Here are the first two stamps of the first set of the “Etat Independent du Congo.” They were issued in 1886, and are worth a few bucks.
Note to readers —
You now have at your disposal my first foray into Congo stamp commentary — “10 Interesting Anecdotes about Congo Stamps” — including Anecdote No. 10, a long and personal memoir of my own experiences in the Congo, between 1962 and 1964, in which my writing seems to have abandoned all restraint. Oh well, at least there are profuse illustrations …
A nice engraving from the first airmail set, in 1920 — though the plane looks a bit like a dragonfly, don’t you think?
What next? My provisional plan was to continue with a page-by-page exposition of my Congo collection, starting with the King Leopold sets from the lawless years of the Congo Free State in the 1880s and 1890s; then through the tedious and oppressive decades of Belgian colonial rule until independence in 1960; then the prism-like philatelic
The long series featuring masks, issued between 1947 and 1950, featured beautiful two-color engravings.
shattering of the fractured secessionist states and beyond. Now, however, I realize that other commentaries may have to come first. Before I go on, however, a parting word or two on the Congo.
My active collecting of Congo stamps
This is from a set issued in 1958, two years before independence, to commemorate 50 years of Belgian rule in the Congo. 1908 was the year King Leopold yielded to pressure and gave up his “independent state.” I guess it’s an event worth celebrating — the evolution of the Congo from a King’s private fiefdom to a vassal colonial state. The kings, left to right, start with Leopold I (don’t know why he’s in there …), then King Leopold II, Albert, Leopold III, and finally the young new King Baudouin.
ended soon after I left Africa in 1964. It was depressing to witness the stagnation and disarray of the Congo during the decades of Mobutu’s brutal, careless dictatorship after 1965. I just didn’t have the heart to collect the bland, crude, haphazard issues that emerged from the Congo, then Zaire, now simply “Congo.” It’s been more than 20 years since Mobutu left, and the Congo is still a basket case of a nation. What gives?
Perhaps this is enough about the Congo for the time being. Look at it this way: If I whetted your appetite for more by sharing my 10 anecdotes, fine. I’ll get back to my Congo collection by and by. I’m sure there is a story on every page. As we divert from our fascinating philatelic hike through the Congo, let me just leave you with a few more images and long captions to round things out.
Does it strike you as a little depressing that an early issue of stamps from the Republique du Congo should celebrate the “reopening of Parliament”? That is, barely a year into independence, the country has had its parliament set up, shut down, then started up again. The overprint is on a stamp featuring President Kasavubu and marking the first anniversary of independence. Some anniversary. The country was still split by secessionist movements, and within years a new dictator would emerge, Joseph Mobutu, who was just as bad for the Congo in his way as old King Leopold II. This stamp purporting to celebrate a real, working, open parliament tacitly admits the failure of democracy thus far. It’s only 1961, and the Congo still has far to fall …
Here is a poignant artifact. In 1964, the Congo issued a set of stamps, along with this souvenir sheet, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the national university, Lovanium. The images of science, a scientist and the badge of the university superimposed on an orderly set of modern buildings gave every reason for hope in the technological future of this young nation. Alas, it was not to be. Today, the Congo is a barely functioning state covering a vast land mass, manifestly incapable of meeting the basic needs of its citizens. I could check and see what has become of Lovanium and its brave hopes, but I don’t care to. You do it. For me, it’s too depressing.
Joseph Mobutu is pictured here in his leopard-skin cap, sign of his African “authenticity.” Can you imagine being immortalized on a stamp — wearing sunglasses? Perhaps it’s to disguise the fact that he has eyes only for the big diamond pictured at right. Mobutu stole a fortune estimated at up to $15 billion from the Congo. Where is all that money today? Good question …
OK, I’m a retired opinion writer, so allow me an editorial comment: This stamp seems a fairly accurate portrait of Joseph Mobutu, the leader of “Zaire” — a royal python strangling his country.
So what do you make of this bird? I think it’s originally a stamp from Zaire, but the name is blacked out like a censor’s box. Underneath is the inscription, “Rep Dem Du Congo” — cryptic at best. The old value also is blocked out by a black square — literally a box at the foot of the falcon, or hawk, or vulture pictured in the stamp. The new value, 70fc, is a mystery to me (“Francs Congolais,” perhaps?) … eBay calls it an “unknown overprint.” I cannot certify either its provenance or legitimacy. … The only other thing I’d say is that this very odd stamp is jarring: Those black boxes and the beady-eyed predator convey a sense of menace, foretelling dark days and disorder.
Here’s the last Congo caption for now, I promise. The stamps above were produced in 1997, as the nation’s name was changed from “Zaire” back to “Congo.” According to the Universal Postal Union, the stamps were “illegal issues.” In a letter to the UPU, M.S. Raman, assistant postal director, declared that the stamps “are fraudulent and are therefore not admitted for philatelic sale by its postal Services.” Below are legitimate stamps from 2000, using the correct (if not exactly accurate) new name for the country: Republique Democratique du Congo.
So after Congo … now what? Earlier, I set out a leisurely alphabetical stroll through my British Africa book. I started with Ascension, got through Basutoland — then got distracted by the Congo thing. The natural progression now would be to get back on track, which means Bechuanaland. Indeed, I find this prospect irresistible. Basutoland and Bechuanaland had considerable philatelic similarities, with interesting differences.
Notice the stylistic similarities between these definitive sets from Bechuanaland Protectorate, above, extending from George V in the 1930s through George VI and finally, to Elizabeth II in the 1950s. Now view the similarities in Basutoland’s series, below — up to a point. Why didn’t Basutoland keep up the tradition and print the same design with Queen Elizabeth? Is it really all about the crocodile?
Can you make out Queen Victoria’s portrait above, facing left, in this 2-shilling stamp from the 1880s? The overprints, below, on Cape of Good Hope stamps, are clear enough — but who decided to run them both ways?
The history told in Bechuanaland stamps dates back far before Basutoland to the Victorian era, when imperial pioneers were still exploring. They established, by negotiation or force, protectorates and colonies, sometimes both on the same land. Bechuanaland is an example of
this, and stamps help tell the story. Bechuanaland (now Botswana) covers a land mass the size of France, is landlocked, bordering South Africa. Historically, its sparse pastoral population, dry climate and arid regions ensured that it would not be at the center of continental dramas and battles for the lucrative spoils of gold, diamond, rubber and the like. To the south, however, colonial history and politics brought bloody clashes and diplomatic rifts that reached Whitehall and Berlin, and reverberated back to Capetown.
South Africa had its barons, burghers, magnates, soldiers, statesmen and adventurers. The interactions between whites and blacks were racially regimented and hierarchal, but political relations were another matter. From early on, black Africans collaborated, conspired and clashed with whites, the same as would one tribe with another. Particularly vivid are stories of the sometimes nuanced relations between Boer and Zulu leaders in the 1880s and 1890s. The turn of the century brought to full flower the Boer War with the British. The pitched battles were appalling in the loss of life and limb. In comparison, the tangle of philatelic history involved will be a pleasure to try and unravel.
Same country, same people, only now “British Bechuanaland” becomes “Bechuanaland Protectorate.” (In the case of this stamp, these developments are recorded on a half-penny stamp that originally was issued for use in Great Britain.) It seems the colonial masters never settled on one definition of their overseas holdings. Some were more independent, or more protected, or more autonomous or semi-autonomous, than others. There were crown colonies, and protectorates, mandates and trust territories, dependencies and federations … all so that Great Britain could cling to its self-image as a source of influence in “a vaster empire than has been.” Even today, if you made a tour of countries once or still within the “Commonwealth,” I suspect you would still see many signs of continuing British cultural influence.
This is Africa? Although I wasn’t a collector of South African stamps until recently, I remember being struck early by this particular design. South Africa first issued this set in the 1920s, and kept coming up with slight variations over the years until the 1950s. This image of imposing, elegant government buildings struck me as incongruous for an “African” country — which was supposed to be primitive, right? I was a teenager at the time I was making this judgment. It just looked so — European, so — cosmopolitan. How could this be Africa? How indeed? The fact is, no country in sub-Saharan Africa could ever compete with South Africa when it comes to infrastructure. Impressive. But it was still a racist system, inherently unstable and fatally flawed.
Indeed, I don’t see how I can resist a fuller look at South African stamps. My South African collection, though improving, is not much to boast about. My increased interest is relatively recent — I used to consider South African stamps dull, some downright ugly, and with all that English-Afrikaans bilingual clutter!
Until recently, I tended to dismiss South African stamps as rather … homely. Now I’m not so sure. There’s lots of history to explore. Lots to learn …
The Cape of Good Hope stamp above, overprinted with a big red “G,” is from Griqualand West, in 1877. This was a short-lived British crown colony, apart and distant from Griqualand East, which never put out postage stamps. The “:Nieuwe Republiek” stamp below, issued in 1887, is from a breakaway republic of the Boers, which apparently retained sterling currency. Look closely and you should see the embossed coat of arms behind the printing. I paid $12.94 for this stamp in 2012. The Griqualand West stamp (from 1878) cost me $4.95 in 2015.
As I am reading more South African history, I become intrigued with its philatelic artifacts — for example from short-lived colonies and states like Griqualand West and the New Republic.
The striking imagery and symbolism of stamps make them authentic labels of politics and culture. There is much to learn from postal history. Some stories are arresting and cinematically vivid. No doubt it will take some time to get there, but I already look forward to sharing the story behind my stamp from Cape of Good Hope, overprinted in 1899 with the alarming inscription: “Mafeking Besieged.” The bloody tale involves the heroism and ingenuity of Col. (later Lord) Baden-Powell, who inspired the Boy Scouts.
How about this beauty? It’s from 1895, celebrating with images of progress and productivity. The central coat of arms (under a heavy cancel, sorry) represents the doomed “South African Republic” of the Boers.
I purposely didn’t include a stamp in this illustration — only the blank spaces on my page in the British Africa album. That’s because the so-called Pietersburg issues of 1900 are rare and expensive. I could include a photo from eBay, but I prefer to wait. Perhaps by the time I write more expansively about South Africa I will actually have one of the elusive rascals. I already have learned some arcana, to wit: I should insist on a copy with only a handwritten cancellation, as above, and not with a customary postal cancellation, because those copies were cancelled-to-order and worth considerably less … (What does cancelled-to-order mean? That’s another story — don’t get me started …)
Above is my “Mafeking Besieged” stamp, a surcharge and overprint of the familiar Cape of Good Hope stamp. You will see the upper left hand corner is “rounded,” with stunted perforations, thus diminishing its value. The stamp is catalogued at $47,50 or more, and I feel lucky to have acquired it on eBay for just 17-and-a-half pounds.
Why should I venture so soon to South Africa? The alphabet plan offers its delights as well: after Bechuanaland comes British East Africa (1890-1903), then Cameroons (wait, that wasn’t a British colony, was it?), and then … well, then comes Cape of Good Hope — South Africa! — and we’re off to the races!
The Orange Free State was also a Boer Republic — until it wasn’t. Notice how the original design was surcharged once, then again, and overprinted “VRI” to signify the dominion of Queen Victoria over the Boer land.
Here are some stamps from countries I will be skipping over — like British East Africa, a “country” that first ran like a concessionary stand for imperial adventurers, developers, entrepreneurs and looters under the British. (“Light and Liberty”? Don’t make me cry …)
Here is a stamp from German “Kamerun,” occupied by Great Britain after World War I. The French took over much of Cameroon, in west Africa, though British influence remained. As the region was going independent in 1960s, the UK issued a set of stamps — Nigerian definitives, overprinted — for use in the Anglophone trust territories (UKTT) until their final disposition could be decided. The Scott catalogue explains what happened next: “Nos. 66-77 were withdrawn in Northern Cameroons on May 31, 1961, when that territory joined Nigeria and in Southern Cameroons Sept. 30, 1961, when that territory joined the Cameroon Federal Republic.”
Even non-philatelists have heard of the Cape of Good Hope Triangles. Here is one of two in my collection. I inherited them from my father. If he and I are not mistaken it is COGH No. 1, issued in 1853. It’s a pretty nice example of a fairly valuable stamp (catalogue listing: $200, used). It is a beautifully engraved design of a seated “Hope,” worth collecting as a rare art object, don’t you think? Can you imagine, though, trying to use these stamps? Cutting them out from the sheet at all those angles? No wonder triangle stamps never caught on … And no wonder they are hard to find with complete and ample margins. I do hope this is genuine. The catalogue warns that “counterfeits exist.”