British Africa: Ascension

Page one: Issues of 1922-33

This is quite a spectacular page. The two sets feature George V and vignettes — one of “The Wharf” (actually on St. Helena), the other portraying a three-master at harbor amid rock columns.

Oddly, Ascension’s first set cofullsizeoutput_4dc.jpegnsists of stamps of St. Helena, another British possession 800 miles to the southeast, overprinted “Ascension.” One wonders how local inhabitants reacted to stamps depicting a faraway island, intended to represent them in the wide world. How humiliating … Mercifully, it took only two years — from 1922 to 1924 — for colonial stamp designers to come up with an original set for Ascension, displaying the Badge of the Colony.

My copies of Ascension’s first and second sets are mint/hinged. They are expertly drawn and lithographed stamps, often in two colors with delicious descriptions in the catalog — ultramarine and black, olive and lilac, violet and gray … One partial set is complete to the one shilling, seven stamps. The other set is complete — 12 stamps from a half-penny through three shillings. The catalog value of the page tops $270. This is a splendid way to start off on my British Africa collection, and the Ascension pages just keep sparkling. (Read on!)

By the way, I inherited most of these from my father. The exception is the five-pence stamp from the second issue, which I bought online to complete the set — filling an inside straight, as it were —  thereby increasing the overall value.

Page two: Issues of 1934-37.

This classic pictorial set is from late in the reign of George V, who wore the crown from 1910 through 1935. Tfullsizeoutput_4dd.jpeghe stamps are wide and tall, with artistic engravings of Georgetown, Long Beach, a map of the remote South Atlantic island and other scenes. The vignettes are printed in black, as is the profile of the king. The borders are intense colors — violet, green, ultramarine, orange … The contrast is striking, and the fine designs of the engraver’s art resonate back and forth between the dark centers and portrait on each stamp and the succession of bright colors on the borders. This set is cancelled, missing the higher values —an attractive work-in-progress.

The four-stamp commemoration of George V’s silver jubilee, which came months before the popular old king expired, is one of the first Common Designs throughout the British Colonies. (I don’t happen to have this set yet; just the spaces on my album page, inviting me to fill them.) You could argue that the very first “common design” was the series coinciding with Queen Victoria’s 60th year of rule in the 1890s. Each  stamp of the handsome George V set is engraved in two royal hues, displaying Windsor Castle in the center, surrounded by a cameo of a majestic king in full regalia and an intricate border. The sets were available at colonials post offices in Antigua and Fiji, Gibraltar and Gambia, British Guiana and Hong Kong during 1935. George V died at age 70 in January 1936.  Just wait till you see a set in full colors (coming right up, in Basutoland).

The three-stamp set celebrating the coronation of George V’s son and heir, George VI, in 1937, were also issued universally.  (Historical footnote: Edward VIII was on the throne for such a short time before abdicating that no stamps with his portrait were issued in any of the British Colonies — with the exception of the four-stamp GB  definitive set of Edward VIII portraits that was on sale briefly in Great Britain, and issued with overprints in the British territories of Tangiers and the Morocco Agencies.)

The George V jubilee sets from some colonies command surprisingly high prices ($46.50 at for the Ascension set). The George VI coronation set, however, is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on. Why? The jubilee set must have been pulled after George V’s death, making it rarer. The George VI coronation set had low denominations, three pence and under. Maybe there was a glut of coronation sets. They are pretty boring stamps to begin with: single-color, featuring sober frontal portraits of the young king and his queen, Elizabeth, separated by a crown and other royal regalia (the Crown Jewels?)  At least the stamps are engraved.  One could speculate that George VI’s father was the more popular king, ditto with “his” stamps. But as we know from “The King’s Speech” and other sources, George VI rose to the occasion. After steadfast wartime service, he enjoyed a short postwar span of popularity and public affection. A heavy smoker with a weak heart, he died at just 56, in 1952.

Page three:  Issues of 1938-46.

But oh! This is what a stamp collector lives for: Feast your eyes on this vision saturated with rich color and contrast, engravfullsizeoutput_4de.jpeged artistry and design integrity. The stamps are  laid out in orderly rows, set off by their black protective mounts. They hint at considerable value even as they please the eyes  and stimulate the imagination. This is the George VI definitive set, mint and complete. In this case, “complete” means a full complement of 15 stamps, from a half-penny to 10 shillings. (Never mind the blank space on the page of the Minkus album; the authoritative Scott catalog affirms the set’s completeness, ignoring the suspect “yellow orange & lilac” 1 1/2d value cited by Minkus.)

You will notice that the center landscape designs are drawn from the 1934 George V set. But somehow, replacing the portrait of George V with a new engraved close-up of George VI transforms the stamps into something altogether different, more modern. The new king, just 41 in 1938  is clean-shaven, immaculately groomed in his high, gilded collar. He half faces the viewer from a simple oval frame.

Updating portraits on the same central stamp design was a frequent recourse in British colonial stamp production through the years, particularly for the sets issued late in the reigns of both Georges. More than a few colonies issued attractive definitive series after 1950, apparently expecting that the ailing George VI would carry on for at least enough years to  make the effort worthwhile. After the King’s untimely death, a number of colonial post offices simply reissued the same sets with new portraits of the dewy-eyed  Queen Elizabeth replacing those of the gaunt but stoic king. This seems eminently practical. Recycling serves another purpose as well. From the very beginning, British Colony stamps were “universal,” in the sense that similar designs turned up in post offices all over the world, from Victorian times. In the 1890s, the colonies issued definitive sets with profile portraits to mark Victoria’s 60th year on the throne. (Now Queen Elizabeth II has broken Victoria’s record. Imagine!) After Edward VII was crowned in 1902, the designers replaced Victoria with Edward, but kept the general border design of the sets consistent. The border designs were “recycled” again after 1911, when George V became king.  Indeed, a few colonies continued to produce sets with the same Victorian-era frame for George VI in the 30s thad 40s, and even Elizabeth in the 50s (see Leeward Islands).  Hong Kong’s distinctive definitive stamps maintained similar border designs, from Victoria through Elizabeth. Northern Rhodesia  and Bechuanaland issued similar sets for George V, George VI and Elizabeth. Not only did this practice save the designers effort, but it signaled dependability, predictability, solidity. In this way, British colonial philately served the interests of empire. As one benign monarch succeeded another, there was philatelic continuity; purely symbolic, but a symbol to rely on, something to trust.

Version 2Please indulge a little esoterica here — a comment on the unusual number of color changes in this set. There were

two each for the one penny, two pence and three pence. Why the changes? Who knows. One three-penny stamp has a black center and intense ultramarine border. (This is the rarest stamp of the set, selling online for
upwards of $50 — I got mine for $22.50). Another 3d stamp is all Version 4black. One can imagine a bit of confusion when the black-only 3d stamp replaced the black-and-blue 3d in 194
0; then in 1944, when another ultramarine-and-black stamp was issued, this one for 4d instead of 3d.

Or perhaps it wasn’t that confusing after all. Let’s not get carried away.

Version 5You may notice if you squint that below some stamps on the pages of my albums there are tiny penciled inscriptions: date and amount paid, for the most part. I began doing this a decade or more ago, noting prices paid above $2. (The most I have paid so far for a stamp is $105 for an embossed stamp from Natal, circa 1857.) This notation system should help me or my heirs when it comes time to tote up the cash value of my collection, at least from the standpoint of my own expenditures. I’m sure it’s already in the thousands …

fullsizeoutput_50f.jpegThe page rounds out with another Common Design set, this one to commemorate the end of World War II. The two mono-color stamps contain a new, face-on portrait of the king, looking calm, resolute, well-turned-out and handsome as ever. Next to him is an impressive engraved rendering of the Houses of Parliament reflected in the Thames. While this set, like the coronation set, never became valuable, it’s easy to imagine what an important purpose the stamps served. At the end of this punishing war, it announced that Britain was still a commanding presence — solid, secure, orderly, reassuring, a monumental edifice firmly planted at the center of the empire.

Page four: Issues of 1948-56.

The 25th wedding anniversafullsizeoutput_541.jpegry of George VI and Queen Mary in 1948,  the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, and the four-stamp set commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union (see below), were occasions for more “universal” issues. (I will say more about the Silver Wedding and UPU sets later). The same designs were in circulation in virtually every colony. The engraved portrait of HM Elizabeth II brings out her youthful beauty. Barely out of her teens, she seems serene and confident as she begins her reign over the final incarnation of “a greater empire than has been.”

A personal aside: I began collecting stamps before I was a teenager. My father and older brother also were collectors, so I was around stamps from an early age. I was drawn to stamps by dint of growing up a “foreign service brat.” Between the ages of nine and 17, I lived in Asia, Europe or Africa. I found it thrilling to go into local post offices and find exotic-looking stamps that I could buy for the price on the stamp — “face value,” just like back home. On our travels, I would insist on a visit to a local post office in each new country, so I could stock up with all I could afford of the latest stamp issues. (My father was an easy sell, since he picked up some choice items himself during these visits.) My postal forays entered family legend after the episode when our plane landed in Monrovia, Liberia, circa 1962. During our brief stopover, I set off to find the post office, on what proved to be a fruitless search — I think it was Sunday. By the time I gave up and started back, everyone was back on the plane. It nearly left without me.

While living in Heidelberg, Germany, I came up with the idea (maybe I read about it in a stamp magazine) of sending money orders to foreign post offices, asking the postmaster to use the money, after deducting for return postage, to buy current “definitives” — that is, the set of stamps regularly in use at the moment.  I consulted my catalog and map and settled on faraway places like Ascension Island, Bechuanaland Protectorate, Basutoland, the Cayman Islands, Sierra Leone, Sabah … in short, all around the globe. Never mind that I couldn’t afford to buy the complete set. For me, it was a fun project, connecting me in a new way to the wide world.

Try to imagine the thrill of receiving an official philatelic letter from one of these exotic realms, replete with multicolored stamps and an  envelope marked “On Her fullsizeoutput_55c.jpegMajesty’s Service,” addressed to 13-year-old me! Here is a rare photo recording the arrival of one such packet — perhaps from Ascension. The household gathered at the front door of   Philosophenweg 9 in Heidelberg to bear witness as FMF received and opened his postal letter. It was such a memorable event, the postman  stuck around for the occasion. Mother served cookies and lemonade for the occasion.

FMF diary entry for June 6, 1962: “ M.S.A.U. (morning school as usual). Out 1, after making goal in sport! (some soccer reference) Aft. fun at tennis club. Played pretty well. LETTER FROM ASCENSION! WONDERFUL. 10 stamps on the cover! Bed 9:30.”

This big lead up is to introduce the gorgeous set of Queen Elizabeth Ascension definitives pictured above. Somehow, I managed to scrape up enough money to buy a money order that covered the cost of the complete definitive set, issued in 1956 — from a half penny through 10 shillings. I won’t try to estimate how much time I have spent over the years eyeballed this beautiful set — the delicate colors of the borders, the fetching cameo of the queen setting off the engraved artistry of the scenes and subjects, printed in black in the centers. This is one of my all-time favorite sets, not only because of the splendid design and execution, but for its relative rarity. For a face-value purchase price, via my money order, of scarcely more than one pound ($2.80 in 1962 dollars), I obtained a set currently offered at for $95. (Why so rare? For one thing, it was taken out of circulation after a new set was issued in 1963.) I already was using black protective sleeves to mount all my uncancelled stamps, shunning the hinges that mar the gum, but which are fine to use on cancelled stamps that no longer have their gum. This means that my set of QEII is “mint, never hinged,” commanding a corresponding premium in value. On the upper left of the album page, I took the liberty of adding a pencil notation — “p.o. fresh” — to indicate that this particular set was obtained directly from the post office, not through a dealer or at a stamp store. Makes it seem even fresher, doesn’t it?

In this, one of my firsfullsizeoutput_53e.jpegt adventures in international post-office shopping, I got lucky with the envelope containing my stamps. The kindly postmaster affixed a complete set up to the one-shilling value on the cover, making it a pretty and desirable showpiece in itself. …  They may well be the cover I am opening in the dramatic scene photographed above, which would make the date June 6, 1962.  How can I be so sure of the date? Because as you will note on the envelope’s display page, I recorded how long it took for my letter to get to Ascension and back.  (The dates are presented European-style: day first, then month, then year.) This kind of compulsive data-keeping is typical of stamp-collecting, I think: mildly significant, moderately useful, slightly esoteric … not altogether boring …

Before we move on, please enjoy a closer look at the extraordinary artistry involved in engraving this set of stamps …



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s