Pilgrims, Boers and the Postal History of British Imperialism in Southern and Central-East Africa


Ancient map (1489) clearly depicts western and southern Africa, a few years before Columbus ventured into the Western Hemisphere.

There are two origin stories of European settlement in and eventual domination of a new continent that bear striking similarities. The Puritans from England and Holland, who landed at Plymouth rock in the 1620 and founded the Plymouth Colony, were seeking, among other things, relief fullsizeoutput_3467from religious persecution at home. Likewise, among the Dutch and German adventurers who landed near the tip of southern Africa in the same century were French Huguenots, fleeing persecution for their faith. Dutch navigators Jan van Riebeeck sailed to the Cape of Good Hope, found safe harbor for his ships in Table Bay in 1652 and went on to


What similarities! Upper right is the Mayflower, sailing proudly toward Plymouth Rock in 1620, while at right, the fleet of Jan van Riebeeck arrives safely at Table Harbor in 1652.

found what would become Capetown, capital of the expansive Cape Colony. We he that different from John Smith in Jamestown, or John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? fullsizeoutput_3485fullsizeoutput_345e

The fabled Table Rock Mountain towering over the Cape of Good Hope was a match for William Bradford’s Plymouth Rock and Winthrop’s shining city on a hill in New England.


Here are two scenes striking in their similarities. Above, William Bradford and the Pilgrims are landing, and below, Jan van Riebeeck and his party arrive. The South African stamp of 1952 is one of the few under the apartheid regime that actually depicted blacks (at right in stamp).



The Huguenots were long-connected to both southern Africa and North America. Three hundred years after the first arrivals, both South Africa and the United States issued stamp sets commemorating the French Huguenots (and in the U.S. stamps, also the Walloons). In both cases, the Huguenots were seeking religious freedom. Notice in the American stamps below how similar are the themes of this and the Pilgrim tercentenary set shown at the top of this essay. Also note the remarkable resonance between the blue 5-cent U.S. stamp (below right) and the 1d South African stamp (bottom) — the peaceful waterfront scene, the oval border, the sun rising over the horizon…









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European settlers on both continents moved on. Above, a ship arrives off the coast of Natal, to the east of the Cape Colony. A towering monument in Pretoria (right, below) commemorates the “Voortrekkers” — South Africa’s pioneers. Below left is a scene of trekkers on the move.  The catalogue description is, “Voortrekkers en route to Natal.” This stamp may look familiar to U.S. collectors. Why? Read on …








Wow! I guess the U.S. postal service liked covered wagons. Look at them depicted in statehood anniversary stamps for Utah and Oregon, as well as for the Minnesota territory and the “Swedish Pioneer Centennial.” These were the same years the Boers in their wagons were settling Natal, the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Natal dates back to 1843; the Orange Free State came along in 1854, the same year as ZAR/Transvaal.











Speaking of Transvaal, here is an unusual stamp from the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic), which was the name of the territory known to the British as Transvaal. The land switched hands numerous times as the Brits and the Boers jousted (sometimes shedding blood). I find the stamp interesting because it is an early commemorative — marking the inauguration of the “penny post” in Transvaal. Not many countries, including the United States, were issuing regular commemoratives as early as September 1895. There’s a lot going on in this oddly elegant stamp. In the center is the ZAR coat of arms — flags, an eagle and a shield depicting symbols of state, with the Afrikaans motto of the ill-fated republic, “Eendragt Maakt Magt,” which translates something like, “in unity there is strength.” At right, a vintage coach and team head out into the veld, while to the left, a sturdy train chugs out of a well-engineered tunnel.

The history of the past three-plus centuries turned out very differently for these  groups of settlers on two continents, for their indigenous neighbors, and for all their descendants. Over the decades and centuries of exploration, expansion and exploitation, the Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic did share a determination to dominate their environment.  European subjugation of the indigenous population of America mirrored that of native Africans. The tribunes of imperialism came from the same places — England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Italy, Belgium —  and their drive, ambition, resourcefulness and self-reliance came from the same manual; also the bigotry, cruelty, trickery and violence they practiced to overwhelm the Indians and the Africans.  

Today, North America reflects the cultural dominance of that European legacy, for good and ill —  foremost the English and North European influence, but also the French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and others (not to mention African). To the extent that Indian tribes resisted European dominance and assimilation and clung to their traditions, they have been marginalized as a tiny minority, apart from America’s rich and diverse culture.

 Africa still carries audible echoes of the cultures of its European colonizers. It’s been more than a half-century since most of its indigenous peoples regained their sovereignty, albeit in nations whose borders were imposed by imperial fiat  in the 1880s. The mass European migrations that swept aside the Indians in North America never happened in Africa — partly due no doubt to health hazards. In America, it was the Indians who fell prey to the germs of the Europeans. In contrast to the fresh air and hospitable climate of North America. Africa’s viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungal diseases pierced every imperial defense. Of the 150 Europeans in the first expedition up the Niger River, 42 fell ill and died right away; 130 cases of fever were reported. As many as 55 may have died before the travelers made it back to Europe.  It would be more than 10 years before Europeans tried again. In the 1890s, an entire expedition into the far interior of the Congo was felled by disease. The group’s leader, 27-year-old Captain Grant Stairs, died of fever within earshot of the sea and succor. His second-in-command, Captain Bia, died soon after.  

The caucasian intruders in southern Africa, whether Brits or Boers,  never constituted a sufficient “tribe” to populate the land and displace the millions of resilient black Africans in their natural habitat. Only through deceit and the use of power  were the Europeans able to project, impose and sustain their power over their African subjects as long as they did — most enduringly in South Africa, where policies were refined in the last century under the subtly horrific policies  and practices of apartheid.

I have chosen to concentrate on the British colonial experience in southern and central Africa in the overview of postal history that follows. There is a parallel story to tell about the French, Portuguese, Belgians and others. My choice is guided by my decades collecting stamps of the British Commonwealth, particularly British Africa.  I have accumulated such a wealth of stories, along with stamps, that it will take some time to wrap my text and pictures around this sprawling subject — and keep things fun. I have collections from the other imperial powers in Africa, and hope to get to them later on. Meanwhile, this exposition can serve as a guide into the broader subject. 

How to square the evils of imperialism with the relatively bland history of postage stamps? I could try and argue that British imperialism was not all bad; that it grew out of the missionary zeal of David Livingstone, Henry Venn, David Hinderer, William Clark and others whose high intentions and aims included bettering the health and well-being of Africans;  bringing them blessings of European civilization, such as education and the rule of law; ending enslavement, twin sacrifice and other self-destructive practices; kindling the flame of a new faith based on Christian values. Alas, these better angels were no match for Stanley, Rhodes, Lugard and others bent on conquest and exploitation.  Every good deed of missionaries, altruists, philanthropists and enlightened administrators in Africa was undone by  the depredations of racism and exploitation. The bigotry and cruelty of  British colonial Africa mocked the high principles of the missionaries and their mission. 

fullsizeoutput_3463In the end, I would simply offer this rationale for my leap into these deep waters with the FMF Stamp Project; it is the justification for all historical study: to know how we got here. How did the “British South Africa Company” become Zimbabwe? How did the Cape of Good Hope turn into the Republic of South Africa? What happened to Transvaal, Natal, Zululand, the Orange Free State, the New Republic, Stellaland, Griqualand West? (Not to mention Griqualand East?) Why did Bechuanaland split apart? Answering these  questions, while sifting through the entertaining artifacts of philatelic history, does not mitigate the offenses of the imperialists. It does offer a calm space for contemplation. What kind of stamps did a person use


This 1857 beauty from Natal is a star of my collection. It’s embossed, the design pressed into creamy paper with no color. Hard to see? Look below for a sketch of the design. You should be able to pick out some of it. I paid more than $100 for this rarity!

who was living in 19th-century Salisbury, Kampala and Dar es Salaam?  Residents of Tanganyika would use stamps from seven different national postal administrations over the past century. Citizens of Zanzibar must have been mildly surprised in 1964 when they went to their neighborhood post office and bought stamps  from independent Zanzibar, after a “revolution” and coup; then from “Tanganyika and Zanzibar,” then “Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania,” until at last the stamps read simply, “Tanzania” — all by 1965!

 My views of British fullsizeoutput_605colonialism combine much of today’s conventional wisdom with another possibility. I agree the colonial enterprise in Africa  was  repellent — racist, exploitive, oppressive, frequently murderous. Yet it was hardly a monolith. Historically, it involved shifting alliances and jurisdictions, conflict and compromise. Administratively, there were corporate charters, crown colonies, protectorates and trust territories. The missionaries with their faith, zeal and good intentions, yielded to the swashbuckling entrepreneurs, who in turn bowed to the crown, the colonial bureaucrats, the capitalists and the skeptical mandarins of Whitehall. As the exchequer whinged about the the costs of colonialism, and the prime minister fretted over the political ramifications in Parliament, the royal family sailed serenely on.

It took decades for the British to organize their colonial empire, and in its warp and weave you will find strands of missionary zeal, profit-seeking, brutality and occasionally, sound administration. You also will find a postal system that was the envy of the world. British colonialism was a grim enterprise that resulted in the subjugation of vast populations. It  was never a juggernaut, but rather a lumbering rival of the Ottomans, Habsburgs and Austro-Hungarians and later on, the Germans, the Belgians and the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. I say: Fie on all empires and their racist ways! But I will add, the British colonies did manage to produce postage stamps of uncommon distinction and beauty. Please struggle along with me in this narrative, and enjoy the profuse illustrations!

What is to unfold in coming essays is an omnibus report, with commentary, on the postal history of British southern and central Africa. Each chapter starts with the first stamps of its jurisdiction. The illustrations are mostly of stamps from my collection. I’m going to set a leisurely pace,  because there are tons of stories and history and more to share — and pictures! 

Why focus on British southern Africa, when there also were early British settlements in west Africa — modern-day Gambia, for example, Nigeria or  Sierra Leone? (I must get around to an essay on Nigeria — and the mysterious stamps that disguise their name …)  My short answer is that southern Africa is where it all started, with those proto-Boers landing at Table Mountain in  the 1600s, not long after the Pilgrims set up shop at Plymouth Rock. Southern Africa ever since has been a focal point and the economic engine of sub-Saharan Africa. This is due to many factors — including the contributions of the Boers and the English.


I’ve been struck by this design ever since I first saw it, decades ago. It’s from the 1920s, the first pictorial definitive set from the Union of South Africa. What impressed me was the elegant government buildings that could have been in London, Paris or Stockholm. Is this really Africa? In the 1920s?


Now look at this beautifully engraved stamp of 1982, above, showing the same government buildings in Pretoria, nearly 60 years later. This high-value stamp comes from a long set with scene after scene of the impressive architectural heritage of South Africa, which has no equal on the continent. Too bad the regime was also racist …

Restless settlers and adventurers trekked north and east to Natal, then onward into the bush, steppes and savannas toward the Zambezi River and the lakes of the central and eastern regions. They fought tribal bands and rival imperial powers, signed treaties and eventually took over. Sound familiar? Across the Atlantic, descendants of the pilgrims and legions of new arrivals moved south and west across the North American continent, crossing the Mississippi, overwhelming indigenous tribes and nations. The two stories of exploration and exploitation, subjugation and development are oddly intertwined, each one with cautions and object lessons for the other.  

A NOTE ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS:  I plan to contribute generously to this omnibus project from my British south and central-east African collections, with multiple examples of stamps including such rarities as my Cape of Good Hope “triangles” fullsizeoutput_3464from the 1850s, and a hand-stamped emergency issue of 1900 from the Cape of Good Hope, overprinted “Mafeking Besieged.” So please — fullsizeoutput_3465read on!  I would only add that offering you little glimpses of my collection to enhance this effort does not mean I am relinquishing plans to resume a page-by-page, story-by-story review of my British Africa album — some day. That prospect is too delicious to give up. Please stay tuned for the long haul!


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