This thrilling selection of stamps arrived in the mail the other day, in a small flat package from South Africa. The stamps are from 1901, during the last days of the South African Republic (ZAR) based in Pietersburg (Transvaal), where tough, stubborn old Paul Kruger concluded his decades-long conflict with the British and dominance of black Africans. Much blood was shed and misery visited on the people before Kruger’s forces were defeated. Kruger’s strong convictions, military and political leadership
helped to secure the Afrikaner tradition in South Africa’s culture. This wily Cape Colony farm boy should rank with the most adept of southern Africa’s tribal leaders — except for one thing. Unlike the Zulu, Matabele or Xhosa, his tribe was a bickering lot of caucasians: Boers, Dutch settlers, Germans, Huguenots and diverse others, some tracing their African ancestry to the 1600s. (Kruger’s German forebear landed in Capetown in 1713.)
Kruger was old enough to take part as a child in the Boers’ Great Trek inland in the 1830s. He was present at the signing of the Sand Hill Convention with Britain in 1852, and was instrumental in sustaining the Boer-dominated ZAR in ensuing decades. These “Pietersburg” stamps — authorized Boer provisionals — were printed by the local newspaper and issued only between March 20 and April 9, 1901. Kruger had moved his government from Pretoria to Pietersburg to avoid capture by the British. By the time the stamps were placed on sale, the South African Republic was well on its way to defeat by British guns and troops. Kruger narrowly escaped to neighboring Laurenco Marques, Portuguese territory.
The rather undistinguished-looking stamps are listed in the Scott catalogue under Transvaal, the British name for the territory, with a smaller headline announcing, “South African Republic,” and a special subsection for “Pietersburg Issues.” Paul Kruger surely would object to this ranking, since his republic, spanning all but six years between 1869 and 1902, was a sovereign nation. The Scott catalogue explains, rather lamely: “Although issued by an independent state, the stamps of the South African Republic are included in this section (i.e. Transvaal) in accord with established philatelic practice.” Sounds like a British tilt, if you ask me. Philatelic protocol, like history, favors the winners.
At first glance, the Pietersburg stamps in the group all look alike. Be not deceived! Join me in a quick tour of this particular philatelic weed-lot — a game of Each-of-these-things-is-slightly-but-distinctly-different-from-the-others. Can you spot the differences? Here’s a hint: The four stamps in the top row are the same, but different from the two in the second row, which in turn are different from the three in the third row. Now can you spot the differences?
No? OK, look closely at the first-row close-up. Notice the stamp’s elements: the denomination (four pence) in a framed box, above the large date “1901”; on either side the inscription: “Z. AFR. REP.” — an awkward contraction of the country’s name (then again, “ZUID AFRIKAANSCHE REPUBLIEK” is quite a handful of letters to have to strew across any postage stamp); finally, at the top the announcement, “POSTZEGEL” — postage. There is also a handwritten scrawl, but let’s not talk about that just yet.
Now look at the second-row close-up. All the elements are there — but with a subtle change. See it? Look at the number, “1901.” Compare it to the date in the first close-up. Now do you see it? Why, sure! In No. 2, the date is at least one millimeter smaller. It’s a completely different stamp!
On to Row 3. Again, all elements are present. (Notice the extremely large margin on the blow-up example I have included — a stamp from the side of the plate, I’d guess, probably no extra value.) What is the difference here? Still stumped? All right … Look closely at the word “POSTZEGEL” at the top of the stamp. Compare it to the same word in close-ups No. 1 and No. 2. Notice anything? Sure! In the top two, the “P” is distinctly larger than the other letters. In No. 3, however, all the letters are the same size. It’s a completely different stamp!
Now, quickly, back to the handwritten scrawls, which appear on each stamp. Compare them, and two things are clear: the scrawl is visibly similar on each stamp; and each one is slightly different — unique, probably. To “cancel” or “certify” these for postage, it seems a Boer bureaucrat — or was it Kruger himself? — had to sign each stamp issued in what remained of the South African Republic/Pietersburg during this three-week period in the spring of 1901. Maybe the same person didn’t sign every stamp, but it sure looks like it. Perhaps the inscription means “cancelled” or something else. This is the only set of “hand-cancelled” stamps I’ve seen processed this way. (Yes, there are the rare British Guiana hand-cancels of 1854, and the fabled Bermuda Postmaster stamps of 1848 — but let’s not go there.)
Perhaps because of this singular “cancellation” process, together with relative scarcity, if not rampant demand, these Pietersburg stamps retain considerable value — $30 to $40 apiece in catalogues. I got a bargain online, paying about $40 for the selection of nine stamps that include all three printing varieties. (The catalogue also lists perforated sets, and a few stamps with red scrawls instead of black.)
The Pietersburg stamps occasionally are available online — for a price. Curiously, you can find copies that have been cancelled the traditional way, with a circular date stamp, selling at a discount. Which begs the question: If the stamps already are marked by a hand scrawl, why cancel them again? Was the scrawl not universally recognized? Is it a signature at all? Am I asking too many questions? Yes!
The Scott Catalogue merits a word at this juncture. It acknowledges that “cancelled” copies of the Pietersburg stamps exist, but warns they may be spurious. The editors opine: “Used copies are not valued, as all seen show evidence of having been cancelled to order.” Ah! Those freighted words: cancelled to order, or CTO. This means postal officials devalued, or “remaindered” their own stamps by cancelling them right in the office. Don’t ask me why, or I’ll have to do more research. But the practice has been widespread in philatelic history. Stamps going back to the Victorian era carry the unmistakable markings of in-house cancellation, an intentional practice which supposedly renders the postal “remainders” worthless. Those stamps tend to bring weaker prices in today’s philatelic marketplace. Over the decades, many nations (though not ours) have produced reams of CTO sets, which I imagine are sold at a discount in shadowy stamp bazaars. The whole CTO thing makes me queasy, so I don’t really care to look into it too deeply. I mean, I want the stamps, but I don’t want to be scammed by worthless paper.
I have been on the lookout for Pietersburg stamps since rediscovering the blank spaces in my British Africa album and wondering about these strange designs and their apparent rarity. After learning the back story, and hearing about the suspect “cancellations,” I have been holding out for copies without the circular date stamps. Now, with his latest find, I seem to have acquired a cache of the real thing: stamps with the unique scrawls (the catalogue calls it “initializing”), no CTOs, all three varieties represented. What a find! …
Back to Pietersburg in 1901. The ZAR stopped issuing its stamps after just three weeks. For Paul Kruger and the Boers, the end was near. The war against the British was lost, though diehard Boer guerrilla fighters held out in the veld. British countermeasures included a scorched-earth policy that produced thousands of destitute women and children — and an early incarnation of concentration camps. The aging “Uncle Paul” made his way by ship to Europe. He refused to return to a southern Africa ruled by the British, and died in Switzerland in 1904, aged 78, survived by many of his 17 children.
As you can tell, I am proud to add these unusual stamps to my collection, and may decide to install the small display shown in the photo at the top of this article as-is among the pages of my growing South Africa collection. The evanescent postal history of the Pietersburg stamps spins off grim and gripping tales of ZAR conflict and resistance. During the first British takeover in Transvaal in 1877, postal authorities overprinted ZAR stamps with the initials “V.R.” — Victoria Regina — then issued a set with the queen’s portrait. When the Boers took charge again in 1884, they overprinted the Victoria series with Afrikaans surcharges before issuing their own stamps. As the British swept into Boer territory again in 1900-1901, they stamped “V.R.I.” on more ZAR sets — though not on those last ones from Pietersburg. (Maybe because of all those worthless CTO sets?)
Kruger’s last stand followed decades of pushing, shoving and shooting between British and Boers — with black Africans caught in the middle. Both sides issued their own stamps or overprints while in power. The Pietersburg story comes from one corner of southern Africa. The philatelic adventures multiply with the varieties of provisional stamps issued in Lydenburg, Wolmaransstad and Rustenburg, and from the “pseudo-siege” and destruction of Schweitzer-Reneke.
Elsewhere, more Philatelic history was being made. From the Cape of Good Hope to Zululand, competition, conflict and conquest — and the stamps reflecting it all — roiled southern Africa between the 1870s and World War I.
Take one more moment to moon over this small, nondescript but dear Pietersburg collection; examine and re-examine the subtle differences and wonder what reasons lay behind the changes (Why a smaller date? Why a smaller “P”?); take note of printing variations, differing paper tones and above all, those enigmatic scrawls. I imagine a florid, nervous man in a sweat-soaked linen uniform and pith helmet, perched nervously on his stool inside the Pietersburg post office in 1901, pen in hand, inkwell at the ready, conscientiously initializing each stamp from the doomed republic as British guns sound in the distance …
Transvaal, a South African province until it was partitioned in 1994, covered 110,000 square miles and contained the modern capital city, Pretoria. (South Africa still has three capitals — Pretoria for executive government, Cape Town for parliament, Bloemfontein for the judiciary.) Its first stamps were issued in 1869 by the Boer-led South African Republic (ZAR). In 1877 British forces occupied the state, but the ZAR was restored in 1884, and lasted until the end of the century, when Britain took over for good. That historical overview cloaks an era of violence, bloodshed, intrigue and ruthless politics as conflicting forces tried to prevail in a land where whites held dominion over indigenous black populations. Stamps from the era are emblems of a turbulent time. Some of these stamps are exceedingly rare and command prices in the hundreds, even thousands.
After spending so much time writing about the Pietersburg sets, issued in the last days and hours of the ZAR, I recalled I still lacked a remarkable set of stamps that would make a resonant visual counterpoint to the last Boer issues. In 1877, as the British initially took over, postal authorities began overprinting ZAR stamps with “V.R.” — Victoria Regina. These overprints took different forms, and included for the first time the name, Transvaal. I suspect some collectors have made it their philatelic mission to assemble and study these overprints. (** see footnote, below.) Another set of stamps, issued between 1878 and 1880, feature an engraved profile of Victoria — an elegant portrait of a mature queen in the fourth decade decade of her reign. I decided to go after this small set — though the stamps aren’t cheap, with catalogue prices ranging from a couple of bucks to $70-plus. Oddly, the 1/2 penny stamp, the lowest value, is one of the costliest. Needless to say, I didn’t end up with that one, or the top-value 2 shilling, either. I did manage to snag the
others, though It took some doing. I ended up buying from three separate dealers, with a total outlay of nearly $60.
As usual, it was a thrill when the letters arrived. Notice the colorful stamps the dealers used on their packets. (The stamp on the middle cover has a scuff. This is a great use for flawed mint U.S. stamps — they are still good for postage!)
After a while I opened the envelopes. Here is what the contents look like, just as they spilled out. Dealers and experienced collectors know how to protect and ship stamps. It’s not hard. I don’t recall ever receiving a stamp damaged in transit. The only complaint I have is sometimes, a package will include sticky tape in close proximity to a stamp, which to me is a no-no.
Next, I assembled the stamps I ordered, mounting them on cut-down stock pages to admire on my desk before putting them in my album and forgetting about them for a while. In addition to the Victoria set, the envelopes also contained two more Transvaal stamps I ordered — from 1904, with a profile portrait of Edward VII, who by then had succeeded his late mother. For good measure I also acquired three early Mauritius stamps I need. You never can tell what you’ll end up with when you go shopping online …
The main event, however, is the handsome 1878-80 Transvaal Victoria set — five values in all, missing only the 1/2d and the 2 shilling. I admit they are not all in great shape. Some are missing perforations, the centering is not great, and one stamp has a thin spot on the back. Yet I still was willing to pay for the set. I mean, think about it: The stamps are nearly 140 years old. They started out being bought at a ZAR/Transvaal post office counter, stuck to an envelope and sent through the mail, involving carriages, trains and sailing ships, possible all three. So what if a couple of them are what is called “space fillers” — that is, they will never have much value because of their flaws. I go back to the emblematic significance of these stamps. They are artifacts from a long-ago time and place of imperial Britain asserting itself over the Boers. For a while, British rule would be fragile and temporary in a state that continued to be bargained for and fought over — as though it actually belonged to either side.
** Footnote: See, for example: Philatelic Series CD 81, “The South African Provisional War Stamps,” by B.W.H. Poole (1901). Contents: Orange River Colony – First Printing, Varieties Of The First Printing, Second Printing, Varieties Of The Second Printing, Third Printing, Varieties Of The Third Printing, Second Issue, Varieties Of The Second Issue; Transvaal – Varieties Of The First Issue, Second Issue, Varieties Of The Second Issue; Mafeking Siege Issue, Varieties Of The Mafeking Siege Issue; British Local Issues – Lydenburg, Rustenburg, Vryburg, Wolmaransstad, Kuruman; Boer Local Issues – Pietersburg, Vryburg, In Dienst; Other Emissions – Krugersdorp, Schweizer Reneke, Commando Brief. Profusely illustrated with photographs of actual specimens. 56 pages.