British Africa: Basutoland

Page One: Issues of 1933-37

Basutoland/Lesotho is a small, somewhat improbable country. Its high, arid plains are entirely surrounded by South Africa. It owes its existence as much as anything to its remoteness, and to its tribal king.  Moshoeshoe was a charismatic leader and skilled diplomat whose reign extended from 1820 some 50 years, three decades-plus into the Victorian era. Basutoland was variously claimed and manhandled by the British, the   Cape Colony, the Boers from Orange Free State and Griqualand, the Zulu and other warring neighbors. Basuto tribes fought among themselves but somehow, emerged intact as a nation under King Moshoeshoe. They resisted incorporation into South Africa in 1910, rejecting the apartheid model, and survived as a protectorate and colony of Great Britain. British rule was relatively light and supple. Central administration was under a  resident commissioner. Tribal leaders ran things legislatively under a paramount chief, with a high court convening when needed. Basutoland got its first elected legislature in 1959, and became the independent state of Lesotho in 1965. (Don’t confuse Basutoland — or Lesotho — with those phony-baloney South African “homelands.” The vassal states of Transkei, Venda, Ciskei and Bophutatswana were bogus from Day One — though they did issue some beautiful stamps that continue to be listed in the Scott catalog.)


This cover, captured from the Internet, displays stamps from southern Africa that were valid for postage throughout the Union of South Africa through 1937: Basutoland, Transvaal, South Africa, Orange River Colony, Natal and Cape of Good Hope.

Why didn’t Basutoland get its own stamps until 1933? (I don’t yet know.) Whose stamps did local folks use to mail their letters before then? Stamps of South Africa, for sure, and from Cape of Good Hope and elsewhere. All the surrounding postal authorities of earlier years— Natal, Transvaal, Orange River Colony, Zululand, Cape Colony — were using stamps of the South African “union” after 1910. Basutoland, a separate and distinct British colony, continued to borrow its stamps for 23 years. How odd. As it happened,  older stamps from Cape of Good Hope, Transvaal, Natal and Orange River Colony remained valid for  postage throughout South Africa until 1937, so Basutos could take their pick. This envelope from Maseru (right, above),  postmarked in 1933, shows stamps from, left to right:  Basutoland, Transvaal, South Africa, Orange River Colony, Natal and Cape of Good Hope.

Basutoland’s firfullsizeoutput_5be.jpegst set is strikingly exotic — engraved, with a profile portrait of George V above a stylized scene of a crocodile basking by a river with mountain peaks behind. I’m missing the higher values, but the seven-stamp partial set still makes an attractive display, don’t you think?

fullsizeoutput_5bf.jpegNotice that I have the “universal” set of stamps rom Basutoland commemorating George V’s jubilee in 1935. As promised, they are handsome engravings of the king and Windsor Castle in regal colors: carmine and blue; gray black and ultramarine; blue and brown; bright violet and indigo. These are very familiar stamps for British Colony collectors, but still pretty.

Page Two:  Issues of 1938-47

fullsizeoutput_5c0You see at once the contrast and similarity of the George VI definitive set and its predecessor. The  design is the same: crocodile, riverbank, mountains. The portrait changes from George V to George VI, and the stamps take on a more modern cast. What makes this limited change in design interesting to a stamp collector? It relates to  stately transitions and continuity. In the case of the monarchy, the lament “The King is dead!” that sounded throughout Britain in January, 1936, as George V expired, was followed in the same breath with, “Long live the King!” (Never mind that the Duke of Wales, a/k/a King Edward VIII, only stuck around for a few months before skedaddling with Wallace Simpson …) By 1938, there was a new set of stamps for sale in Maseru, Basutoland’s capital. It looked the same, but there was a fresh new face on the stamps. George VI looked handsome, resolute; very white, to be sure; very much the image of a king, under a crown, ruler of the colony.

Consistency is a profound value in philately. Art and meaning flow through order. Philately is deeply conservative in its reverence for a certain kind of order. It quietly celebrates vitality, artistry, decoration, contrast — within strict confines of stamp design,  utility, sequence and value. Letter carriers  on their appointed rounds are a sign of an orderly, peaceful nation; so, too, stamps on the envelopes they deliver are emblems of order and normality. (There are exceptions, of course, which make the hobby even more fun!)

The similarity and contrasts within and between stamps, as well as between sets, provide visual pleasure as well as social, cultural and political clues. In this case, the smooth transition from George V to George VI (after the unpleasantness over young Edward) is reflected in these two subtly different definitive sets. Together, they signal an unbroken bond of colonial protection (and dominion) — adroitly managed by the mandarins of the colonial office at Whitehall.

fullsizeoutput_5c5The other two sets on this page deserve notice. The first consists of South African stamps overprinted for use in Basutoland, commemorating the end of World War II in 1945.  Similar overprinted sets appeared in Bechuanaland Protectorate and Swaziland. This looks like an economy move for a depleted empire at the end of a brutal and costly conflict. Imagine the mixed feelings of the Basuto man-on-the-street when he discovered a new set of South African stamps (albeit overprinted) on sale at his local post office. To add insult to philatelic insurgency, the stamps are printed se-tenant (attached) both in English and Afrikaans, the language of the Boers — and apartheid.

fullsizeoutput_5caIn 1947, the British royal family paid a visit to Africa and stopped in Basutoland. A four-stamp commemorative set was issued there and in other colonies the Royals visited. The stamps display a handsome group  — King George, already looking aged but still handsome both in uniform and coat-and-tie; Queen Elizabeth, the future “Queen Mum,” elegant in her pearls; and the girls, Elizabeth and her kid sister Margaret. Not yet 21, the future queen is a pretty young woman, already striking in her composure. (Yes, these are flattering engravings, but they are excellent likenesses all the same.)

 Page Three: Issues of 1948-54  

fullsizeoutput_5f5Note the empty spaces for the Silver Wedding set, another “universal” issue throughout the colonies. I don’t have many of these sets, for a couple of reasons: 1) The set is freakishly priced, with a cheap and virtually valueless low-denomination stamp, and a top-value companion — a deterrent to this young stamp collector. 2) The stamps are pretty boring, even though the high-value one is a handsomely engraved double portrait of George VI and Elizabeth in profile (the lower value is usually lithographed).  3) Notwithstanding their high combined face value, the sets are not hard to find or prohibitively expensive, suggesting they are not widely popular or in demand. 4) Even in his engraved portrait, George can’t hide how poorly he’s doing, which is kind of a downer. In short, this set seemed dull, even a bit creepy. I tended to avoid it, spending my precious savings fullsizeoutput_5f7elsewhere.

The next set celebrates the International Postal Union’s 75h anniversary in 1949. At first glance you may dismiss this as a rather ho-hum; each stamp is mono-color, kind of busy-looking. None of these “universal” UPU sets are worth much. That said, they do merit a closer look. There are four detailed, expert engravings of allegorical scenes: Two show Mercury on his rounds; another depicts a plane and steamship circumnavigating the hemispheres. The most fanciful design has a queenly figure sitting amid a throne of rocks, while a band of seraphim join hands around a globe that is being mysteriously propelled through space, trailing a thick cloud. (This last design is a rendering of the UPU monument at its headquarters in Bern, Switzerland. Check it out online.)

The obligatory Elizabeth II coronation stamp appears at the top of the page. Notice how  queenly she looks, transformed from the vignettes of her pre-royalty days to the same kind of Swanlike beauty of Victoria’s Chalon portrait.

Rounding out the page is the definitive set of 1954 (above). This is a beauty, even though I’m still missing the top values, which would cost me upwards of $30 these fullsizeoutput_620days. You’ll notice that the colonial stamp producers did not choose to continue the set with the alligator for Elizabeth, even though they kept up a common design for definitives in Bechuanaland Protectorate, to the north, and in other colonies. Maybe they considered a sharp-toothed croc an inappropriate companion, lurking beneath the comely young queen. It’s not like the crocodile is the colony’s badge or anything. So they broke with  tradition and gave Basutoland a brand-new set. And look what they came up with! Even this short set is gorgeous. I have had many happy moments mooning over the finely engraved scenes that peek out through the decorative borders. In each stamp there is an engraved cameo profile of the queen under her crown, presiding with benign attentiveness.  The contrasting colors are daring: orange and deep blue; carmine and olive green; deep blue and indigo …

I sent a money order to Maseru from Heidelberg in 1962, and narrowly missed receiving these definitive stamps by return mail. (The short set I display here must have come from a stamp store.) Here’s what happened instead. In 1961, Basutoland abandoned sterling currency for decimals — cents and rands — along with South Africa and other neighbors. What the postal authorities sent back to me from Basutoland, in an official brown envelope marked ”On Her Majesty’s Service,” was a new set, one that heralded a new adventure for me in stamp collecting.

Page Four: Issues of 1956-61

Before I address the main excitement of this page — the definitive series surcharged in decimal currency — I will comment briefly on the other sets on the page. In fullsizeoutput_5cfaddition to the two “postage due” stamps (which I don’t have) and a single 2d stamp surcharged 1/2d (there must have been a shortage of the 1/2d definitive), there is a nicely engraved, three-stamp set commemorating the creation of Basutoland’s new legislature, the National Council, in 1959. The first stamp recognizes the “Laws of Moshesh 1854,” with a likeness of long-reigning King Moshoeshoe. (There seem to be numerous spellings of his name.) The second depicts a modest building and the caption “Basutoland Council 1903,” referring to what passed for a local deliberative assembly more than a century ago. The third stamp shows a pipe-smoking Mosotho tribesman on horseback, with his distinctive robe and peaked hat (Is that a dove with an olive branch flying behind him? A swallow with a twig for its nest? An airplane?) In case you are wondering, none of these stamps is valuable.

Now, on to the decimal overprints. Why did I go wild with (muted) excitement over a set like this? Partly because it seemed so … provisional, so … well, wild. Surcharging stamps was an awkward process that marred the purity of the design and created  confusion as to its correct value. The surcharge defaced  the original stamp, rendering it instantly obsolete. When the surcharge included a change from British sterling to decimal value, things could get particularly confusing. In Canada, the Seychelles and elsewhere, the transition came in the 1800s. A few early (and valuable) Canadian fullsizeoutput_5d1stamps are denominated both in “cents” and the old “st’ling.” Another wave of conversions to decimal came before World War II in Caribbean colonies. The nadir of the surcharge business came with those hapless stamps that received two surcharges, one supposedly cancelling out the other — thus leaving the poor customer (and postal clerk) to contend with three separate values on a single stamp. Surcharges were a confusing bother to postal officials and the general public, and were yanked as soon as a new, “proper” set of definitives could be printed. Once the surcharged stamps were taken out of circulation, they sometimes jumped in value to collectors.

Examine the surcharge on these stamps closely: Some of numbers appear thicker than others. It turns out three distinct types of surcharges were used in this set. Which to my mind, makes these stamps even wilder! Type I was thicker than Type II; Type III, used only for the 1-rand stamp, consisted of tall, narrow figures. Some of these varieties now command a premium, though most are affordable. A few stamps carry  “inverted” (upside down) surcharges. These “errors” occurred on the 2 cent stamp (costing hundreds of dollars today) and the 2 1/2 cent (worth more than $1,000). Alas, there are no rare varieties among  the stamps I received from Maseru in 1962.  Nor have I tried to find surcharge varieties — though I’ve often thought it would be fun. This “surcharge” adventure continued with stamps from Bechuanaland (where I also sent a money order) and Swaziland; both countries adopted decimal currency the same time as Basutoland and South Africa.

Page Five: Issues of 1961-3

fullsizeoutput_61eSure enough, along  came the “new” definitive series with decimal currency. In this case, Basutoland got the same splendid Elizabeth II set first issued in 1954, with decimal values in place of pence and shillings. The brilliantly etched vignettes and borders are restored to their full glory. My set is complete. A pencil note states I bought it in 1991 for $11.50. Today, the set goes for $45 on Not a bad fullsizeoutput_5d3investment, eh?

Also on this page is the “universal” Red Cross centenary set.  Above it is space for the “freedom from hunger” universal stamp. The five-cent surcharge on an old (1930s era) postage due stamp costs several dollars today, if you could find it.

Basutoland would issue a few more stamps through 1965, including a set oddly inscribed with both “Basutoland” and “Lesotho,” marking the attainment of self-government. (How can a country have two names?) In contrast to the stately march from one fullsizeoutput_626colonial monarch to the next, the transition of British colonies to independence was seldom  smooth — politically, economically socially or symbolically — and this was  reflected philatelically,  in unforeseen developments and awkward moments, odd stamp issues, false starts, dramatic turns, printing errors, other calamities and incongruities to match the times.  — as you will see …

fullsizeoutput_621Before departing from Basutoland, enjoy a few last closeups of that artful set, first issued in 1954.

Version 2fullsizeoutput_61f

One thought on “British Africa: Basutoland

  1. James Bibby says:

    Don’t know if you can help me with this, but I have a pair of Great Britain QV halfpenny stamps that were issued in 1881 (the halfpenny vermillion), which are postmarked Leribe, with the date April 16 1901. I can’t find anything in my catalogue that mentions QV stamps being used in Basutoland. Can you give me any information about this?

    Best wishes



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