The inscription on a Canadian stamp that includes a map of the world
reads: “We hold a vaster empire than has been.” On the stamp, territory within the British Empire, circa 1898, is colored red. The empire’s reach is impressive, with great swaths covering North America (Canada), India. Australia and a good share of the African continent; plus generous red daubs in the Caribbean, east Asia and across the Pacific.
To complete the engraving, the artist added one more inscription: “Xmas 1898.” Some collectors consider this the first Christmas stamp, a tradition that has carried on fitfully over the decades, beginning in earnest with yearly issues only in recent years. If you insist that the 1898 issue was indeed the first Christmas stamp, then please answer this question: Why did it take decades for the next one to arrive?
Here’s a story that offers a colorful explanation for the Christmas reference. In philatelic lore, Canadian Postmaster General William Mulock was making the case that the 1898 stamp should be issued Nov. 9, to “honor the prince” — that is, on the birthday of the Prince of Wales, also known as the king in waiting. Hearing the suggestion, the Dowager Queen was said to have asked peevishly: “What prince?” (As it turned out, Edward VII would ascend to the throne upon the death of his dear mater Victoria in early 1901. Was she just cross with Mulock that day, or did she not wish to be reminded of who was biding his time in the wings?) Mulock, sensing his faux pas, quickly came up with an inspired rejoinder: “Why, madam, the Prince of Peace.” This met with Victoria’s approval, and so the first Christmas stamp, such as it was, was born.
There were two other purposes for the stamp. One was to mark the inauguration of the Imperial Penny Postage rate (which apparently was equivalent to 2 cents in Canada, the value on this stamp). The other was to commemorate the remarkable sexagenary (60th year) of Queen Victoria’s rule.
Ten years earlier, the Welsh poet Sir William Morris composed an ode, “A Song of Empire,” to mark Victoria’s 50th Jubilee in 1887. The line quoted on the 1898 stamp came from these verses:
We hold a vaster empire than has been!
Nigh half the race is subject to our Queen!
Nigh half the wide, wise earth is ours in fee!
The statistical apex of territorial claims in the British Empire actually would not come until 1921. At that time, the empire had influence over 33.7 million square kilometers. Half of the globe’s dry land was “theirs in fee.” The empire’s population of more than 458 million souls constituted one-fifth of the Earth’s people.
The map depicted on that Canadian stamp from 1898 is still impressive. As an aside, notice how Canada happens to be centrally located under the crown. Did Queen Victoria not notice that Postmaster Mulock was making a not-so-subtle political point with his stamp? The inscription begins, “We hold a vaster empire …” That could mean the royal “we,” of course. Or it could suggest a broader imperial covenant that shares responsibility for the empire’s dominion with some of its most loyal subjects — like Canadians, who happen to bestride a transcontinental nation at the center of the world, “wearing” a crown, no less (at least according to this stamp) …
Depending on how you feel about empires in general, the British Empire in particular, you may be as horrified as you are impressed by its vast reach. Look at that little island off the northwest coast of France. England? Posh! That puny principality had the audacity to go out and impose itself on half the world, then claim some sort of ownership, or stewardship, rights and fees and privileges amounting to domination of one sort or another. What presumption! What bloody gall! The white man’s burden? The master race? What dangerous malarky!
Why this quest for global domination? The proclaimed mandate was to spread civilization, freedom, rule of law, Christianity and commerce. The reality was oh, so different. You can argue that the British Empire was the “best” empire (compared with, say, the Belgians, the Portuguese, the Spanish …) If so, it was only the least oppressive of the lot — and that’s just by a slim margin. Don’t get me started on the racism, intolerance, repression, cruelty, rights deprivation, genocidal policies and other flaws of imperialism. I may never stop …
Instead, please entertain another thought about the British Empire, as depicted on that stamp from Xmas 1898. A thought that encompasses the sheer stubborn force of the imperial hand — the hand with which Belgian King Leopold’s men hacked out a path through the Congolese jungle for the first train from Matadi to Leopoldville. The force that sent navigators, swashbucklers, adventurers, soldiers, entrepreneurs, scientists and soon enough, administrators and bureaucrats to every corner of the world. By 1898, the familiar saying that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was literally true: When the governor general in Ottawa was sound asleep, the viceroy in Delhi was enjoying high tea — and vice-versa.
Imagine a civil service based in Whitehall, the London hub of the Foreign Office, where immaculately groomed mandarins supervised the affairs of empire on six continents (Antarctica came later). Was it possible to set standards for the orderly conduct of public business that could be upheld effectively in places as diverse as Nigeria, North Borneo and the Bahamas? To the extent that it was possible, might it not be considered a remarkable achievement?
As a stamp collector, I have long wrestled with the idea of the British Empire imposing civic order on the world. Not just oppressive domination, but also a sensible way of doing things — predictable, engaging, connected, occasionally even elegant in its protocols. Naturally, I am also talking about philatelic order. That is, the way stability and uniform standards in philately embody the unifying principles of empire.
And so, dear reader, I offer the set of illustrations that follows, rendering that “vast empire” as a series of unified stamp designs replicated across continents and seas. Pictured here is an example of the stamps that were in circulation in 1897 or thereabouts, issued for use in far-flung precincts of the British Empire, all bearing a likeness of Queen Victoria. As you observe the similarities and subtle differences in the portraits and borders, explored in the next commentary, you can get a sense of how these stamps helped to draw together the British Empire; how they created an identity, a self-image, sustaining a unity of purpose, a commitment to stability and civic order, even pride in being part of this global enterprise. As you contemplate this mosaic of empire reflecting the image of an aging queen, consider these lines from Sir William Morris’s ode:
… And where her rule comes all are free
And therefore ’tis, O Queen, that we
Knit fast in bonds of temperate liberty
Rejoice to-day, and make our solemn Jubilee.
Yeah, yeah. I know the British Empire never lived up to these bonnie words by the Welsh poet. The claim that “all are free” under Victoria’s rule falls well short of the truth, along with Livingstone’s claim to be a guileless Christian missionary, Stanley’s pose as a crusading journalist, or Leopold the philanthropist.
Yet if there is a sliver of inspiration to be found in the moral purpose that once helped to fuel the colonial juggernaut; if you can imagine the thrill of exploring, bringing order, building new civic spaces … then that may be enough to draw you on to these iconic images of imperial Britain at its vastest.
A note on the Photo Gallery: Victoria’s Empire
What I have tried to do in the following series of illustrations is to present a fine-grain glimpse of the British Empire by grouping similar designs in portraits of Queen Victoria on stamps printed for use in the Home Country, and those available in the farthest colonial outposts during her long reign. What I already am discovering is that although there are significant similarities between stamps from the same era and with the same general characteristics, there are also subtle differences, It turns out there is not exactly a one-size-fits-all approach by the designers — at least, not during the Victorian era. In the 20th
century, the British began issuing “omnibus” series — identical designs across dozens of territories to celebrate, for example, King George’s silver jubilee in 1935, the coronation of George VI in 1937, the Peace Issue of 1946, and the Universal Postal Union set of 1949. Omnibus commemorative issues continued into the modern Commonwealth years.
Now I invite you on a leisurely tour of stamp designs during the Victorian era. Let’s start at the very end — the final years. The sexagenary, diamond jubilee, 60th year of her rule (1897), was celebrated in song and circumstance. Special sets of stamps were issued in a few colonies (British Guiana, Canada, Newfoundland). Another set was issued by more than a dozen colonies, similar in size and number to the regular definitive series of earlier decades, only this time with an image more uniform than ever before,
across colonies and continents. The typographed design — a compact miniature profile bust of the queen in a border, placed atop a tablet containing the value — was adopted with slight variations around the world. It’s the first omnibus set, in effect.
This extraordinary postal event illustrates how philately helped to unite the British imperium. Imagine these stamps, so similar in appearance, being purchased in a post office in Ceylon, British Honduras, Gambia or elsewhere, affixed to an envelope, stamped with a local postmark, and sent on its way to another part of the world — like a gossamer thread, stitching together a durable and colorful fabric of empire.