by: Hans J.A. Vinkenborg
Over the years, many authors have published articles regarding the Clara Rothe stamps, which were to be used around 1869 between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. Next to many magazine articles, the most complete publication can be found in the book “The Private Ship Letter Stamps of the World, part 1, written by S. Ringström and H.E. Tester, Isleworth, UK, 1976.
They did extensive research about the history of the stamp and its use and discovered many new facts. This short article will briefly focus on this history and detail how the 3 varieties of this issue can be recognized.
St. Thomas functioned as the mail distribution center for the British sailing and steam ships during the years 1843-1877. Some 20.000 letters were brought here every month by the ships of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (‘RMSP’) and these were loaded-on to smaller ships for further distribution. The Danish Government closed contracts with ship owners to transport mail from St. Thomas to various other islands and these had to sail within six hours after the arrival of the RMSP mail boat. One of the ship owners was George Nunez from France who operated a line between St. Thomas and St. Croix since 1865 and he had a steam/sailingship called Clara Rothe, named after the daughter Clara of the former Danish governor. Since the transport volume between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico was the highest and most irregular, the Danish Government asked Nunez to operate a line to Puerto Rico as well and they closed a 7-year contract and he started May 6th, 1865 to Arroyo and Ponce. Later that year it appeared that he also transported mail for the French government on this same route and to Martinique in an attempt to make a profit, because the line was lossmaking from the start due to heavy competition and the heaviness of the ship using relatively much coal. Already in March 1866 the contract was terminated by Nunez after collision and hurricane damages and the last sailing took place on April 1st, 1866. He sold his ship to Haiti where it served as a warship/gunboat until it sank some years later.
Nunez wanted to attach his own stamps to the mail he transported and ordered the printing of stamps from M. Stern in Paris, France. However, these stamps were only delivered in 1869, long after Nunez had ceased operating. Since he could not pay to the printer, they were taken back to Paris and possibly to prevent a loss, sold to collectors who bought them all. They became so popular that forgers many years later reprinted the stamps (1st forgery) and again many years later (2nd forgery). The forgeries did not come from M. Stern and were of mediocre quality. We have to realize that I talk of a forgery, although the ‘original’ never circulated. All stamps showing cancels thus have fake cancels by definition. The Spiro Brothers who operated in Hamburg, Germany between 1864 and 1880 made some of the forgeries and cancels. In the picture I show the ‘original’ (2 centavos) and the 1st forgery (1 centavo) and the 2nd forgery (2 reales).
The stamps show the ship Clara Rothe in an oval at sea with the arms of the Government of Denmark, the text ‘St.Thomas Porto Rico’ on top and Clara Rothe under the ship plus the value of the stamp. All stamps are lithographed. The 'original' is good in detail, the flag high in the foremast does NOT touch the sword of the coat-of-arms, the background lines mostly do not reach till the horizon, making the horizon white. The flag in the back of the ship is NOT crossed by the horizontal background lines. They exist with perforation (10 ½ x 10 ¼) and without perforation, usually uncancelled.
The following values and colors exists: 1/2, 1, 2, 3 centavos all in black, 1/2 real blue, 1 real vermilion (orange brown), 2 real mauve (violet) and 4 real green.
The characteristics of the first forgery are: the flag in the foremast touches the sword and the flag is slightly larger, the background lines are equally clear everywhere so that it is more difficult to see where the sky ends and the sea starts and the flag in the back of the ship is crossed by the horizontal background lines. They exist with perforation (12 ½ x 12 ¾ ) and without perforation, some carry a Spiro cancel or another cancel. The following values and colors exists: 1/2, 1, 2, 3 centavos all in black, 1/2 real blue, 1 real vermilion (orangebrown), 2 real mauve (violet) and 4 real green.
The second forgery can be easily recognized; the entire picture is a big mess and very crude, it looks like the ship is in a heavy storm. Nothing is clear, details are hardly visible. The paper quality is less, they exist with perforation (11 x 11) and without perforation and with various types of cancellations, mostly straight line, some with a French text. The values, which are said to exist, include 1/2, 1, 2 and 3 centavos all in black, but personally, I have never seen any of those so I am in doubt if they exist. The ½ real stamp blue has never been seen by anyone and does not exist. Instead, the following high values exist: 1 real blue (!), 2 real brown (!) and 4 real mauve (violet) which mentions ‘quatro’ instead of ‘cuatro’. Now all of a sudden, there is a 5 real stamp in the colour green (!).
Preston and Sanborn mention in their 1950 book ‘The Postal History of Puerto Rico’ that a 4 centavos stamp existed and refer to Melville who mentioned this in his publication of 1923, but this stampvalue has never been seen. H.F. Rooke mentions in his publications (The Philatelist, July 1962) that he has seen a 2 real of the ‘original’ issue in the colour vermilion, the clour of the 1 real stamp; he therefore assumes that a plate error exists in the 1 real sheet.
However, it seems to be clear that all Clara Rothe stamps, the ‘originals’ as well as the 1st and the 2nd forgeries are fake cinderellas with the only purpose to defraud the stamp collectors.