First Issue: 1868
Is anyone else tiring of my lengthy, meandering trek through the postal history of southern, central and east British Africa? Is it starting to feel like a slog, after three essays on ZAR/Transvaal? Although I count 21 separate stamp-issuing authorities between 1857 (Cape of Good Hope) and Basutoland (1933), I am certain I can cover the territory in just a few more chapters, combining postal upstarts like Stellaland, Griqualand West and the New Republic. In any case, I shall feel free to divert from this expedition, should another interesting topic draw the attention of the FMF Stamp Project.
I’ve traced the postal path from the first colonial stamps of southern Africa— the Cape of Good Hope triangles (1857) — onward, through hundreds of pages (profusely illustrated, to be sure), and we’ve only reached 1868. Well, riveting stories had to be told, and some of the stamps are downright cute, remarkable, certainly puzzling, even valuable! Of course, other stamps are quite dull — like those ZAR/Transvaal sets, all bearing the busy Boer coat of arms, varying only by size and rendering, color, printing quality, denomination and whether the occupying British had managed to stamp Queen Victoria’s initials on them. (Not to mention the counterfeiting conundrum.) OK, so they’re boring — which only makes the other stamps more interesting, right?
Wrong. The Orange Free State’s stamps are even duller than those of ZAR/Transvaal. At least the Boers across the Vaal River (Trans-Vaal, get it?) redesigned their coat-of-arms stamps over the years; they even issued one commemorative in 1896. Both ZAR/Transvaal and the Orange Free State began issuing its stamps at about the same time. But the smaller Boer republic to the south chose one design — an orange tree, the “tree of freedom” — and stuck with it for 32 years. (As an aside, this habit of keeping the same design going for years remained popular in the Union of South Africa after 1910. A definitive set first issued in 1926 went through several minor updates and printings, with the final stamps issued in 1954 — 28 years later.)
A word about that orange tree. Kind of makes you think the Orange Free State was named after the fruit, doesn’t it? Wrong. Tricked by a stamp! The name actually comes from the south African river Orange, named for the royal family of Holland, Valhalla of Boer legend. Incidentally, the coat of arms of the Orange Free State (left), similar to the badge of the House of Orange, includes bugle horns around a tree, like the stamp; NOT an orange tree. but a small tree with planed branches, like a cedar. On the stamp, however, there’s no doubt it’s an orange tree. For one thing, the Scott catalogue describes the design as “Orange tree.” For another, after the Boers and Brits formed the union of South Africa, the 6d definitive stamp featured the same orange tree — this one with full-color fruits. (see below)
Do you really want me to run through the long boring history of the Orange Free State? Well, maybe not so boring, but not that interesting to this stamp collector, anyway. There was lots of conflict — between Boers and Basothos, Boers and Brits, also occasional unease between the two neighboring Boer republics — Orange Free State and Transvaal/ZAR. After the British imperialists and Boer settlers reached their various agreements, they went their respective ways and pretty much prospered — that is, until they came to blows again. The discovery of diamonds in the rocky reefs of the high tableland contributed to the state’s fortunes — and tensions. The self-governing Orange Free State lasted from 1854 to 1902 — quite a record. A number of state presidents presided, of varying abilities. One of them was the son of Boer hero Andres Pretorius. Marthinus had the misfortune to have the Transvaal/ZAR capital city of Pretoria named after his dad. It was a tough act to follow, and he bombed. The guy who really pulled things together was Johannes Brand, who presided for a remarkable 24 years, during which he continued to be re-elected and achieved satisfactory economic growth. I have not made a close study of him. What I do now is that he seemed perfectly content to keep issuing the same set of stamps, over and over, year after year …
Over the years the Orange Free State and Transvaal/ZAR existed in harmony — most of the time. There were continuing efforts to unite them into a singular, powerful Boer republic to stand up to the Brits in Natal and the Cape Colony. The ZAR’s Paul Kruger was a Boer chauvinist who mistrusted the British. (Kruger created an international scandal in 1897 when he called Queen Victoria a kwaage Vrou — angry woman.) Orange Free Staters tended to be less anti-British — though by the time the test came in October 1899 with the Second Boer War, the two states were allied by treaty to do battle together. British Lord Roberts occupied Bloemfontein and claimed victory within four months, but Orange Free State Boers fought on — with the Volksraad meeting in the field as needed — until the Treaty of Vereniging was signed May 31, 1902. During the interval between the British annexation claim in 1900 and the signing in 1902, two parallel governments were operating, with occasional hostilities breaking out. It must have been a nightmare for the inhabitants, black and white; no to mention there were two sets of orange-tree stamps in circulation, one overprinted “V.R.I,” one not. Confound it!
At first, the stamps issued under British occupation were no more interesting than the original Orange Tree set. The Brits simply added the overprint V.R.I. which stands for Victoria Regina Imperatrix — Victoria Queen Empress. Cute. The Scott catalogue lists two distinct sets of overprints, based on whether the periods between the initials are “Level with Bottoms of Letters” or “Raised Above Bottoms of Letters.” The set with “level” periods is scarcer than the set with “raised” periods, but it’s tricky. The catalogue lists many varieties, including “No period after V” … “Missed periods” … “Pair, one with level periods” … “Thick V” … You could spend a small fortune, accumulating a collection of these boring stamps and varieties. If you put the whole thing together, and explained it, would it be less boring?
With the official launch of the Orange River Colony in 1902, postal authorities issued a n original, country-specific set, bearing a portrait of the new monarch, the late Victoria’s elderly son and heir, Edward VII. The small stamps were intricately designed with a springbok on one side and a wildebeest on the other. (I think I have those animals right.)
The stamps printed in two colors are attractive enough, if a bit garish. In any case, there wasn’t much time to complain: In 1910, South Africa took over.
Back in 1902, as Viscount Milner assumed the post of governor of the Orange River Colony, he gathered around him the ablest of the executive and consular service, including Marthinus Steyn and Christiaan de Wet, respectively the last presidents of the Orange Free State. Another key adviser was Abraham Fischer (1850-1913), a Capetown-trained lawyer and skilled Boer statesman. Let’s stay with this suave, skilled, successful leader for a moment.
By the time the Orange Free State became the Orange River Colony, Abraham Fischer had become a key player in government. Both presidents Steyn of the Orange Free State and Kruger of neighboring Transvaal had relied on his counsel and judgment, and he was widely considered one of the Boers’ most adept strategists. When Lord Selbourne moved in 1905 to establish self-government in the Orange River Colony, the governor, by then Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, asked Fischer to form a ministry. The self-governed Orange River Colony operated for only three years, from 1907 to 1910, and the colony itself existed for less than 10 years total; but they were years of peace, prosperity and effective governance. Despite having to cope with swings in business cycles, agricultural drought and political dissension, the regime and its diligent civil service managed to produce a surplus each year without raising taxes. (The diamond mines helped.) The railways expanded and schools (for whites) were improved. After the union, Fischer was appointed interior minister of the new South African government, though he only served three years before his death in 1913 at age 63.
As a Boer, Fischer could have been expected to harbor similar racist views as compatriots like Brand, Kruger and Smuts. Fischer and Smuts were suave diplomats who played a key role in reconciling Boers and Brits — no mean feat after a century of antagonism and occasional bloodletting that culminated in Cecil Rhodes’ failed Jameson Raid of 1896 and the confrontation between Kruger and Lord Kitchener in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. By 1910, thanks to the efforts of Fischer, Smuts and others, the two “white tribes” of southern Africa had figured how to lay down their arms, make peace and enjoy the spoils in a new, bilingual state.
Fischer and Smuts helped bring Boers and Brits together, but they were less enthusiastic about reconciling whites and blacks. During Fischer’s short Orange River Colony mandate, he did manage to organize a Department of Native Affairs. Whether or not this was a promising development I don’t know. But blacks would never vote in the Orange River Colony, any more than they did in the Orange Free State.
The reason I pursue this matter of Abraham Fischer and black south Africans is because of his progeny. His son Percy became a judge, and I know little about him. However his grandson, Abraham Lewis (“Bram”) Fischer, was a horse of an entirely different hue. Get ready for this story.
Bram Fischer was born in 1908, studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. During a trip to Europe in 1932 he visited Russia. The 24-year-old wrote to his father that he saw similarities between the abuses of Russian peasants and South Africa’s blacks. Now, here was a sentiment you would not expect to hear, coming from a scion of Boer aristocracy. Yet Bram Fischer would not be eterred. Somewhere along the line, he had picked up the idea that South Africa’s racism not only was wrong, but would destroy the nation unless it changed. (Remarkably similar views were expressed decades earlier by F.X. Merriman, aide to the Cape Colony Gov. Molteno, who warned: “The greatest danger to the future lies in the … vain hope of building up a state in a narrow, unenlightened minority.”) These convictions led Bram Fischer to join the South African Communist Party, where he became a leader and key strategist. He collaborated with a young man named Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress, a fellow graduate of the racially inclusive Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. Fischer forswore the racist Boer ideology, was shunned by friends and colleagues, and continued to wage the good fight over the years. His proudest moments may have come in 1961, when he successfully defended Mandela and others against charges of treason; and In 1964, when the ANC leader was tried again, convicted and sentenced to life in prison — another victory for Fischer’s defense team, since the prosecution had called for the death penalty.
In saving the life of South Africa’s future president, Fischer sacrificed his own freedom. Soon after the trial, Fischer was arrested and put on trial for his activities with the South African Communist Party, long outlawed by the government. There was never any doubt about his “guilt” — the party was illegal, and Bram Fischer was one of its pillars. Somehow, Fischer had kept his ”subversive” activities out of view — up to now. As friends urged him to take Mandela’s case, Fischer knew the public spectacle of a treason trial would expose him. Nevertheless, he persisted. One friend who had urged him to take the case, not knowing of Fischer’s risk, said later: “He deserves the Victoria Cross.”
I know I should move on, but this story is just too good to leave at this point, so please bear with me. Before his trial, Fischer was allowed to travel to London to handle a patent case. The judge let him leave South Africa because upon his promise to return. “I am an Afrikaner,” Fischer said. “My home is South Africa. I will not leave my country because my political beliefs conflict with those of the Government.” Return he did — but not to sit in a courtroom. Instead, Fischer went underground to continue his fight against apartheid. He wrote to the judge:
“… (My) absence, though deliberate, is not intended in any way to be disrespectiful. Nor is it prompted by any fear of the punishment which might be inflicted on me. Indeed I realize fully that my eventual punishment may be increased by my present conduct …
“My decision was made only because I believe that it is the duty of every true opponent of this Government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can. …”
Fischer was found guilty in 1965 in absentia and disbarred. Later that year he was arrested and put on trial again for trying to overthrow the government. He was convicted and received a life sentence. Before long the personable and dynamic inmate became a prison leader, popular even with the warden. While prisoners in South Africa at the time usually were released early, political prisoners were singled out for harsh treatment, compelled to serve every day. Fischer’s life sentence was shortened only by fate — he died of cancer in 1975. The authorities punished him to the end, neglecting his treatment. Only in his last weeks did the regime — pressed by the public and international outcry — allow him to die at his brother’s home in Bloemfontein. Unlike Mandela, Fischer would not see apartheid fall in 1991.
Since his death, Fischer’s reputation has been restored. In 2002, he became the first South African reinstated to the bar posthumously. The airport in Bloemfontein was renamed Bram Fischer International Airport in 2012. Oxford hosts an annual Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture.
Mandela counted Fischer among the “bravest and staunchest friends of the freedom struggle that I have ever known.” He noted that with his pedigree and talents, Fischer could have become South Africa’s prime minister. “As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his own heritage and be ostracized by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself,” Mandela said. “No matter what I suffered in my pursuit of freedom, I always took strength from the fact that I was fighting with and for my own people. Bram was a free man who fought against his own people to ensure the freedom of others.”
I am left wondering — without answers as yet — whether the spark that led to Bram Fischer’s awakening was kindled somehow by the judicial integrity of his father, and before that by his grandfather Abraham Fischer, the one and only president of the Orange River Colony. (I wish someone would find out …)
I will end this tale with more from Bram Fischer, because I think his words resonate today as well as when they were written more than half-a-century ago. In his letter to the court, Fischer declared that he and his co-defendants were being punished “for holding the ideas today that will be universally accepted tomorrow.” More of his words:
“What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred.
“… when the laws themselves become immoral and require the citizen to take part in an organized system of oppression — if only by his silence and apathy — then I believe that a higher duty arises. This compels one to refuse to recognize such laws.”
And: “All the conduct with which I have been charged has been directed towards maintaining contact and understanding between the races of this country. If one day it may help to establish a bridge across which white leaders and the real leaders of the non-white can meet to settle the destinies of all of us by negotiation, and not by force of arms, I shall be able to bear with fortitude any sentence which this court may impose on me. It will be a fortitude, my Lord, strengthened by this knowledge, at least, that for the past 25 years I have taken no part, not even by passive acceptance, in that hideous system of discrimination which we have erected in this country, and which has become a byword in the civilized world.”
Dear reader, we have wandered far indeed from the world of stamp collecting. Isn’t it marvelous? I searched in vain for a stamp commemorating Bram Fischer or his grandfather Abraham. Too bad. Bram Fischer surely ranks as one of history’s great champions of equality and freedom.
TO BE CONTINUED