The Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama sighted the coast along what is now Durban on Christmas Day in 1497 and named the country Terra Natalis, after the Portuguese word for Christmas.  (Wikipedia)

fullsizeoutput_4cf9What were the local overseers or the poobahs in the British colonial office thinking when they decided on the first postage stamps for Natal, in 1857? Designs and values embossed into cream, blue-, pink-, green-, rose- and buff-colored paper? What if you didn’t speak English, or did not read at all? If you could “read” these embossed images in the first place, would you know what to do with them? Did customers have  access to accurate renderings of the embossed designs? I include catalogue illustrations, for your reference, right and below. They enable the viewer to pick out some of the details in the stamps. Perhaps back in the 1850s the fresh fullsizeoutput_4cfeimpressions were  sharper and easier to see. Today the rare examples that survive are flattened with age, the impressions harder to read. (The illustrations here are from the internet, by the way; I could never afford to buy these weird stamps, much as I’d like to …)

1857 was just 17 years after the appearance of the first postage stamp — Great Britain’s “Penny Black.” (Bavaria also happened to issue its first stamps in 1840.) Postage stamps were still a novelty in 1857, though many nations already had them, including small German states like fullsizeoutput_4cfcMecklenburg, Wurtemberg, Hamburg, Hanover, Oldenburg and Thurn&Taxis. Switzerland’s first cantonal stamps and Brazil’s “bulls-eyes” came out in 1843, four years ahead of the United States. The world’s rarest stamp — the sole surviving one cent black-and-magenta from British Guiana — was issued in 1856. 

Natal’s short-lived experiment with embossed stamps was not the only misfire in the early days of philately. At the very beginning, in 1840, the Mulready Cover in England turned out to be a dud with the British public. Its letter-gram format was fullsizeoutput_4d00savagely caricatured in the public press (abetted by stationers who saw their market encroached on and threatened by the Post Office letter). India tried a semi-embossed stamp in 1854 and promptly abandoned the practice. The Cape of Good Hope’s triangle stamps, issued between 1853 and 1863, were a novelty few copied. Argentina’s first stamps in 1858 were so crude they looked like children’s drawings. 

Now, a few words about my own rare and wonderful Natal stamp. The most I have spent yet for a stamp is $105, a princely sum which I paid in 2013 for Natal No. 1, 3 pence, rose, 1857 (pictured at right below, larger fullsizeoutput_603than actual size). The stamp has a catalog value of $500+, but that is for a copy with 4  clear margins, whereas mine is 3+. I have no certificate of authenticity, and there are known to be reprints with bogus cancellations. Nevertheless, I am satisfied this is the real deal. If you are just skimming over the pages of my British Africa album, you might be tempted to dismiss this rarity. It looks like a smudged square of colored paper with some bumps on it. Look more closely, though, and you will see a clear impression saying “THREE PENCE,” much of it picked up by the black ink fullsizeoutput_605smudge of the cancellation. Actually, the margins are unusually large for this variety: just in at the bottom, clear the rest of the way around. Compare the faint embossing on the stamp with the design outline below it, as presented in the Scott catalogue, and see if you can discern these details on the original: 1) as stated, the number THREE PENCE is clear under the postal strike; 2) also visible are the circular border and the letter “A” from  Natal at top; 3) the large “V” is visible at left, and a faint “R” at right. Can you see it? Now think of this odd stamp, embossed  more than 150 years ago, placed on an envelope in the new south African colony of Natal (founded circa 1843) for the outgoing mail. Today that stamp is in my collection. As you might suspect, I have examined it in great detail, and confess to be being hypnotized by it — something about the fleshy color, the tattoo-like embossing, the nearly hidden letters and symbols, then imagining this artifact making its way from that African postal outpost, circa  1857 …   philately just boggles the mind!”

I suspect this will be my one-and-only Natal embossed stamp. I salivate over other examples, like those pictured above, but the prices are more than my wallet can bear. I suppose I’m lucky to have the one that’s already in my collection, and hope it keeps growing in value. Meanwhile, I seem to have accumulated quite a Natal collection over the years. I was spurred on more than a decade ago by a mini-collection I bought for $50 from Ed Bailey, pillar of the Syracuse Stamp Club and the indomitable proprietor of Suburban Stamps&Coins in North Syracuse (until he retired, that is). It was a diverse and extensive selection of Victorian and Edwardian stamps that I used as a basis for expanding sets, filling gaps and enlarging my collection. 

I note the dates of my acquisitions, so I have a chronology of that expansion, including my recent online purchase of the 4 shilling from the first Edward VII set — a key value for me, as it fills a strategic gap and in a long set that is now complete from 1/2 penny through one pound. (The stamp cost me $35, more than any other stamp in the set; worth the price, but still … ouch! I also filled a few other gaps with four stamps for about $15 more.) 

As I dive headlong into my Natal collection, the task at hand is to locate Natal in the history of the stamps of British south and central-east Africa. In previous essays I have focused on British Africa’s first stamp-issuing authority, the Cape Colony (Cape of Good Hope, or COGH), with a little excursion into the Siege of Mafeking. There also was an essay on Zanzibar, for various whimsical reasons. Chronologically, Natal was the second British territory in Africa to issue stamps, in 1857, after only COGH in 1853. The history of southern Africa was turbulent, often violent — particularly for the increasingly oppressed indigenous population. However, Natal enjoyed a long and relatively placid philatelic and political history through 1910, when the colony was incorporated into the Union of South Africa.

I say “placid” because unlike its neighbors, Natal was not often the scene of open warfare between Boers and Brits. Those battles were fought in the Transvaal, across the Orange Free State and other enclaves, and in the Cape Colony. There were no rude Boer overprints on Natal stamps. Friction occurred at the margins, to be sure, with considerable slaughter of Boers, Brits and Zulus. Natal’s vexing troubles with its neighbors led to the eventual annexation of Zululand, as well as the New Republic. 

fullsizeoutput_4d02Sets of early Natal stamps carried the elegant (and flattering!) Chalon portrait of the young Queen Victoria.



You may notice that some of the stamps in these two sets (above and below) look the same. The sets have different watermarks — first “CC” (Crown Colonies) from the 1870s, then “CA” (Crown Agents) in the 1880s. Do you really want an explanation for the change? I haven’t been able to find one yet, but I’ll make a guess. Maybe the term “Colonies” had become a little old-fashioned in late-century imperialist circles … Or perhaps it was strictly for administrative reasons. In any event, I include both these sets proudly because they are complete —with shades. Neither set is particularly rare or pricey.

Later sets with the stolid Victoria profile  succeeded one another at a stately pace, giving way at length to the next monarch. Edward VII  finally succeeded his mother in 1902, and reigned for the rest of Natal’s existence. In 1910, King George V succeeded his father. A portrait of the fresh young king appeared on the first stamp of the new Union of South Africa.  

The first permanent British settlements in Natal were established by Lt. Francis Farewell fullsizeoutput_4d06in 1823. For years he lobbied the Cape Colony and Whitehall to make Natal a colony. After passive resistance from Capetown and London, the Boers took over and established the Natalia Republic, a regime so disorganized and incompetent — and oppressive of the indigenous people — that the British felt obliged to move in. By 1843, the Boers were out. After a final compromise on borders, many Boers trekked to neighboring Orange Free State or Transvaal. Over the years, Natal continued to play a role in regional affairs. In 1897 it annexed the Zululand protectorate, doubling its size. With gold and diamonds to be mined, the region thrived, and Natal’s port of Durban grew into an economic hub. In the 1890s, Natal won the right of “responsible government,” meaning local self-government. In contrast to the Cape Colony, where there was a historic commitment to universal suffrage, in Natal the voting laws were always skewed to exclude most black Africans and Indians. A 1904 census listed  904,031 blacks (81.53 percent); 100,918 Asian (9.10 percent); 97,109 whites (8.75 percent);  6,686 colored (.60 percent) 


Oboy, here’s phulphillment of a philatelic phantasy, pholks. First, look above at the nice set of Edward VII definitives from 1902-3. Notice a major gap where the 4 shilling stamp should be. That’s the stamp I just bought online for the fair but still considerable price of $34.99! It’s way more than I paid for any other stamp in the set. There it is, below at right, getting ready to join the rest; next image — it’s in its place. Ahh. Finally, there is the set, now complete from 1/2d to 1 pound. Wow!

During the Second Boer War, the Afrikaners in neighboring Orange Free State set their sights on the rich province to the south. Natal resisted Boer incursions that culminated in the Siege of Ladysmith, a key garrison city and supply depot in northern Natal. The
siege lasted from Nov. 2, 1899 to February 28,1900, when forces under Redvers Bullers (what a name!) relieved the city.  Soon after, Boer fullsizeoutput_4d0amilitants left Natal for good. (Unlike the Siege of Mafeking, in the Cape Colony, which was going on at the same time, no stamps were issued from besieged
Ladysmith, as far as I know; nor are there stories of derring-do like those attached to Col. Baden-Powell in fullsizeoutput_4d0eMafeking; for that story see December’s blog post, “Mafeking Besieged!”)

Natal and the Cape Colony were the British nexus in the Union of South Africa. fullsizeoutput_4d10Transvaal/Zuikafrikaansche Republiek and the Orange Free State/Orange River Colony were contested  Boer strongholds. By 1910, the oppressive models of the British in Natal and the

Boers in Transvaal had  long since prevailed over the more inclusive councils of the Cape Colony.  While the Brits and the Boers had fought bitterly and viciously for dominance in southern Africa,  from 1910 on they worked together. The sturdy nation they created — bilingual, white-supremacist — would endure for 80 years, exploiting the vast mineral resources of the region while holding in thrall the black African majority.