Bonus: Cut to Shape

fullsizeoutput_2fe6If you have paid close attention to my stamp blog, you know I have a nice copy of Great Britain No. 1 — the world’s first postage stamp, also known as the Penny Black. (see right)

Look at the second row of spaces in the illustration at right, though — empty spaces. Those are Nos. 5 to 7 — actually Nos. 7 to 5, since the one shilling value was issued first, in 1847, which coincided with the first U.S. postage stamp. In 1848 came the 10d. value, and finally, in 1854, the 6d. What sets these three stamps apart from nearly all other UK stamps — is that they are embossed labels. They look like what later were known as envelope stamps, which you still find at post offices around the world, including the USA. More on that later. 

Year after year, as I accumulated a respectable GB stamp collection, those three early spaces yawned at me in my British Europe album. (OK, you notice I don’t have expensive No. 2, either, but that’s another matter.)  From what little I knew, those three “stamps” — Nos. 5, 6 and 7 — also were pretty costly … valuable, rare. Not having much ready cash to spend on stamps, I figured they were out of reach. Plus, they somehow didn’t even look quite like stamps …

Then I discovered that when an embossed stamp like these, or an envelope stamp or a multi-sided imperforate stamp, is “cut to shape,” so to speak, rather than saved as a rectangle or square, there often is a dramatic drop in value. A cut-to-shape stamp usually is practically worthless, or worth comparatively little, according to the traditions of  stamp valuation. 

fullsizeoutput_2fd7Take, for example, this early two-color British India stamp of 1854, featuring an imperforate octagonal frame with a portrait of Queen Victoria (right, from the Internet). A nice copy like this pretty stamp (grabbed from the Internet) will sell for up to $450.





Just for kicks, I include an image of a rarity (below left): the 4-anna stamp with the portrait inverted. Even though the stamp is cut-to-shape, it’s still priced at more than $35k. 




fullsizeoutput_2fdcHere is an example, from the Internet, of the 4-anna stamp, cut to shape. It’s not cheap, but much below the cost of a rectangle. Get my point?

My quest for a copy of Great Britain No. 5, 6 and/or 7 was stimulated by an online offering I stumbled across. Before I tell that tale, however, let me just meander into the inviting field of cut-to-shape stamps …

fullsizeoutput_2fe4For starters, take a look at this beauty (right). It’s the famous British Guiana one-cent black-on-magenta, a fabled one-of-a-kind variety. And as you’ll notice, it’s cut to shape. That doesn’t prevent it being sold and re-sold, every now and then, for millions. 



Below is an example from the Internet of an early embossed stamp that carries a hefty price tag, despite being cut to shape. 


fullsizeoutput_2fdaMore common are examples like these, also from the Internet. Notice the relatively low price for these ancient embossed beauties. They’d be worth a lot fullsizeoutput_2fd9more if they were not cut to shape.

Please allow me to take this opportunity and share some of the embossed envelope stamps in my own collection. Below you will see a hodgepodge to start things off. Notice how many are carefully cut as rectangles — though I don’t believe any of them are worth much. 


fullsizeoutput_2fe0Whatever value the medallion-shaped oddment here had was decimated by the lame-brained stamp fiend who cut it to shape. (Was it a younger me?)


Version 2This is a cute enough collection, and they’re all nice rectangles. Not worth much, though.

fullsizeoutput_2fe7As I segue back to my quest for those early GB embossed stamps, I offer this: the world’s first “envelope stamp.” It’s from 1840 in Great Britain, and it’s known as the Mulready Cover — a one-penny foldable sheet you could write on, seal up and send through the mail. The idea never caught on. (This nice example is from my collection; I expect it’s worth at least the fullsizeoutput_2fe2$40 I paid for it.)  Here are two modern envelope stamps. At left is a clever retro design, harking back to those illustrated above. To the right is fullsizeoutput_339csome kind of holographic horror representing the space program or something like that.


The images above and below put the cut-to-shape issue in sharp perspective. Above is GB No. 5, the one shilling value — admittedly a magnificent example,  mint with original gum, offered on the Internet for nearly $6k. Below is the same stamp — heavily cancelled, clumsily cut to shape — offered for $1.99. 


It’s fun to look at nice examples of these early beauties, even though they are   beyond the means of this modest collector.




fullsizeoutput_339fIt was growing clear to me that if I ever wanted to fill those empty spaces in my album, I would have to settle for cut-to-shape. But I didn’t just want a “space-filler,” a crudely mangled example that is essentially worthless. Over the years, the Scott catalogue has upgraded its price for Nos. 5-7, cut to fullsizeoutput_2fddshape, from $1.50 to $10 or so. I searched the Internet and began finding cut-to-shape offerings that were well within my price range. There were flaws, though.fullsizeoutput_2fe3Finally I came across this cute little item: No. 5, carefully cut to shape, including nearly the entire design; no thins, tears or creases; offered for sale at $14.99.

I’ll take it!

In the miraculous global stamp marketplace of the Internet, I transacted my business and the long-sought collectible arrived in my mailbox a few days later. 

All that remains is to share with you the pleasure of filling one of those spaces in my album. Philately phorever!




Bonus: Jenny Loops through History

While doing some philatelic research for my friend Daniel, I came across this odd sequence of episodes in stamp history.


Don’t get exited. This is a picture from a catalog, not from my collection

Most everyone knows about the “inverted Jenny,” right? It’s the 24-cent US airmail stamp from 1918,  carmine rose and blue, with the single-engine Curtiss Jenny airplane in the center — flying  upside down. There are only a few examples of this kooky error, which seems to portray the fledgling US Airmail Service as some kind of daredevil barnstorming rumpus!



The first U.S. airmail set. This is from my Pa’s collection. The mint 6-cent stamp, left, catalogs above $85; the used 16-cent, center, sells for more than $40 (mint: $135); the heavily cancelled but otherwise fine example of the 24-cent, right, is valued at $100+ (mint: $160).

Inverted Jennys go for zillions of dollars these days — that is, when they go up for sale, which is rarely. The stamp comes from the first airmail set, which is quite valuable in itself — worth hundreds, not thousands.

IMG_1272In 2013, the US Postal Service issued a souvenir sheet depicting the inverted Jenny — the same engraving and colors as the accidental error back in 1918, as far as I can tell, only with a $2 value instead of 24 cents. It’s a beautiful, interesting sheet, full of information on the back. The stamps showing the famous upside-down plane are worth at least, well, two dollars each. 

I stumbled on the last episode of this mini-saga as I was researching the potential value for Daniel’s rare philatelic item. I went to eBay and began scanning US stamps, starting at the most valuable. I was down around $13k when I came upon this item (see illustration below): “The Un-Inverted Jenny.”  Bear with me, this takes some explaining. 


When the USPS put out its souvenir sheet in 2013, it printed a beautiful engraved replica of the classic error from 1918. All six stamps in the sheet feature inverted Jennys. So how come THIS stamp, clipped from that same 2013 souvenir sheet issue, depicts the Jenny flying right side up, as proudly as it did on the original issue of 1918?  Unraveling this philatelic mystery is similar to Sherlock Holmes’ M.O. in the Baskerville yarn — remember, the one about the dog that didn’t bark. In this case, the error is that the stamp is not an error.  The plane, in short, is not just flying right-side-up, it is also flying “un-inverted” (though it does look like it’s flying a bit lower in the frame than it should). 

Without caring to engage in more research at the moment, I will now speculate and reflect. This new error could have resulted from an unintentional skewing of the blue engraving plate. Some sheets inadvertently may have passed through before a correction was made. It could have been a repeat of what happened in 1918 — only in reverse, so to speak. But who’s kidding who? Was this really an accident? Did some malefactor create a secret stash of un-inverted Jennys? Is there a bureaucratic explanation involving specimens and proofs, alternate designs and essays, where something slipped through? Was a surrealist experimenting with concepts of “error”?

I prefer to think some folks at the USPS have a wry sense of philatelic wit. These four episodes in US stamp history — the original 1918 issue, the original invert, the 2013 invert, along with with “un-invert” — ring with irony and resonate in and out of symmetry. They take us from the dawn of air service well into the space age, on the wings of the steadfast — if not always upright — Jenny. And we have come full circle — with a twist. As T.S. Eliot might say, we have explored far to arrive at the place where we started. And we are seeing it for the first time, since now things are out of joint: 

Back in 1918, Jenny flew proudly. Then she tipped over. Oops. That was a philatelic accident, a misprint. Very embarrassing. It was a rare philatelic event that Made News, that became part of the broader culture — and cultural memory. It was an event worth memorializing in the USPS tribute sheet in 2013. On this sheet, the “error” is intentional, a historic reminder. Except now — this! Another error, you say? But how? The plane, she flies, right? Wrong! On this sheet, Jenny should be upside-down. That’s the whole point of the tribute. The “un-inverted” Jenny on this sheet is a mistake. Should the USPS now be embarrassed because it printed a stamp right side up? How has it come to this, that up is down, wrong is right, an error is not an error, a non-mistake is a mistake … ?  My brain is reeling.

OK, it’s not that dramatic. But interesting, no? Provocative, just a bit? Unsettling, maybe? That’s why they call stamp collecting “quiet excitement” (!)


Dear Fred: The right side up Jenny in the new $2.00 issue was intentional to create an artificial scarcity. See USPS explanation below.

I have saved several unopened sheets to sell to collectors who wish to gamble that the sheet includes the right side up version.  Wanna buy one?

Love, George


(USPS news release)  Postal Service Announces Very Limited Edition Stamps Circulated with Recent Issue of Famous ‘Upside Down’ Jenny Stamp

Customers who purchased Inverted Jenny stamps could have one of only 100 stamp sheets printed with plane flying ‘right side up,’ First recipient comes forward

October 02, 2013 

Postal Service Announces Very Limited Edition Stamps Circulated with Recent Issue of Famous ‘Upside Down’ Jenny Stamp

WASHINGTON – The Postal Service announced today that it printed 100 additional sheets of stamps of the recently issued Inverted Jenny stamp but with the plane flying right-side up. These very limited edition stamps were circulated with the recent issue of the most famous “misprinted” stamp.  Customers who have recently purchased the new Inverted Jenny stamp could have a very limited edition of the famous stamp. 

Unique to this stamp issuance, all sheets were individually wrapped in a sealed envelope to recreate the excitement of finding an Inverted Jenny when opening the envelope and to avoid the possibility of discovering a corrected Jenny prior to purchase.

“We are leveraging the incredible story behind the rare collectible as a creative way to generate interest in stamp collecting while highlighting the role the Post Office Department had in developing the commercial aviation industry,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.

Individuals purchasing ‘corrected Jenny sheets’ will find a congratulatory note inside the wrapping asking them to call a phone number to receive a certificate of acknowledgement signed by the Postmaster General.

Just days after the Postal Service issued the new $2 version of the most publicized stamp error in U.S. history — the 24-cent 1918 Curtiss Jenny airmail stamp depicting a biplane flying upside down, Glenn Watson of Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, purchased the new $2 version with the biplane flying right side up.

“I’ve been collecting U.S. and Canadian stamps for more than 50 years,” said Watson, who ordered his Inverted Jenny stamp sheet through the Postal Store on eBay. “By far this was a total surprise, and I can now relate to how stamp collector William Robey felt when he purchased the original sheet of 100 inverted Jennys in 1918. Clearly this right-side-up version will be the treasure of my collection. I hope this stamp will encourage younger generations to get involved in this educational hobby.”

The Backstory on Creating the Misprint’s ‘Misprint’

The idea for creating the “misprinted misprint,” came to light after the Postmaster General mentioned the stamp to customer groups shortly after it was previewed in January. 

“Our customers were enthusiastic about printing a new version of the most publicized stamp error in U.S. history as a great way to spur interest in stamp collecting,” said Donahoe. “Some jokingly commented that we should be careful to avoid repeating the same mistake of nearly a century ago. That was the impetus behind this initiative. What better way to interest a younger generation in stamp collecting?” 

Donahoe added the stamp serves to communicate the Post Office Department’s role in developing the nation’s commercial aviation industry.  Air mail turned out to be one of our most successful innovations.

“By showing that air travel could be safe and useful, we helped create the entire American aviation industry, which went on to reshape the world.”

Pan Am, TWA, American, United, Northwest and other airlines originated as air mail contractors before passenger service began. Additionally to help commercial aviation get off the ground and to speed the mail, the Post Office Department helped develop navigational aids such as beacons and air-to-ground radio. Today the Postal Service continues as the commercial aviation industry’s largest freight customer. Mail also flies on FedEx and UPS cargo aircraft.

The Jenny Story

Two eerie occurrences took place surrounding the nation’s first airmail flight that took place 1918. The pilot got lost, flew in the wrong direction and crashed. And due to a printing error of the 24-cent Curtiss Jenny airmail stamp created to commemorate this historic event, the biplane was depicted flying upside down on one sheet of 100 stamps that was sold to the public. 

In 1918, in a rush to celebrate the first airmail flight, the Post Office department issued the 24-cent Curtiss Jenny stamp. Because the design required two colors, sheets were placed on the printing press twice – first to apply red ink and a second time to apply blue ink.  This process was given to human error – as stamp collectors at the time well knew.

A Washington, DC, Post Office clerk – who had never seen an airplane – sold a sheet of 100 stamps mistakenly showing the biplane upside down. For nearly a century, stamp collectors have chased the Inverted Jennys and have accounted for nearly all 100 of them.

The 100 sheets were distributed randomly among the nation’s Post Offices and at the Postal Service’s Stamp Fulfillment Center which accepts stamp orders online at, and by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724). Additionally, some of the 100 also were randomly distributed at 


OMG George. This is very interesting — and a bit embarrassing. I mean, here I am, the guy writing the FMF Stamp Project commentaries, for gosh sake, and you fill in the blanks with a little astute research, after I just gamboled off into the glen of idle speculation, disdaining further research on the subject. I suppose I will have to add this tidbit to the growing oeuvre. for which I will give full credit to you and the USPS. 

Does this story strike you as a bit, well, anti-climactic? It was sort of a bureaucratic decision, it turns out, based on focus groups and a marketing plan — “to generate interest in stamp collecting.”  Kind of takes the drama and romance out of it. An intentional correction of a misprint apparently is not the same thing as the original boo-boo. There are only 100 sheets, so the scarcity factor makes all the difference. As you put it, an “artificial scarcity,” cynically (whimsically?) engineered by the USPS as a marketing gimmick. It reminds me of a couple of episodes from philatelic history. One was in the 1930s, when Postmaster Farley, a buddy of FDR’s and like the president a stamp collector, issued a slew of imperforate souvenir sheets and distributed them to his cronies and caused a mini-scandal that I believe resulted in much wider distribution of the sheets, which today have little value …  The other episode came in the 1960s with the stamp honoring Dag Hammerskjold, the UN guy killed when his plane went down near the Congo in 1961. The original US 4-cent stamp featured a startling error: some sheets had one color printed upside down, which created the specter of Hammerskjold sitting at a desk before the UN building in a world whirling upside down. When the postal service learned of its mistake, the powers-that-be decided to print millions more of the “error” stamp, thus turning “genuine scarcity” into “artificial plenty.” 

And speaking of artificial scarcity, some countries used to put out sets of stamps with a limited printing of one value in the set, resulting in higher prices to collectors. Among the offenders: Congo and East Germany 

George, your timely and on-point unraveling of the latest Jenny episode leaves untouched the ironic twists of the story. I like the postmaster’s term —  “misprinted misprint” — but his news release does get a little tangled between right and wrong. Example:  “Individuals purchasing ‘corrected Jenny sheets’ will find a congratulatory note inside the wrapping …”  Corrected, in quotes? An ironic reference in itself, no? Does “correct” mean correct, or something else?

Also …  “…  all sheets were individually wrapped in a sealed envelope to recreate the excitement of finding an Inverted Jenny when opening the envelope and to avoid the possibility of discovering a corrected Jenny prior to purchase.”  Wait a minute. Which is more exciting, to find the inverted Jenny, as expected, or a corrected Jenny? I should say, “corrected” … Or is the excitement level the same, only in reverse?  As for “recreated excitement,” I imagine that’s a term the late  Daniel Boorstin would banish to the realm of pseudo-events, don’t you think?  …

Love, FMF

p.s. I discover that I, too, have one of the sheets still sealed in its envelope. It could be one of the 100 sheets of “corrected” Jennys. If so, and if a single “corrected” Jenny is offered on eBay fort $13k, a full sheet of six might bring .. uh, let’s see … $78k. Wow!  Wonder how many sheets are still out there …


Clocwise, from top left: A cancelled example of the new $2 Jenny invest commemorative (I figure even a cancelled copy is worth saving); the souvenir sheet of six $2 Jenny stamps (worth at least $12, you figure); the front of the enevelope containing the sheet, with some key background info; and finally, a sealed envelope containing yet another souvenir sheet — could it be one of the rare sheets with “un-inverted” Jennys, worth as much as $70k?

ADDENDUM: When checking eBay for “Jenny sheet” and the like, it turns out there are more errors! The $2 stamps are being offered showing the inverted Jenny with “flat tires” — at least that’s the gimmick. Actually, it’s an inking error or a chip in the plate or something, such that tires on the upside-down airplane seem to have chunks missing. This doesn’t seem like a major error, though the stamps are selling for $30 or more. There also is a claim of a “red wing” error or some such — i.e. the ink on the red border bled into the blue of the airplane. Yeah yeah, big deal.  And there are imperforate sheets on the market, for sale on eBay at about $70. 


APPENDIX:  Only marginally Jenny-related, but still a good story …

The rarest cover in my collection is one addressed to my Uncle Reddy, in Needham, Mass. (see  below).

fullsizeoutput_5fb It bears the 24-cent “Jenny” airmail stamp, issued just three weeks before on May 13, 1918, cancelled with the message in the circular cancel: “Air Mail Service; New York; Jun 3, 1918; First Trip.” The return address is the “Aerial League of America,” 297 Madison Avenue. A rubber stamp in the lower left corner of the envelope announces: “VIA Aeroplane Mail.” Quaint! While the envelope isn’t in particularly good shape, a similar “first flight” cover was offered on eBay recently — for $250! 

The Jenny stamp itself, an excellent used example, sells for $100 or more. The cover has a story of its own. The letter was supposed to be carried on an  experimental flight June 3, 1918, that was aborted. But then, how did this cover reach my Uncle Reddy, then a lad in his 20s, at his family home in Needham? Or was Uncle Reddy, a stamp collector himself, living in New York by then? Hmm. Here’s some speculation: My clever Uncle Reddy found out about this experimental flight via the NYC grapevine. Perhaps as a game fellow, he was a member of that “Aerial League of New York.” He got hold of one of the colorful new 24-cent airmail stamps, stuck it to an envelope, addressed it to his Ma and Pa’s house in Needham, and had it cancelled for the “first flight” from New York to Boston.  (Presumably Boston — the plane surely did not land in Needham, the leafy western suburb where the Fiske lived.) Though the flight reportedly was aborted, my uncle still managed to get back his cancelled cover, whether or not it ever actually went through the mail.  Whatever happened, it’s quite a curiosity item …  (Perhaps my Cousin Phineas, Uncle Reddy’s son, has more details and can fill me in on this some time; perhaps he even will claim the cover!) 

For comparison purposes: A U.S. airmail cover from Otis Elevator in Washington, D.C., addressed to Otis Elevator in New York City, postmarked “first flight” 5/15/18, was offered on eBay for $750.

Also, a New York City to Washington, D.C. “first flight” was offered for $850.


Bechuanaland Becomes Botswana

fullsizeoutput_2e94Do you think it was magnanimous of the British to grant “internal self government” to its Bechuanaland territory in 1965  (see the commemorate set of stamps, above)? What’s that? Oh, you say the Tswana tribe of Bechuanaland had been self-governing all along? And the British handled — what? Foreign affairs? Kept Bechuanaland Protectorate from turning communist? How about extraction of resources and exploitation of labor? For whatever reasons, including sheer stubborn imperial pride, the British did not grant independence to Bechuanaland until 1966, long after most of colonial Africa disappeared. A year earlier, the territory issued its final set under British dominion — this odd duck you see above, where the word “protectorate” has been dropped. Why? Was Britain withdrawing its “protection”? Was Britain still handling foreign affairs for the Tswana? Should I stop asking questions for a while?

It looks to me like the crown was still in complete control of Bechuanaland’s external affairs in 1965. Just look at these stamps, with the queen’s vignette benignly presiding over a stylized landscape of farm and fields. The map shows Bechuanaland Protectorate, not “Bechuanaland.” Indeed, a colony called “British Bechuanaland” did exist, once upon a time. In 1885, it separated from Bechuanaland Protectorate (for reasons I have wrestled with in the last essay).   “British Bechuanaland” remained a Crown Colony only until it was absorbed into the Cape Colony in 1895, and thence into the Union of South Africa in 1910. This new, 1965-era “Bechuanaland” is a confusing entity — currently it is listed among the last issues of “Bechuanaland Protectorate”? It also could be seen as the first issue of the soon-to-be independent Botswana? Since it doesn’t include “Protectorate,” but clearly asserts British dominion, it could be considered a continuation of “British Bechuanaland” whose stamp-issuing days ended the 1890s!  Such a quandary!

Bechuanaland Protectorate continued to put out “omnibus” issues with other British territories over the next year — honoring the International Telecommunications Union, International Cooperation Year and the late go-go-imperialist Winston Churchill. But the bugler had long since played taps for the empire, and Bechuanaland Protectorate was just about done. 

fullsizeoutput_2ee0Then an odd little set came out June 1, 1966, commemorating the Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners. These were African “recruits” in World War II, as many as 10,000 Tswana in all. Some volunteered, others were pressed into service as laborers, anti-aircraft gunners and drivers. African troops traveled as far as Italy and Lebanon. This set marked the 25th anniversary of the Bechuanaland pioneers, formed in 1941 and disbanded in 1946. The designs include a British Hasler smoke generator truck with Bechuana operators, and a  Bechuana gun-site team in action. There is a depiction of the regimental cap badge (rifle and spade crossed under the crown, with the insignia “Labor Omnia Vincit,” which I would translate as “work conquers all.”) The five-cent stamp features a handsome young Bechuana pioneer bugler, his wide-brimmed military bush cap giving him a rakish look. It was said that many of the Tswana recruits adjusted well to military service — even under the command of white officers. One wonders how well they adjusted back to colonial life. The role of World War II in stirring nationalist aspirations in Africa and elsewhere is well-known. While some Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners were victims of a colonial enterprise, others eagerly  served the war effort and made genuine sacrifices.  The experience of being in that group may have helped nurture and train a generation of African leaders.  These stamps provide a suitably ambivalent coda as the last set issued by Bechuanaland Protectorate.   

fullsizeoutput_2e95Three months later, a new nation was born — philatelically speaking. The first set from independent Botswana was issued Sept. 30, 1966, and was clearly a rush job: Instead of designing new stamps for the new country, postal authorities simply overprinted the 1962 definitive set with “Republic of Botswana.” OK, so it looks kind of weird to have Queen Elizabeth smiling out from under the overprint. But hey, the stamps are valid enough. Lots of emancipated colonies did the same thing, starting with Ghana, which overprinted the Gold Coast set of Queen Elizabeth definitives in 1956.
fullsizeoutput_2e9dAbove is the first definitive set designed specifically for Botswana. An earlier  commemorative set, issued Sept. 30 (the same day as the set of overprints) marked Botswana Independence Day. I have always been partial to definitive sets. Why? Because they are stamps people actually use, not labels commemorating one thing or another that may not even get to post offices for use on regular mail. Definitive stamps are the People’s Stamps!  I acquired Botswana’s first definitive series as a first-day cover, evidently cancelled-to-order because there is no address on the envelope. In addition to 14 colorful birds on the stamps, the  envelope has snapshots of native animals, like an elephant on the move and a fat, shiny hippo. 

fullsizeoutput_2e96At right is a display in my stock album of stamps from several  subsequent definitive sets of Botswana, all featuring native fauna. I accumulate these stamps without much energy or fullsizeoutput_2e97intent— when they come my way, I take them. I still enjoy putting sets together, noticing common features as well as the obvious and subtle differences. Somehow, it just makes life sweeter. 

fullsizeoutput_2e99I must pass along a blow-up of this unusual Botswana commemorative from 1975. It celebrates the 90th anniversary of the  “establishment of protectorate.” The set includes two other stamps, one depicting tribal chiefs, another recording the chiefs’ visit to London in 1895. 

This map stamp  has got me scratching my head, though. First of all, why even make special mention of this colonial map-making in newly independent Botswana? So the British extended
“protection” to Bechuanaland. Big deal. It was little more than “protection” from the encroaching Boers and Germans. Oh yes, and protection from rival tribes in Matabeleland. This was no act of statesmanship and enlightened geopolitics. The British were motivated by greed and racism, along with the other colonial powers. A second puzzle: If you are going to honor such a colonial gesture, why not wait until the centennial, instead of the “90th anniversary”? That would seem a more resonant temporal landmark. Why the rush? A third puzzle involves the map itself, with the land labeled  “British Bechuanaland,” not “Bechuanaland Protectorate.” After 1885, British Bechuanaland was gouged out of territory south of the Molopo River, which eventually became part of South Africa. The bulk of Bechuanaland became the protectorate, more or less on the outline of modern-day Botswana. What this means is that the stamp honoring the protectorate actually portrays the status quo ante — what things looked like before there was a protectorate. What sort of sense does that make? 

fullsizeoutput_2e9bAbove is what we in the philately racket call a “hodge-podge.” It’s a catch-all page in my stock album for post-colonial Africa, my last page for Botswana. You will see some attractive animal stamps, and a crudely-drawn portrait of two nearly naked  children (boys?) standing awkwardly, as though waiting for a bus — or more clothes. Center right is a stamp with a striking landscape of plain and dry hillock set starkly against a blue sky. (Too bad the stamp has a crease in it!)

fullsizeoutput_2e9eThe set at lower left above (enlarged at right) commemorates a century of Bechuanaland stamps, carrying us back to where we began.  You can read much more about this set — and the stories the stamps tell — in my blog post of April 2018, Bechuanaland: Introduction. That is where my exploration of Bechuanaland/Botswana and its stamps began.

 We have come a long way, with some detours, and for me it has been a pleasure. I am thrilled to have been able to devote so much time and attention to my beloved Bechuanaland stamps, and share it all with you. While I hope to add more stamps to my Bechuanaland collection, now it’s time to turn the page and embark on new adventures. There is much more ahead — more stamps, more stories, more illustrations and speculations — more drama and fun!  Onward!



Back to Bechuanaland

fullsizeoutput_2e5dAt last! A consummation devoutly to be wished. Or should I say, a resumption long overdue. I think it was about 500 pages and two years back that I temporarily abandoned my original mission in this FMF Stamp Project — which was a leisurely ramble through the storied landscape of my stamp collection, starting with British Africa. I got through my collection from the British Colony of Ascension Island, and also the small southern African territory of Basutoland (now Lesotho). Then I went my merry way, with long diversions to Congo, other precincts of that vast continent, and into various fjords and flights that led eventually to a 150-page examination of so-called “Cinderella” stamps (that is, stamps that are not real stamps). That topic, by the way, is far from exhausted, though I needed a breather!

I’ve been circling back toward Bechuanaland, the next country by alphabetical order in my British Africa album. I got so far as to present a solid introduction to the topic (see Bechuanaland: Introduction blog post, April 2018). Then other subjects and stories drew my attention. There’s just so much of interest in the world of stamps, don’t you think? 

Continuing to circle, I touched on Bechuanaland in my tale of the elusive five-pound Victorian, then managed to work it into my short exploration of “Fiscals” (a branch of Cinderellas that goes on and on). The happy outcome of that short tale was that I acquired the Bechuanaland one-pound Victorian, which you will see again, shortly. 
Hooray! Here we are, ready or not. Just to recap: As I’ve already explained,  in the 1880s, the British divided Bechuanaland into a protectorate (Bechuanaland Protectorate) and a crown colony (British Bechuanaland). The protectorate survived until 1966, when it became the independent republic of Botswana. The British colony became part of the southern African nexus, and was absorbed into the Union of South Africa in 1910. Bechuanaland/Botswana has a colorful history  (see 4/18 blog post for more). Now it’s time for stamps!fullsizeoutput_2e5e

British Africa (continued), Bechuanaland, page one: 

Issues of 1886-7.  OK, here we go. Actually, this is a piece of stamp-cake. I figure the best way to proceed is to offer a kind of thumbnail view of the album page (right), then enlarge the stamp images and expound on them. 

  The first stamps from “British Bechuanaland,” shown below, are overprints of Cape of Good Hope stamps. There would be many iterations of these overprints in the next few years, both for British Bechuanaland and Bechuanaland Protectorate. I have a decent showing here. Let me tell you, the ones I am missing are not cheap!

fullsizeoutput_2e5fA word on the legend provided in my stamp album (see right). You may notice that it refers to British Bechuanaland as a “high commission territory” in 1960. This is nonsense. Bechuanaland Protectorate was indeed under British supervision in 1960 — independent Botswana was still six years off. But British Bechuanaland? It didn’t even exist after 1895, first merging with the Cape Colony, then the Union of South Africa. 

fullsizeoutput_2e60Version 2I believe I have rhapsodized  about this set (above) before — how the designs look like bas-reliefs profiles of the Queen carved into tablets of rose marble or granite. Drab, you say? OK, the lilac color doesn’t jump out at you, and it’s the same for the 1d, 2d, 3d, 4d and 6d, before changing to a decidedly unglamorous shade of green for the 1/- through 10/- values. And then, for the one-pound and five-pound values, it reverts to the same faded lilac color. Sigh.

But wait! I will have none of it! That lilac, to begin with, is worthy of Miss Haversham’s parlor, or the most delicate hydrangea in a garden at Wellfleet. Furthermore, the design consistency is a bedrock quality of this set, providing a sense of stability and order that can only have helped in the remote precincts of British Bechuanaland in 1888. 

fullsizeoutput_2e63Bechuanaland, page two: Issues of 1888-98. Just a few comments on this page. There is always something to say! IMG_6861Notice at right how the earlier set has been surcharged — with the same value spelled out in the tablets flanking the portrait! I guess too many postal customers needed to see a number …   

fullsizeoutput_2e64At right, top row, is a remarkable sequence that captures all the wackiness of British Bechuanaland bureaucracy. Here we have the overprints running across top and bottom, sideways left, and sideways right. Whew! Make up your minds! (As you can see, from the pencil notations, I paid good bucks for these — $13 for the 1/2d, for example.

The second row is a complete set of GB overprints of the Victoria sexagenary jubilee set. Not bad! 

fullsizeoutput_2e66Bechuanaland, page three: Issues of 1888-97. Notice the subtle difference in these stamps. The overprint has fullsizeoutput_2e67changed from “British Bechuanaland” to “Bechuanaland Protectorate.” It took me years to collect all of these…


fullsizeoutput_2e68Bechuanaland, page four: Issues of 1904-27. By now “British Bechuanaland” was just a memory — but “Bechuanaland Protectorate” would last 80 years. For fullsizeoutput_2e69nearly three decades, postal authorities made do with these undistinguished overprints of British definitives — through the reign of Edward VII and well into that of George V. What a missed opportunity!

fullsizeoutput_2e6aBechuanaland, page five: Issues of 1926-35. You  may be able to identify on this page, reproduced at right, a “postage due” set at the top, another one in the middle, and at the bottom of the page  the familiar “omnibus” set commemorating George V’s 25th anniversary on the throne, on the verge of his death in 1935. No need to dwell on them here.

What I want to swoon over is this gorgeous set of George V definitives that appeared in 1932. Aren’t they beauties?  fullsizeoutput_2e6bSorry I don’t have the higher values (yet). They are quite dear. Version 2However, please enjoy the delicate artistry of the engraving of a pastoral Tswana landscape that features grazing cattle and a venerable baobab tree. 





fullsizeoutput_2e74Bechuanaland, page six: 1937-45. The king is dead. Long live the king. That’s the way it was in the British Empire. George V expired Jan. 20, 1936, and after the business with Edward VIII, George VI was duly coronated in 1937. Without missing a beat, the engravers substituted a portrait of the young king for that of his late father, and the same beautiful design remained in use through the 15 years of his reign. Notice the exquisite color combinations for the upper values — black and olive green (1/-); black fullsizeoutput_2e6cand carmine (2/6); black and ultramarine (5/-); black and red-brown (10/-).  This complete set, mint, was selling today online for $42.50.

fullsizeoutput_2e77This set again! You may remember it from the Basutoland pages — same South Africa set, same patriotic themes, same white faces enjoying the end of World War II. 



fullsizeoutput_2e79Bechuanaland, page seven: Issues of 1947-9. No need to dwell on this page, which features “omnibus” issues for the Royals’ 25th wedding anniversary (which I don’t have), the Royal Visit of 1947, and the Universal Postal Union issue of 1949. Why do I bother to collect these stamps, which aren’t valuable? I guess I just like to keep striving for completeness …



fullsizeoutput_2e7aBechuanaland, page eight: Issues of 1953-60. Guess what happened after 1953, when Elizabeth II was coronated? The same darn thing: The engravers substituted her portrait for her father’s and before that, her grandfather’s, and the splendid design had another run — right up into the 1960s. 

Version 2








fullsizeoutput_2e85Here’s a little oddity (above). In 1960, British imperial powers took it upon themselves to issue this set of stamps congratulating the 75 years of their “protection racket” in Bechuanaland. They must have known by then that their time as colonial masters was rapidly drawing to a close — Ghana already was independent, Sierra Leone and the rest would follow quickly. Yet here we see the Dowager Queen Victoria of 1885, and the demure, fresh-faced Elizabeth of 1960, flanking a scene on the Tswana veld — as though everything were normal as could be, the past and present are of a piece, and the British “protectorate” is secure. 

fullsizeoutput_2e8bBechuanaland, page nine: Issues of 1961. Then bang! came decimal currency, a gift from South Africa. Postal authorities rushed to issue a set with decimal surcharges. When the news reached me, I was excited. These might be rare stamps. I quickly sent off a money order to Lusaka, asking the postmaster to send me a set. Then I sat back and waited … and waited … 

(You may wonder why I still lack to 12 1/2 cent value. Indeed, why not? I recently scanned the online market and couldn’t find it. I’m sure my patience and persistence  eventually will be rewarded.)


fullsizeoutput_2e8eBechuanaland, page 10, issues of 1962. 

Imagine my disappointment when the envelope finally arrived from Bechuanaland Protectorate — with this brand-new set (right) instead of the surcharges. As you might guess, I had to go out on the stamp market and accumulate the surcharged set over a number of years — somehow always missing the 12 1/2 cent value in the process. The set I received from the post office in Lusaka did not include the top value two-rand stamp. I used to think it was because that stamp was issued months later, but now I wonder if I simply didn’t send enough money to cover the whole set. In any case, as you see below, it cost me $11 to buy it and finally complete the 1962 set, which sells online (mint, never hinged) for a decent $75 or more. 


fullsizeoutput_2e92Bechuanaland, page 11, issues of 1961-3. More postage due and “omnibus” stamps appear on my last album page for Bechuanaland — though it is not the end of my collection. (Stay tuned for next month’s installment.)  Why don’t I have the “Freedom from Hunger” stamp in the middle? Laziness trumps completeness, I guess …


Bonus: Fiscals


A dapper young King George V and a dour Queen Mary peer out of this handsomely engraved, two-color double portrait (blue-slate and carmine). It’s the one-pound top value of a beautiful set from 1910 that marked the coronation of the successor to the late Edward VIII. It clearly carries a registrar’s cancellation, and thus did not serve a postal purpose. With a postal cancellation, this stamp has a catalogue value in the hundreds. As you see from my pencil notes, I bought it for $23.99. If you want to know why this wasn’t a spectacularly  good deal, read on.

You may recall that I ranted, raved, vented and generally made a scene over so-called Cinderella stamps for more than 150 pages, profusely illustrated. (see blog posts of 2017 — 7/30, 8/3, 8/18, 9/5[2], 12/28; and 2018 — 2/23, 3/23)  While I thought I had covered the topic at sufficient length, if not comprehensively, I realize now that I barely touched on another, Cinderella-like side of  philately — fiscal stamps and in particular, revenue cancellations of postage stamps. 

This is a particular challenge for British Commonwealth collectors like me. In the United States, it is against the law to use postage stamps for revenue purposes — that is, to apply them as proof of payment of a non-postal fee. The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing began issuing sets in the 1800s for a variety of non-postage purposes — General Revenue, Documentary Revenue, Proprietary Stamps, Future Delivery Stamps, Stock Transfer Stamps, Hunting Permit Stamps and stamps to cover fees for everything from playing cards to beer, potatoes, wine, even marijuana. Between 1873 and 1881, the government issued complete sets of “official” stamps for


Here is an example of an “official” State Department stamp from the 1870s. It is offered online for at least $50. A complete set would cost you thousands.

use by federal departments like Treasury, Internal Revenue and State — some of which are quite valuable. This kept things simple for collectors. If you wanted, you could collect revenue stamps, official stamps, postage stamps or all of the above. But it was easy to tell them apart.

Not so, necessarily, with British colonial stamps. The British Empire did not observe the same philatelic convention as the USA. To make matters even more confusing, British colonies like Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Natal issued revenue stamps as well as using postage stamps for revenue purposes. (Seeing the colorful engraved revenue stamps is so unnerving to me that I don’t even want to include pictures of them here; they seem like subversive  incursions into the stamp world from some parallel planet.) 

Version 2

This is as close as I’ll come to showing you revenue stamps — a set from 1963 featuring Queen Elizabeth II and the Nyasaland coat of arms — and an overprint changing it from “revenue” to “postage”! This set was issued in November, after the demise of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, amid last-ditch efforts  to save the colonies, Months after these provisionals were issued,  the independent nation of Malawi was born.

I can’t tell you with authority how many colonial postage stamps have been used for revenue purposes, but there are many. This happens with low-value stamps, but most notably with high-value stamps. Each time a postage stamp received a revenue cancellation, it essentially ceased to be a postage stamp. (Remember the UPU definition — a legal stamp has to be used for postage, or in the case of mint stamps, be available for use as postage.)  “Fiscally used” stamps have been shunned by collectors — me included — who insist on “postally used” stamps. Because the high-value fiscally used stamp has become a non-stamp, its value to collectors is a small fraction of what postally used copies are worth.  Some


I have this early set (1890s) from Rhodesia (then called the British South Africa Company) — complete, including the one pound, two pound, five pound and ten pound stamp shown here. How do you suppose I could have afforded the $2,000 or so it would have cost to buy authentic, postally used copies of these stamps? For less than $100, I managed to buy all four — and I doubt any of them are “real,” postally used examples. You could say they are just fiscals, not worth a darn. But hey, they started out being “real” stamps, and now I have them. So humor me and just enjoy them.

would discount the fiscal as much as 95 percent. Thus the same stamp with a legitimate postal cancel might sell for $200, while the fiscally used example would be offered for $20 or less. 

Patience is a virtue for stamp collectors. I’ve found that waiting for stamps usually produces welcome results — eventually. All stamps come to he (or she) who waits.  However, at my advanced age, with so many spaces left to fill in my albums, I have softened toward “fiscals.” I hereby admit to having added numerous of them to my collection in recent years. Illustrated above and below, for the first time, are some of them for your viewing pleasure. You can see by the “price” notes written in pencil that I paid fairly modest bucks for these high-value stamps that would have cost more than I ever would have been willing (or allowed) to spend, had they carried postal cancels. I just made a decision: These stamps are the same darn stamps that are used on envelopes and packages in the mail. The only difference is the cancellation. They’ll always be worth something, and they will look awfully good in my album. So go for it!


Here are the top values of the 1898-1908 BSAC set. Wow! Complete, right up to the ten-pound stamp. I’m thrilled to have these in my collection, even though you can clearly see the revenue cancels. Not sure about the two-pound stamp — it sure looks like a postal cancel, in which case the stamp still would not be that pricey. The ten-pound stamp with a postal cancel, however, has a catalogue value in the thousands. As I was “researching” this piece, I found all four top values, with fiscal cancels, offered on the internet for $20. Remarkable.

I’m not alone in my willingness to settle for fiscals. Here’s what one chat-room participant had to say on the subject: “It’s a cost-effective way to fill some of those elusive holes in the collection. Just keep in mind that the market value is 5-10% of catalog value for fiscal cancels.”

Online conversation touches on unscrupulous sellers who try to sell fiscals for the same price as postally used copies. There are reports of philatelic phelons rubbing out revenue cancels and applying forged postal marks.  It’s enough to make you think twice before you invest hundreds of dollars in high-value rarities.  One collector says his approach is to assume that all cancelled high-value British colonial stamps from the old days were fiscally used — unless there is clear evidence or authentication of a postal cancellation.

Let’s not get too far into the weeds with fiscals, but I do need to add a word about “remainders.” These are stamps officially cancelled by the P.O., but never used postally; that is, never pasted on a letter. Included here, below, are examples in fullsizeoutput_2cc3my collection from Natal and St. Helena. You can tell it’s a remainder by the oddly angular postal strike. The catalog value of the St. Helena stamps, in used condition, is in the $100 range. Yet I was able to buy them for under $20. Notice that I added the pencil note “remainders” as a reminder. Last words on the subject: Here is an odd remark from fullsizeoutput_2cc4the Scott catalogue:  “Rhodesian authorities made available remainders in large quantities of all stamps in 1897, 1898-1908, 1905, 1909 and 1910 issues, CTO (ed: cancelled-to-order). Some varieties exist only as remainders.”  Among the


This little baby cost me $8.50. I wondered if I was getting a rare error. Now I have learned it’s a relatively low-value “non-stamp,” since all known copies were cancelled to order by the post office. (Sigh.)

remainders were overprints that inadvertently were inverted. I have one of them, which you see here. This must have posed a challenge to the catalogue editors: Here is a stamp, cancelled as a remainder by the post office, that carries the same overprint as the regular  stamp from the series, but inverted. Should this be a variety? Or should it be shunned as a non-stamp? (Answer: The editors relegated the remainder-inverts to a footnote, giving them a relatively modest value.)  Remember the stamp illustrated at the top of this essay? While it is clearly a fiscal, we know at least it’s not a remainder, cancelled-to-order. It may have been fiscally used, but at least it was used!


Now here’s something odd: a “postage” stamp from Madagascar, with a hand cancellation reading “British Consular Mail.” It seems the consulate issued these stamps between 1884 and 1886. The Brits then relinquished to France all claim to Madagascar. In return, the French allowed the British “have” Zanzibar. (Wasn’t that sweet?) Scott’s catalogue treats these as legitimate postage stamps, and I guess I’ll go along with that, just for fun — though doesn’t it seem more like a fiscal stamp? It’s about the size of a bookplate. It cost me twenty bucks, and I believe it’s worth at least that. Weird, eh?

My latest foray into fiscals involves the one-pound stamp from British Bechuanaland. (see below) Issued in 1888, it’s a marvelous “bas-relief” bust of Queen Victoria in profile. The shading and the delicate lilac shade convey an impression that the stamp is carved from stone, some kind of pink marble perhaps, or ruby-infused quartz. I knew this was a fiscally used copy — the seller offered it as such, for $15, while noting that the catalogue value of a postally used copy was $800. Wow! What a deal. (Not to be confused with the five-pound value, which rattled me in an earlier encounter. See “Deal too fullsizeoutput_2cbcGood to Be True” blog post,  11/18/18)

Only after I had the stamp in my hands did I notice something: There was some


I share the packaging for shipment of my new Bechuanaland one-pound stamp, just to give an example of how classy the Brits are in their mailing hjabits. Notice the official-looking brown oversize envelope; the interesting meter stamp carrying a classic portrait of the seemingly eternal Elizabeth II; and the useful request: “Please do not bend” — not likely, given the sturdy cardboard backing in the envelope!

kind of scuff or thin or other discoloration on the stamp, at the lower back of the queen’s neck! Eek! What did I spend $15 for — a worthless, damaged fiscal stamp? Below is a close-up look at the worrisome patch of creamy white. 

Version 2The closer I looked, the more it appeared to be not a thin, but actually a confetti-like piece of off-white paper, a remnant somehow stuck to the surface of the stamp. i began to pick gingerly at the spot, using my stamp tongs and a magnifying class to keep track of my efforts. Sure enough, the tongs seemed to catch an edge of the  paper. Easy now, it’s moving. Is it … could it be … it is! The paper fragment was  attached to the stamp, but not really stuck on it. My stamp tongs gradually dislodged the speck of paper sufficiently that I could lift it harmlessly off the stamp,


Happy ending! Here you see the Victoria one-pound stamp from British Bechuanaland, with the speck of white paper removed and viewable at left. Inspect the place where it used to be and you will see that it is completely undamaged. Hooray! I wonder how long it took before someone (ii.e. me) got up the gumption to take the risk and try to fix this stamp?            

leaving the surface completely undamaged. What a rescue operation! Is there a lesson here for readers of the FMF Stamp Project blog? Something about risking and daring? The value of close observation? I felt like a philatelic archaeologist, carefully teasing and brushing away detritus to  reveal the centuries old beauty underneath …  Quite a thrill!


Bonus: The Tale of the Prodigal Packet

fullsizeoutput_1932This installment of the stamp blog may be a little too esoteric for the general reader —
though I don’t really think so. Imagine a little packet of stamps in an envelope, tempest-tossed, plucked from stormy South China seas, buffeted by the Trade Winds, perhaps — then winging its way straight and true to its destination. Well, not exactly straight and true. For all the details, read on …

The small parcel arrived in the mail today, brought in by wife Chris. “Honey, is this the letter you’ve been waiting for?” she asked, handing it to me. 


Look what floated in on the tide …

The awkwardly sealed, bulging envelope was official mail from the U.S. Postal Service. Inside, viewable through the envelope’s transparent front, was a smaller packet — or at least, what remained of it. The piece was  crumpled, wrinkled, torn, even faded or scraped. A pair of Chinese stamps were visible in the upper left, above what appeared to be a colorfully painted Chinese dragon. A blurry outline on the upper right suggested another stamp, severely abraded. Below was a label with my address.

In short, it looked like the long-lost order from Huasin! (see previous Bonus feature, “A Deal Too Good to Be True,” November 2018)  

On the back of the USPS envelope was a pre-printed note. “Dear Valued Postal Customer,” the undated note began, “I want to extend my sincere apology as your Postmaster for the enclosed document that was inadvertently damaged in handling by your Postal Service.

“We are aware how important your mail is to you. With that in mind, we are forwarding it to you in an expeditious fashion.”

Expeditious? Let’s see. My records show the package was mailed Oct. 8. Today is … Dec. 13.** Somewhere along the line, expeditious-ness became moot …

(** For your reference: Although this may sound contemporary, I actually wrote it  a couple of seasons ago.) 

“The United States Postal Service handles over 202 billion pieces of mail each year,” the note continued.  “While each employee makes a concerted effort to process, without damage, each piece of mail, an occasional mishap does happen.”

The note concluded:  “We appreciate your cooperation and understanding and sincerely regret any inconvenience that you have experienced.”

fullsizeoutput_d92OK. Let’s take a look inside the envelope to see if any of the stamps inside survived this “mishap.”  On opening the USPS cover, I found the envelope inside twisted back on itself, worn and warped as though it had been crushed, or worse fullsizeoutput_d93— waterlogged. The tattered remnants yielded a folded note — the receipt for my order from Du Wei in Shanghai, China — and a stout cardboard packing envelope, securely fastened with tape. A good sign! However, water worries continued. If the stamps had been soaked and ruined, I would be left with nothing from my $30.60 order.fullsizeoutput_d94

I carefully cut the tape and opened the cardboard flaps and there, safely slotted on their stock card, were my stamps. At first glance, they looked all right. As I disassembled the small lot, I noticed with satisfaction that one mint stamp lying face down on the stock card came up in my tongs showing its gum intact. IMG_1733Another good sign!  The bizarre, map-shaped stamps from Sierra Leone were OK, since they were self-adhesives still attached to their paper backing and thus, insulated from the elements. The other stamps, alas, had no gum left, and bore unmistakable signs of water damage in discolorations on their backs. Since they are not worth much to begin with, I think I will just keep them as souvenirs and and consider them “used.” (Which, come to think of it, is fairly accurate, since they were altered while in transit through the postal system!) 

After the gloomy pictures of myself I included in my earlier post about the missing envelope and the Bechuanaland Victoria 5-pound near-fiasco, it’s only right that I now include some images of a more cheerful me — smiling, if not gloating. IT seems things turned out — well, OK in the end. 

All that remains for me to do is to go to the Stamps2Go online site and remove my “complaint” from the blameless Du Wei — and send this note:

“Hello Du Wei — I am happy to report the stamps you sent me arrived today! The package was in bad condition and was delivered with a note of apology from our U.S. Postal Service. Alas, several of the mint stamps lost their gum due to apparent water damage. But they were not costly, and I shall consider them ‘used’ and keep them as a souvenir. The Sierra Leone stamps are in fine shape, as is the 2p Malta Edward VII.

“I have notified Stamps2Go that my complaint has been resolved. As far as I am concerned, you were not responsible for this problem. I would be happy to do business with you again.  Best wishes, Fred Fiske, Minoa, New York   USA”

I am left wondering what adventure this little package endured to reach me. Did it fall out of a plane just out of Shanghai, to be scooped from the South China Sea by a fisherman on his junk and sent on its way? Did it languish on a runway, or in a leaky warehouse during a rainstorm? Was it mangled by a post office “processing” machine and yet, miraculously survive in its crumpled, bruised and sodden state? Have I asked enough questions? Oh wait, here’s one more: If the envelope suffered such saturating water damage, how to explain that one of the stamps came through the deluge with its gum intact? Now there’s a whole other story.

I’ll bet some of you still can’t quite believe stamp-collecting could be this thrilling!             



BONUS: A Deal too Good to Be True



Here are images of me, unsmiling, displaying what appear to be various expressions of discomfort, even dismay. These images are appropriate for the essay that follows, which tells a couple of distressing stories of the misadventures that can befall the active philatelist. I wrote this a couple of years ago, so the dates are of interest primarily for chronology. For the gory details, read on …


1. The Missing Packet

I’ve been smarting from a recent philatelic setback: I paid $30.60 for an order from Stamps2Go. The seller, Du Wei, is from China. I filed my initial inquiry/complaint through the Web site three weeks after the order supposedly was mailed, and received in response this mild rebuff:

“Hi, Your items were shipped out Oct. 9th (China time) … Mails to US usually take about 2-3 weeks but sometimes it would be longer. No problem so far. Believe you will get it soon.
“Please contact me anytime if there is any problem. I will do my best to help you. I think a instance complaint (sic) is not a best way to me. Everybody could see this complaint on 2go.
“Pls let me know if you still not get it next week.
“Regards, Huasin”

A week later, still no packet, so I sent a direct email note:
Hello Huasin — Alas, I still have not received the packet of stamps from you. Sorry about the earlier complaint. I didn’t mean to cause a problem. Is this better? – Fred Fiske,107 Fleetwood Lane, Minoa, New York  13116 USA

No response. Two weeks later I sent my next note:
I am disappointed to report that I still have not received the stamp order, which I understand was sent Oct. 8 — and that I have not heard from you, either. Below is a copy of my order, which comes to $30.60.  I have not filed any other complaint with Stamps2Go, and look forward to hearing from you …
Thanks. Fred Fiske
(I attached the list of stamps from the order, which consisted of some old singles from the British Caribbean and Malta, plus some mid-1960s oddities from Sierra Leone.)

Still no answer. Eventually I sent what I suppose will be my final note: Hello? Did you get this message, which I sent days ago? Still waiting to hear from you … – Fred Fiske, Minoa, NY USA

Odd as it may seem, I am rarely “stiffed” by an online seller, and I have made dozens of transactions. While the $30 loss can be absorbed into the great scheme of things, it still stings — and dampens my enthusiasm for online browsing, bidding and buying, at least for a while … (Editor’s note: Not so fast! Stay tuned for the Stamp Bonus feature, “The Prodigal Packet.”)

2. The Bechuanaland Victoria Five-Pound Fiasco

So I have moved on to other things. The other day, between one thing and another, I happened to take a look at current eBay offerings, and stumbled on what looked like an amazing deal.


The stamp, above, as pictured in the online auction page. Below, an image of the stamp reproduced on a page of my British Africa stamp album.

“Bechuanaland 1887,” read the heading, above the image of an elongated, faded-lilac stamp with a portrait of Queen Victoria. “Price: $79.00.” The stamp included these words in bold, black, curving lines of sans-serif type: “British Bechuanaland” at the top and “Postage and Revenue” at the bottom. In much fainter type bracketing the portrait, under a heavy cork cancel, I could just discern the words “FIVE” and “POUNDS.”

What?! This can’t be. Such a stamp must be a great rarity, worth far more than $79. Besides, it looks like a postal cancel, not a revenue mark, which dramatically increases the value. I grabbed my trusty Scott stamp catalogue and sure enough, the L5 stamp, issued in 1887 (No. 22), was listed at $2,750 mint, $1,400 used. Wow!

I looked again at the screen. The auction fullsizeoutput_d38was due to end in just 15 minutes. To my surprise and puzzlement, there were no other bids. Has this one escaped others’ notice? I would have to think fast. OK, $79 is not a king’s ransom — and look at the prize! The image was a little slanted and out of focus, but I could see no major faults, There was also an image of the back of the stamp, which looked clean. All the perforations seemed in good order. Did the seller not know what he/she was doing? The cancellation did nearly black out the faint lettering of the word “FIVE” — but then again, the clearer letters below spelling “POUNDS” announced a plural denomination, and the set only has a L1 and a L5. This looks like is a great opportunity — a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Better take it. …

Only, wait a sec. What’s the catch? I quickly checked the seller’s “other items” for sale and could find only a dozen offerings — odd overprints from Denmark and Greenland, mostly priced in the $30-70 range. Hmmm. Couldn’t tell where the seller is from — I guess that would be revealed after I buy the stamp. If I don’t go for it, will I kick myself later? If I do and it turns out to be some kind of scam, I would be out $79 (plus $6 for postage), and REALLY soured on the Internet. But I would survive. So why not take the chance?

With a few key strokes, I committed to buying the darn thing. I even offered to up the price to $94, just to keep the whole thing within $100. Tap tap tap and I was launched. Indeed, I was the high bidder (and only bidder) as the seconds ticked away. I watched the numbers go down as I enjoyed the little frisson that accompanies auction bidding. Would another bidder appear in the final seconds? Would there be a pre-emptive attack from an automated auction hawk, stealing away my prize at the very end? …. 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ….. “You won this auction!”
Immediately came an email from eBay: “You won with a $79.00 bid plus $6 shipping! The next step is to pay. … brikol22 (733) can’t ship the item until you pay for it, so please don’t delay. Once you’ve paid, we will tell brikol2 to ship your item. …”

fullsizeoutput_d36I now discovered, with a sinking feeling, the seller’s hometown: Bryansk, Russian Federation. (How often had I been warned against doing philatelic business with the Russians!) Bryansk (I looked it up) is a city of some 415,000 souls located 235 miles southwest of Moscow. I’m sure there are many fine people living there. Probably some gangsters and brigands, hustlers and hackers, too. I just hoped “brikol2” was one of the fine people — one who didn’t know, or care to know, the true value of this item — in which case, I suppose, I would be taking advantage of him/her. Which kind of puts me in the wrong, I guess. Hmmm. Another alternative: The stamp was stolen by a Russian gangster and is now being tossed into the international market place as a piece of hot philately.

These thoughts galloped through my mind as I debated what to do next. Pay the damn money, get it over with, and see what happens? I called up the payment page, and decided to check brikol2’s track record first. I clicked on “Feedback profile” and learned the seller joined eBay in 2009 and enjoyed 100 percent favorable Feedback over the past year. I examined the list more closely. Comments included, “Prompt service” and “OK.” Most of the comments that followed listed brikol2 as buyer, not seller. That is, most of the couple dozen items on the list involved purchases by brikol2, not stamps he/she was selling. In the half-dozen sales, three involved the same buyer, the same comment (“I have it today, it is very beautiful”), and the same description, “Laos 1951, MNH” (mint, never-hinged). Only the lot numbers were different. One lot sold for $59, the other two for $39. Curious. Possibly completely innocent … hard to see anything disqualifying about it.


Here’s the page from my Bechuanaland collection displaying stamps from the 1887 set. You will notice I have the set complete to the 1 shilling value. I love the lower-value stamps with their uniform portraits that look like bas-relief sculptures in lilac marble. Below is an enlargement of my two highest values from the set — the 1 shilling and the 2/6. My notes say I paid $6.18 for the 1 shilling in 2010, and $19.95 for the 2/6 in 2013.

I activated my PayPal account and was just about to release the funds and be done with it, when I …. hesitated. It was after midnight. Why not sleep on it, I told myself. I can pay just as well in the morning … So I left it at that for the moment and went to bed — with a slightly uneasy feeling. What was I getting myself into here? Would my PayPal account be drained? Would my identity be stolen? Would cyberthieves invade my life and rob me of all I hold dear?
Shame on you, Fred, fullsizeoutput_d39for being so suspicious. Just because the seller is a Russian, you jump to all these lugubrious conclusions. How narrow-minded. How provincial. In the morning, you’ll see. Everything will work out. You’ll pay, the stamp will arrive in good time, and it will become a centerpiece of your collection, a remarkable gem amid your estimable Bechuanaland holdings, and a dazzling conversation starter for many a year. Of course, there will always be something of a cloud over the transaction, involving questionable provenance and lack of authentication … Oh well, (yawn) …

Next morning, I woke up with the same uneasy feeling. So directly I went to the computer (since I am retired, I have plenty of time for this sort of thing …).
As soon as I fired up the MacBook, I came across an email message, dated 7 a.m., with the subject line: “Your order was cancelled.”

Huh? Aside from feeling an unexpected wave of relief, combined with a sense of predestination, I was curious. “Hi, Fred M. Fiske,” the note said. “We’re sorry to let you know that brikol2 canceled your order and mentioned the reason as ‘I’m out of stock or the item is damaged.’
“You don’t need to do anything else.”
At the top of the note was another reminder: “You don’t have to do anything else, Fred M. Fiske.”
OK. Doing nothing else would be just fine. But was that the real reason for the cancellation?

The next note came in at 7:03 a.m. — from brikol2.
“Hi,” said the message. “I took out a stamp album and badly injured her ripped in half. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Hmm. Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: “Andrew” pulled a stamp album off the shelf, sometime in the last few hours, and somehow during that process managed to rip in half a stamp worth upwards of $1,000 — which he had just sold for $79 plus $6 shipping and handling. Is that about right?

Does that sound like a bit of malarkey or what? What’s really going on here? How badly do I want to know? Not really really badly. It’s intriguing, though, to speculate about a Russian schemer figuring out the game was up — perhaps an hour or two after I won the auction lot but neglected to pay my “bargain” price. Would brikol2 have disappeared into the ether once the money was sent? Otherwise, how to prevent Fred M. Fiske from lodging a complaint and ruining brikol2’s “100 percent favorable Feedback rating”? With the order cancelled, I no longer seem to have that option.

So be it. It’s enough that I was relieved of the burden of finding out I was suckered. Alternatively, I also was spared the burden of acquiring by questionable ethical means a stamp with a potentially high value, but with no easy way to certify it is not a “hot” stamp, a fake stamp or phony cancellation. In the end, I paid the best price — nothing! — to learn, or re-learn, that useful old cliche of a lesson: If a deal looks too good to be true, it usually is.




Zimbabwe’s Heroes? Part Two

fullsizeoutput_2c75The Heroes Acre is a landscaped monument and cemetery covering 57 acres just outside Harare, capital city of Zimbabwe. Built as a gift from North Korea to President Robert Mugabe in 1981, it is modeled after a similar memorial near  Pyongyang. There is another North Korean-built Heroes Acre in Namibia. Ironically, the idea may have come from South Africa, whose Heroes Acre in Pretoria holds the graves of white leaders of that formerly segregated land. 

At the top of a rise near Harare stands the monument, symbolizing two giant Kalashnikov rifles set back to back. The graves below are meant to represent the fullsizeoutput_2c74rifles’ magazines. At the center of the cemetery is the Statue of the Unknown Soldier, with three fierce soldiers, including a woman, who look like a cross between Zimbabweans and North Koreans, and who are armed to the teeth with rifles and a grenade launcher. 

This burial ground nominally was meant for patriots and heroes of the resistance struggle by black nationalists against white imperialists in the years before Zimbabwe came into existence.  At this writing, the list of “heroes” interred in the Heroes Acre has 76 names, with the addition of Shuvai Mahofa. While some prominent freedom-fighters are missing, among the honored heroes are Sally Mugabe, the dictator’s late wife; also his sister Sabina Mugabe, who distinguished herself mainly by confiscating white Zimbabwean farmers’ land, and who once incited a mob to kill a white farmer. I do recognize names of some black nationalist leaders from earlier years. In selecting “heroes” to be buried here, Mugabe may have had several motives, including ethnic payoffs, rewarding loyalty and fee-for-service. It must have been a fun job for Mugabe, since all the “heroes” were dead and couldn’t cause him any more trouble.

There may be stamps for all 76 heroes in Zimbabwe’s National Heroes series, which began more than a dozen years ago. There is a story to tell about each one. I will limit myself to just a few.

fullsizeoutput_2c54At first I didn’t connect the stamp  and the story for Maurice Nyagumbo (1924-1989) — but there he is, a National Hero, his face on a stamp and his body buried in Heroes Acre. Not that he wasn’t as heroic as many other Zimbabwe patriots. It’s just that his death was so grisly — the story is he drank rat poison out of shame for betraying his public trust in a car-theft ring that implicated First Lady Sally Mugabe, among others. 

There is much more to say about Maurice Nyagumbo. He pursued his education and was active in African nationalist groups in the 1940s and 1950s. Like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Nyagumbo was detained by authorities, in his case for the better part of two decades. In captivity he wrote a book, “With the People: An Autobiography from the Zimbabwe Struggle.” It was published after independence.  He was elected to the House of Assembly, then was appointed to Mugabe’s cabinet. He resigned abruptly on April 13, 1989, after release of a report detailing his role in the criminal sale of vehicles by the Willowvale Motor Industries — the so-called Willowgate scandal.

 Nyagumbo was a devoted ideologue. To him, it seemed, black nationalism was the way to the future, not mainly an avenue to self-enrichment. In his book, Nyagumbo tells how he nearly came to blows with colonial officials when he felt they did not show proper respect for Zimbabwe’s national aspirations. He also wasn’t afraid to tangle with his own cohort, including “intellectuals” who resisted the nationalist impulse. As late as 1959, he wrote, “there were still some so-called African intellectuals who espied the composition of the leadership of the ANC and condemned the party organizers who, they believed, knew nothing of the political reality of the country.”

This obviously was a guy who cared about politics! It’s tragic to think of him, the father of five daughters, ending his life in shame in his 60s — though it seems he was not immune to the Mugabe virus of self-dealing and self-enrichment. I suppose you could speculate that what really bothered Nyagumbo was that he got caught. You also could concoct a conspiracy where Nyagumbo was “assisted” with his self-destruction by Mugabe’s goons before he could rat on Sally. But plenty of others had their snouts in Mugabe’s trough and got away with it. Sally Mugabe, for one, suffered no such fate, dying of natural causes (just in time for her grieving husband to marry the even-more-venal young Grace, his mistress and at the time already mother of his child.)  

I could give you the names of others cited in Willowgate, and detail  the inconclusive court proceedings that resulted, but we have better things to do, don’t we? Besides, once you start fingering corruption in the Mugabe regime, the whole thing starts to unravel like a stinking shroud.

fullsizeoutput_2c55A medical doctor and founding member of ZANU, Herbert R. Ushewokunze (1933-1995) served in Mugabe’s first cabinet and was a strong supporter of the president, echoing and even overtaking his fellow nationalist in his radicalism, which he laced with rhetorical flourishes and references to Shakespeare. As health minister, he led the campaign to end race-based segregation in health facilities. He accused white doctors and nurses of racism, and pressed for traditional African forms of treatment. Within a year he fell out with Mugabe. He accused the Public Service Commission, which Mugabe used to control the civil service, of still favoring whites, which offended the president. Even worse, he called for an end to nepotism in the commission, which Mugabe was using to reward his loyal followers. So Ushewokunze was sacked without explanation, and spent his final years out of power. Today, Zimbabwe’s health system barely has a pulse. Perhaps Ushewokunze could have done better than his successors; he surely could have done no worse. 

fullsizeoutput_2c57Now here is a model hero I’d like to admire. Leopold Takawira (1916-1970) did so well in primary schools in Southern Rhodesia that he went on to become  headmaster of Chipembere Government School in Highfield. He was active in nationalist politics, and jostled with others for influence, primarily Joshua Nkomo. In the 1950s he joined the Capricorn Society, a multiracial organization based in England that promoted a racial partnership for Southern Rhodesia. By 1963, he had broken with Nkomo and Mugabe and allied himself with another promising leader, the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole. White authorities swooped in and detained Takawira on charges of whatever, and they never let him go. He remained in detention until he died in 1970 from complications of diabetes. Word is that the white authorities neglected his medical care, hastening his demise. 

Here is a description of Takawira provided by Dr. Edson Sithole, who has compiled a who’s-who of pre-indendence nationalists in Zimbabwe:

“Leopold Takawira is recalled by his colleagues as having a most amiable disposition. They say that he had the common touch and always made himself accessible to all who wanted to consult him. …”   One wonders wistfully: Was this a leader who could have moved Zimbabwe in a completely different direction? 

fullsizeoutput_2c61By contrast, Nathan Makwirakuwa Shamuyarira (1928-2014) is an exemplar of the kind of rascal Mugabe kept in his inner circle. By the 1950s Shamuyarira had completed his education (with studies at Princeton) and become active in liberation politics, calling for black African self-governance. He showed lots of promise. He was a leader before independence in groups including the Capricorn Society, the group that in the 1950s envisioned an interracial partnership for Zimbabwe. After independence, he joined Mugabe’s cabinet and served  as  information minister and then foreign minister between 1980 and 1995. 

Shamuyarira led a crackdown on the press, requiring monthly renewals of licenses for foreign reporters. Critics of the government and ZANU-PF  were silenced, and the political opposition became all but invisible and mute. 

When a rare voice of dissent arose, it was from Archbishop Pius Ncube, who apparently was protected by his clerical authority. But he was not safe from
Shamuyarira’s vitriol. In 2005, Ncube said: ”I hope people get so disillusioned that they really organize against this government and kick him out by non-violent popular mass uprising.” In response, Shamuyarira called the cleric a “mad, inveterate liar,” lapsing into Mubabe’s tropes about neocolonialist conspiracy. “He … fits into the scheme of the British and Americans, who are calling for regime change and are feeding him … wild ideas. Archbishop Ncube’s open call for an unconstitutional uprising shows he is an instrument of the West’s illegal regime change agenda.”   Ncube resigned in 2007. 

Shamuyarira openly praised the feared Gukurahundi (“sweeping away rubbish”)thugs of the dreaded Five Brigade who killed thousands and spread violence and terror in the 1980s. The North Korea-trained killers operated in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. The killings were “not regrettable,” Shamuyarira said in 2006, “as (the Five Brigade) was doing a job to protect the people. It was because the political dissidents were killing people that Gukurahundi went to correct the situation and protect the people.”  His comments drew withering condemnation from Joshua Nkomo and others who were equally impotent, politically. Nkomo called Shamuyarira’s comments “arrogant and insulting,” adding: “Let it be made clear that we are all Zimbabweans and those who think they were more equal than others are digging graves with their own teeth.”  Brave words, but not much more than empty, hot air. Shamuyarira finally retired at age 66, no doubt a very wealthy man after serving Mugabe for so many years. He lived on until 2014. At his death, aged 85, he was writing a biography of his mentor.

fullsizeoutput_2c56Herbert Wiltshire Tfumaindini Chitepo   (1923-1975) had the makings of a national hero. He was the colony’s first black African lawyer. Unfortunately, he was assassinated when a bomb went off in his Volkswagen as he was sitting in his driveway in Lusaka.   

Chitepo began his education at the mission school in Bonda, and after stints in Natal and Harare, went to London, where he received his law degree in 1954. Returning to Southern Rhodesia, he practiced law as the colony’s first black barrister. After 1957 he became increasingly active in the nationalist struggle. Though he had a reputation as an able attorney, he rejected overtures to join the colonial administration, and grew more militant after suffering repeated slights in daily life. Though the colonial regime stretched its rules to allow him to appear in court, one native commissioner required that he defend his clients while sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was insulted by whites in shops, restaurants and elevators, even as his black nationalist allies accused him of acting aloof and selling out.  By the 1960s he had become a leader of the militants, and was an active plotter to subvert the white racist regime of Ian Smith. A power struggle among militant groups in 1974 presaged his assassination.  Some blamed his killing on the Smith regime; more saw the assassins as part of a ZANU-PF clique that wanted to prevent his rise.  Either way, one of the most talented and promising challengers to Mugabe was permanently removed from the scene, and could be honored later by the dictator as one more (dead) nationalist buried in Heroes’ Acre. 

fullsizeoutput_2c7aGrace Mugabe deserves at least a paragraph or two in this mostly uninspiring tale. Not because she is, or was, a Zimbabwe heroine. I don’t think she has been memorialized on a stamp, and she’s not ready for Heroes Acre. Rather she should be known for her audacity, her mendacity, her tenacity and her larceny. Robert Mugabe plucked her from his secretarial pool well before his wife Sally got sick and died. Grace was  42 years younger than her swain. (Cradle-snatching is nothing new in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Cabinet ministers Mudenge and Ushewokunze took young brides late in life, as did ZANU-PF bigs Chombo, Mutinhiri, Moyo and Gen. Chiwengo; provincial minister Cain Mathema dismissed his wife for a 20-year-old maid, then, aged 70, dumped her and married 23-year-old Bathabetsoe Nare.)  

Grace’s official hagiography, lyricized in an anthem, portrays her as mother of the nation and ardent advocate of orphans. She won friends by giving away Ford Rangers and chickens — thousands and thousands of chickens. Though nominally a farmer — she added properties expropriated from white  Zimbabwe farmers to her holdings — her interests grew, according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, to include illegal diamond mining, as well as commercial and residential construction deals. When a diamond dealer refused to send a refund for her $1.35 million diamond ring to an account in Dubai — the dealer said it would look like money-laundering — she and her sons seized the dealer’s properties in Harare. When someone crossed her, watch out. Joice Mujuru, a ZANU-PF leader and decorated war hero, found out. Considered a  potential political rival, she was expelled from the party. Grace accused her of witchcraft, treason and immodest dress. 

fullsizeoutput_2c7cGrace Mugabe picked the wrong rival, however, when she took on vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa. I have no idea how he did it, but Mnangagwa managed to outmaneuver the First Lady, and recently was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s second president since 1980. Subsequent reports placed Grace and Robert Mugabe in Singapore. They reportedly have as much as $1 billion in loot stashed in Switzerland and elsewhere.

It was touching to see the celebrations in the streets as soon as Mugabe was safely dispatched from power. There were more  celebrations as Mnangagwa took over. Apparently Zimbabweans felt or hoped or wanted to believe that their new leader would right the faltering ship of state, enact reforms, end corruption and spread the blessings of prosperity to his people. They deserve such a leader.  “It’s been a long time since we’ve been optimistic in Zimbabwe,” Harare street vendor Victor Chitiyo told a New York Times reporter. 

The only problem with that rosy scenario is that Mnangagwa served at Mugabe’s side for many years (though Mugabe fired him in a late bid to retain power). Like his boss and mentor, the new president has started out saying the right words. How likely is he actually to abandon his role model’s predatory policies? Not very. Here’s a clue: Mnangagwa’s nickname as Mugabe’s lieutenant was the “crocodile.”

Version 2One more story: Like many other of his compatriots, Nolan Chipo Makombe (1933-1998) found his way out of his rural region of Masvingo through mission schools. He studied radio and TV technology in South Africa, then taught school, ran a radio shop, and worked for the colonial government as a radio mechanic. He grew active in nationalist politics, and was detained by the colonial rulers in Salisbury for extended periods. After independence he was elected to parliament, representing Masvingo province. He remained a leader in the legislature, eventually serving as speaker of the house. He died of a heart attack in 1998, and was buried in Heroes Acre.

I wish I had time to dig into this story. How did Nolan Makombe manage during those years of misrule by Mugabe? Was he on the take? Was he given a sinecure and told to lay off? Was he a Big Man in Masvingo province, one of the plunderers? How did he manage to keep getting elected to office for 25 years? What happened to those who dared to oppose his candidacy?  Some day I hope to dive deeper, which may allow me to go toward the heart of what happened in Zimbabwe and how things went so horribly wrong in Africa.

fullsizeoutput_2c53Before I end this sorry history and dismal speculation, let me sound a clarion call from the past. It involves a white, English-born patrician named Arthur Guy Clutton-Brock. His story provides a poignant coda  of what might have been in Zimbabwe. A Cambridge-educated social worker, Guy Clutton-Brock worked in prisons in England and post-war Germany before landing in Southern Rhodesia as a kind of peace corps missionary in 1949. He established St. Faith’s Mission as an  interracial community and a model for Southern Rhodesia. He helped found Southern Rhodesia’s ANC, and was detained in 1959. After working in Bechuanaland and Nyasaland, he came back and joined a multi-racial group of collaborators to create Cold Comfort Farm, which drew wide praise for its emphasis on rural development and poverty reduction. Clutton-Brock did not see eye to eye with Ian Smith’s segregationist regime, and he was deported in 1971. Presumably he was welcomed back to Zimbabwe after independence — though one wonders how anyone with such a social conscience could have held still while Mugabe went his conniving, criminal way. After his death at age 88 in 1995, Clutton-Brock was declared a national hero, eligible for burial at Heroes Acre, in the shadow of the Heroes Monument and the Statue of the Unknown Soldier, gifts from North Korea. 


Zimbabwe’s Heroes? Part One

fullsizeoutput_2c70This essay is about stamps, I promise you. Or at least it includes stamps. When you set to writing about Zimbabwe, however, you have to start with Robert Mugabe.

Before he finally was swept out of power after more than 35 years of misrule, Mugabe was one of the last remaining Big Men of Africa. Not big in stature, but a big dictator. Mugabe grew into one of the most ruthless, wily power-mongers in Africa, rivaling Bokassa and Amin in his cruelty and malice, and Mobutu in his greed and megalomania — cloaking his crimes all the while in the language of liberation and anti-imperialism. 

He came to power in 1980, soon after the collapse of Ian Smith’s segregationist government. Mugabe had the right credentials (educated, veteran political organizer, nationalist, freedom fighter), said the right words, and seemed to get off to a good start. He had a lot going for him: Zimbabwe was one of the most economically viable states in Africa, with rich mineral resources, fertile soil, an expanding education system and a well-established and growing black middle class.

He wrecked it all. By 1982, things already had changed for the worse. Mugabe seized power by terrorizing his opponents and critics. He went on to create a de facto one-party state, at the expense of his main rival, Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe was not subtle. “Some of the measures we shall take are measures that will be extra-legal,” he told parliament. “An eye for an eye and an ear for an ear may not be adequate in our circumstances. We might very well demand two ears for one ear and two eyes for one eye.” When it came to Mugabe, it probably was wise to take him literally.

His band of killers, dubbed 5 Brigade, went their murderous way under the chiShona slogan Gukurahundi  “rain that blows away chaff before spring rains.”  How many died? Hundreds? Thousands? 

Mugabe’s venality and penchant for violence were so obvious that he seemed to be able to speak with impunity. Here’s how he explained his version of democracy at gunpoint: “Our votes must go together with our guns … the people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.” 

How could it be that Mugabe could amass one of the world’s great fortunes on the salary of a head of state? Because he and his gang systematically plundered the national treasury. The ministry budgets were drained. When even the state fund for war victims went bust, that outrage at least warranted an official inquiry, which named cabinet ministers among the culprits. But nothing was done about it. Phillip Chiyangwa, a millionaire cohort of Mugabe, explained his good fortune this way: “I am rich because I belong to ZANU-PF.”

By the end of the 1990s, with the disruption and chaos caused by Mugabe’s policies, aggravated by rampant corruption and mismanagement, Zimbabwe was an economic basket case. Mugabe held on to power by co-opting or otherwise neutralizing his rivals, stacking the judiciary, manipulating elections and muzzling the press — though voters very nearly turned him out every chance they got. His threats  would sound colorful if they did not carry such a chill: “Those who try to cause disunity among our people must watch out because death will befall them.”  

After Zimbabwe’s agriculture system collapsed, Mugabe and his cohorts seemed not at all perturbed about mass starvation and death.  Mugabe aide Didymus Mutasa was quoted as saying: “We would be better off with only 6 million people, our own people who support the liberation struggle.”  Since Zimbabwe was now dependent on food imports, Mugabe and his clique had a new racket: food distribution. “Vote for ZANU-PF,” crowed Mugabe crony Abednico Ncube, “before (the) government starts rethinking your entitlement to this food.” 

By 2004, 3 million people had left Zimbabwe, mostly whites and the black middle class. The economy kept shrinking. Unemployment reached 80 percent. The government launched a crackdown on shantytowns where thousands of destitute workers lived. Said police commissioner Augustine Chihuri: “We must clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy.”  Mugabe grew ever more vicious as he clung to power. His  campaign slogan became: “Vote Mugabe next time or you will die.” Hundreds apparently didn’t get the message, because they died. As inflation soared to heights unseen in human history — a 5 sextillion inflation rate at one point produced a $100 billion bank note, which was fullsizeoutput_2c79not enough to buy a loaf of bread, so six months later came a $100 trillion bank note, The currency soon collapsed;  so too the health system and just about everything else. The jobless rate reached 90 percent.  A recent statistic is  equally breathtaking:  95 percent of fullsizeoutput_2c6bwhatever work force there is makes up an  “informal economy” — people scrambling to make do whatever way they can. Shockingly, in many respects Africans lived better in Rhodesia, and  Southern Rhodesia before independence. The year Zimbabwe’s per capita gross national income peaked was 1980 — the start of Robert Mugabe’s rule. In recent years, Mugabe made his position abundantly clear: “Zimbabwe is mine. I will never, never, never, never surrender.” 



In what seems to be a pretty wacky scheme that some economists dreamed up, these “bond notes” and “bond coins” were issued to establish parity between the U.S. dollar, which Zimbabwe adopted as its currency in 2009, and the local currency. This “money” is negotiable only in Zimbabwe, and its value already has been discounted upwards of 30 percent. Could cryptocurrency be far behind?











Sources put Mugabe’s fortune at $1 billion. There are rumors of Swiss bank  accounts and castles in Scotland.  The Mugabe’s own a 


Here’s a stamp that fairly glows with historical ironies. It was issued in 1973, during the heyday of Ian Smith’s racist regime. The 50 years of “responsible government” trace back to the founding of the British Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923. Presumably any governance prior to that date was irresponsible, including the predatory years of the British South Africa Company. The stamp artfully elides the awkward years after 1965, when Ian Smith effectively led a white-supremacist coup d’etat and parted ways with Britain and its imperial brand of “responsible governance.”

$5 million mansion in Hong Kong, and there are reports of  real estate purchases in the Mugabe name in Malaysia, Singapore and possibly Dubai.

The Mugabes have six properties In Zimbabwe, according to cables released by  Wikileaks. In addition to commercial and industrial interests, the couple acquired farms around the country, as white farmers were driven off.  

Reports of the Mugabes’ life of luxury turn my stomach, but in case you can’t resist being fascinated/horrified, I’ll share a little of it:

One presidential mansion is valued at $9 million and known as The Blue Roof. According to one report, it has“25 bedrooms, a large outdoor pool, two lakes, a massive dining room that can seat more than 30 guests, a large master bedroom with super king-size bed and a multimillion-dollar radar system.”

A published list of Mugabe goodies includes:

  • A custom-made Mercedes “able to withstand AK-47 bullets, landmines and grenades. It also features a CD and DVD player, internet access and anti-bugging devices.”
  • A Rolls Royce Phantom edition that is so exclusive, “only 18 were ever manufactured.”
  • A 100-carat anniversary ring ordered by Grace Mugabe worth $1.35 million.

Grace Mugabe, whom the Guardian says is known locally as “the First Shopper” or “Gucci Grace,” may have once gone on a $75,000 shopping spree in Paris, the paper says.

Mugabe’s 91st birthday menu, according to Zimbabwe’s Chronicle newspaper, featured elephant, buffalo, sable antelope, impala, and a lion.

“The couple’s home in Harare is said to be extraordinarily opulent, so much so that when their daughter Bona was married there, photographers were said to have been ordered not to take any pictures that showed the property in the background,” The Guardian reported.

The Mugabe children have been less discreet. One has been seen on Snapchat pouring champagne over an expensive watch, eliciting outcry on social media.

fullsizeoutput_2c85Earlier this year, according to Australian site, the couple’s youngest son, Bellarmine Chatunga Mugabe, posted on Instagram a photograph of his watch captioned: “$60,000 on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!”

New diamond fields discovered in 2006 were a godsend to Zimbabwe — or should I say, to Mugabe and his corrupt cabal. His ruthless rule continued, somehow prevailing over the best interests of his people by holding them in thrall through a combination of bribes, handouts, terror, black nationalist rhetoric and … don’t ask me to explain how he did it, becoming by far the oldest and longest-serving leader in the world. (Well, not quite — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth has worn the crown since 1953). I’m just thankful he’s out of power — though I’m sorry he’s not being hauled into court and tried for murder and thievery, among his many other offenses. I’d like to see all his loot confiscated, too. And no pensions for Robert or Grace or their retinue. Put them in a home for old dictators. Sorry to say, I have little confidence that his successor and former cohort Emmerson Mnanbagwe. (pronounced … hmmm, I’d say … something like this: start with the mouth closed and say Nan-BAG-we)  will be much of an improvement. Poor Zimbabwe. 

What does this have to do with stamps? Let’s get to it right now. 

When I saw a series of stamps issued by Zimbabwe under the general heading, “national heroes,” I was intrigued. My expectation, knowing Mugabe, is that anyone who genuinely stood for the best interests of Zimbabweans and showed ability and dynamism, inevitably would come up against the corrupt regime and be crushed. So who are these guys being honored on stamps as “heroes,” whose remains are interred at Zimbabwe’s “heroes’ acre” in Harare?  Are they “heroes’ because they are safely dead, perhaps done in by Mugabe himself? Is the stamp honoring  this or that prominent (and dead) Zimbabwean the equivalent of the Godfather’s wreath  sent to the funeral of the guy he just bumped off?

Alternatively, if these “heroes” lived long and prosperous lives under Mugabe, there must be a distressing tale of moral compromise and venality behind their rise and endurance that deserves to be told. I decided to take a closer look.


At left are two portraits-on-stamps of the late Joshua Nkomo. Once Mugabe’s arch-rival, he eventually knuckled under. In the stamp above, you see Mugabe at left, clutching hands with Nkoma in a raised salute in 1990, after 10 years of “achievements” that set Zimbabwe on a long, downward spiral. In his later years, Nkomo had health problems. After his death in 1999, he was declared a national hero and buried in Heroes Acre.

fullsizeoutput_2c5dDon’t look here for a detailed sketch of Robert Mugabe or his former rival, Joshua Nkomo. Their stories are well-known. In Mugabe’s case, the story is one that will leave a mark of infamy for the ages. fullsizeoutput_2c66Nkomo, the hapless representative of the Ndebele minority tribe, plays only a minor role in the drama. He gave up his opposition role and joined Mugabe’s corrupt regime as a minor partner. I don’t know if he managed to siphon off any of the millions flowing into Mugabe’s accounts over the years. He made his pact, sold his soul, and probably should have cashed in. In which case, he ended up being just another rascal.

Instead of focusing on the Big Men, let’s look at some of the second- and
third-tier players featured on the “hero” stamps. As I delved into the stories, there were some common traits. Like many bright young Southern Rhodesians, many if not most of these “heroes” started out in a rural city or village. They got an education or sorts in the 1940s or even earlier, most likely in a mission school. Teaching was a way out of the village and out of poverty, so many of them may have started as teachers. Christian ministry was another option, as was low-level civil service. Some of the brightest or well-connected students managed to wangle invitations to study in South Africa or England.   Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) was unusual in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite rigid segregation and colonial exploitation, black Africans in Zimbabwe earned academic degrees and professional advancement. By the 1950s there was a  well-established and growing black middle class. 

You may find true heroes of Zimbabwe buried in Hero’s Acre. If so, it is because they died before they could be corrupted, coerced or killed by Mugabe and his henchmen. People like Charles Mizingeli, the quirky journalist who fought against tribalism, and Benjamin Burombo, the charismatic and bombastic pioneer for independence; Amon Jiriria, the technocrat whose vision encompassed a prosperous, multiracial state of 20 million people living in harmony; Rev. Esau Nemapare, who created a model for a new Africa in the 1940s. Other early leaders of promise include Ndabaninge Sithole, Stanlake Samkange and Masotha Mike Hove. How much better for Zimbabwe if one of them — or others with their skills, dedication and integrity — had been able to take the place of Mugabe.  These leaders’ names are missing from the roster of national heroes at Heroes Acre, Mugabe’s monument to national heroes outside Harare. 


This is a pretty crude stamp all right. The portraits are amateurish, and the group is obviously collated from different sources, with contrasting lights and shades. I don’t know if all these heroes were friends or rivals of Mugabe. I do know that none of them managed to get rid of him. Two of these fellows will be getting more attention in Part Two: H.W. Chitepo (top row, center) and L Takawira (front row, second from right).

The ones we consider here are not in the first ranks of Zimbabwe’s heroes. Their heroism diminishes exponentially with any association to Mugabe. To read the stories of these men (they are nearly always men) is to wonder what happened to such bright young prospects. Did they learn the wrong lessons from their colonial rulers, so that many of them became oppressors in their own right? Did they forget about everything else, when they saw the glittering baubles and felt the thrill of power? Was the peer pressure irresistible? How was it that so few of them were able to cling to their values, their integrity, their training and discipline, their sense of shared purpose and public service? And why do I have so many questions and so few answers? Enough of this! On to the stamps and the stories 


Somaliland — Yesterday and Today


fullsizeoutput_2437While working to build my collection of British Somaliland stamps, I came across a previously unknown-to-me  issue, with a couple of stamps offered for sale online. (I bought them for about $15.)  Of course I knew about “Somaliland Protectorate” — the British territory in the horn of Africa dating back to the late 1800s. I also knew about neighboring Italian Somaliland, a territory seized at the turn of the century and expanded under King Emmanuel III and Mussolini. It


Here is a somewhat weathered first-day cover with four stamps of newly independent “Somalia.:” It was issued July 1, 1960 — a week after those stamps above celebrating the independence of “Somaliland.”

remained  under Italian supervision, for the most part, until July 1, 1960. That’s when both “sides” (British and Italian) merged into a sovereign “Republic of Somalia.”  I’ll get to the sorry history of that wretched nation in a moment. 

But first, there are these stamps to contend with. If Somaliland Protectorate and Italian Somaliland combined into Somalia on July 1, how to explain the late-issue stamps from Italian Somaliland, overprinted “Somaliland Independence 26 June 1960”?


For reference purposes, here is a recent map of the Horn of Africa. While it’s easy enough to pick out Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and other lands, making sense of it is another matter. Check out the flurry of flags on the right — some from “countries” that are just a mirage. (Oromia? Jubaland?). The list of “current wars” at bottom right makes it seem like just about everyone is battling everyone else. And it doesn’t even mention the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which recently seems to have sputtered out, thank goodness.

How indeed? You’re talking about the history of the Horn of Africa, remember, where the normal rules of governance, statehood and territorial interest don’t quite apply. I’ve done some homework on the region in preparation for this essay, so bear with me. If you lose your way, I’ll be right there with you. But if your attention wanders, watch out! It’s dry and hostile territory out there in the desert!

The short answer to the question above is this: On June 26, the British territory voluntarily went out of existence, granting its sovereign powers to a new entity known as “Somaliland.” It was meant to be only a caretaker government, and remained in place only a week, until the merger with neighboring Italian Somaliland could be consummated. On July 1, “Somalia” was born and “Somaliland” ceased to exist. 

End of story? Not by a long shot. Stay with me, for it’s an intriguing yarn. It goes back to the early days, the 1880s, when the British were jockeying for position on the southern shore  of the crucial shipping channel from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and on to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.  After signing treaties with clan chiefs, the British declared a protectorate covering a swath of territory around Africa’s eastern horn. The first stamps from the region were overprints of stamps from imperial India — understandable, since the Raj on the far shore of the Arabian Sea was overseer of the territory at the time. 

The British “ruled” their Somaliland protectorate with a light hand — well, let’s say, on the cheap. Even post-World War II, its annual budget was less than a quarter-of-a-
Version 2million pounds. Britain’s main concern from the outset was quelling the Dervish uprising — a latter-day incarnation of today’s Islamic State or Taliban. Once the insurgents were


I had a little fun with this one. Above right is a stamp from British Somaliland in the 1950s with a delicate engraving of Taleh Fort (see enlargement, top). This was the stronghold of Dervish leader Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, left. Below that is an aerial view of the fort, similar to what British pilots may have seen as they prepared to bomb it to smithereens in 1920.

Version 3decisively routed in 1920, after a daring aerial attack on
the Dervish capital of Taleh, things settled down. The Colonial Office was only too  happy to leave local affairs in the hands of the clan elders. Aside from a six-month occupation by Mussolini’s troops in 1940, British fullsizeoutput_2433Somaliland continued as a sleepy, largely barren outpost
and trading hub.




There is much to say — not here — about what happened to Somalia after independence; how that hapless nation moved inexorably, relentlessly, unstoppably toward disaster — a not-so-slow-motion civic train wreck. Somalia’s devolution into a failed state was not  pre-ordained, and its fate has been shared to alarming degrees by nations in much of sub-Saharan Africa. 

My focus here is on Somaliland, the  new entity that used to be British Somaliland Protectorate. After iindependence day on June 26, “Somaliland” lasted only a week —  arguably the shortest-lived republic in history.  Yes, it was only meant to be a place-holder.  


Muhammad Egal

But some anomalies are worth noticing. For example, the first and only leader of this quicksilver republic was Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal, a veteran of British rule. Egal was a political leader before independence, a member of both the


As a collector, I sometimes wondered what these overprints meant. Now I know: They mark the beginning and the end of the process that took British Somaliuland from protectorate status to independence (I wonder why the “majority” reached was described below as “unofficial” …?).

Executive Council and the Legislative Council that spent three years planning for independence. Egal’s champions claimed that in the mere five days of its working life, the republic gained recognition from 35 countries, including the United States. (That assertion has been disputed; while U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter sent a note of   congratulation June 26fullsizeoutput_274f
to the Council of Ministers of the new republic, Washington only recognized the merged government of Somalia July 1.)


These fledgling assertions of national pride take on meaning in view of what was to come after decades of misrule in Mogadishu. When Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre finally fled in 1990, warring factions precipitated a civil war that never seems to have ended. A reliable barometer of the depth of civic destruction is that by October 1991, all effective postal services in Somalia had ceased.  They would not be restored until 2014, and I wouldn’t place a bet on a letter to or from Mogadishu arriving at its destination even today.

How, then, to explain the stamps from “Somalia” or “Somali Republic” that kept appearing in the decades when there was no functioning postal service? As one fullsizeoutput_242cphilatelic scholar explains: “Postage stamps continued to be produced illegally internationally during the war, although their subject matter suggests they were designed for external collectors.” (For more on this distressing phenomenon of stamp mills producing fodder for topical collectors with no real connection to the nominal country of issue, see FMF Stamp Project blog posts of February 2018, “Cinderellas: A Spreading Stain”; and March 2018,   “Cinderellas: A Nightmare of Abuse and Excess.”) 

After the collapse of Barre’s government, leaders in the north took action. For self-preservation, and to guard agains the factional disintegration radiating  from  Mogadishu, Somaliland’s elders gathered in Hargeisa in May 1991 to declare — or rather, re-declare — the independent state of Somaliland.  This autonomous region, carved from what was once British Somaliland Protectorate, has maintained its identity ever since. 

Somaliland has lived a comparatively parallel existence with its chaotic neighbor  to the south. Various efforts to break all ties with Somalia have foundered, along with designs on the territory from Mogadishu or elsewhere. 

Somehow, Somaliland has been spared the chronic violence, disarray and terror of Somalia. Perhaps the warlords, militias, Islamic insurgents, colonels and soldiers in the south are too preoccupied battling each other to pick a fight with the north. I should mention that Somaliland  has maintained a military defense with 12 divisions, just to make sure none of the combatants from the south stray.

Somaliland’s governmental structure, which combines traditional and modern features, could be a model for other nations in the Horn of Africa, if not the whole continent. It helps to have an ethnically homogeneous population and a self-disciplined clan system. Somaliland also has been blessed with seasoned, reasonable  leaders — like Muhammad Egal, its first president. Egal went on to serve as a key minister of sovereign Somalia — before being jailed for years by dictator Siad Barre. Egal took over in autonomous Somaliland in 1993, succeeding President Abdirahman Tuur, and served until his death, from natural causes, in 2002. 

As experience and history show, effective governance cannot be taken for granted. Somaliland’s blend of law and custom is worth studying. Its balanced, bottom-up system is one of the most democratic in Africa, developed without foreign assistance. Freedom House ranks Somaliland’s government “partly democratic,” quite a feat for this small nation surrounded by authoritarian states and failed polities. To be sure, Somaliland has its shortcomings. For example, like other African nations, it continues to outlaw homosexuality. In recent years, the regime has shown alarming tendencies to revert to the repressive habits of its neighbors — harassing journalists and dissidents, infringing legal rights, spending secretly and illegally. Internal reformers — including clan elders and constituents — must act within laws and customs to restore honest and just governance, so as to halt Somaliland’s slide into disarray.  

Somaliland doesn’t get much respect. Unable to win global recognition, it is relegated to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. The government of Wales has been cordial, particularly since it is home to a considerable community of Somaliland expats. But London is another matter. Somaliland’s application to join the Commonwealth — as a mere observer — is still pending. 

Somaliland still may be on the side of the angels, but there are problems. Remember what I said about normal rules of nations not applying to the Horn of Africa? Well, here’s an example: There are multiple claimants to some of the godforsaken territories in the region, and some of them have set up their own countries. Part of the land mass that used to be British Somaliland Protectorate is now … autonomous Puntland (established 1999). There are declared states of Maakhir (2007) Adwalland (2010) and Khatumo (2012). (By the way, I have not yet found any stamps issued by these “countries” — surely it’s only a matter of time.) The nominal leaders of these and other self-styled independent entities unanimously oppose complete sovereignty for Somaliland, fearing they and their cohorts  will be sucked into the slipstream and lose their sinecures.   

At least one leading British political leader has spoken up for Somaliland. Nigel Farage of the third-ranked UKIP said in 2015: “Somaliland has been a beacon of peace, democracy and the rule of law in the Horn of Africa for the past 24 years. It is about time the UK and the rest of the international community recognized Somaliland’s case for recognition. It’s about time peace was rewarded. For the UK to turn its back on their legitimate demands for sovereignty is wrong. It is extraordinary that we have not been lobbying for the their admittance to the Commonwealth … Somaliland, a former protectorate, is left in the cold. This must change.”  

fullsizeoutput_274bBefore I close, a word or two (or more) on the postal history accompanying this civic narrative. The first postage stamps from the Horn of Africa were the British fullsizeoutput_2744India overprints that began in the 1880s. Italian authorities came out with stamps from “Benadir” starting fullsizeoutput_273fin 1903, then “Oltre Guiba” (Jubaland) in the 1920s, then simply Somalia or Italian Somaliland. The neighboring French started issuing stamps from “Obock” in the 1890s, then the fullsizeoutput_273dFrench Somali Coast (Cote Francaise des Somalis) after the turn of the century. In the 1960s it was renamed the French Overseas Territory of Afar and Issas, before becoming independent Djibouti in 1977.  

fullsizeoutput_2755And so the nations come and go. Sic transit gloria — except that in the Horn of Africa, there wasn’t much glory in the region’s imperial past, and there seems to be very little to celebrate in the struggles of today. But speaking of Afar and Issas and stamps, I must fullsizeoutput_2747say that nation issued some ravishing, over-size, multicolor engravings.  Another point in its favor: It’s a real entity, with real stamps. That is, you could go into a post office in Afars and Issas, ask for a stamp and get one of these beauties. You could have done the same in French Somali Coast, or Italian Somaliland, even Obock and Benadir. 





If there is a connection between Elizabeth Taylor and Somalia, it’s news to me. As for the tigers below, my research suggests there are a host of animals native to Djibouti, from Aardvarks to Zebras. But tigers? Nope. These are fake stamps, my friends!

But what about these more modern stamps from “Somalia” and “Djibouti”?  We already know there wasn’t a functioning postal authority in Somalia for more than two decades. You also may know that stamp mills churn out sets on contract, or perhaps even on spec,  for topical collectors. Are these stamps “real”? I have to say I even have my doubts about stamps from “Somaliland.” That plucky nation deserves support. But while I cheer on the democrats in Hargeisa, and wish them well in their mission, I doubt I ever will become a collector of the dubious sets of stamps issued in their name



Version 2


 In 1997, the government of Somaliland — formerly part of Somalia, and before that the British Somaliland Protectorate — decided to issue definitive stamps that were overprints of the well-known Machin profiles of Queen Elizabeth that had been appearing on British stamps since the 1960s. Why this autonomous state picked British stamps to overprint is a mystery to me — though I sense a strong attachment to England on the part of some of its former proteges. Apparently postal authorities thought twice about it, though, for the stamps were not issued immediately. Only after Somaliland found itself short of stamps did the overprints find their way to post offices in February, 1998. There was an immediate backlash. Postal customers in Somaliland must have objected to this symbolic compromise of sovereignty. There must have been surprise in both countries to see the queen’s portrait defaced by the big, black, lettering — there has never been an official overprint of Machin definitives, before or since. The stamps were withdrawn within days and destroyed, but not before some reached collectors. I also have seen examples cancelled on cover. (All too expensive for me — this image is from the Internet.) 

fullsizeoutput_274cHere are some more stamps from British Somaliland. While King Edward VII was on the throne (1902-11), the area was declared a protectorate. It remained that way through the reigns of George V and George VI (see stamp at right), then on to Elizabeth II and independence in 1960.

fullsizeoutput_274dfullsizeoutput_2741Philately from Italian Somaliland began humbly enough, with overprints of stamps from the motherland. (right)
By the 1930s, however, the Italians were putting out bold, stylish sets like the one shown below.
Italy gave up its territory to the British in the 1940s, but took over again in 1950 — a rehabilitated imperial power?



I thought this was the last set put out by Italian Somaliland, but it might be an early set from independent Somalia. Either way, those runners are headed for disaster …



Here is a throwback to early colonial days, when Italy was getting a foothold in the Horn of Africa. Doesn’t King Victor Emmanuel III look jaunty in this two-color print complete with charming floral border? He would remain titular monarch of Italy through Mussolini, fascism and World War II, abdicating in 1946. He also claimed the title of Emperor of Ethiopia. He died in Egypt in 1947.





Who’s kidding whom? Some stamp mill churned out this souvenir sheet honoring David Bowie and slapped the name “Republic of Somalia” on it before offering it to dealers as a cute topical set. The caption accompanying this image on the Internet says it all: “This ‘stamp’ is counterfeit, not valid for posting and has no investment value.”fullsizeoutput_2c81

As you may know, Somalia is firmly in the Muslim world. Sunni Islam is the official religion and it is home to the oldest mosque in Africa. As you also may know, Islam has very conservative rules and customs about women and women’s display that would never countenance this kind of bare-breasted exhibition on its postage stamps. Therefore, even if you didn’t know that Somalia’s postal service went defunct back oil 1991, you would be pretty sure these racy stamps never got close to a post office in Mogadishu., and that they are complete phonies.

Version 2

What’s this? Djibouti celebrating the marriage of Britain’s Charles and Diana while also lauding Lord Nelson and the imperial fleet? It’s surprising enough to see a former British colony wax nostalgic for the good old days and revel in royal power and pageantry. But Djibouti used to be a French territory, for goodness’ sake! I smell philatelic pfakery here, pholks …


Here is some catnip for Lady Di topical collectors. What glam! What pizzaz! Only trouble is, the stamps are bogus. The Republic of Somaliland is not a member of the Universal Postal Union, and the UPU does not recognize its stamps. Somaliland does not have a seat in the United Nations. It must make do with the organization of unrecognized states. (Yes, there is one.) While I have been moved and inspired as I learned of Somalland’s successes in building a peaceful, durable democracy with a sustainable economy in the troubled Horn of Africa, still I cannot accept its postage stamps as valid. The only ones that meet the standard are the ones illustrated at the very beginning of this essay. Between June 26, 1960 and July 1, 1960, the Republic of Somaliland was a legitimate sovereign state, so those overprinted stamps are good with me.