former East India Company official, arrived and settled on Direction Island with a group of Malays. The following year a former trading partner of Hare and former East India ships captain, John Clunies Ross, arrived with his wife and family and a number of Malay seamen, who formed a settlement on Home Island. The trading partnership had not been very successful and problems soon arose between the two groups. After eight years of discord Hare decided to leave and moved to Batavia. John Clunies Ross died in 1853 being succeeded by his son John George Clunies Ross.

In 1857 the Admiralty issued Captain Fremantle of HMS Juno with instructions to annex the Cocos Islands. Clunies Ross was appointed Governor by Fremantle and later the British Government gave the Clunies Ross family perpetual lease of the islands.

The Clunies Ross family established coconut plantations on the islands, building up a successful business dealing in copra, which they transported in their own schooner to Batavia for onward transmission to London or Hamburg. They carried mail to and from Batavia as well as supplies.


When it became clear that the Pacific cable would go ahead the Eastern Extension, Australasia & China Telegraph Company decided to improve its service to Australia. It leased land on Direction Island, from the Clunies Ross family, building a cable station on the site. The new cable route was Durban - Mauritius - Rodriguez Island - Cocos - Perth and Adelaide. The cable from Durban to Mauritius had been laid in 1901 by CS Anglia for the Eastern Telegraph Company and CS Anglia also laid the Mauritius - Rodriguez - Cocos cables 417 nm and 2157 nm respectively. All of these cables were manufactured by the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company. The cables Cocos - Cottesloe (Perth) - Glenelg (Adelaide) 1721 nm and 1525 nm respectively were laid by CS Scotia. Two further cables were laid, Cocos - Batavia in 1908 by CS Patrol and in 1926 CS Colonia laid a duplicate cable from Cocos to Cottesloe.

Detail of 1902 All Red Line map showing location of Cocos


Apart from the Ross schooner, cable station staff had to rely on passing ships, inter island traders, or possibly a cable ship making a routine call, to get their mail into the postal system. The islands were well away from the regular shipping lanes.


In 1909 the P&O liner RMS Morea altered course to pass close to Direction Island, and the Captain, W.L. Brown, notified the cable station staff that he would drop a barrel containing fresh meat, vegetables, books, magazines and mail. Other P&O and Orient Line ships were to follow the practice and it became the norm for some of the mail to and from the island to be collected and delivered in this way. Apart from a six year break because of World War II, the service continued until 1954 even though a regular air service began in 1952.

Mail from this source is usually franked with Australian or occasionally Ceylonese stamps. Most were Australian as the down run to Australia passed the islands in daylight and it was easier to pick up the mail. The up run from Australia passed the islands at night which made it impossible to recover barrels or pick up mail. Mail from the period 1949-51 is even easier to identify as one member of the cable station staff, E. R. Leigh Parkin, began applying cachets such as TIN CAN MAIL, Orion Barrel etc.

A liner approaching Direction Island would notify the cable station they would be dropping a barrel and members of staff would set out in their two jukongs, Matey and Diana, to collect the barrel and hopefully get their own mail on board. BARREL MAIL was the incoming mail, being enclosed in a wooden barrel along with other items. This was lowered over the side of the ship to waiting cable station staff or on occasion dropped over the side with a marker flag. TIN CAN MAIL was the outgoing mail. It was sealed in a tin can and attached to a line trailing from the ship making the drop. The normal practice was for one jukong to pick up the barrel while the other attached the tin can to the line trailing astern.

Problems with this service occurred from time to time. On 5 January 1951 RMS Orion dropped a barrel but was unable to pick up mail, so the tender Wave Baron did the honours. Outgoing mail from this pick up was endorsed 'Per Wave Baron'. These were taken to Colombo for posting and so bear Ceylonese stamps.

Once the airmail service began Barrel Mail became more of a ceremony than a necessity. Some mail from 1952 to1954 was endorsed with TIN CAN MAIL or BARREL MAIL cachets, but it was by now a souvenir rather than an essential way of getting mail to and from the island. In 1954 Cable & Wireless asked P&O to cease making the drops as it was extremely difficult for the remaining staff to collect the barrels. The station finally closed in 1956.

COCOS TSS Islander Cover.JPG (190173 bytes) COCOS TSS Islander Cover Cachets.JPG (57055 bytes)
1950 cover brought in by TSS Islander

Official Number 161325

T.S.S. Islander in Grangemouth, where she was built in 1929
Photo courtesy of Paul Wakely

Things improved a little for the cable station staff in 1929 when the Christmas Island Phosphate Company took delivery of the TSS Islander. The main purpose of the vessel was to collect phosphate from Christmas Island, but it also collected copra from Cocos as well as being supply ship to both places. It called at Cocos once every three months and provided another means of getting mail to and from the islands. The Islander operated the service for nearly 25 years.

Cocos Battle Strip.JPG (146445 bytes)
Cocos 10c Sydney.JPG (23044 bytes) Cocos 15c Emden.JPG (21481 bytes) Cocos 20c Ayesha.JPG (24192 bytes)


Cocos (Keeling) Islands

1976 10c HMAS Sydney
1976 15c SMS Emden
1976 20c German landing party approaching Ayesha
1987 36c Ayesha
1987 70c Direction Island
1989 40c HMAS Sydney
1989 70c SMS Emden
1989 $1 Emden's Steam Launch
1989 $1.10 HMAS Sydney and Ships Crest
1989   Souvenir Sheet with above values

Within a month of the outbreak of World War I all German cables passing through the English Channel or the North Sea had been cut. Their Atlantic cables were also cut and buoyed ready for use by the Allies. It was expected that similar action would be taken by the Germans and such an attempt led to the Battle of Cocos, where German naval personnel tried to put the cables out of action.

On the morning of 9 November 1914, cable station staff on Direction Island saw a warship approaching. Having been warned about SMS Emden the wireless operator sent out a message. "Strange warship approaching." This was soon followed by "SOS! Emden here." These messages were picked up by a passing troop convoy and one of the escorts, HMAS Sydney, was despatched at full speed.

The Captain of SMS Emden, Fredrich von Muller, sent a landing party of fifty men and officers with instructions to destroy equipment and cut the cables. Emden's steam launch and two cutters were used to ferry the party ashore. The station staff were rounded up and placed under guard while the rest of the landing party set about destroying instruments and trying to cut the cables. They succeeded with the Perth cable but failed with the one to South Africa.

While this was going on the crew remaining aboard Emden saw smoke on the horizon and assumed it was their collier Buresk. Realising that the vessel approaching was a warship they weighed anchor and signalled the landing party to return. Unable to reach the Emden they headed for the Clunies Ross schooner, Ayesha, anchored in the lagoon. They sailed Ayesha to the Dutch East Indies, where they boarded a German steamer which took them to Turkey. From Turkey they travelled overland reaching Germany seven months after leaving Cocos.

The first salvo in the battle was fired by Emden at 9.40 am. This caused damage and casualties aboard Sydney. It was twenty minutes before Sydney scored a major hit, but from then on it was only a matter of time. The battle ended at 11.15 am. when Captain Muller ran the Emden aground on North Keeling Island.

For more infomation, see the page on the Battle of Cocos


North Keeling Island is now known as Pulu Keeling National Park. The wreck of SMS Emden remained on the island until 1960, when following the removal of parts of the vessel by a Japanese scrap metal company, the wreck slipped off the reef and now lies in 25 feet of water.
Cocos MS Battle.JPG (275730 bytes)

Many additional stamps are shown on the pages linked from the Stamps Index page

Last revised: 1 September, 2011

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