In 1882 William Travers, a plantation manager on the island of Niuafo’ou between Fiji and Samoa felt very cut off from the rest of the world. He saw the ocean going liners steaming past, but as the island had no harbour or beaches, the ships could not call. He needed to contact his company in Australia and came up with a very interesting plan.
He asked the postal service in Tonga to seal his mail in a ship’s biscuit tin. They should then arrange for the captain of one of the Union Steamship vessels to throw the tin overboard as it passed the island. The captain should then hoot, and he, William Travers, would arrange for a swimmer to swim out and collect the tin. To test this he wrapped a letter in grease- proof paper, put it in the tin and tied it to a short stick. He asked one of the strongest swimmers on the island to swim out to the next ship and hand his letter to the captain. In this fashion the “Tin Can Mail” was born.
After Arthur Tindall, a trader came to the island a few years later, this became a regular happening. The fishermen on the island were used to fishing in the shark infested waters. But it meant that sometimes it took the swimmer up to six hours because of the strong currents, to retrieve a tin dropped only a mile off shore. In stormy weather, this system did not work at all.
In 1921 Charles Ramsay came to Niuafo’ou as plantation manager. Although he had been severely ill (from gassing during World War I), he took on the job of swimming for the mail. He was the only white man to do so and went out 112 times in all types of weather. On occasions when the ship passed at night, it would blow its siren, and the swimmers would go out in a group, one carrying a lamp. On shore, the islanders would build bonfires to guide the swimmers home.
In 1928 when George Quinell arrived on the island he realised that philatelic interest could be generated by this method of mail delivery, so he produced a rubber stamp which read “Tin Can Mail” which he stamped onto all outgoing mail. Unfortunately one of the “postmen” was attacked by a shark and died, but there were no further incidents involving sharks. A ban was placed on this method by Queen Salote of Tonga, but many of the “postmen” continued to fetch the mail in this fashion. Quinell told a friend that during his 27 years on the island, he had sent more than a half million letters to 148 countries.
The passengers on board the steamships loved watching the mail collection and soon many of the ships made a point of passing near to Tin Can Island as it had become known. A charge was now levied and people wrote from many parts of the world enclosing their 6d with a self addressed envelope. Although it seemed that the Tin Can System had become a philatelic gimmick, it was still the only way in which the islanders could communicate with the outside world and for over 100 years even Government correspondence was delivered in this fashion.
After having begun in 1882, this system had been banned because of the shark attacks on swimmers, but in 1962 the Tin Can Mail was resurrected. This was very successful as the islands still needed contact with the outside world and only came to an end in 1983 when an airfield was built on the island.