Congo: An Introduction

In the autumn of 1962, my family and I were into our third year living in a stately German home on picturesque Philosophenweg, a cobblestone lane winding up the Heiligenberg from the city of Heidelberg.   My father was a diplomat with the U.S. Information Service, director of Amerika Haus, a commanding pile that  occupied a city block downtown and housed a library, other public spaces and offices. Pa managed Fulbright scholarships, cultural tours and public diplomacy programs. We lived in some luxury: Our spacious house had terraced yards, fruit trees and a garden, with a commanding balcony view of the Neckar River valley. On the hill across the river stood the 800-year-old Schloss Heidelberg, with its ornamfullsizeoutput_718ental stone facades, towers and ruins — the latter untouched since the ravages of the Franco-Palatine wars and lightning strikes hundreds of years earlier. My twin sister Anne and I, just turned 14, were completely bilingual by this time. (Indeed, I recently had ranked second in my class — in German!) I must have been indistinguishable from the locals with my blond hair, accentless German and shiny black Lederhosen. Every morning we would head off by bicycle or Strassenbahn to the Englische Institut, a German-language school where we had advanced through the classes, from Quinta or Quarta, Unterterzia and Oberterzia to Untersekunda, the rough equivalent of eighth grade. After school we would make the return trip, mount the hill past Heidelberg University and climb the 76 steps to home. When we first arrived, I was disappointed not to be attending the American school attached to the massive U.S. military installations in Heidelberg, and missing out on life in the suburban precincts of Mark Twin Village and, a little further out of town, Patrick Henry Village. By this time, however, I was pretty well assimilated. I enjoyed friendships with German and American kids, played Little League baseball, went to the PX for American movies. I was pretty comfortable in two worlds.

By 1962 time I was already an avid stamp collector. I frequented Heidelberg’s central Postamt, as well as the stamp store, conveniently located near the Bismarckplatz transfer station for the streetcars. There I would drool over the displays, under the watchful eye of the cigar-smoking owner, and spend what few pfennigs and marks I could amass on new stamps for my collection. Among the oddities of collecting German stamps in the 1960s was the independent postal operation in Berlin, which produced  stamps identical to West German issues with the word “Berlin” added to “Deutsche Bundespost.”  Then there was East Germany, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik — DDR — whose colorful stamps seemed completely alien to their Bundesrepublik counterparts, somehow inauthentic … like the country itself, as it turned out. (An irritating feature of DDR sets was that usually, one stamp in each set was issued in smaller numbers, thus commanding a sharply higher price for collectors; oddly, the same practice was adopted by the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

My American friend Jock Rose pursued this hobby with comparable zeal — a zeal shared by at least one of my German classmates, Jurgen Ostwald. We earnestly compared our collections, and engaged in lively trading sessions where we would barter stamps for stamps, like nerdy Bedouins in the Casbah. We reluctantly relinquished prized duplicates or less-desired items to add coveted stamps to our pages — mindful to keep the value of these trades as even as possible (or even come out “ahead” in catalog value!).

My philatelic inclinations originated earlier, when I was just past 10, at our posting to what was then Dacca, East Pakistan (now Dhaka, Bangladesh). The sensed the lure of the exotic stamps on sale at the local post office. My father and older brother Jonathan, both collectors, spurred me on. In Germany my flirtation became an infatuation. I would ascertain exactly when the next commemorative stamp was coming ofullsizeoutput_711
ut, then draw topical cachets on envelopes, visit the Postamt on the appointed day, affix the brand-new stamps to my custom-designed covers and drop them in the mailbox — or sometimes have them hand-cancelled by a postal clerk.I still have a bunch of these
“first-day covers,” which I expect are virtually worthless
today. It sure was fun making them,
though. (My German fullsizeoutput_712collector-friend Jurgen lived in Leimen, a nearby village. He picked up my practice of improvising these first days covers, and kept sending me samples for more than a year after I left town. Now that’s philatelic friendship!)

It was in Heidelberg that I began sending letters to far-flung British colonial outposts —  Ascension, Basutoland, British Guiana, Cayman Islands … — including postal money orders sufficient to cover the cost of a modest selefullsizeoutput_713ction of stamps, purchased at face value, which obliging postal authorities would send back to me, sometimes in envelopes embellished with a variety of current issues. Some of these stamps have increased nicely in value. (One example: the 1953 Queen Elizabeth II definitive set from Ascension, which cost me less than $5, now has a catalog value of $150+.)

So there we were in Heidelberg, one of the loveliest  cities on Earth. We knew it couldn’t last. Most  USIS postings are for just two years, not three.(Pa must have been doing a great job!)  So when the news came in the fall that Pa had a new assignment, it was not unexpected. The destination, however, was a complete surprise. He told us over lunch at the PX one Saturday: We were going to Leopoldville, Congo.

The Congo! Africa! And without any home leave in between. We were expected by the end of the year. I recall my sister was distraught at the prospect of leaving Heidelberg — she had a big crush on the city, as did I. She also was worried about leaving her cat behind. My first reactions included excitement and fear. Excitement for the adventure, fear of the unknown. Somewhere in that mental process I was already curious about the stamp possibilities. A whole new country! In Africa! fullsizeoutput_720

What a funny way to begin to acclimate oneself to such a major life change. From German stamps to Congolese stamps. Not much of a cataclysm, just a little philatelic stretching. But with that change came excitement, too. A new country’s stamps, after all, meant that you were in a new country. Stamps were an emblem, proof positive, a centering and focusing fact of life, established, normal, reassuring in their way. And yet, within that normality of stamps was a new world of information, design, history, politics, art, not to mention possible investment value … What a hobby!

Before living in the Congo, I don’t remember being aware of any stamps from that country in my collection. I may have had a stray stamp or two from fullsizeoutput_724the Belgian Congo in the middle years — 1920s to 1950s. The “mask” set of 1948 was striking, and quite common, so a few of them may have found their way into my collection. I certainly didn’t consider the Congo a specialty, like British Colonies. As it turned out, early Congo stamps were quite advanced. The 1894 multicolor definitives from the Congo Free State were exquisite engravings of local scenes, printed in black within exotic ornamental borders in different colors. Some stamps in this early set are quite affordable, and subsequent sets that used the same designs are cheap and easily available, both cancelled and mint. (It’s remarkable to think there was so much letter traffic from the Congo so long ago …)  Other early Congo stamps, and others later on, are valuable. Little did I know that when I traveled to the Congo in the fall of 1962, I would be launching a philatelic expedition that now, a half-century later, has produced a nearly complete collection of stamps from the Congo. That means starting with Belgian King Leopold’s Congo Free state in 1889, then the Belgian Congo beginning in 1908, continuing past Independence Day June 30, 1960. (Indeed, as I write this, I am awaiting impatiently delivery of a key stamp filling one of my few gaps — the 50f stamp of the flower series of 1953, which I found at  the Stamps to Go online store for $7.50) I am certain this collection is very valuable — worth thousands, I expect. The first set alone fullsizeoutput_71a(pictured here) is worth hundreds. (I have it complete.) I am missing a few stamps here and there — like the first parcel post stamp in 1887 (catalog value: $400+; note empty space on page). However, less than a   handful are missing of the more than 400 stamps issued by the colonial administration.  This collection is indeed superb, and I can’t wait to tell you more about it. First, however, a word or more of historical context.

The early years of King Leopold’s rule in the Congo were dreary to say the least. Unlike other imperial monarchs, Leopold claimed his vast realm in the Congo basin and beyond not as a colony or a protectorate, but as an “independent state,” subject only to his direct rule. He was, in short, “owner” of this “property.” From the beginning, Leopold preached a doctrine of philanthropy — that his mission  was to raise up the African, abolish slavery once and for all and establish Christian hegemony in place of paganism. This was his great civilizing  goal: to build a new society in the Congo, prosperous, reverent, obedient. King Leopold schemed and maneuvered defty amid the machinations of European powers scrambling for their share of the African colonial spoils. How tiny Belgium ended up with the largest land prize — a territory half the size of the United States — is a tale of intrigue and dissembling by a masterful tactician and subtle diplomat. Whether Leopold believed all that guff about philanthropy and uplift in the Congo is a riddle I don’t believe researchers have yet solved. Remember that David Livingston, the pioneering colonial missionary “found”  by Henry Mortimer Stanley, declared his aim always was to abolish slavery in Africa and establish the “three Cs” — commerce, christianity and civilization.

Leopold’s personality was as opaque and contradictory as his motives. He built a vast Museum of the Congo amid the gardens of his royal estate in Tervuren, outside Brussels. The huge domes of the Congo glasshouses sheltered rubber trees at his castle in Laeken. Yet Leopold never set foot in the Congo. (To my knowledge, other colonial monarchs did not visit Africa, either; George VI, who paid a royal visit to Bechuanaland, Basutoland, Swaziland and South Africa in 1947, may have been the first.)  King Leopold’s high-minded principles were contradicted by the rude conduct and policies of his Congo administrators, enacted and enforced in his name. The putative “civilizers” of the Congo behaved no better than the most  brutal chiefs. They could hardly be credited with building a new, enlightened society in the Congo. The sadistic exploitation of Congo laborers in the rubber plantations and elsewhere, the savage mistreatment of families, the racial bigotry,  dehumanizing practices and cruel punishments — all were inexcusable, and not just by today’s standards. Nineteenth-century activists in England, like Edmund Morel and Ramsey MacDonald, and others who were pressing for an end to colonial racism and imperial aggression, took particular aim at the Belgian king’s African fiefdom. It took decades, but the damning evidence against Leopold’s “free state” mounted, culminating in the reports of Morel and Roger Casement. Nearing the end of his life, Leopold relinquished his hold. The “Etat Independent du Congo,” henceforth the Belgian Congo, finally would be subject to the laws and policies of the civil government in Brussels.

The new colony presented a particular, if not unprecedented, philatefullsizeoutput_71blic challenge. Since Belgium itself was bilingual — French and Flemish — the same duality would have to be reflected somehow on the stamps of its new overseas territory. French was the only language used on stamps from Leopold’s suzerainty. Now all stamps from the colony had to accommodate both languages of its new colonial masters. This awkward design requirement has been shared by other bilingual stamp-issuing nati
ons — Canada and  South Africa, as well as Belgium itself. The bilingual imperative played out in some unusual ways in the Congo. The first stamps from the ne
w Belgian colony, issued in 1908, were the same two-color engravings of 1894  —with a new overprint on “Etat Independent du Congo” that read: “Congo Belge.”  Imagine the fuss in Belgium’s parliament — where is the Flemish inscription? This is an insult to all fullsizeoutput_71cFlamands! A year later, in 1909, the colony got the first set of its own — a four-stamp group that incorporated the earlier designs with the French only inscriptions. Flemish Brussels must have been in a tizzy. (Gott in Himmel! Will these pesky Walloons never show us proper respect? Congo is every bit as much ours as theirs!) Finally, in 1910, the first bilingual stamps began trickling out. The clever designers used the same engraved scenes from the 1890s — of the port city of Matadi,  the Congo river at Stanley Falls, a river fullsizeoutput_71dsteamer, hunting elephants and others. Most remarkable is a rendering of a smoke-belching engine towing cars across the M’pozo River on an elevated bridge. Remember, this design dates to the 1890s. Building the Matadi-Leopoldville railroad through the Congo was a mammoth undertaking that displayed Leopold’s relentlessness. While his stamp designers celebrated this engineering triumph, little was said about the terrible toll of this arduous railway construction project. It took three years to advance the first 14 miles, and many more years to reach Stanley Pool. Some 132 Belgian professionals and other Europeans fell victim to accidents and pestilence. But most of the victims — at least 1,800 in the first two years alone — were the poor Congolese, toiling and dying as vassals to their “roi souverain.”  The new stamps bore alternating titles, “Congo Belge” first, “Belgisch Congo” second, and bilingual references to “centimes” or “centiemen,” “francs” or “franken.” (This set remained in circulation for many years, in many permutations, as we shall see.)

In the 1940s, authorities tried
something new, fullsizeoutput_71fbilingually speaking. The colony issued two identical sets of definitive stamps: one set listed “Congo Belge,” abovfullsizeoutput_71ee “Belgisch Congo,” the other reversed the order. (Both sets are valued the same in catalogs; philately did  not take sides in this bilingual balancing act.)  In the 1950s, a two-set issue of four stamps did the same thing: one set was inscribed French fullsizeoutput_721first, the other Flemish first. Take your pick. In this case, no two stamps in either set are valued the same, but I can’t discern any favoritism of one language over another. And that is about as far into the philatelic weeds as we need to go on that subject, wouldn’t you agree?

… Except to add that when the Belgian Congo/Belgisch Congo  became la Republique Democratique du Congo in 1960, postal authorities drifted along for a while overprinting bilingual Belgian Congo stamps with “CONGO.” As the  independent nation began issuing its own stamps, however, Flemish disappeared.



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