Griqualand West! 

A semi-nomadic tribe, neither Brit nor Boer, black nor white, ruled the veld and river valleys of the Cape Colony’s northwestern frontier — until its homeland became a diamond field.

Annexed by Great Britain: 1871

First stamps: 1874

Busiest stamp-issuing years:  1877-8

Joined Cape Colony: 1880. 

In 1867, the first diamond in southern Africa was recovered from the veld and river diggings in  Griqualand. Among the stones was one weighing in at 21 1⁄2 carats — the Eureka Diamond. Although the excited prospectors in Colesberg tried to keep it quiet, the news immediately leaked to the Advertiser, which rushed into print the same day with this breathless account:


There is a story this morning afoot in the village. It has just been told us by a lady and we give it just as we have heard it. A Mr. John O’Reilly, a hunter, explorer etc., something of the Dr. Livingstone stamp but not quite so well known, in his travels in the North Country -– somewhere about the Orange River -– picked up a stone two or three months since which he thought had something remarkable about it and brought it down with him. It was shown to several persons here and was at length sent to Dr. Atherstone in Graham’s Town to be examined and, as the lady told us, a letter has come by this morning’s post from the doctor saying it is a diamond and worth £800. Now we quite expect the Great Eastern (ED: A rival newspaper) will have a great laugh at us about the South African Diamond as he did some time ago about the Orange River Serpent but we have stated the report just as we have heard it. Stranger things have come to pass in the world than the Discovery of Diamonds in South Africa.”

A pudding-shaped hill 20 km from the Vaal River became the boom town of Kimberley. Diggers streamed in from all over, and the diamond mine grew to be the biggest hole in the world. The Colonial secretary, addressing the Cape House of Assembly, said: “Gentlemen, on this rock the future success of South Africa will be built.”  He was right, in that diamonds and other minerals have made fortunes, enriched many, provided employment and tax revenues and indeed helped to build a booming t economy; unjust, unfair, racist for more than a century; yet South Africa, for the most part, has been a money-maker.

Isn’t it about time I got around to stamps? Well, there weren’t any to talk about in this part of southern Africa. Everyone basically used stamps from the Cape of Good Hope. Depending on what far-flung outpost you inhabited, you might find stamps at the post office from the ZAR (South African Republic), or the Orange Free State, both of which started issuing their own sets in the late 1860s. Every conceivable stakeholder made territorial claims to the diamond fields — the Brits, and Boers from the Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal, as well as Griqua leader Nicolaas Waterboer — though none of them bothered to consider the rights of the aboriginal   Black people who were living there to begin with.  

Amid the jousting between Boers and Brits, uitlanders, Afrikaners and others, Griqualand threatened to become Africa’s “wild west.” I promise to get to stamps shortly, but first I must  pause to explore at greater length what “Griqualand West” means. Why “west”? Is there a Griqualand “east”? And what does Griqua mean anyway?

So many questions! One at a time …

Griqualand West was a large territory on the Cape Colony’s northern border.  It was home to the Griqua people, a semi-nomadic group that occupies a unique niche in south African history and demography. This

population is descended from Boer settlers of the  1600s. With few caucasians available, strapping young Boers settled down with indigenous women, mostly from the Khoikhoi tribe, but also Tswana, San,

Xhosa and others, including Bushmen (Bushwomen?).  Their children were raised speaking Dutch, distinct from their indigenous cohort. The mixed-race offspring intermarried,  traditions were passed down, and a population emerged that was neither Boer nor Bantu, neither white nor black — a tribe of its own, named Griqua after a Khoi ancestor.  Much later, under South Africa’s apartheid regime, the Griqua were classified as “coloured,” to distinguish them from both whites and blacks.

In the crude parlance of the early days, the Griquas were first labeled Bastaards, though the authorities eventually promoted more dignified terms like Korana, Oorlam, or Basters. Trained horsemen, many Basters earned their living and reputations by serving the Cape Colony as commandos against Khoi and San adversaries. Eventually, Griquas chafing under Boer bigotry and British imperialism migrated into the border lands. The story of Griqualand went on, including tensions between leaders and a migration in the 1860s that has been called one of the great epics of African

history, though it is little noted in these parts. The survivors settled in land offered by Natal far to the east — Griqualand East (see map). Depleted by their travails, these Griquas restored their herds and other resources, and managed their semi-nomadic affairs in this new homeland. 

While Griqualand East never issued stamps, it did produce a supply of one-pound bank notes — which were never officially issued, and ultimately destroyed. (You may be able to find a rare example, but it likely will cost thousands. The image below is from the Internet.)  By 1874, the Griquas had decided to throw in with the British, and Griqualand East was annexed by the Cape Colony. 

Just a word about some of the Griqua personalities involved. Among the most notable elites were the Koks and the Waterboers. Andries Waterboer (c.1789—1852) was a descendant of Bushmen, described as “fiercely ambitious.” He prevailed over rivals

and maintained his territory from all comers, passing on leadership to his son Nicolaas when he died in 1852. 

Adam Kok was the original “Kaptein” or ruler of Griqualand, but his heirs were displaced by the Waterboers. Adam Kok II moved east from original Griqua lands, presiding over a region called Philippas (a/k/a/ Adam Kok’s Land). The

last migration took place under Adam Kok III. Starting in 1861, the Griquas crossed the Drakensberg mountain range, at great cost, finally reaching their destination, south of Natal, called Nomansland (I kid you not).   

In ensuing years, the Waterboer regime to the west enlisted the services of David Arnot, a Griqua and Cape-trained lawyer. Handsome and impeccably dressed, the biracial agent proved instrumental in protecting the interests of the Griquas. One biographical database describes him as “emotional, ostentatious, unscrupulous and highly intelligent.” He is credited with

successfully navigating the Griquas toward a safe harbor with the British and away from the covetous Boers of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Arnot was said to favor the British over the Boers, despite his ancestry. Incidentally, he was a noted botanist and naturalist. Four desert succulents are named for him, along with a land snail

and a bird, Arnot’s Chat (Myrmecocichla arnoti).

By 1870, numerous sides in and around the diamond fields of Griqualand West were appealing for Queen

Victoria’s protection. Amid the lawlessness and disorder, a foppish artist and miner named Stafford Parker stepped forward to proclaim a “diggers state,” which he dubbed the Klipdrift Republic. No stamps, as far

as I know, though he did have a flag, in keeping with the heraldic passions of the times. President Parker made modest-sized plots available to diggers — as long as they were white-only. The republic was in business for several months, until the British arrived in Kimberley, at which time President Parker and his cabinet promptly resigned. 

The British finally took charge in Griqualand West in 1871. Somehow, the region had gone deeply into debt, despite the diamonds sparking in the veld.  Bad weather, drought, the failure of crops had something to do with it. Then there was all the unrest and conflict over land and diamonds.  

Now, at last, stamps began to appear that were specially designated for use in the new “province” or colony of Griqualand West. Griqualand East under Adam Kok III went its own way, using stamps of Natal or the Cape of Good Hope until it joined the Cape Colony in 1874. Griqualand West was annexed in  1880, thanks in part to the efforts of that skilled attorney/naturalist David Arnot, who held off the Boers and won a legal judgment for his Griqua boss, Nicholaas Waterboer. In 1871, Waterboer placed his Griqua territory under the protection of the British, and in the following years the busy colony became a stamp-issuing country.  

During a two-year span, 1877-78,  Griqualand West made use of a variety of overprints, always using Cape of Good Hope stamps. The Scott catalogue has more than 100 entries, nearly all of the stamps bearing the single

overprinted letter “G.” All except No. 1 (1874), which is a scrawled “1d” surcharge  and very pricey; and Nos. 2 and 3 1877), which are overprinted “G.W.” (Griqualand West, get it?)  They also are expensive (you get the idea from the empty spaces in my album, above) . 

Let me interject: Griqualand West did issue more than just overprinted Cape of Good Hope stamps. There are official labels inscribed “Province of Griqualand West.” But they are revenue stamps, not valid for mail and thus off the radar for postage  stamp collectors like me. I include below examples (from the Internet) of the set issued in 1879, just to share their exquisite design: a fine (and flattering!) side portrait of the mature Queen Victoria, in a circular border with a belted frame, a crown above and floral fans in the corners. I pause to speculate: Why design and issue original revenue labels, but not original postage stamps? Could it be because there was less letter-writing than revenue-sharing going on in the diamond fields of Griqualand West? (By the way, these stamps aren’t cheap — apparently people do collect revenue stamps!)

An idle question also occurs: Why did the overprints change from “G.W.” on the two early stamps, to just “G” on the rest? I suppose the answer is that by 1877, Griqualand East had ceased to exist, having merged with the Cape Colony, so the authorities realized that Griqualand West was the only “Griqualand” left — hence the “G” stands alone.  

As for all those “G” overprints, some are not costly or hard to get. I picked up six so far for my collection through Internet purchases, most of them for under $10 (see illustrations below).

In stamp after stamp,  the allegorical figure of Hope is resting by her anchor, while the letter “G” dances and sparkles somewhere on the stamp — a rounded capital, thin or thick, narrow or angled, in black, red or blue, like a diamond in the rough.       


This has nothing to do with stamps, but rather with the meaning of Griqua. I include some images from the web depicting “basters,” or mixed-race South Africans descended from unions between Boer settlers and Khoi, San, or other tribal partners. I found it fascinating to study the faces in Griqua images from the Internet, It’s fun to try and identify features that might go back to a Dutch ancestor, or a Bushman; a Boer, Khoi, San — or an Englishman. Many of these Griquas today  are settled in Namibia. My essay dealt with the Griqua dynasties of the Koks and Waterboers in the 1800s, in territory that today is

part of South Africa. Remember how David Arnot, the anglophile Griqua lawyer, helped arrange for Great Britain to “protect” Griqualand West from the Boers? Did he really do the Griquas a favor by joining with the Cape Colony? For a while there was a nonracial “qualified franchise” that would have allowed land-owning Griquas to vote. But after the  Boers and Brits joined forces in the Union of South Africa in 1910, the Griquas became subjects of the new, racist state. Under apartheid, they were marked “coloureds” and denied civil rights. The die was cast by 1894, when David Arnot died in Cape Town, age 74. His death was little noted in the press, even the Advertiser in Colesberg, the diamond-mining town he had served in many capacities. A local historian concluded with some ambivalence:  “Thus died a man who fundamentally altered the course of history and in his person, compounded his country’s problems and its aspirations.”

Although denied full civil and political rights in pre-1994 South Africa, the Griqua people apparently were fruitful and multiplied. The “coloured” population of South Africa today calls attention to the fact that “race” is an arbitrary human construct, but even more so, “racism.”