TEN INTERESTING STORIES ABOUT CONGO STAMPS
1. The Origins of Rwanda and Burundi stamps. The first stamps issued in Rwanda and Burundi, back in 1915, were from the Belgian Congo.
They were overprinted by hand stamp, “Ruanda” or “Urundi.” They took the place of German East Africa stamps as the Germans were chased out during World War I. The colony also included land ceded to Portuguese Mozambique the new British colony of Tanganyika. The early Urundi and Ruanda stamps are among the most valuable from the Congo region, since they are so rare. They quickly were supplanted by a set of machine-overprinted stamps with the confusing bilingual inscription: in French, “Est Africain Allemand — Occupation Belge,” crowded in with the Flemish, “Duitsch Oost Africa — Belgische Bezetting.” This cluttered inscription suggests the Belgians were taking over from the Germans. But in such a case, one might ask, why still call it “German East Africa”? Was there a nationalist motive — to rub Germany’s nose in its defeat by asserting mastery over its erstwhile colony? Or was there a tacit colonial bond implied here, as though the two imperial powers were exchanging property, perhaps temporariliy, but otherwise maintaining all the imperial trappings and perquisites?
2. Belgian Congo stamps: A gallery of portraits. During its 83-year existence (1910-1993), the apartheid government of South Africa issued only one stamp I know of depicting a black face — a 4-cent commemorative promoting “Health Care and Service” in 1979. Though racial oppression and exclusion also was integral to the Belgian colonial administration, stamps from the Belgian Congo and Ruana-Urundi often featured black faces and bodies — even celebrated them. The early engravings are quite lovely.
3. Overprints and surcharges. Overprints and rcharges were part of Congo stamps from the beginning. In the 1880s and 1890s, three stamps from the first and second King Leopold portrait series were defaced by parcel post overprints. These are costly Congo stamps, because they are so rare. Later on, stamps in the colorful definitive series of 1909 were recycled numerous times. Four of them were overprinted with the year “1921”; many were surcharged with new values. Eventually, there were surcharges on surcharges. Imagine being confronted with a 10-centimes stamp, surcharged 30 centimes, then handstamped 25 centimes. What gives? Now go one stamp further: What about when the “0,25” is handstamped twice? Is that a double surcharge? A misprint? A new variety? So many questions! Congo postal authorities kept surcharging sets through the years, up until independence and beyond, with predictably mixed results.
( See Anecdote 5)
4. Detatchment USA? I was surprised to come across a short set of Belgian Congo stamps from the 1930s with an overprint suggesting an American occupation. I must have picked up the set at a stamp show years ago for a few bucks. The complete set (there is one more stamp) sells on eBay for as much as $100. As far as I know, the United States never occupied the Congo, or ever deployed troops there — at least openly. The Congo did play a role as an ally in World War II. The Belgian government-in-exile in London maintained its colony and provided the United States and others with key raw materials like rubber and minerals. Uranium went to the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki …
To get back on the philatelic track, why a “USA Detatchment” overprint on Congo stamps from the 1930s? These stamps would not have been issued during the war, since by the 1940s there was a new definitive set in circulation. A little research turned up the following scanty information: The stamps were issued in 1931 as a “private printing.” For decades, it had not been unusual for the U.S. government to dispatch “detachments” of Marines or other soldiers to guard U.S. embassies and other assets abroad. (In Cameroon, for example.) However, there was no mention of embassies issuing postage stamps for use by the troops or anyone else. Were these stamps valid in the Congo, for example as postage on mail sent home by the U.S. troops in Leopoldville? I don’t know. I have never seen any cancelled examples of these stamps, or postally used covers including them. They may well be “Cinderellas” (a term applied to postally spurious issues, which I promise to address in a future commentary). They certainly constitute an interesting historical oddity: “American” stamps, with U.S. currency denominations and “USA Airmail” overprinted on Belgian Congo stamps. There must be more to this story.
By the way, during the turmoil after Congolese independence in 1960, Sweden, Ireland and Canada, among others, sent troops to the Congo at the request of the United Nations to help keep the peace. Another contingent came from India, whose postal authorities issued a set of India’s then-current definitive series, overprinted “U.N. Force (India) Congo.” This set sells for a modest sum, mint or used, though cancelled copies on postally used covers mailed in the Congo might command a higher price. (Indians must have been proud of their role as international peacekeepers. Postal authorities in Delhi issued overprinted sets for use by troops in Korea in 1953; Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s; and Gaza in 1965.)
5. The same — and not the same. The transition from colony to independence was not easy in the Congo. Disorganization, disarray and disruption ran rampant. Economic and social upheaval was reflected in haphazard philately, including upside-down overprints known to philatelists as “inverts,” some of which sell today for $5 or $10 or more. The many surcharges created ever more opportunities for misprints and other errors. Stocks of stamps from the Belgian Congo — in particular the Flower series and the Animal series — were overprinted, some with new surcharges, and sold in Leopoldville for years after independence. As a 15-year-old stamp collector In 1964, I was able to buy stamps at the downtown Bureau de Poste to create a cover using six different versions of the original 6.50-frank stamp of the Animal series depicting two leaping antelopes.
** the original stamp, issued in 1959
** the same stamp, overprinted “CONGO” in red, issued 1960
** ditto, overprinted in black
** ditto, with a silver surcharge “5F” and red overprint, 1964
** ditto, with silver surcharge and black overprint
** finally, with a silver surcharge as well as a silver bar with black inscription “Republique du Congo” replacing “Belgisch Congo Belge.”
I have another cover with five 20-centime stamps from the series, featuring a rhinoceros, also with varying overprints and surcharges. The last item on this cover, below right, is a most peculiar error. Let me explain:
While the original Belgian Congo stamp was successfully surcharged “1F” on a silver bar, the “CONGO” overprint is missing. This means the stamp looks for all the world like a new “Belgian Congo” stamp — issued in 1964, four years after independence! Another example of this phenomenon is the 15-centime value of the Flowers set, surcharged 10 centimes — but without the necessary “CONGO” overprint (see photos below) — thus inadvertently creating a new issue for the Belgian Congo after Congolese Independence Day! See below for more examples of weird surcharges.
6. Impudent Katanga. The chaotic, violent years after Congolese independence included secessionist movements, some of them bloody. Moise Tshombe, from resource-rich Katanga in the southeast, led the first break from the federated government less than a fortnight after independence day June 30, 1960, proclaiming a state that lasted until January 1963. During that time Katanga issued a handful of sets, first overprints of Belgian Congo stamps, then pirated stocks of stamps from the independent Congo based in Leopoldville, and finally a few sets of original designs inscribed “Etat du/Inchi ya KATANGA.” The stamps were not recognized as valid by the International Postal Union, but mail from Katanga still got delivered. It is somewhat jarring, to me at least, to study the first set of Katanga stamps — originally issued to celebrate the independence of the Republic of the Congo, showing a map of the whole country — with the name “Congo” obliterated by the bold overprint, “L’Etat du Katanga.” A smaller overprint cleverly covers the inscribed date of Congolese independence, “30 Juin,” with a new “11 Juillet,” Katangan Independence Day — while keeping the “1960” date uncovered. In this way, the secessionist government celebrated its own independence by repurposing stamps whose central image depicted the nation from which Katanga seceded. It is as if the U.S. Confederacy in 1861 put out a set of overprinted stamps with a map including its giant enemy to the north.
7. Half-hearted secession. Another breakaway republic was the central state of South Kasai, declared by Luba leader Albert Kalonji in August, 1960. It was a half-hearted effort — there was never a complete break with the federal government. This unlikely nation started out like its more
affluent neighbor, Katanga, with overprints of Belgian Congo stamps. It then issued a few of its own design, including a souvenir sheet, before the rebellion petered out in 1962.There were a few envelopes cancelled with the
stamps from the “Etat Autonome du Sud-Kasai.” I have one (shown here), and I hope it has some value. The stamps were not recognized by the Universal Postal Union, and while you can find them occasionally on eBay, they are not listed in most catalogues. Prices for South Kasai stamps are not high, but I believe there is some value to them because of their unusual historical provenance, their sheer oddity, and limited numbers.
8. Murky and murkier. The murkiest of the sessionist “republics” were the “Republique Populaire.” declared in Stanleyville to the northwest in 1964, and the “Congo” rebellion in the northern area of Katanga, centered on
Albertville, that same year. These rump rebellions, which some historians record as simba revolts aided and abetted by China, did not result in any original postage stamp designs — or much other than bloodletting. From Leopoldville, then-Prime Minister Tshombe dispatched federal troops. Some were led by mercenary officers who had fought for Tshombe in Katanga. Before they were subdued, the rebels did have time to issue overprints of Belgian Congo and Republic of Congo stamps. The cover shown below from Stanleyville offers rare “cancelled” copies of stamps from this questionable postal authority — though it is quite obvious someone merely pasted the stamps on the card and had them cancelled. This philatelic oddity did not come with a certificate of authenticity and integrity. I still cherish the cover as a rare philatelic artifact.
Postal authorities in Albertville used leftover supplies of stamps from Katanga, overprinting them simply, “Congo.” The result, in effect, was a set of stamps designed and printed by Katanga, a defunct state that had seceded from the Congo, now appropriated by a subsidiary secessionist state around Albertville and relabeled “Congo.” Is this a step forward, backward or sidewise? To compound the muddle, the rebels in Albertville managed to take the 10-centimes stamp from the 1953 Flower series, and stamp their “Congo” claim directly on top of the “Katanga” overprint that was meant to supplant the crossed-out “Belgish Congo Belge” inscription. The result is a palimpsest (a word I have been waiting for years to use, which means a series of superimposed images). The stamp pictured here is listed on eBay (price: $450). The more you look at it, the more indecipherable it becomes — an apt emblem for the state of affairs at Albertville in June of 1964, and perhaps for the Congo as a whole …
9. A salute to colonial nostalgia. Every now and then, as my Congo collection grew, I would come across intriguing images of stamps from the handsome 1940s definitive set reprinted as mini-sheets — that is, stamps perforated and centered within a larger sheet. Some of the surrounding margins were white, others colored in alluring shades of red, green and gold. What are these sheets about? And why are they so expensive?
Eventually I consulted my reliable Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. Here is what it said: “Miniature sheets … were printed in 1944 by the Belgian government in London and given to the Belgian political review, Message, which distributed them to its subscribers, one a month.” Scott valued each sheetlet at $12.50. The Scott catalog continued: “Remainders of these eight miniature sheets received marginal overprints in various colors in 1950, specifying a surtax of $100f per sheet and paying tribute to the Universal Postal Union. These sheets, together with the four of Ruanda-Urundi, were sold for the Committee of Cultural Works (and not at post offices) in sets of 12 for 1,217.15 francs.” Scott valued the series at “about $150. On eBay today, the series with white margins sells for $799, the series with the decorative borders is priced at $1,799.
Does anything strike you about these stamp sheets? How about as an emblem imperial disassociation? An example of the oblique colonial view, disengaged, distanced, perhaps even a bit sentimental (Congo!). These sheets bespeak a European population of the 1940s, profoundly, even willfully ignorant of prevailing conditions in the Congo and the discriminatory customs and legal processes; directly or indirectly, they were complicit in those racist laws, practices and opinions. The stamps were designed and printed in London. Many Belgian Congo stamps were produced by Waterlow and Sons Ltd. In 1944, with the Belgian government-in-exile now located in the British capital, you might consider this a philatelic favor done by one imperial power for another — with a tidy profit, to be sure. Given the grim distractions of wartime, these charming little sheetlets must have been welcome surprises. They were distributed, gratis, to subscribers of Message, one accompanying each monthly issue. Look closely below, and you will see special side perforations in the sheetlets that allowed them to be stapled into the larger publication, to be safely removed later by collectors. The more elaborate, bordered sheets were sold with a 10-fold markup to honor the Universal Postal Union and benefit the Committee of Cultural Works.
When I get a chance, I hope to look into this further. What was Message’s view of the affairs of the Congo? Why was it chosen to distribute these stamp sheets? What was the Committee of Cultural Works, and how did it use money from the sale of these sheets? These questions beg the ultimate question: Did this philatelic enterprise in Brussels in any way enhance the well-being or even enter the consciousness of the Congolese, still living under Belgian domination, repression and exploitation in that vast, squalid African nation? I doubt many Congolese acquired these prized sheetlets. I also doubt there were many indigenous subscribers to Message in Leo, Matadi, Coquilhatville, Albertville. Not many members of the Committee of Cultural Works lived in Stanleyville, Elisabethville, Luluaburg, Thysville …
10. Paix, travail, austérité … a personal memoir. These French words mean peace, work, thrift. They are a hearty recipe for civic progress. Some combination of these ingredients promotes successful lives, communities and societies. Yet the words have a painful poignancy, for they represent what the Congo could have become, should have become, but has fallen tragically short of becoming.
The words were spoken in 1962 by Cyrille Adoula (pictured below), then prime minister of the Republic of Congo. His words were transcribed as an overprint on a set of stamps issued in October, 1962. The set originally came out in January, honoring Dag Hammerskjold, the United Nations envoy who was killed in 1961 when his plane crashed on a peace mission to the Congo. Hammerskjold had made at least four other trips to the region. In September 1961, his plane went down near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), close to the Congo border. Hammerskjold and 14 others were killed. One theory is that the plane was shot down on the orders of Union Miniere, the mining giant that was resisting U.N. intervention. Former president Harry Truman added to the furor when he was quoted as saying that Hammarskjold “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him.” Truman added: “Notice that I said ‘when they killed him’.”
Months before these stamps were issued, the doomed prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, had been secreted to Elisabethville. Dismissed by President Kasavubu, disgraced and disheartened, Lumumba had been arrested by Col. Joseph
Mobutu and held in Thysville, near Leopoldville. Reports say he was beaten on the plane ride to Katanga, where he was confronted by political enemies including Moise Tshombe. After more beatings and torture, Lumumba and two associates were executed by a team led by Belgian mercenaries, under orders from Katanga. Tshombe was reportedly among those present at the execution.
Cyrille Adoula suffered no such fate. Earnest but somewhat colorless, he was a trained technocrat, a banker. I wish that he had been able to lead the Congo in all sorts of promising new directions. I wish that somehow, everyone could have risen above the bloody drama of Lumumba, the proxy war of communism vs. democracy, the tribalism, the contest for Congo’s fabulous natural resources waged by the superpowers, neighboring nations and multinational corporations. With the right kind of leadership and help, the Congo could have surged forward, become a great nation. Well, why not?
In some ways, Adoula seemed the Man of the Hour. He had been an independence activist since the 1950s, when he joined with Lumumba and Ileo to form the Mouvement National Congolais (1958). He was handsome and suave. He had a modest, competent way about him. The reason I speak so extensively about Adoula is that he was prime minister during most of the time I lived in the Congo. My father, the CAO in Leopoldville, mingled with Adoula at diplomatic events and perhaps elsewhere. Pa and Mother were rather keen on Adoula’s prospects. They were Adlai Stevenson Democrats, and he was their kind of guy, with a moderate political agenda and some sensible ideas— like paix, travail, austerite. Alas, this was hardly a sensible time. Amid the turmoil before, during and after the Lumumba premiership, there were two secessionist movements — in Moise Tshombe’s Katanga, and in South Kasai. It took United Nations intervention to put the Congo back together — though seen one way you might ask: Why bother? Look who put it together in the first place: A bunch of imperialists meeting in Berlin in the 1880s, that’s who. Oh well.
By 1963, with the Congo in one piece again, Adoula tried to assemble a coalition unity government under President Kasavubu that would accommodate both the disgruntled Lumumbist elements and Tshombe’s Katangans. As if that wasn’t hard enough, 1964 brought new rebellions around Stanleyville and Albertville, and Adoula gave up, was forced out or both, yielding to none other than … Moise Tshombe. Americans, imagine the parallel: A year after the Civil War, the new head of the Re-United States is … Jefferson Davis! Adoula agreed to serve Tshombe as ambassador to the United States and Belgium. While Adoula and his family lived in Washington, Mrs. Adoula and my mother got to be a bit chummy. Pa was posted back to D.C. for a rotation, and Mother arranged with the Congolese Embassy to have a group of diaspora wives meet at our house on Madison Street. They did projects, spoke English, drank tea (sherry?), talked about babies and children and … civics, no doubt.
Mother was always terrific at this kind
of stuff. Both Mother and Pa found their life’s work in cultural diplomacy. Pa grew up chafing in the close confines of Boston Brahmin society. He thrived in the diverse locales where we were posted — Dhaka, Heidelberg, Leopoldville, Bremen. In the Congo, he worked hard at keeping the library going, managing cultural exchange programs, meeting and greeting and generally projecting a benign, forward-looking U.S. policy of engagement. At his side was Mother, who had “escaped” from Iowa — and from my remarkable grandmother. Janette Stevenson Murray was a civic leader, an internationalist and vocal supporter of the United Nations and Eleanor Roosevelt. She was elected to head the Cedar Rapids board of education — before women could vote in national elections. Grandma Murray was so busy with civic affairs and education that she didn’t have much attention left to pay to her five children. Her neglect apparently was not too harmful — her offspring and descendants include professors, M.D.s, Ph.d.s and M.D./Ph.D.s, world travelers and a two-time GOP candidate for governor of Iowa. When Grandma was selected American Mother of the Year in 1947, I think Mother was embarrassed by the publicity. She skipped the award ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. To be fair, 1947 was a busy time for Mother — she was raising her young family, while Pa was transitioning from the Navy back to civilian life. Both my parents still seemed committed to moving beyond their upbringings. Besides, Mother of the Year seemed pretty square … Years later, in 1980, JMF would compile a dossier entitled, “JSM: A Reconsideration.” In it she finally — albeit a bit begrudgingly — celebrated her mother’s honor back in 1947. She acknowledged that it was quite a big deal, after all. (Editor’s note: Not any more, it seems. I don’t even know if the USA still chooses of “Mother of the Year.” Ever heard of her? How does she stack up against Miss America? Miss Universe? The Avengers?)
I was glad Mother got to make public amends with her mom — albeit seven years after Grandma died. That reconciliation affirmed her own mission, which was essentially to carry on JSM’s work — promoting international understanding, mutuality, good will and hospitality. In the 1950s
and 1960s, Grandma must have glowed over her daughter’s civic engagement work in East Pakistan, Germany, the Congo, Iceland, and Washington, D.C. Pa handled cultural diplomacy projects like the library, Fulbright scholarships and other exchanges, ran public events, sent cables to D.C., and so on. Mother organized women’s groups, and was a sparkling hostess at lively diplomatic parties held at our house. Visiting celebrities included Marian Anderson, Jack Teagarden. John Glenn, the Dorian Quintet and Buckminster Fuller. Mother was gracious, Pa was gallant, liquor flowed. Mother would charm the men and bond with the ladies, using smarts and poise acquired at Coe
College and Columbia Graduate School. Pa would carry on social diplomacy: schmooze, hold forth, recite poetry and share anecdotes. As a team, they were extraordinarily effective in promoting intercultural understanding and friendship. For a baker’s dozen years — from 1957 to 1970 — they did their thing around the world. I’m proud of what they accomplished. The fact that my siblings and I got to tag along was a blessing, I guess, mostly. It sure contributed to my interest in stamp collecting!
Speaking of which: back to Congo stamps, or rather, a bit more of personal Congo history before I do. Cyrille Adoula continued to serve under Mobutu until he retired from politics in 1970. He died in 1978 at age 56 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Though I “came of age” in the Congo (age 14-16), I didn’t run in the same circles as my Ma and Pa, so I never recall meeting Adoula. I might have been introduced to him somewhere as a 15-year-old and not remember it. I know both my parents met Mobutu, though I don’t believe I ever saw him. Mother described her encounters with the future dictator, many years later, in response to my inquiry, not making a very big deal of it. “He was polite, quiet, always watching,” I think she said. No doubt some of my Congolese classmates in College Albert, the Jesuit high school I attended, were sons of the well-connected — Benares, Nsiangani, Kisangani and others. But we never socialized, maintaining a cordial, occasionally even friendly, distance.
I did meet Moise Tshombe, once. My recollection of that encounter is cinematically vivid: It was a summer night in Leo — August 1964, shortly after Tshombe returned from Spain to take over as prime minister of the Republic of the Congo. It was literally the eve of my departure for Europe and, eventually, the USA, where I would begin my junior year of high school at Milton Academy, a prep school near Boston. A month earlier Tshombe, the expat leader of the defunct Republic of Katanga, had been transformed into the Congo’s homecoming hero, the white knight — well, not white — summoned to unite the Congolese and make the reintegrated nation all that it could be … I was vaguely aware of all of this. I certainly knew who Tshombe was — one of the biggest stars in the Congo.
The scene was a crowded house party I attended with my parents at the Fenhagens. It was my 16th birthday, coincidentally. The night was warm, the air sweet. We were in a fashionable residential quarter of the capital city. Most of the guests were white, from the diplomatic community. The house had an outdoor swimming pool, a balcony, exterior lights that made the setting quite gay — like a movie set for “La Dolce Vita,” Leo-style. There were fashionable people laughing, drinking and dancing, inside and out, with some kids like me running around. In the middle of a small crowd, with the entourage that always surrounds charisma and power, there stood … Moise Tshombe. Of medium height, with a graceful build, he stood in the lights, his handsome, expressive face shining. Dressed immaculately in a tailored suit and flashy tie, smiling broadly, he worked the crowd, eyes twinkling. Clearly he was having a good time. I don’t know how he got invited to the party, but his motorcade paused on the street so he could join the fun. He had a word for everyone, spoken in elegant French of course. As he passed me, our eyes met. Ever the one with a penchant to speak up, I blurted out. “Bonsoir, M. Tshombe! C’est la premiere fois que je vous ai jamais vu!” (Good evening, Mr. Tshombe! It’s the first time I have ever seen you!”) Dumb, right? Smart politician that he was, Tshombe grasped my hand in his, grabbed my elbow with his other hand — or maybe it was just a friendly wave? — and delivered the punch line: “A la prochaine!” (Till next time!)
(Reality check: I just thought to check my diary, which actually extends back to Pakistan in 1957, when i was nine years old. Here is my entry for Aug. 4, 1964: “Guess who I met this evening, at a party at Darby Fenhagen’s? TSHOMBE! I shook his hand 2x and told him this was the first time I had met him. He said, “La prochaine fois …” What does that mean? Anyhow, that’s quite a thing to have done on my last night in the Congo, don’t you think? Yes! That’s quite a birthday present, what?”)
Alas, there would be no “prochaine,” no next time. Napoleon’s comeback in France after his first exile was 100 days; Tshombe’s in the Congo was about a year. Like Lumumba before him, he was dismissed by President Kasavubu. Months later Col. Mobutu took over for good, then ill. He had no use for Tshombe, who retreated back to Spain. (Isn’t it interesting how these deposed heads of state managed to escape not only with their lives but with considerable means — Tshombe from copper- and mineral-rich Katanga, Albert Kalonji from diamond-rich South Kasai?)
The Mobutu regime convicted Tshombe of treason in absentia, and he never returned to the Congo. He died in 1969 at age 58. There also would be no comeback for the Congo. In the wake of independence, secession, rebellion, bloodshed and ultimatelty, tyranny, those goals set by Cyrille Adoula — paix, travail, austerite — were trampled, gored, eviscerated. The Congo would be ruled by an ever-more-venal and corrupt system, rotten to the core of Mobutu’s megalomania and greed. He amassed and expropriated a fortune measured in billions. He ruled with casual brutality, deception, manipulation and cynical indifference toward his people for three decades. The resourceful Congolese did the best they could to cope, living in a society perpetually caught between calamity and collapse.
Moise Tshombe was one of Africa’s most promising yet enigmatic figures. Having met him I can attest to his charisma. He was charming, urbane, smart — and apparently, ruthless. How could the man dancing in that conga line in 1964 have stood by and watched as Patrice Lumumba was tortured and executed in 1961? This portrait brings out a brooding side of Tshombe. There’s a bit of Clark Gable there, a little James Cagney, some Ernest Borgnine … Enough! Enough about Tshombe and the conga line. (Oh wait — I think they were doing a line dance called the Madison in that photo; it was all the rage in Leo in 1964 …) Now let’s get back to stamps, shall we?