Into the tall grass of philatelic esoterica! This is where stamp-collecting gets interesting — to stamp collectors. This short essay is for general readers, though. By embarking on this brief expedition into the high veld of ZAR/Transvaal philately, you can glimpse varieties of design and printing, amid other oddities that delight the collector, invite speculation and excite the imagination! Imagine, being excited by printing varieties. That’s part of stamp-collecting. Well, this won’t take long, and I believe you, General Reader, will have a bit of fun coming along on this quick tour, presented as several addenda.
The Pietersburg issues of March-April 1901 are fairly expensive, but very exotic. Consider: they were on sale for only a few weeks, during the desperate last days of the Boers’ ZAR (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek). ZAR President Paul Kruger had already left the country. The provisional government in Pietersburg was running low on stamps — a truly dire circumstance! — so the authorities came up with this crude, type-set design. There are three design varieties. I have multiple examples of each type, all with the same value of 4 pence. Each stamp is hand-signed/cancelled, and catalogs at between $25 and $40. I recall I paid about $40 for the lot. Quite a deal, eh? Below are enlargements clearly illustrating the differences. (Remember, we are in the tall grass, so stay close.)
VARIETY ONE (left): The date is large. The “P” in Postzegel is large.
TWO (left): The date is smaller. The “P” is still large.
THREE (right): The date is small. So is the “P.”
Can you spot the differences? Isn’t this fun? (For more about the Pietersburg issues, see FMF Stamp Project blog post of 3/17/17.)
B. Why were so many overprinted stamps released in 1900? The Scott catalogue lists 49 varieties with “V.R” or “VRI” overprints — or “E.R.I.” after Victoria died and Edward VII took over in 1901. Come to think of it, there were an awful of of “VR” overprints back in 1878-9, during the first British occupation — 46 varieties listed in Scott. It was efficient to use up existing stocks of stamps, I suppose. But it looks kind of sloppy.
The early overprints of 1900 were issued under military authority in Lydenburg, Rustenburg, Schweizer Reneke and Wolmeransstad. Stamps from Schweizer Reneke carry a handstamp, “Besieged” (left, below). These are very rare stamps indeed. Remember Baden-Powell and “Mafeking Besieged”? (See blog post, December 2019, for the whole story in brief, with stamps.) In his history, “The Great Boer War,” Bryon
Farwell writes: “The sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking, avidly followed while they were in progress, widely celebrated when they were raised, have been given their place in history. Rarely mentioned, however, is the siege of Schweizer Reneke, a small town in the western Transvaal which was invested on 19 August 1900 and not relieved until 9 January 1901. No one remembers the name of George Chamier, the garrison’s commander. The gallant defenders of Schweizer Reneke had the misfortune to be besieged at a time when the people at home were bored with sieges; they had had enough; besides, there were no newspaper correspondents there. And the British public, which exhausted itself cheering for plucky B-P and the relief of Mafeking, raised not a single cheer for the relief of Schweizer Reneke.”
This proliferation of “VIctoria” overprints invites speculation, if not further research. Was it because the military authorities didn’t have a supply of the old Victorian Transvaal stamps on hand in the field? Perhaps by 1900, that profile from 1878 would no longer be age-appropriate for the tottering Dowager Queen. Why not just keep using local stamps? Was it necessary to declare philatelic victory so fast? It certainly seems the Brits wanted to establish their supremacy toot sweet. So they cobbled together crude overprints and gave existing ZAR stock the royal brand. Take that, you uncouth Boers!
The catalogue prices for these sets rise into the hundreds — they must have been quite limited issues. But what truly deters a casual collector like me, in addition to the daunting prices, the rather boring differences between the overprints, not to mention the dull stamps underneath, is the following:
C. The catalogue warns: “Nos. 202 to 213 have been extensively counterfeited.” … ”Beware of counterfeit.” … “Excellent counterfeits of Nos. 246 to 251 are plentiful …”
What is it with all this counterfeiting? Was there a fad for collecting these dull and wacky Transvaal stamps, all of them with the same design? Was the see-saw history of Transvaal a spectator sport in jolly old England, such that collectors competed to
show off their sets of Victorian overprints on ZAR stamps from battleground towns in the veld? This is sheer speculation, folks, but by the end of the 19th century, stamp collecting had become quite a fad, so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if there was some titillation in GB as Transvaal and ZAR swung back and forth in their bloody joust for white supremacy.
Some sets are questionable as “reprints,” then are listed with overprints as “counterfeit.” Which makes one wonder — are we looking at a counterfeit overprint on a counterfeit stamp? Is the overprint counterfeit and the stamp genuine, or vice versa? Seems like a long shot that you’d actually get a real stamp with a real overprint.
D. Actually, the counterfeiting started much earlier — in fact, right at the beginning of ZAR postal history in 1869. Scott catalogue editors note that “So-called reprints and trial impressions of the stamps in types A1 and A2 are counterfeit. This applies to Nos. 1 to 96.” Sometimes the only way to tell genuine from forgery is by the color shade. How discouraging!
Nevertheless, I persisted and succeeded in getting this couple of early beauties — Nos. 21 and 31, illustrated here. The Scott catalogue helped a lot in distinguishing tell-tale signs of forgery, leaving me fairly confident that the stamps I bought are the genuine article. Allow me to accompany you a bit further into the philatelic weeds while we pick our way gingerly past the telltale signs of forgery in search of the real and the true — as best we can.
One clue is in the motto, “Eendragt Maakt Magt” — Oneness Makes Might. In the genuine stamp, the “D” in the word “EENDRAGT” is outsized, touching the ribbon. In forgeries, the “D” is the same size as the other letters inside the ribbon.
Look for the “D” in “EENDRAGT” — notice how it is outsize and touches the top line of the ribbon. This is a sign of authenticity.
A second clue: In the genuine stamp, the eagle’s eye is a dot in a white face. In forgeries, the eye is a blob and the beak is hooked.
Please examine these extreme close-ups. What do you think? Are they real, or counterfeit? (I should point out that the stakes are not that high: No. 21 has a catalogue value of $17.50, while No. 31 catalogues at $40.) My claim is that I did due diligence in researching and buying these stamps online, and I think the evidence is fairly solid that these are the genuine article.
E. While we are here in the weeds, let’s examine another philatelic oddity — sets from the ZAR’s restoration after 1884. Paul Kruger’s administration put out set after boring set featuring the ZAR’s coat of arms. (Many of these stamps also were counterfeited, for reasons I find inexplicable but am not sufficiently interested or prepared to pursue.)
This particular oddity involves sets featuring a “wagon with two shafts,” and a later set depicting a “wagon with pole.” The extreme close-up illustrations below should give you a clear idea what we’re talking about.
Before anyone gets excited over the distinction, let me point out that both sets can be had for under $30. This is not a matter of rarities, just oddities. Why change from two shafts to a single pole? Is the pole more historically accurate? Is the pole truer to the formal depiction in the ZAR coat of arms? Most fervently, it is hoped that the pole is well-suited to help the Boer oxen haul the trekker’s wagon out of the philatelic weeds so we can get back to the narrative!
THIS IS THE END OF ZAR/TRANSVAAL ESSAYS, BUT THE FMF STAMP PROJECT IS TO BE CONTINUED …