Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! 1. Introduction


This charming set from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was deemed illegal by the Universal Postal Union after it was disowned by postal officials in Kinshasa, Congo.

If you are a stamp collector, here’s some shocking news: More than a few of the stamps in your collection — even some of your prettiest topical sets featuring birds, butterflies, rock stars, Disney characters or world history — may be illegal!

When I say “illegal,” I don’t mean forgeries or  counterfeits — though let’s pause to consider them in passing. These fakes are  like forged paintings by “old masters” being foisted off as the real thing, or counterfeit $20 bills rolling off some  illicit press. Stamp catalogues warn about forgeries, which naturally are found among costlier and rarer stamps. Some early issues from British Guiana, for example, are called “reprints” — not exactly forgeries, since they are “official,” but not genuine

postage stamps either. The original 1 cent magenta of 1852 (above left) is for sale on eBay for just over $5,000; a reprint, readily identifiable by its thick paper and bright color (see above right, from my collection), is worth no more than $15.

Early stamps from the south African republic of Transvaal are quite dear — No. 1 is listed at $350, No. 3 at $450. The catalogue warns that “So-called reprints and trial


The top example from Transvaal (the “Z. Afr. Republiek, or South African Republic) is genuine. The one below is a forgery. Can you tell them apart? (hints: in the forgery below, the eagle’s eye is a blob, and the word “EENDRAGT” in the banner is evenly lettered; in the real stamp, above, even though it is faded you still can see that the eagle’s eye is a dot, and the “D” IN EENDRAGT is larger than the other letters, actually touching the top of the banner.

impressions of the stamps … are counterfeits.” It goes on to describe how to distinguish forgeries from the real thing. Beware, this really gets into the weeds: “In forgeries … the ‘D’ of ‘EENDRAGT’ is not noticeably larger than the other letters and does not touch the top of the ribbon. In … genuine stamps, the ‘D’ is large and touches the ribbon top. The eagle’s eye is a dot and its face white on the genuine stamps; the eye is a loop or a blob attached to the beak, and the beak is strongly hooked, on the forgeries. …” There is much more to be said about forgeries — I just spent an absorbing 10 minutes delving into the subject online, and could easily get lost in the fake weeds. But let’s move on …

How about a word of reassurance?fullsizeoutput_1992

Just because you own a few illegal stamps, doesn’t mean the Stamp Police will come knocking on your door, demanding to see your collection. They won’t  throw you in jail, slap you with a fine, or even confiscate the unauthorized items. In fact, the Stamp Police don’t even exist. And don’t think that just because some of your stamps are illegal, they have no value.  The UPU estimates the market for illegals is at least $500 million.



I recently read about an illegal stamp issue that was a hot item at the 2016 World Stamp Show in Manhattan. The souvenir sheet from the  Central African Republic (see right) displayed Donald Trump, then the U.S. presidential candidate. The stamps commemorating the World Stamp Show paid tribute to prominent New Yorkers, with Trump featured as the most prominent of all.  It was being promoted by Stamperija, a private firm based in Lithuania that  serves the CAR and at least 10 other nations through outsourced postal operations, including stamp production and marketing. This sheet breaks at least a half-dozen rules for postage stamps set by the Universal Postal Union. Yet reports from the stamp show indicate sales were brisk. (You can buy one of the  sheets online from eBay for $6.26, plus postage and handling.)

What are the rules? First, here are six rules the Trump souvenir sheet from the Central African Republic breaks:

— It gets involved in the politics of another country

— It has nothing to do with the CAR: does not promote its cultural identity, has no bearing on the people or the state.

— It was not in circulation in the CAR or available to CAR postal customers.

— It was not in keeping with the spirit of the Preamble to the UPU Constitution

— It did not contribute to the dissemination of culture or to maintaining peace.

— It was not a manifestation of the sovereignty of the CAR.

Victor Banta of the philatelic webmaster group took the trouble to put the CAR souvenir sheet into context and perspective. He noted that while the World Stamp Show was going on in New York City in 2016, the CAR was wracked by kidnappings of government ministers, tribal violence and the threat of terrorism. “The influx of peacekeepers no doubt reduced further bloodshed,” Manta observed, “but the crisis continued to outpace the response” in a “rapidly expanding catastrophe.”  Now why does a government in such a state put out stamps honoring New Yorkers, particularly the controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump? As a distraction? A sycophantic ego trip? A commercial hustle? Whether or not this souvenir sheet illegal (and I believe it is), it’s a philatelic phelony.  J’accuse!

The rules may seem repetitive, even redundant, but it’s worth parsing words to get at what exactly is and is not a “postage stamp.” The UPU begins its definition transactionally: “Postage stamps: 1) Shall be used and put into circulation solely under the authority of the member country … 2) Are a manifestation of sovereignty and constitute proof of prepayment of the postage …”

The UPU declared that stamps must “be devoid of political character or of any topic of an offensive nature in respect of a person or a country …”  The postal poobahs  even set size parameters — not less than   15 mm or more than 50 mm, vertical or horizontal.


Guess who?

Here’s a basic rule, one might think: Stamps must bear “the name of the member country or territory of issue, in roman letters …”  But wait! There is an exception. One country, and one country only, does not have to print its name on its stamps. “An exception shall be granted to Great Britain,” the UPU allows, “the country which invented the postage stamp.”

In 2008 the UPU reaffirmed its Philatelic Code of Ethics as originally adopted at the UPU congress in Bucharest, Romania in 2004. The goal of the enterprise is “high quality, ethical stamps” and a “vibrant philatelic market.” Keenly aware of the enduring value of stamps to philatelists, the authors of the code of ethics warned that postal authorities “shall not produce postage stamps or philatelic products that are intended to exploit customers.”

The code of ethics seems to cover the matter of cancel-to-order mills, the bane of most philatelists. But the language is vague, directing that “cancelling and marking devices shall be used for operational purposes only.”  Couldn’t you call it an “operational purpose” when a postal authority decides to reduce its stock by having its stamps cancelled to order? The postally-suspect “remainders” thus created are sold (somehow) at a deep discount, and are spurned by collectors-in-the-know (though I admit I own some CTO sets).

The code also addresses supply and demand. This means ensuring “that the number of stamps issued each year is limited to that which their market will accept.”  Postal authorities should “avoid oversupply,” the code advises. “They shall not saturate the market and thus drive philatelists and collectors away from the hobby.” As for proscribing illegal stamps, the code makes only one reference to “products of unofficial origin incorporating postage stamps,” and directs its members to “avoid any action which might be taken as declaring approval … or conferring official status” on such illegals.

Since 2002, the World Association for the Development of Philately (WADP) has been keeping track of legitimate stamp issues from UPU member states through its WADP Numbering System (WNS). Not all UPU member states cooperate with the WNS,  however, so there are gaps.

How many of the world’s 17,000-plus new stamps each year are designed and printed by outfits like Stamperija? Lots. Thousands of stamps in recent decades carried the names of nations in Africa and the former USSR, as well as tiny sovereign island states, and before that the Arab trucial states … Here is where it gets really confusing. How do you separate the “legitimate” postage stamps issued by, say, the Arab trucial state of Fujeira, from the “illegal” sets proscribed by the philatelic poobahs? And what if the set is “legit,” that is, postally valid, yet it breaks rules set by the UPU’s code of ethics? I mean really, look at some of these topical sets picked at random from the Scott catalogue for Fujeira in 1967: Butterflies, Winter Olympics, fullsizeoutput_1982Eisenhower.


Or how about florid souvenir sheets from the west African nation of Sierra Leone celebrating … U.S. Civil War generals (from both the north and the south!)?


fullsizeoutput_197cThese stamps  have nothing to do with Fujeira or Sierra Leone, any more than the sets of French classical  painting on stamps from the Arab world or Central Africa. Is that a philatelic crime? At least a shade unethical?



Now consider this pretty stamp (right) from Angola —  it is from a series of topical sets  celebrating flora and fauna, fungi and cacti. Why does the UPU insist they are illegal? Because Angolan postal authorities themselves denounced these issues to the UPU, refusing to acknowledge their legitimacy. The Philatelic Webmasters Organization noted: “Three companies located in Belgium, Great Britain and Lithuania issued stamps in its name.” Was this a shameless attempt by unscrupulous stamp-makers to cash in on the topical stamp market? Was there a misunderstanding? A deal gone bad? A plot foiled?  I wish I knew. …


The stamps above, purportedly from Angola, are all illegal. Angolan postal authorities renounced them, and the Universal Postal Union proscribed them. One observer thought it odd that all the stamps were denominated in the same amount: 3.5 million KZr., whatever they are …

As you begin to realize how many illegal stamps there are out there — from Mali, Chad, Georgia, and so on — the likelihood that this is the result of an accident or a misunderstanding fades. What we’re left with is a philatelic scheme that blurs the boundaries between legal and illegal, and between Cinderellas and “real” stamps. The goal: to bleed the market until the entire house of stamps   collapses in a pile of disarray, distraction, dismay, disgust and disinterest.


A small gallery of illegals, undesirables and toward the end, forgeries


Isn’t it odd that these two sets, above and below, look like they could be part of the same series? One is from Guinea-Bissau, in west Africa, the other from Vietnam, in southeast Asia. Are they illegal? No, not that I know of. But both sets appear to be cancelled-to-order, which is against the rules of the Universal Postal Union (though the rules are hardly wriggle-proof). I don’t know if these sets were printed in their respective countries or not, or if they were ever on sale locally. In the case of Guinea-Bissau, pretty much a gangster state as far as I can tell, the stamps had little or nothing to do with the people or their postal needs and practices. The collectibles likely were printed and marketed abroad, with the proceeds going into predictable pockets. Did the communists in Vietnam behave any less like corrupt crony capitalists?



A set of stamps from Fidel Castro’s Cuba honoring Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe? How does this serve the interests of the Cuban people? When was the last time the United State Postal Service honored Cuban performers? This could be internalized cultural imperialism; or creeping capitalism among Cuban entrepreneurs who see the possibility to cash in on the topical stamp market…


Between 1965 and 1990, all Togo stamps are suspected of being illegal, or at least “undesirable” and “abusive,” according to the Philatelic Webmasters Organization. Presumably that would include these sets from 1965 and 1967. In addition to their spurious provenance, the stamps bear the unmistakable sign of being cancelled-to-order (i.e. neat cancels in the corner, original gum on the back still intact.) Pretty stamps, though!


This souvenir sheet from “The Gambia” would fall under the category of “Stamps We Should Better Avoid,” according to the Philatelic Webmasters Organization. In fact, all Gambia stamps since 1985 are suspect, the PWO says. I bought this souvenir sheet a while ago; probably paid a couple of bucks for it. I know it’s not worth much, especially since its integrity as an authentic set of “postage stamps” has been called into question. I admit it, though: I’m a sucker for stamp-on-stamp collecting. And these are some great images of rare and wonderful postage stamps. One question, though: Why no stamp from Gambia?


This “authentic” set from Sierra Leone is remarkably similar to the “illegal” set from the Congo illustrated at the top of this post. How in the world is the average collector — or even the average stamp dealer — supposed to figure out which stamps and sets and sheets are the real thing, and which are the work of entrepreneurs cashing in on the half-billion-dollar market in illegal stamps?

Notwithstanding the purpose of this particular inquiry is illegal stamps, I can’t resist treating you to a few memorable stamp forgeries from the past …


This image on the left is described as an “American propaganda stamp” from World War II. I don’t know much about it, except that it parodies the definitive series from the Hitler era (see example, right). The name “Deutsches Reich” has been replaced with “Futsches Reich,” and Adolf’s profile is transformed into a hideous skull-creature. Brrr!

The Goebbels propaganda shop came up with this multi-layered Nazi deception (right). First, the red overprint — “Liquidation of Empire/Jamaica” — describes a fantasy scenario of de-colonization after Nazi conquest of England. Now look at the stamp itself. At first glance it appears to be a common British definitive from the George VI era (compare with the real thing, below). But no! The cross above the crown has been replaced by — a Star of David! Instead of the rose in the upper left corner there is — a Bolshevik Hammer and Sickle! Message: Great Britain is a tool of the Jews and the Communists. Pretty slick, eh? Maybe a bit too slick, I’d say …


Journey with me further back in history for this little collection of Confederate forgeries. I just acquired it at the Syracuse Stamp Club auction, for a buck. DJK, the seller, labeled it “Confederate fakes,” and that pretty much says it. Every design from the brief interval of CSA stamp production is represented here — in a set produced “privately” in 1941, seven decades after the war between the states ended. The so-called Springfield Facsimiles were the work of H.E. MacIntosh, owner of Tatham Stamp and Coin Co. in Springfield, Mass. He commissioned the stamps as a promotional gimmick, using copyrighted portraits. After many complaints, fullsizeoutput_19e3MacIntosh agreed to label the stamps “Facsimile” and number his fakes. At right, for comparison purposes, I offer an example of the actual 10-cent Jefferson Davis profile stamp of 1863. I know it’s genuine because it was used on a cover, and passed down to me in my collection. Am I really sure? Well, look closely: the engraving itself is distinctive (the cheap imitation of the 10-cent stamp above, which is in the second row, far right, is lithographed, if I’m not mistaken.)



And so it’s come to this, folks: A souvenir sheet of stamps from Sierra Leone, a poor, mismanaged nation in west Africa, that celebrates the era of the steam engine giving way to the “century of electricity.” I can attest that this sheet was purchased in-country in Sierra Leone — by my son-in-law. It may have been under sketchy circumstances, I’m not sure — through an agent or intermediary, perhaps. He picked up a whole pile of Cinderella-like sets and sheets, which surely cost a bundle, and gave them to me for my collection, but about which I still wonder: Are they really stamps?






Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! 2. Outlaws from the exploding USSR


There is nothing overtly illegal about this cover, as far as I know. It was sent to me through the mail from Kiev in 1992, the year Ukraine regained its independence. So I can vouch for the authenticity of the cover and the stamps on it. Below left are three copies of the 20-kopek USSR definitive stamp of 1988. Upper right is a 3-kopek value from the same set, this one overprinted with the distinctive trident symbol of Ukraine. The Soviet “CCCP” (SSSR) in the cancel, as well as the use of USSR stamps, is jarringly archaic. This envelope came from “independent” Ukraine. It bears a stamp with an overprint proclaiming Ukrainian sovereignty. Seems to me the Soviet stamps are technically illegal on this letter, if you go by Universal Postal Union rules. And by the way, how come Ukrainian postal officials couldn’t get around to creating cancellations in the name of their newly freed country? Get a move on!

The fracture of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a kaleidoscope of new philatelic ventures. In the Baltic region, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia regained their sovereignty  and began issuing stamps in their own names for the first time since before World War II. In  Ukraine, Armenia, Ajerbaijan and Georgia, their last stamps were issued in 1923, when they became part of the Soviet Union. Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be issuing the first stamps of  newly sovereign states.

More philatelic light shards spun off during the seismic weeks and months between the USSR and state governance. “Local issues,” also called
“provisionals,” sparked everywhere as one self-styled postal authority after another stamped their micro-national overprints on copies of the last definitive set of the USSR, across all nine time zones of the Soviet vastness. There were so many local issues that I despair of compiling a complete list. (So far I have 68 on my incomplete list.)


These are examples of the last set of definitive stamps issued by the Soviet Union, in 1988. Pretty cute, eh? They were overprinted as “local issues” from one end of the USSR to the other in 1992-3.

A philatelic meteor shower occurred in Ukraine. There, a local issue appeared bearing the names of 25 Ukrainian cities (Ternopil, Sevastopol, Lvov, Kiev, Loots … ), in effect creating 25 new philatelic authorities. (see below)



The same trident overprint, above, is used (spuriously) on “local” issues from Odessa and Zurupirisk in 1992-3.


A century-old trident overprint on a Russian stamp displays the distinctive symbol of Ukraine.


The “stamp” at left features the trident and  commemorates 25 years of Ukrainian something-or-other. It was released in 1954. The set above right honors the Olympics in 1960. These are all bogus stamps. Ukraine used only USSR stamps from 1923 until 1991. So where did these come from? And why were they made?


fullsizeoutput_1a2fThis illegal Cinderella series from 1958, which marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Ukraine National Republic, makes its propaganda point pretty clearly: Rise up, Ukrainians!
(Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)


fullsizeoutput_1a2eHere are some creepy covers. I don’t suppose you would list as Cinderellas these stamps from Nazi-occupied Ukraine in World War II. The stamps were “legal” in their creepy way. The top example is a philatelic cover created in 1942, during the brief Nazi expansionist era. (Notice how the efficient Nazis already had their own cancellation for Ukraine.) By March of 1943, when the cover at right was mailed, the wheels were coming off the Nazi juggernaut. I like to think this envelope shows evidence of desperate times — the haphazard address and placement of stamps, the general wear and tear, one stamp with a corner missing …

fullsizeoutput_1a32Here is another illegal Cinderella from Ukraine that I include because it features the familiar trident — and also because of the crude art work, overprint and around-the-edge lettering, “world refugee year, 1959-60.” It would rank as one of the worst stamps ever designed, were it not for the fact that it’s not really a stamp to begin with.




Do you have a Ukrainian friend? Perhaps he or she could explain what it is about the Ukraine point of view that countenances producing all these stamps for a fictitious independent state of Ukraine? Look at them all! Bogus, every one. And I expect this is far from a complete collection of Ukrainian Cinderellas …







Compare this unusual inverted overprint with the stamp on the envelope illustrated at the start of this essay (see enlargement, below). That one was authentic; Is this one?  The stamps looks very similar, though these   carry different values  (5,00 instead of 3,00), and the overprint is red, not gold. The dealer describes the item as Version 2“unlisted,” which raises my suspicions. Nevertheless, Yours Truly shelled out $13.75 for this “error.” What’s an illegal error worth?









Fancy commemoratives of the ex-Soviet Union also were appropriated and overprinted as local issues. These two sets carry the names of Russian territory — Zapolarye and Severomorsk.



Artistic overprints expanded to cover miltiple stamps at a time, creating a new image superimposed on the block-of-four underneath it.


In the case of these Ukraine-based overprints (above), the “new” images, imprinted on blocks-of-four of USSR definitive stamps, mimic a set produced by independent Ukraine in 1922 but never issued (wonder why?). Note the enlarged images (below) of the 5 and 10 (kopek?) values. The originals stamps are to the left, the overprints at right. Clever, eh?


The overprints may be crude,  witty, garish or elegant by turns. The regional claims to postal authority become so microscopic or abstract as to be almost ludicrous. What, pray tell, are the borders of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region? Russian Antarctica? Mari-El Republic?

One should wonder: Do these stamps bear any relation to real postage stamps? Or was some guy sitting in his basement turning out these illegal Cinderellas with a pile of stamps and a rudimentary printing press? Certainly there is no reliable postal value to these stamps. Have you ever seen any of them cancelled on a postally used cover? I haven’t.  (Dealer Frank Geiger claimed to have covers for sale with local issues, i.e.,  used for postage.)

Safe to say, a great many of these stamps could be rightly identified (or dismissed) as illegal Cinderellas. There is certainly enough background on these spurious issues by now to make it clear we are talking about unauthorized  stamps. The Philatelic Webmasters Organization lists 35 “members” of the Russian federation whose names are found on illegal issues, including the Kuril Islands, the Republic of Karelia,  Republic of Ingushetia, Spitsbergen Island, Republic of Tatarstan …

Suddenly I am confronted with a smoking gun: a detailed description of some illegals that are right there in my collection! The Wikipedia entry on “illegal stamps” identifies a specific example, with a large illustration. The caption describes “Stamps of the Soviet Union with overprints supposedly from the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.” This unwieldy title, also known as  PMR, covers territory in the former Soviet republic of Moldava — specifically Transnistra — that didn’t want to break away from the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, the PMR was basically out of luck and out of business. The stamps illustrated above “were produced in 1992 or 1993 without the knowledge or permission of PMR authorities,” according to Wikipedia. Philatelic scholar Niall Murphy has taken the trouble to study the “Sun Rays Group” of PMR  overprints. There is just no way these stamps can be legal. And there they are, right in my stockbook! It looks like I may have paid $16 for them. The dealer described them as “civil war issues,” staking a vague claim to legitimacy amid the exigencies and fog of battle. I should not have been fooled. Would I be fooled again? Indubitably, because I am fascinated by the first philatelic yelps of new nations being born. The awkward overprints, the false starts and early designs, surcharges, errors — all combine into a revealing portrait of collective human invention, refracted through the lens of philately.

All this means I was a sucker for these “new issue from new republics”  come-ons. Here’s how one dealer, Frank Geiger of Upper Saddle River, N.J., made his pitch, back in the 1990s: “With the disintegration of the Societ Union and Yugoslavia … many new countries have appeared on the globe. As strange as some of these names seem to us today, they will, someday, be as familiar to philatelists as Alderney, Aruba and Aland. We are pleased to offer complete coverage of the ‘new republics’ of Europe and Asia. …”

Nice try, Frank, but I don’t buy it. Not any more. For one thing, Aruba is a legitimate, longtime Caribbean island with its own postal authority. Alderney,  a channel island linked to Guernsey off the coast of Britain, just plays at issuing stamps, while the stamps of the Aland Islands, which is an autonomous region of Finland, are still in Cinderella-land.  Furthermore, time has proven Frank Geiger wrong. Today, no one remembers the stamps from Norilsk, or Ekaterinburg, or Birobidzhan.


This page includes overprints of USSR stamps for Azerbaijan (top), Moldava (middle) and the Kuril Islands (bottom). FYI, the Kuril Islands are 8,113 kilometers east of Moldava.

Nevetheless, I admit to spending $22 here (Odessa locals), $4 there (Bassarabia, first issue), $25 elsewhere  (Crimea local issues). I guess I spend a hundred or two on these  Cinderellas, with their slapdash  overprints and surcharges on  pint-size  Soviet definitives. I believe I was  hypnotized by these little definitive stamps — so alike and yet so different. I yielded to the philatelist’s impulse to accumulate more and more of these  overprints. I was struck by how, depending on the names in the overprint, two similar USSR stamps could designate territory separated by thousands of miles …

Geiger made his case well, claiming to have some first day covers and other cancelled material available. In the case of a “Russian local issue” from St. Petersburg, he wrote: “These stamps were officially issued by St. Petersburg Postal District and have been used on international mails, but the local authorities have been asked by the central Russian government not to repeat this type of issue.” Tellingly, Ginger did not offer any cancelled examples for sale. And get this added note: “Our St. Petersburg stock came form a local source in 1992 and are genuine overprints. Beware of low-priced fakes now appearing on the market as the demand for these stamps continues unabated.”  Could he really be warning his readers about forgeries of illegals?!  How low can you go?!

The Norilsk set Geiger offered was used, he further claimed, to mail parcels between the islands of Novaya and Malaya Zemiya, off the northern coast on Siberia on the Arctic Ocean. However, he was not able to offer any cancelled examples or covers for sale.


Is this a Cinderella or a real stamp? Legal or illegal? I say legal and official, because I received it from a postal agent in Ukraine in 1992, in response to my request for a stamped cover. His/her bonus enclosure of this mint stamp was accompanied by the hand-written note — “First stamp independente Uraine” — which displayed a touching sense of national pride along with the awkward syntax and amisspelling of “independent.” At my next Syracuse Stamp Club meeting I will try to remember to check an up-to-date catalogue to make sure this really is a first. (Update: I did; it is.)  Certainly it’s not the first Ukrainian stamp, though. That one date back to 1918 and the Ukrainian National Republic. Moreover, numberless Ukrainians, proud and stubborn and creative, would point to the many issues put out by loyal exiles through the years of Soviet rule. Now that the Soviet Union is long gone, the thought suddenly occurs: Might it some day be time to review those “illegal” Ukraine issues, and to reimagine those Cinderellas as authentic, flickering emblems of a dormant nation that awoke in 1992? Sounds to me like a fairytale ending  …

So here I am, with set after set of these bland USSR definitive stamps and their obscure and ephemeral overprints … Prednestrova, Birdobidjian, Udmurtija, Alta, Abhkazia, Karelia, Karil Islands …  No matter what they cost me, I now wonder: What are they worth? Surely something — if only as evidence of the aspirational lodestar that spun off all this spurious philately.





A small gallery of overprints from the exploded USSR    



I don’t believe you will find these stamps listed in any reputable catalogue. (Maybe a disreputable one.) I kind of like the USSR stamps — they’re pretty. Plus, they have these interesting overprints. The bottom ones say “Azerbaycan,” which must be Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic now going strong on its own. So why is this an illegal Cinderella? Oops, I should be answering questions, not asking them.


All these stamps (above and below) are “local” overprints from the USSR definitive series of 1988. They all purport to represent the Crimea, which was part of Ukraine before the Soviet anschluss. OK, you may be right if you suggest that I am going overboard on these stamps. Back in the 1990s, though, there was something mesmerizing about all these stamps sparking up from the former Soviet Union. These Crimea locals, with their overprinted symbols (can you find Prince Vladimir’s trident?), assert a renewed national identity, literally imprinting Crimea’s sovereignty on the emblems of its former Soviet ruler. Similarly, throughout the crumbling Soviet empire, the spirit of sovereignty and independence flared and flashed in the local overprints that rebranded stamps from the old regime as beacons of freedom.



Version 2

Here’s a wild melange (above), including overprints from Birobidzhan (the Jewish Republic) that imprint a Menorah over Soviet-era stamps. Could this be a little jab at the USSR for its historic hostility to Jews? Likewise, the Russian Cinderellas depict Czarist emblems — isn’t that the doomed Czar Nicholas himself, in full uniform, spread over four USSR definitives? What would Lenin make of these counter-revolutionary Cinderellas?


Quiz time: Are these real? Here are three blocks of stamps, the left from from Ukraine, the other two from the USSR. All are overprinted on behalf of the Ukrainian army battalion serving as UN peacekeepers in Bosnia in the 1990s. Were these stamps ever actually used on mail out of Bosnia? Out of anywhere? It’s easy enough to make out a value on each block — .05, .20 and .25 (what “C” stands for I don’t know). I am not going to try to decipher the overprint. I do like stamps issued for peacekeeping contingents, though. I guess that’s because I am a strong advocate for peace, and savor philatelic emblems of peacekeeping which reflect that noble human aspiration. (I hope they are real — the stamps as well as the aspiration!)


Finally, here are stamps from a modern definitive set, officially issued by postal authorities and put to use in Ukraine. The denominations are letters not numbers, as is customary in much of the modern world. It’s a modest and boring set, I suppose, though I like definitives   like this share a design concept, with varying images and colors. I have one concern about the legality of these stamps, though. I thought the Universal Postal Union directed that all stamps (except those from Great Britain, which invented stamps) must have the issuing nation’s name on it — in roman letters. This has been an issue throughout the Russian sphere — the lettering is cyrillic — as well as in some Arab/Asian nations. Now those stubborn Ukrainians continue to thumb their nose at philatelic protocol. Or should the UPU diktat be discarded as outdated and Roman-centric?
ADDENDUM: By the mid-1990s, both the Ukraine and Russia had (grudgingly?) accepted UPU guidelines. Ukraine stamps henceforth were inscribed in cyrillic and also in roman letters (“Ukraina”). Russian stamps bore the roman footnote, “Rossiya.”


Cinderellas part three: The first Cinderellas

fullsizeoutput_1932The question is asked: What was the first Cinderella? That is, what is the first artistic imitation of a postage stamp or “Artistamp,” not sanctioned by an official postal service?

My semi-authoritative source (Wikipedia) notes that “The first artist to produce an ‘artist’s stamp’ is open to interpretation.” Well, what do you know? I would say just about everything about this verfluchte subject of Cinderellas is open to interpretation. Nevertheless I shall soldier on, because I believe I have an interesting conjecture about the “first Cinderellas.”

Some consider the first Cinderellas were “local” mail delivery stamps — like the Pony Express, whose covers today are worth big bucks. Some local stamps were issued by regional postal authorities around the time the first U.S. stamps appeared, in 1847. In the later 1800s, commercial “poster stamps” are considered early artist’s stamps, or Artistamps. Otherwise, references seem to be mostly in the 20th century — a Dada postage stamp in 1919, World War II-era Artistamps, then the 1960s and beyond. (The term “Artistamp” is credited to T. Michael Bidner, in 1982. Bidner was a devoted archivist of artist’s stamps.)

My assertion is that Cinderellas appeared the same year as the world’s first postage stamp, the British Penny Black, in 1840; and that those very first Cinderellas helped determine the course of philately itself.

The story starts with the Mulready Cover, named for the artist, William Mulready. An associate of Rowland Hill who designed the Penny Black, Mulready was chosen to produce postage-paid envelopes, in one-penny and two-pence denominations. Think of it as the first aerogramme, about 80 years before  airmail service. The envelope Mulready came up with was an elegant engraving that featured Britannia with a lion at her feet, presiding over a kind of universal postal union — exotic animals and persons representing British subjects and others in different continents engaged in various activities, including getting and sending letters.


Here is a Mulready Cover in my collection. It includes a pretty Maltese Cross red cancel on the front, and an 1840 postmark on the back that could be July or May — the earlier date would make it quite rare. I paid about $46 for it in an online auction — a pretty good deal, I’d say. Note Britannia dispatching winged, nude messengers from the center. Upper left, Asian elephants, camels and Chinese gentlemen crowd the space. Upper right are naked Indians and clothed Pilgrims, a mother with babe in arms and a busy cartwright. In the bottom corners are depictions of domestic letter-reading. These scenes figure in the caricatures to come.

Rowland Hill anticipated that his boring Penny Black stamp would be less popular than this exotic, engraved cover. He was wrong.

The Mulready Envelope never caught on.  There are at least three explanations out there. First, the cover was so busy that the public couldn’t really get the point. In fact, the Mulready Cover was subjected to public ridicule and scorn, some of it downright lascivious. The London Times took an immediate dislike to it. “We have been favored with a sight of one of the new stamp covers,” the newspaper editorialist opined, “and we must say that we have never beheld anything more ludicrous than the figure or allegorical device by which it is marked with its official character.” (More about this later.) A second factor was suspicion that the Mulready Cover was a government conspiracy to control the flow of information under the Postal Reforms Act that had just become law. The third explanation, which I want to dwell on at some length, was the threat posed to stationers by this new postal instrument, sold in 12-copy Formes for 1 shilling or 2 shillings. Since the aggrieved stationers had ready access to engravers and printers, they launched a media blitz. In the  milieu of 1840, this meant printed cartoons and caricatures. The satirical artwork began appearing almost simultaneously with the release of the Mulready covers. The public fuss was not lost on Rowland Hill. Less than a week after the covers went on sale May 12, Hill wrote in his journal: “I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready.” He added testily: “The public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.” Within two months the postal powers-that-be had decided to scrap the Mulready Cover.

Is the cover beautiful? Ludicrous? Lascivious? Let’s take a look at some of the caricatures, and see how they manage to undermine the hifalutin notions of the Mulready Cover.

fullsizeoutput_18ffThis first caricature is noteworthy not just because of the pipe-smoking figure of Britannia, but because it comes with a detailed description in a contemporaneous gazette.  I will quote from the commentary at some length, because it goes directly to the point that the Mulready Cover is so elaborate, obscure, even ribald, that any point is lost and the hapless viewer must  make up his or her own story. Herewith the 1840 text, to accompany blow-up images of the section being satirized:

Version 3

Below, a detail from the Mulready Cover; above, the caricature.

“Look directly at the centre, and you will perceive the besotted figure of Britannia with her shield upon her knee. She has just put up a covey of postmen, with the wings of wild geese — naked in the pictur, but here, you will perceive, clothed for families.  … At the foot of Britannia is the Version 2British lion, looking as mild as if suckled upon ass’s milk, and having not so much as a growl  inside of him. With spectacles on nose, and his nob covered with a Palmerston cap, he is leisurely reading the latest foreign intelligence. This once vigorous animal appears to be in his dotage, and his tail hangs as limp as a thread-paper! …”

Version 4

Two versions of the domestic letter-reading scene described below. Left is  from the Mulready Cover; the slightly creepy one above is a caricature.

Version 4I’m not done yet. Here is the satirist’s impression of the domestic scene in the lower left corner (see enlargements): “… There is the portrait of a venerable old lady of the name of Smith. She is bed-ridden, ladies and gentlemen, and is listening to a letter read by her niece. Mark the figure of Mrs. Smith. She is looking all sorts of gratitude, and her two hands is clasped. The letter is from her grandson, John Smith, reported to have been hanged for burglary and murder; whereas that letter, just received by the penny post, assures the delighted parent that her grandchild is transported for life, for robbing on the highway, with the minor offense of slitting an attorney’s nose. …”

This business of lampooning the Mulready Cover went viral, 1840s-style.  An online collectors site lists 47 satirical covers. The effect must have been dramatic, and the battle was quickly won. While there would continue to be designed envelopes through the Victorian era and beyond, and while we all know about aerogrammes and stamped envelopes, the postage stamp quickly became the preferred and indispensable mailing device. Score a victory for the first Artistamps! (Though I suppose the Mulready Cover technically was not a stamp … )

I have had fun looking over these caricatures and would like to share images of some of them. I got the images from the Internet, mind you, since they are expensive and rare. An original cover can cost $550, sometimes much more, though

you occasionally may find a bargain.  Unfortunately, I have not yet uncovered any other colorful narratives to accompany these images. However, I shall endeavor to  pass along in captions some of my own impressions from close observation; and as Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by observing.


In this Mulready Cover caricature, Britannia looks clueless and self-satisfied as she dispatches her letter-carriers, who are not naked but clothed in appropriate uniforms. A foreign gentleman on either side of Britannia is conspicuously thumbing his nose at Her Imperial Eminence, while at her feet, a pint-size admiral rides a British lion who appears emaciated and decrepit, letters dangling from a tail outstretched like a clothesline. In the lower corners, two postmen on horseback gallop in opposite directions, while in the upper left, a carrier weighed down with sacks gazes woefully at the viewer; upper right, a town bell-ringer is so mesmerized by his envelope, he forgets his task. All in all, not a very positive, respectful depiction of the people’s response to this new postal gimmick, wouldn’t you agree?



Here is one in a series of lampoons issued under the satirical rubric, “Rejected design’s (sic) for the postage envelope.” A dowdy Britannia with a goofy grin presides over a constellation of what seem to be nude acrobats, while the English lion peeks out (lasciviously?) from behind her skirts. In the middle ground, a pair of women of questionable repute share a bottle over their envelope, counterbalanced by a gentleman reader in a pith helmet and a leering pasha. The foreground is bracketed by two peg-leg pirates, each gleefully brandishing a Mulready Cover. What a disgraceful, disorderly scene!


Here is another from the “rejected design’s” series. In this depiction, a cross-eyed Britannia looks positively looped. Her dog-like lion is delivering a Mulready Cover in his teeth to a surprised recipient. The postage envelope is everywhere in evidence, though to what purpose is not clear. Nor is it clear to me what the two misbehaving boys in the foreground have done with a Mulready Cover that leaves their master so perplexed. — and the woman behind them so downcast. At the lower left, the bloke seems to be offering a Mulready Cover to the tradesman for use in polishing shoes.


Here is a third cover from the “rejected” series of caricatures. Britannia and the lion look OK, compared to their comportment in other illustrations. What distinguishes this work is that all the recipients of the bothersome Mulready Covers are women. Look at them: idling away their day reading scribbles on an envelope when they could be doing useful work. Notice the supply of letters fluttering down, top left, and left foreground being thrust at the lady on the divan. I say, these Mulready Covers are corrupting the women and undermining the moral fiber of the nation! Will no one bring this sinful indulgence and indolence to a stop?!


Here’s an unusual Mulready Cover caricature that appears to be hand-drawn in pen and ink. Notice how it is a “complete” envelope — that is, the four corners can be folded over and sealed to create the letter suitable for mailing. The cover is attributed to John Menzies, and while it briefly was offered online for L5,000 ($6,534), it apparently was withdrawn from sale. Noteworthy are the vignettes of a poor fellow watching carriers deliver armloads of envelopes (upside down, top — see inset, below), a woman (right flap) receiving an envelope from a “postman” whose pockets seem to be bulging with loot, and a guy (left flap) whose whole visible outfit, as well as his eyes, nose and mouth, are fullsizeoutput_1937.jpeg made out of Mulready Covers. Kinda creepy!
By the way, it looks like this cover actually went through the mail. Since it isn’t a pre-paid Mulready Cover, I figure the sender supplied the necessary penny for postage, and the clerk applied that bold red “paid 20 JY 40” date stamp.








Here is another busy caricature of the Mulready Cover. Britannia and some of her naked messengers are presented fairly straightforwardly — except at left, a naked minion rides a glue stick with a belching smokestack — and delivers a Mulready Cover to the mouth of a waiting camel. Britannia has a jester’s bells on her cap, and the shield replaced by a penny coin — the price of a Mulready Cover. Lots going on here: The English lion is all but obliterated by his cap; among other envelope-readers, a bespectacled elephant (upper left) rests her letter on a block that is inscribed by the printer, “W.H. Mason, Repository of Arts, Brighton”; note the faces carved into the foundation … note also the scenes, bottom left and right. Is the postman a clean, personable public servant (left), or a wily rascal (right)? By now you must be getting the same impression I’m getting — that the cumulative effect of these published caricatures makes it impossible to take the Mulready Cover seriously.


What follows is a small gallery of Mulready Cover caricatures from the 1840s,  with notes and comment


Online description: 1840 an example of the Mulready “Caricature” envelope by Spooner issue No 2, illustrating the characters all receiving letters addressed to West Wycombe from Petersfield dated for NO 12 1840, being sent un-paid and bearing on front a “2” charge mark in black ink. The envelope is sealed by a gold on black wafer illustrating a hangman placing a noose around the condemned prisoner’s neck with the legend “I trouble you with a line”! A rare and most attractive item of Victorian humour.

The caption above accompanies the online offering of this extraordinary Mulready Cover caricature. At the center is a dour, pipe-smoking Britannia and her lion, flanked on one side by a devil with a mail sack, and on the other by a gunpowder explosion throwing victims into the air. The envelope is embellished with six scenes of letter exchanges, each one worth a story of its own. All this busy-ness reinforces the overall point of the anti-Mulready campaign, which is that the Mulready Cover is so confusing and misunderstood and busy that it should be scrapped immediately.

One more thing about this cover. I have not yet made the connection, but don’t you think the figures in these comic caricatures, with their big heads, expressive faces and tiny bodies, look an awful lot like the work of John Tenniel, illustrator of the Happy Families playing cards — as well as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? Well, maybe. Maybe not. Tenniel would have been only 20 at the time. So if it wasn’t Tenniel, who drew these wonderful characters?


In my opinion, those Tenniel-like characters are more interesting than the crude ones in this caricature. Britannia looks like a thug, the distracted lion looks more like a turtle. Then there’s all the busy-ness. In this iteration, everyone is using the post — that is, the Mulready Cover — as an excuse, a quick fix, a way to avoid personal responsibility. Here are the comic sketches of 1840:

Upper left:
Daughter: Oh please, Mr. Smut will you bring Mother half a hundred of coals.
Mr. Smut (enjoying a snack): I can’t bring them cos I’m engaged. But I’ll put em in the post directly.

Lower left:
Miss: Have you sent my mutton Mr. McSticken?
Mr. McSticken: The boy has just put it in the post Miss.

Upper right:
Diner: Waiter, how long will my soup be.
Waiter: It’s just put in the post sir.

Middle right:
Postman (handing baby to surprised matron): It’s returned, marm They won’t take it in.

Lower right:
Child (to grandmother, who is threading a needle): Granny, can’t you send belly aches away by the post?

Not sure what the deeper meaning of all this is. That you shouldn’t rely on the post office — or the Mulready Cover? Hey, not bad …


This is a caricature where I initially found myself at a disadvantage. The small title at the top announces, “Punch’s Anti-Graham Envelope.” Who is Graham? Apparently the guy standing in for Britannia. And then, who is guy drawn as the head of a black snake taking the place of the English lion? One of them must be Mulready. I know Punch is the venerable British humor (humour) magazine. And I can see a snake in the grass when it’s right in front of me. Another thought occurs as I take in those little postmen in their coats and top hats, flitting about in great numbers, peering through a keyhole, reading over shoulders, even sticking their heads right into a Mulready Cover to see what’s inside: Isn’t this a visualization of the conspiracy theory — that the Mulready envelope is the leading edge of a campaign to control the free flow of information? A snake in the grass, indeed!

Why is this cover blue? My guess is that this particular caricature is not aimed at the (black) one penny Mulready Cover, but at the (blue) 2d. cover. One more note: This is not the first caricature where there is a small icon at the bottom of a bottle with an “S” on it. Meaning? Could be an artist’s mark …

Addendum: Now I have more authoritative background (and confirmation) on this cover, which dates to 1844, courtesy of the web. This is from the William James Linton Archive at the Melton Prior Institute for reportage drawing and printing culture: “The politician who suffered most from Punch … was the most unpopular of a long line of unpopular Home secretaries, Sir James Graham. … His capital offence was directing the opening of certain of Mazzini’s letters (ed: Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian, a politician and journalist who led the early movement for unification.) … in consequence of the statements made to our Government by that of Naples, to the effect that plots were being carried out – of which the brilliant and popular Italian refugee was the centre – to excite an insurrection in Italy. … (T)he popular feeling roused by it was intense, and Punch, up in arms at once at this supposed violation of the rights of the subject, fanned the excitement … This consisted in the famous Anti-Graham Envelope (…) drawn by John Leech — a sort of burlesque … . The circulation attained by this envelope was very wide, and although I have not ascertained that many were actually passed through the General Post Office, it certainly brought a flood of bitter ridicule on the unfortunate Minister.” (M. H. Spielmann, The History of Punch, 1895)

More from the Melton Prior Institute: “The original prepaid Mulready envelope was the world’s first postal stationery, issued in 1840, at the same time as the first postage stamp. It had been decorated by the painter William Mulready with a representation of Britannia at the centre top, sending out her winged emissaries to all corners of the British Empire. Leech and Linton turned this document of Imperial pride into the vision of a total surveillance state with the detested minister as “Big Brother” Britannia, who sends out his winged flock of clerks to violate people’s privacy. The Anti-Graham envelope followed a favoured radical strategy of using fake documents and bogus money as means of criticism and propaganda … For Linton, it was a first encounter with the art of creative forgery.”


OK, this caricature is just too busy for me. The quality of the reproduction makes it nigh-on for me to decipher everything. It’s fair to conclude the gist of the thing is: Mulready Cover bad!


Now look at the blowup, right. It’s from the upper right of the last caricature. And here we come, finally, to the lascivious angle. Notice how the naked Indian conferring with the Pilgrim (no, wait! It’s now a postman!) looks like a Vaudeville extra. So does the Indian seated on what looks like his pants, whose buttocks are modestly concealed by … what? A Penny Black postage stamp! It’s altogether quite a garish scene, don’t you think?

For comparison purposes, fullsizeoutput_18a2I include a blowup of the same corner of the authentic Mulready Cover. In the dignified scene, one (naked) Indian shakes hands with a (fuilly-clothed) Pilgrim, while others stand back. In the foreground, another (naked) Indian sits on a mat, facing away from the viewer. Never mind the (naked) winged messenger in the background, or the (naked) Laplander driving his reindeer sled. Focus on the buttocks! They surely grabbed the attention of the British public, even as they found their way into the caricatures. Were Victorian sensibilities titillated by this expose of supple young butt cheeks? Was there outrage? Gossip? Protest? (Gee, someone should do a paper on this …)

Now let’s take a quick look at other lascivious close-ups in Mulready Cover caricatures.


In this caricature (sorry about the hand-scrawled cancel), naked Indians cavort around the sober Pilgrims, while fellow sitting on the mat maintains a stoic silence. Indeed, his helmet or cap or mantle of hair makes him look like a (naked) Prince Valiant …



Version 2


In another caricature, the artist went off on a flight of fancy, doodling one naked sprite after another …




Version 2


In this cynical caricature, all the characters have become grotesques — Indians and settlers conniving in a tight group. Naked buttocks are much in evidence, including the fat cheeks of the obligatory seated-nude-facing-away. Next to him a reclining dandy is wearing a postman’s hat … and apparently nothing else!






Finally, here is a detail from a caricature showing a youth in chains, seated, looking downcast. But see: A bird flies toward him, carrying in its beak — a Mulready envelope. All is not lost!

That notion that an airborne Mulready Cover can free a prisoner or slave is a bit visionary, particularly so for a satirist from the 1840s. What an image!



Cinderellas part two: Artistamps

So far I have barely creased the surface of Cinderella “non-stamps.” You can do a deeper dive by going online to “Cinderella stamps images,” and get lost in the pictures and stories. I decided to take a little side trip into the wild and crazy world of Artistamps. Come along!

The Artistamp could be considered a sub-category of the Cinderella, but by rights deserves a category of its own. The hybrid term is charmingly defined as a  “portmanteau” — that is, not the two-part travel-case, but “a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others,”  like motel, or brunch. In this case, the two words don’t fold quite as easily as the portmanteau —  is it  “artist” and “stamp,” or “artist’s stamp”? The key word to hang on to is “art.” The Artistamp may have an ulterior motive, an ironic,  political, satirical or even subversive purpose, but it also needs the  saving grace of artistic merit.



These may look like postage stamps, but do not be deceived. They are the deceptive and alluring work of Donald Evans. Who ever heard of a place called “Amis et Amants” (Friends and Lovers)? I can’t make sense of the captions, and the “cancellation” consists of the artist’s name. But they sure are pretty, aren’t they?

To me and no doubt others, Donald Evans did as much as anyone during his brief and remarkably productive career to elevate the Artistamp to its deserved niche  in the collectors  pantheon. (Where is that perch, you ask? Somewhere between Andy Warhol, Saul Steinberg and R. Crumb.)  This guy was an architectural draftsman who had been fooling around drawing stamps since he was 10. He picked up the pastime again as an adult, and went on to design  thousands of imaginary stamps and imaginary sets from 42 imaginary countries. Each stamp was a meticulously designed and executed miniature, using ink and washed-out watercolors. Evans pecked out “perforations” using the period key on a typewriter. The results were stunning — whimsical, irresistible, altogether delicious. fullsizeoutput_18e1Evans seemed to tap into the essence of philatelic joy  — the crisp order, the soothing color, the variety of the  imagery and messaging, all contained within the frames  of those little stamps. Emily Cleaver writes: “He used this sameness, this deliberate smallness, to explore the infinite. His stamps are pieces of physical evidence sent directly from the limitless landscape of the imagination.”

Alas, Donald Evans died in a house fire in 1977.  He was just 33. A few more Donald Evans works follow …


This witty souvenir sheet by Donald Evans celebrates some long-ago air show of the imagination, and features a single-engine plane doing a lazy circle — around the sheet. To me, the sheet also resonates with echoes from the famous and spectacularly valuable Inverted Jenny U.S. airmail stamp error of 1918.


Children and adults could have fun with this made-up set from somewhere called Nadorp. Each stamp contains a pair of images — a match and a rose; a sunset and a gold ring; a canary and a bicycle. I challenge you to tell a story that combines each image. Or is there some linguistic pun involved? Somehow, I don’t think Nadorp-ian postal officials can help us solve these riddles.



I am including this last image from Donald Evans — a gorgeous set from “Tropides Islands” — because I love it so. Something about the colors first enthralled me, then the exotic shapes of the palm trees; and finally, the labels — cabbage palm, barrel palm, sentry palm — conjured up more visions. What a tour de force! These Images bubble like a refreshing stream, immersing the viewer in color and shape and order. The stamps take on totemic significance, as vibrant emblems of nature on orderly display. My eyes are bathed in an ur-spring of philatelic bliss …


Artistamps live on, and so do Donald Evans’ creations. A lavishly illustrated book, “The World of Donald Evans” went through two editions. Hardcover and paperback copies of this sumptuous volume are available online, not cheap. Today his estate is represented by Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, which suggests that Donald Evans originals may be pricey. My sources list dozens, maybe 100 or more Artistamp creators these days. There are references to two Artistamp museums, one in Berkeley, Calif., the other in Jupiter, Fla. In 2008, an exhibition in Bremen, Germany was titled “Lick Me (Leck Mich): Artist’s stamps since the 1960s.” The business of adding those little stamp perforations to Artistamps seemed to become a cottage industry, with practitioners employing such tools as a sewing machine, leather punches, veterinary needles and customized scissors. And there’s this, from Wikipedia: “In 2004, the International Brotherhood of Perforator Workers (IBPW), an organization based in Washington, D.C., was established to represent the interests of artists owning and/or operating perforators in the creation of stamp art.”

Enough about Artistamps? Not quite. Before we leave the subject, I must tell you about … my own Artistamps. When and where else would I get the chance to share pictures of the “stamps” I designed myself? I drew them in the 1960s — by golly, about the same time Donald Evans was creating his limitless world of tiny stamp images, AND the same time Jock Kinneir (FSIA) was drafting his own Cinderella set of British definitives! There I was, in my early teens, oblivious,  busily drawing away at my definitive set for … Ghana. Why Ghana? Why not? I also dreamed up stamps from Germany and a few other British colonies …


Here is my imaginary set  from Ghana — a complete definitive series, from 1/2d through 1 pound. (I never tried perforating my stamps — they are all imperforate.) fullsizeoutput_a93You may detect some similarities with early Ghana stamps, which had already captured my imagination; in fact, a few are almost copies. Nevertheless, they all are original in their way. The unifying elements, I should note, include the frame, the typeface for the name Ghana, as well as the denomination style for each stamp. In addition, there is a version of the Ghanaian flag integrated into each design (as on the “real” definitives). The stamps  increase in size, by steps, as the denominations rise. The coat of arms on the 1 pound stamp is accurate. The viking ship on the 1 1/2d is a logo used on other Ghana stamps. It refers back to the Black Star Line, the ill-fated pan-African/American
fullsizeoutput_a94shipping enterprise of black nationalist Marcus Garvey between 1919 and 1922. The portrait and statue of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding prime minister, is also on-mark in 1962. Nkrumah would not lose power until the military coup of 1966, though by 1962, his regime’s democratic veneer already was wearing thin … The castle depicted on the 5 shilling is not a notorious slave portal like Cape Coast or Elmina. It is Christiansborg Castle in Accra, named by Dutch colonists who date back to the 1600s. The castle remained the seat of government after independence. All in all, I would hardly  claim similar consideration for this series from Ghana’s postal authorities


Notice the similarities between these actual stamps from Ghana and my Cinderella version, above. Do you suppose plagiarizing is allowed in Cinderella land? Or is that called forgery?

as Jock Kinneir’s  proposed definitive series deserved from British authorities at around the same time …






This next selection of made-up Cinderella stamps consists of, clockwise from top left:  A black-and-white 1 pound stamp from Trengannu, an exotically named state in fullsizeoutput_a97Malaya, one of more than a half-dozen that issued stamps during the British colonial era. (Oops — it seems I misspelled the real territory, which is “Trengganu” or “Terengganu,” but not Trengannu. Sorry, folks.) This Cinderella  features a dapper King George Vi, some kind of formal declaration lying on a royal scepter, and under the portrait a time interval, presumably the length of British dominion: “1848-1948.” (This is nonsense, since the British did not take over from Thai rulers in Trengganu until 1909.) Notice how I drew the whole stamp with distinct lines — in an effort to make the stamp look “engraved.” OK, it’s not perfect, but let’s give the kid artist a little slack …  The next “stamp” over is another “engraving” from the George VI era, this one a bicolor “commemorative” from Malta, which borrows the image from another Malta stamp of a War Memorial on that small but strategic island colony in the Mediterranean. The reference is apt, since George VI was king throughout World War II, and survived another half-dozen years after. The memorial, too, is real. However, it  was not inaugurated until 1954 by Elizabeth II, two years after the death of her father, George VI.  …  Below and to the right is a rather nifty, imaginary Pitcairn Islands 5 shilling stamp with a portrait of Elizabeth II. The portrait is copied from one used on other colonial stamps of the time. There are what look like royal signatures in the upper corners, with a map and outline of the tiny south-Pacific island in the bullseye of its geographical coordinates. Kind of slick, doncha think? …  Last are what appear to be two values from an imaginary set from Kibris (Cyprus). The nation in the eastern Mediterranean had just gained its sovereignty in 1960.  In this set there is no longer an image of a monarch — though the currency is still an odd mixture of Cypriot mils and the pound sterling. Again, my technique means to suggest engraving, both in the woodsy landscape of the 15 mils and the curious 1 pound stamp, with its naive use of the royal coat of arms (complete with crown!) to represent an independent republic; there is another topographical elevation superimposed on a geographical representation. To me at least, the gold and magenta result a fairly gorgeous stamp — picture if you can the finely engraved version!  By the way, the year reference — 1962 — also suggests the approximate time all of these renderings were created …  fullsizeoutput_a98Now hold on a sec! If I drew those Cyprus stamps in 1962, then it was the same year Cyprus issued its first set of original definitive stamps after  independence. My catalogue says that set was released Sept. 17, 1962 — fairly late in the year. It certainly is possible that I drew “my” Cyprus stamps before then … Now take a look at my 15-mils stamp, compared with the 30-mils stamp from the “real” set fullsizeoutput_a96(pardon the heavy cancellation). Notice anything? For one thing, the color is an almost perfect match. Now notice how the Greek name , dropping down a vertical tablet on the left-hand side, is almost identical!  (OK, so my Greeks’ not perfect.) The actual stamp depicts ruins, not the forest in my stamp. But somehow, the open-air landscape, the cloudy sky, the general ambience — similar, no? If I had already seen the brand-new set from Cyprus (and it’s possible), then you could write off my “creative” design as imitative at best. If my design appeared without any foreknowledge of the imminent Cypriot definitive set, I would have to shake my head in some wonder …

fullsizeoutput_18fbHere is a rather harmonious grouping of German city-scenes, again in facsimilie engravings. Each historic structure is boxed in a frame that contains the city’s name. Interestingly, the country referred to on my stamps did not, at the time, officially exist. There was West Germany, the Bundesrepublik (federal republic), issuing stamps labeled “Deutsche Bundespost.” And there was East Germany — the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). The designation I chose — “Deutsche Post” — harkens back to the usage immediately after World War II.

fullsizeoutput_a59 Oddly, that name would pop up again in 1990, when the DDR was going out of business and hastily issued a series of stamps once again using the neutral name, “Deutsche Post.”


Even more oddly, notice the similarities between one of the  “real” stamps issued in 1990 and my “Cinderella” from back in 1962. …

Now let me fill you in on my more recent foray into  Cinderella land — with Bike Delivery stamps. Local delivery stamps are among the categories of Cinderellas singled out by collectors. In my case, the delivery involved invitations to a seasonal party. I sent all but a dozen invitations by email and USPS, and determined to deliver the rest by bicycle, riding around the neighborhood. Because I am retired and don’t have to work for a living, because I love stamps, and because I felt I deserved a reward for my healthful and useful pursuit, I spent an hour or two designing my “Bike Delivery” stamps. (Note helmet.)

fullsizeoutput_18aaIMG_0748As you can see from this next image, I had lots of fun with the project — affixing a stamp in the appropriate spot on each invitation before dropping it off under or around the mailbox (it’s a federal offense  to use the mailbox itself, I understand). I “canceled” the cover with an inked seal from the carved jade name-stamp (“FISKE”) that my daughter Kate brought back from China. I even concocted a “first day of issue” cover — sure to be a collector’s item!  (Notice I still have a bunch of stamps left — ready for next time!)

You may be shaking your head over the preceding — as my neighbors might have done, if indeed they noticed the “stamp” and the “cancellation” on the “cover.” Really! A grown man, making “stamps” to stick on envelopes and deliver to his friends via bicycle. He really must have too much time on his hands. The whole thing is just ridiculous.

Well, scoff all you like at my Bike Delivery Cinderellas. Then take a look at this next image of a stamp from the U.S. Special Delivery series of 1902. Look familiar? (But where is his helmet?)



Finally, indulge a grandfather and allow me to include this image — a creation of Frida, age 6 or so. The designs could be stamps, the numbers could be the denominations. These images might or might not count as Cinderella stamps — who’s to say? But isn’t it amazing, in any case, how the pairing of numbers and images in a series can please the eye, calm the spirit, nourish the soul. Inspired by Frida’s creativity, I believe the future of Cinderellas, or Artistamps, or whatever you want to call this polymath doppelganger of philately, seems bright.






Cinderellas: Part One

fullsizeoutput_a8a I came across this “souvenir sheet” of what looks like British stamps in my GB stock album. I needed the space for something else, so I decided to relegate this questionable philatelic artifact to a stock file. As I removed it from its place, I took one more look at it.

“A new approach to British Definitive Postage Stamps,” reads the headline. Underneath is the name of the designer — Jock Kinneir FSIA** — as well as Stanley Gibbons, the iconic London stamp establishment that commissioned the set.

(**Regarding FSIA, the only entities I could find using that acronym are the Faridabad Small Industries Association; the Free State Institute of Architects, in South Africa; and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.)

At the bottom of the sheet is some small print: “NOTE: The above are purely private productions and have not been officially commissioned by the Post Office for authentic stamps.”

Well, that settles the question of authenticity, I guess. Still, it’s an interesting curio — from the Spring of 1965, just as the British Post Office was settling on a new set to replace the one in use for the 12 years since Elizabeth became queen.

fullsizeoutput_a8bWhile trying to determine if Jock Kinneir FSIA had created any “real” stamps, I learned that he was a prominent graphic designer in his day. Kinneir (1917-1994) developed the signage system for the British Railway in the 1950s and 1960s. His simple, unadorned, readily-legible-at-speed signs soon became standard fare, and the movement spread to airports, subways, other countries. I must only add that the typeface he and his partner, Margaret Calvert, adapted for their traffic signage was a 19th century German trade font titled, “Akzident Grotesk.” (I kid you not; look it up.) The Kinneir-Calvert version became the “Transport” typeface.

I suspect the typeface on this this sheet is Transport. It is interesting, to me at least, to contemplate these stamps and imagine, what if … What if the BPO had rejected  the plain, if elegant, Machin portrait in favor of

The Machin portrait of Queen Elizabeth, used on British definitive stamps for the last half-century.

this set of stylish designs and landmarks? They would not have sparked anything like the philatelic revolution of the Machin era, whose sets and numbers have stretched ever onward over a half-century. The Kinneir “fantasy” set may be pretty, may have seemed modern and sleek for its time. Perhaps a postal official  or two took a look and gave it some consideration. Perhaps not. There was hardly a contest between Kinneir’s worthy effort and the magisterial Machin, rightly called one of the greatest stamps of all time.

The only other reference to Jock Kinneir designing stamps that I could find in the limited interval I allowed myself for research is the following: It seems Kinneir was one of eight Scottish designers invited to submit proposals for a two-stamp set commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Robert Burns in 1966. Kinneir’s bold design consisted of Burns’ signature, scrawled in black across a stark white background. Even bolder, it dispensed with the portrait of the monarch, an integral element of all British stamps (except postage dues) since the beginning of stamps with Queen Victoria on the Penny Black in 1840. (Kinneir’s shocking innovation was encouraged by Tony Benn, the democratic socialist politician serving as postmaster general in the Labour government.)

The Postal Advisory Committee initially chose Kinneir’s designs.  However, on learning that the queen herself did not approve of her portrait being removed from the nation’s postage stamps, and knowing that the queen must pass on recommendations for all postage stamps, the committee retrenched. Its final submission was a more  conventional design by another of the Scottish artists, Gordon F. Huntley. The stamps returned to using the queen’s portrait. While Kinneir redrew his stamps to include the portrait, the authorities still chose the other design, citing a new reason: postal cancellations might ruin Kinneir’s bold effect.

So as far as I can tell, while Kinneir was a whiz-bang designer whose work in transportation signage has had a global and lasting impact, he pretty much struck out in the stamp-design department.

Some stamp collectors may find it a waste of time to focus on stamps that never were — like the Jock Kinneir set of proposed (and rejected) British definitives. These make-believe stamps have acquired the somewhat mocking nickname of “Cinderellas.” It would take more time and toil than I can manage to compile a comprehensive  guide to this amorphous category of pseudo-stamps — labels, badges, commemoratives, tributes, propaganda, art, advertisements and what-have-you, in multiple categories, proliferating in one country after another until it becomes a parallel world to true philately.

There are catalogues on the subject, along with shows and exhibits, an index begun in 1961, and a lively online presence, including the Cinderella stamps forum. I wonder, though, how you can keep up with Cinderellas on one hand, while setting boundaries on the other. The broadest definition of Cinderellas, from the authoritative source Stanley Gibbons, is “virtually anything resembling a postage stamp, but not issued for postal purposes by a government postal administration.” That would include Easter Seals and green stamps, U.S. savings bond stamps and food stamps, as well as the delicate and whimsical watercolor stamp designs of Donald Evans. (See Cinderellas part two: Artistamps). Cinderellas could have a satirical purpose — like the Doonesbury comic stamps created by Garry Trudeau in 1990.  Twine Workshop took philatelic aim at George W. Bush in 2005.

Like counterfeit currency, Cinderellas have no place in the postal world order.  There may be zillions of avid Cinderella collectors out there, and I hope they are having fun. While I have had my  brushes and even flirtations with Cinderellas during my decades as a stamp collector, I’ve always been wary of them, particularly when they are oriented commercially or promote a specific group. There is so much involved with “legitimate” philately that I feel I must focus on the “real thing” rather than get sidetracked by Cinderellas …

That is, until they get interesting — for example, when Cinderellas masquerade on the fringes of “real” philately, or actually blur the lines between the two. Like when the philatelic powers-that-be banished to Cinderella-land stamps from self-declared but not universally recognized lands  — say, from Biafra during the rebellion of the 1960s, or in the Congo rump states of South Kasai, Katanga and Stanleyville earlier that same decade. In the struggle to resist Cinderellas, the stamp collector’s heart is tugged by history and bureaucracy. The philatelic romantic roots for the stamp-issuing state as it asserts its national (or at least, postal) identity.  Oh, for a cover with Cinderellas, officially cancelled!

fullsizeoutput_a89The term Cinderella also applies to stamps serving darker purposes. During World War II, as the Axis nations fought for global dominion, their postal ambitions soared beyond their early territorial gains. In Vichy France, the Nazis’ puppet state, postal authorities produced stamps for France’s colonial empire. They pointedly dropped the name “Republique Francaise,” for the Nazi-approved “Postes Francaises,” and included an inset portrait of Marshal fullsizeoutput_a87Petain, the compliant French ruler. Though issued by the Vichy government, the stamps never were offered for sale in their  designated colonies. One wonders how they were sold, and for what purpose. Propaganda? Morale? False hope? Delusion? The spurious Vichy colonial stamps are not valuable, though some of the engravings are charming. Notice how the stamps in the lower image carry an overprint and a surcharge  in support of “Oeuvres Coloniales”  — colonial projects. Did the Nazis and their French collaborators really have a fund for such projects? If so, it must have led a bizarre bureaucratic existence.  I don’t believe Axis troops dared set foot in any of the free French colonies. Not with de Gaulle and his allies operating out of London, Algiers, Brazzaville and other points in equatorial and west Africa, which remained beyond Vichy (or German) control.

Safe to say, the Axis powers did have ambitions for Africa — at least to exploit its resources. They also had designs on India, then still the colony of the British Raj. But neither the Nazi wehrmacht nor its Japanese allies were able to penetrate the subcontinent. Some of the war’s most furious fighting occurred in Burma, on India’s doorstep. In occupied Singapore, Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose formed a Provisional Government of Free India, declaring its sovereignty and independence fullsizeoutput_a85from Great Britain — but taking its orders from Tokyo. Just in case the Axis powers did manage to gain a foothold in India, artists dreamed up a set of rather garish stamps declaring “Free India” (“Azad Hind”) and displaying the Indian nation breaking its chains, among other designs. History was not kind to this “independence” movement. Though Bose’s Indian National Army soldiers  fought alongside the Japanese in Burma, and managed to take and briefly hold territory on Indian islands and make border incursions, “Free India” fizzled, and history accords it no role in the subsequent emancipation of India from colonial rule in 1947. (Bose died from burns he received in a plane crash in 1945.) These  stamps were never placed on sale in India or anywhere else — perhaps they circulated as propaganda, souvenirs, or as shadowy exchanges in the casbah where such nightmarish Cinderellas find their way into the mainstream; which is the reason we still find them available today, for prices that can range up to $100 or more for a complete set.  (The  illustration above comes from the Internet.)

fullsizeoutput_18cfEven a fleeting  illumination of Cinderellas must shed a beam on Lundy. “Local” stamps — used for mail delivered privately and not sanctioned by the post office — go back to the early days of philately. But Lundy is another story. This small island in the English Channel (population: 28?) began issuing its own stamps in the 1920s, after the British Post Office  discontinued regular mail service to and from the mainland. London apparently accepted Lundy’s  maneuver, and agreed to

These stamps also are a fun game for little ones. Look at the numbers — and count the puffins! I have never seen another set that is denominated in puffins — and even includes 12 of them in the green 12-puffin stamp (look closely for the three puffin chicks at the top)

take Lundy-stamped letters for further delivery — providing they also bore the necessary GB postage stamp. And so began the unavoidably lighthearted succession of “stamps,” denominated in “puffins” and


Here are the instigators of the Lundy philatelic enterprise — a Cinderella tale of the first order in the history of philately.

depicting, among other things, the ungainly bird native to the island. You will not find Lundy stamps listed in major catalogues or sold through online sites like Stamps2Go or Zillionsofstamps. (eBay offers a few sets for sale or bid — not

I include this Lundy stamp image simply because it is so unusual. It celebrates the millenary — that is, the 1,000-year anniversary — of the “defeat of Eric Bloodaxe … 954-1954.” I’ve only seen a few thousand-year anniversary stamps (I think there’s one in Germany.) I also get a kick out of the depiction of a fearsome, axe-and-club-wielding Viking, just about to be zapped by a blood-red puffin.

















In case you thought this Lundy business was all a hoax — look at this cover, covered with Lundy stamps that are duly canceled. Not sure where the cover was going, but I bet it got to its destination. This cover is quite valuable, though still tipping toward the Cinderella column.


Here the Lundy stamp makers got creative and witty with their appropriation of Great Britain No. 2 — the 2d. blue of 1840. The cheeky addition of “Lundy” turns Queen Victoria into a Cinderella — though I suspect it does the queen no lasting harm. It’s all a charming, if slightly quaint, philatelic fairy tale …


Here is a fairly recent stamp/souvenir sheet from Lundy, just to demonstrate continuity. I imagine Lundy stamps are pretty much a tourist attraction at this point. Do they really still have to carry letters to the mainland on that old boat? Quaint, I guess.

Are these Lundy stamps legitimate or Cinderellas? I say they are spurious, but the breezy debate has been going on for decades, so it might as well continue for a while longer …

Gallery: Cinderellas in my collection

The following is a selection of Cinderella items from my collection, in no particular order. Let the pictures — and captions — speak for themselves.


Here is an arbitrary selection of Cinderella stamps — clockwise, from top left: A World War I commemorative from the American legion; two early Easter Seals; a pair of Stock Transfer overprints on U.S. documentary stamps; and a fairly beat-up copy of a $5 federal motor vehicles use tax stamp from 1945.


Ration stamps from the World War II era (1940s).


Another arbitrary Cinderella selection — clockwise from top center: A playing card stamp, like you used to tear off when you opened a fresh deck of cards; next, a $5 consular service fee stamp, with what looks like a hand cancel “Istanbul, Turkey”; bottom right, two labels for the Tobacco Workers International Union; and to the left, part of a strip of 25-cent U.S. bond stamps (aren’t they colorful engravings?)


Yet another selection — clockwise from top right: A campaign stamp label for GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who ran against FDR in 1940 (Who was his running mate? Oregon Sen. Charles McNary); a 2-cent “bedding stamp” from the state of Georgia; the same $5 U.S. consular fee stamp (oops); and in the upper left corner, a slightly exotic eye-design, a control number and date stamp (from 1945) — from a subscription book, perhaps? Coupons?


Top left: The black label featuring a delicately engraved scroll announcing, “For testing purposes only” is fairly self-explanatory — though I wonder exactly what was being tested. Was it the printing technique? The ink color? The coil process? The pre-canceling process? And why the elaborate engraving? A joke? Or was it also being tested on the public? So many questions … As for the other two items in this image — At lower left is a “cleared” stamp from the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration), part of the Department of Homeland Security. I expect I’m not supposed to keep such a security Cinderella like this in a stamp collection. But what the heck, I’m a reckless rebel. The reason it is a Cinderella, in my view, is that it has nothing to do with postage, just with letting me carry my luggage on the plane. The accompanying sheet of paper has no relevance except to display the striking ink stamp of Homeland Security.


Bonus: It’s about time

fullsizeoutput_18a7Look at this page from Ghana in my British Africa album. It presents the first set of definitive stamps — the regular issue of 1959. Except it’s not the full set. Notice the gaping hole in the middle. It’s the 1/3 value, not particularly rare or valuable. (In fact, the set itself is not very dear — a few bucks at most.)

I’ve been a fan of Ghana stamps from  the early days, and have the first four  years of stamps and souvenir sheets nearly complete. The bold colors and designs and exotic or aspirational themes seem to capture some of the zest of  Africa during the early days of independence. I like the way the stamps integrate the Ghanaian flag with its stirring colors of black liberation — green and gold and red — harking back to the days of Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line.

I had assembled this set over the years from several sources.  Somehow, the 1/3 kept eluding me. I began to keep an eye out, online and at stamp shows. I never managed to find what I was looking for, though — until now.

fullsizeoutput_18a8Look! There it is, the missing 1/3, dropped among the rest of the set, right beside its illustrated spot on the page. It turned out to be ridiculously easy to get. I was accumulating a range of inexpensive stamps from an online dealer and just stumbled on the Ghana 1/3. I was excited — in the quiet, contained way of philately. (I might have whispered to myself “Yes!” and shot my fist up in the air from the chair in my study.)  Here, finally, was the missing stamp!  Odd thing was, it only cost me 60 cents.





fullsizeoutput_18a9Now behold, dear reader, the complete set at last. It may not seem like a big deal to you. To this philatelist, who has been hankering to fill that middle space for lo, these many years, it is a consummation devoutly to be wished and avidly celebrated. I feast my eyes …

(You might ask: If the set only costs a few bucks, why not just buy the complete set? That way, you’ll have your missing stamp as well as the rest, and you’ll only be out a few bucks. My answer: Yeah, but then you wouldn’t be a true, dyed-in-the-ink stamp collector. You would be taking the easy way. Instead of “collecting,”  you would be “amassing.” You already had every stamp in the set but one. If you buy a whole new set, what do  you do with that nearly-complete duplicate set? Try and sell it? Give it away? Put it in an envelope and forget about it? What a waste of time and effort. Besides, doing it this way only cost 60 cents. All it took was a little patient attention, persistence — and fait; philatelic phaith that the right stamp would come along at the right time.)


The Mystery Box

fullsizeoutput_183dOne of the sustaining narratives of stamp-collecting is the story of the Mystery Box — a philatelic hoard left in the attic by some collecting ancestor.  When someone who knows about stamps — like me! — discovers the box and looks inside, behold! There lies a trove of rarities.

I almost called it a sustaining myth of the Mystery Box in that first sentence. There are indeed true stories of such scenarios unfolding. (See. for example, “No. 10 or No. 11?” posted 3/15/17.)  However, they are rare. I have been offered numerous so-called philatelic hoards over the years, and after inspecting a few have concluded  that there is mostly dross and seldom gold. These “troves” tend to be filled with  common American and foreign stamps of the last 50 to 75 years. Even the uncanceled (“mint”) stamps  usually are worth no more than the few cents paid for them back in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. This deflating information, however, has not reached the non-collectors who still harbor the fond fantasy that there may be some stamps of great value hiding in that dusty box. So friends and loved ones who know of my philatelic bent thrust their “finds” on me. “Hey Fred, take a look at these stamps and tell me what they’re worth!” …  “Some of these have got to be really old!” … “No one has looked at these for decades. They must be worth something after all this time!”  Don’t they realize how easy it is to find your way to a stamp catalogue or an online site and figure out the value of your stamps? Well, maybe not that easy …

My friend Renee conferred on me her late mother’s collection — which included some early British colonies stamps, some in so-so-shape, of no more than modest value. I added the few I didn’t already have to my albums, with an appropriate notation. My friend Vicki laid a box of stamps on me, inherited from her parents. There were stamps from — where? Oh, say, some Portugueses colonies, Holland, Formosa and all over the lot, in addition to lots of low-value U.S. stamps. I admit the collection’s significance eluded my grasp. I’m trying to remember if I persuaded my colleagues at the Syracuse Stamp Club to take a look. Some club members volunteer to evaluate donated collections. When I last opened the trunk of my car the other day, I found a box of stamps donated by some friend or other — overturned, with a few stock pages spilling out of a bag and cheap stamps strewn about. Clearly, I am not the guy to be evaluating donated collections!

What the forgoing also means is that the short tale I want to share with you now is not likely to have a very exciting end. The Mystery Box has been sitting over there in fullsizeoutput_183cthe corner of my office since February, and it’s now July.  It is almost obscured from view by diverse paraphernalia “stored” on top of it. You can just make out corners,  and part of a mailing label.

The box is from my Cousin Gordon. He is not a stamp collector. His mother, my late Aunt Eleanor, was a world traveler over half-a-century, and accumulated masses of stamps along the way. Among other things, she specialized in United Nations issues. Years ago — perhaps it was soon after her death — Eleanor’s daughter Margaret sent me her mother’s collection of U.N.  postal stationary. I thought it unusual enough to make inquiries at the Cardinal Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, near Boston. It seems the Spellman specializes in U.N. issues — so much so that the curator welcomed our donation of Aunt Eleanor’s postal stationary collection. I had fun making an appointment, visiting the museum and handing over the goods. (I think I told Cousin Margaret to take a $300 tax deduction for it.)

I recall also seeing elsewhere (at Margaret’s, perhaps?) more envelopes from Aunt Eleanor’s collection; envelopes stuffed with stamps and envelopes from all over the world — great bulky, dusty packets. Could any of those be worth something? Any gold amid the dust? And what has become of them, anyway?

This summer I was visiting my Cousin Alison (Eleanor’s other daughter) at her house and she brought out her mother’s album of plate blocks — page after page of those mid-century U.S. stamps that just don’t ever seem to be worth much more than to use for postage.  Could some of those plate blocks be more valuable than others? Sure. Wanna check?

After I left Alison’s, she told me she had forgotten to show me the rest of Aunt Eleanor’s collection. The rest? Does it really go on and on? Were there philatelic  nuggets after all? More to the point, could there be gold in the Mystery Box, sitting over there in the corner?

Why have I waited so long to open the Mystery Box? So long, in fact, that I decided Cousin Gordon and his wife Grethe deserved a note of explanation, if not apology: Dear Gordon and Grethe — Chris and I are about to leave on a long driving trip, and I still haven’t opened the box you sent me with Aunt Eleanor’s stamps. Forgive me. The reason is that I am afraid I will not be able to report back that there is much of value in the box. That will be disappointing, so I guess I am trying to put off the inevitable. Nevertheless, I vow to look inside after we get back home.  Love, FMF    (I think that’s the gist of the note I would have written, though I can’t seem to find a copy of it in my “send” file …)

Now here it is, well into July. Chris and I have finished our trip (it was great!),  and I am about to remove the pile of debris from the top of the box and take a closer look. Brace yourselves …  The first thing I notice as I observe the box is that Cousin Gordon used a mailing label for postage instead of stamps. The cost was $7.01. Tsk! He could have slapped a $5 stamp, $2 stamp and 1-cent stamp on there. That would have been more fun, not to mention appropriate, given the philatelic contents of the box.

Next I noticed that the box is rather heavy. There is more than a bag of loose stamps in there. Possibly covers, perhaps albums. Perhaps — who knows what?

fullsizeoutput_183eWell, here goes …






(three hours later)

OK, I’ve been through it — given it my best. As I believe I made clear  before, I am not a very careful evaluator — though I do think I can spot value when I see it. Now I’ve been through the Mystery Box, and while I would be hard pressed to put a value on its contents (a couple of hundreds? Maybe more?), I’d like to share some observations about it.


Here is a typical selection from one envelope in the box — U.N. stamps, first day covers, and assorted stamps from around the world honoring the U.N.

As expected, the material focuses on United Nations stamps and covers.  I thought there might be some  international stamps, and I’ll say more about that in a minute. These issues ranged from  the 1960s to 1970s, with an emphasis on “universal” observances — like the 20th anniversary of the U.N. in 1965, the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1968), and the 100th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union (1974). Working through a dealer in her home town, Aunt Eleanor arranged to receive a steady stream of packets containing not only the latest U.N. stamps,
souvenir sheets and first-day covers, but also new issues from around the world marking the U.N.’s 20th, the Universal Declaration’s 20th and so on. The envelopes fullsizeoutput_1852were neatly packaged and stacked in the no-longer-a-mystery box. Each envelope was inscribed in black ink with a neat hand, listing the contents and the prices, usually totaling less than $20. (Cousin Margaret says the dealer was a neighbor of Aunt Eleanor’s  — “… a displaced person living in a furnished room a few blocks away.  Mother thought that he derived a little much-needed income from his small dealings in stamps.” Margaret continued: “I am convinced that she liked giving him a cup of tea and kind of checking up on how he was doing. Alison and I were a little afraid of him as he had a gruff manner and a thick accent.”) Inside the envelopes were arrays of artfully designed first-day covers, cards, explanatory materials, booklets and souvenir sheets as well as regular issues from U.N. headquarters in New York City, and U.N. offices in Geneva, Switzerland.

All the stamps and sheets were still in their glassine envelopes and mailing covers — in pristine condition, I hoped, apparently untouched since the 1960s and 1970s. I felt obliged as a cousin/evaluator to check if the stamps were indeed in good condition. Alas, a few of the mint, never-hinged stamps had stuck together and were ruined. Most of the others were OK, though.  As I sorted idly through the stamps from all over, I was struck by some of the ironies — like Laos celebrating human rights in fullsizeoutput_18491968, just as that hapless nation was being engulfed in the U.S.-led war in southeast Asia. Examining the stamps from Nicaragua, China, Yemen, Bulgaria and elsewhere, I reflected on how many regimes failed to live up to  tenets of the United Nations.


These stamps honoring the U.N.’s 25th anniversary come from communist Czechoslovakia, Peru, Kuwait, Pakistan and elsewhere. Not all nations paying tribute in these “universal” stamp issues had regimes that respected U.N. principles.


OK OK, Czechoslovakia was a communist state in 1970, two years after Czech authorities brutally reacted to Prague Spring. But their artists sure knew how to design pretty stamps. I must include a closeup of this gorgeous engraving, which superimposes a cityscape of world landmarks next to the U.N. skyline in New York City. While I’ve never made a point of collecting Czech stamps, I have accumulated enough examples to appreciate the fine work of Czech stamp makers.

As the number of stamps I examined accumulated into dozens, then scores, I began to see something else. Yes, nations like Pakistan and Jamaica may have their shortcomings. Some of these stamps professing high principles may be dismissed as lip service (lick service?) rather than real commitment. Think of it this way, though: These are universal aspirations, not necessarily accomplishments. The Declaration of Rights is worth defending, worth promoting, worth every effort you can manage. However, it is not up to you alone to make its principles a universal reality. Nor is it up to a Jamaican, a Pakistani, an Iranian or Jordanian. That recognition doesn’t make the principles any less worthy. And expressing those principles is never a bad idea.


Among the wittiest stamp issues marking the centenary of the Universal Postal union in 1974 is this oversize set — beautifully engraved and gorgeously colored portraits of a seagull with a letter clasped in its beak. (I still don’t know exactly where this French oceanic territory is located … I suppose I should go look it up … I do know that this tiny island group has issued gorgeous stamps over the years — oversize, engraved, brightly colored renditions of nautical subjects. Many of the stamps are rather dear — this pair, for example is selling online for a respectable $8.)

Sorting through the stamps marking the centenary of the UPU, I was impressed by what an accomplishment the postal union has been. Since 1874, the nations of the world have sustained an agreement on rules and terms for handling mail and other correspondence between countries. Considering the various bouts of unpleasantness  in those intervening years, it’s a blooming miracle the UPU survived!

I expect Aunt Eleanor would enjoy reading all this if she could — and join the conversation. Like her mother (my grandmother), she was an ardent fan of the U.N, its declarations and principles and aspirations. My aunt and uncle lived up to those principles in the international development work and other efforts they undertook during their busy lives. I suppose her stamp collecting was as much an affirmation of the value she placed in the U.N. as it was a hobby.


Eek! Look what I found when I opened a dusty folder of stamp material in Aunt Eleanor’s collection. What is that stuff? It looks like paper or cardboard that some big worm has chewed up. You don’t suppose it’s alive …?

Truth be told, Aunt Eleanor had some shortcomings as a stamp collector, at least in these decades.  Leaving uncanceled stamps in their envelopes, lying flat in a box, may seem prudent and safe, but it’s not a good way to store stamps. Over changing seasons, they may compress and stick together.

To be sure, the debilitating stroke my dear aunt suffered, which shadowed her last years, limited her ability to enjoy her stamps later on.  (Says Cousin Gordon: “If she had not had the stroke she would undoubtedly have done a fullsizeoutput_184egreat deal of organizing and perhaps unstuck many of the items that became neglected, due not so much to her but by us who inherited them.”)  Included in the box are two supplements of White Ace Album pages, one to update U.N. issues, the second to accommodate stamps from around the world honoring the UPU in 1974. I wonder if she was frustrated not to be able to add those pages to her U.N. album, then fill them with the stamps sent to her in all those little envelopes? Once safely mounted, they never come to harm, and

This is catnip for collectors: An illustrated album page, and stamps to fill every space; go to it!

can be enjoyed any time.  The attractive presentation adds a premium to the value of the collection.

And speaking of value … how about it? Is it really worth the time and effort to sort through all those stamps, figure out where they go on the album pages, get the mounting strips, cut and paste … ?

Hey! This is stamp collecting we’re talking about. Of course it’s worth the effort. United Nations stamps may not be at the top of the must-have market at the moment (if they ever were), but they still are interesting in the way they express and reflect aspirations for a better world. They celebrate universal human accomplishments in the war against disease, in forming international agreements to limit chemical weapons, deter nuclear proliferation, improve the environment and


This charming UN/Geneva stamp and first-day cancel expresses a splendid aspiration — to live in peace with one another.

promote the welfare of children. The designs are elegant and creative, some dignified, some light-hearted, many colorful. There are declarations and exhortations, striking images and attractive sets. At the end, I found my time with these U.N. stamps uplifting. This collection isn’t going to make anyone rich. And I know it’s not in fashion to get starry-eyed about the United Nations. But it is rewarding to review this rich chronicle of human hope and potential. Aunt Eleanor has assembled an authentic philatelic narrative, expressing her own convictions through the stamps of this unique organization, one that represents all the world’s nations, united since 1945 in a high mission.

Postscript: … all of which leaves me wondering: should I be collecting U.N. stamps along with everything else, if just to show solidarity with the world body — and Aunt Eleanor? Uh, no. I already am way too far into what I am already collecting to take on much else.  Besides, I anticipate the Spellman Museum will be glad to make a home for this new installment of my aunt’s collection. (If so, I suggest Cousin Gordon take at least a $400 tax deduction for this charitable contribution in honor of his mom.)



This may be one of the better first day covers in Aunt Eleanor’s collection. It includes the high-value, 10-franc definitive from UN/Geneva.


This illustration bears out the famous old adage. Beware of wolves in first-day-cover clothing. Look at these two covers; one is dated May 31, 1968, the other June 18, 1969. They both claim to be FDCs, and they both carry the same 6-cent definitive stamp. How could the dates in the “first day” cancels be more than a year apart? Stay with me on this for a moment. Examine the two envelopes. Notice that the lower envelope with the earlier date includes in the official cancellation the words: “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE,” On the upper envelope, the cover claims “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE,” but only in the design cachet. The cancellation itself does not contain the affirming words. Thus I conclude the lower cover is genuine, while the other makes a spurious claim! (The correct date of issue — May 31, 1968 — is confirmed in a handy-dandy official guide, “Postal Issues of the United Nations, 1951-1974,” included in the box.)


This cover caught my attention because of the odd “correction” in the cachet. In the heading, “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE,” the word “FIRST” is crossed out and the word “LAST” is typed above it. Last day of issue? I didn’t even know there was such a collecting category as Last Day Covers. For starters, how do you figure it out? Next, who even cares? But wait! It so happens that Aunt Eleanor’s official listing of U.N. stamps includes the final date for each stamp withdrawn from circulation. So that should answer the first question at least. Let me look up that issue, which celebrates a coffee trade agreement … There it is: “Coffee Agreement, 11 cents. Issue date — Dec. 2, 1966. Now to follow the column across to the “Last Day of Sale” — Nov. 30, 1967. What?! The date on the cover’s cancellation is Oct. 27, 1967. That blooming stamp was on sale for more than a month after what the cover asserts is the last day of issue. Spurious! A corollary to the earlier adage suggests itself: Beware of wolves in last-day-cover clothing. All my philatelic sleuthing, however, couldn’t come up with a plausible answer to the second question about Last Day Covers: Who even cares?


I was touched by this issue from the west African nation of Togo in 1965, marking the U.N.’s 20th anniversary. It look the occasion to pay tribute to Adlai Stevenson (see inset portrait). Stevenson, the former Illinois governor, presidential candidate (1952, 1956) and U.N. ambassador, died suddenly while walking down a London street. I admired Stevenson, as did my parents, and I mourned his loss. Why Togo in particular chose to honor him I don’t know. Surely there is a story involved …


A little offbeat: Here’s a first day cover of an aerogramme. Remember those?


This is about the only non-U.N.-related stamp material in the box. I include it not because it has any value — the stamps are common enough issues of Thailand, the kind that were readily available at the local post office in the 1960s. A good many of them are stuck together. But it is a great memento of Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Geoff: a haphazard clutch of stamps they bought, stuffed in an envelope, then stored and forgot. This philatelic artifact connects me to a time when my aunt and uncle were doing vital work abroad that, like the United Nations, aimed to make this a better world.


This envelope is interesting chiefly because of the return address. Was it really sent from Indonesia, using a U.N. stamp? Was it carried by diplomatic or official pouch from Jakarta to New York City, where it received the U.N. cancel and continued on its way? My understanding is that U.N. stamps are only valid for postage on mail posted at a U.N. facility. Indeed, I believe that restriction is one reason canceled U.N. stamps have kept some catalogue value — because relatively few of them are ever used on actual letters or packages. A footnote on U.N. stamp values in general: Most U.N. issues are quite inexpensive, even those dating back to the first definitive set in 1951. A few stamps from the early years have spiked in value — a souvenir sheet from 1955 commemorating the 10th anniversary of the U.N. charter is selling on eBay for up to $100! In general, however, U.N. stamps are valued in cents rather than dollars, often selling below “face” value. For example, you can purchase a mint, never-hinged copy of the $1 definitive from 1951 for 65 cents. This devaluation may have something to do with the fact that the U.N. is not a “nation,” so some collectors are not comfortable accepting the stamps as legitimate collectables. But no — wouldn’t some collectors single them out as desirable and unusual for that very reason? I think it more likely that many stamp collectors share a general mistrust of the U.N. — whether it’s the radical right-wingers who shudder at the thought of “world government,” or those disillusioned by the inability of this world body, with its bickering ambassadors and pampered international civil servants, to keep the world safe.




Stamp Fun on the Cheap — Bavaria!

Stamp collecting doesn’t have to involve costly rarities and exotic accessories. Here is an example of an enjoyable hour spent gathering stamps missing from my album — for a bargain! — and having the satisfaction of sticking them in their places (using hinges, of course) to make colorful sets on the page.

It was “auction night” at the Syracuse Stamp Club, where members put up for bid stamps they no longer want or need, at ridiculously low prices. You sell some lots, you buy others, and if you’re lucky, you end up about even. This particular night, I “sold” eight lots of my stamps for  $23, and bought other lots for $31, so I had to shell out about eight bucks. Not bad, I’d say.

fullsizeoutput_a18Among the lots I bought were two from the “nation” of Bavaria, now a province in southern Germany. I don’t know that much about this “country,” or what business it had being a stamp-issuing state from 1849 to 1920. The Scott catalogue tells us Bavaria, or Bayern, became part of the German confederation in 1870, and declared itself a republic after World War I, only to lose its postal autonomy on March 31, 1920.

My interest in German stamps dates to the years I lived in Heidelberg, not far from Bavaria, between 1960 and 1962, aged 12 to 14. (My Pa, a cultural diplomat, was director of America Haus.) I really got the stamp bug while living in Heidelberg. In addition to acquiring a fancy German postage stamp album (an Xmas gift from Pa), I decided to make my own “album” for Bavarian stamps — and for other stamps  issued in neighboring territories of Bohemia and Moravia that weren’t included in my Deutschland album. (German states like Baden, Schleswig-Holstein and Thurn-and-Taxis also issued stamps in the 19th century, but I skipped over them.)  I got myself a loose-leaf binder and a supply of graph paper, then created my album pages: Using a manual typewriter, I laid out patterns of square or rectangular spaces, one for every stamp, which I defined by typed dots and headed with dates and other relevant information. All of this, basically, for free.

Over the years, I never seemed to accumulate many stamps from Bavaria, partly due to lack of interest, I’m afraid. The stamps were cheap and easy to find, but my focus, philatelic and otherwise, was elsewhere. However, when the moment arrived that recent evening at the Syracuse Stamp Club, I remembered those nearly empty album pages from long ago and decided it was time to act. I made my play, bid a dollar or two, and ended up vastly increasing by Bavaria collection.

IMG_1338For a collector of stamps from British Colonies, the U.S. and a magpie’s clutch of other countries — but not really Bavaria — this new trove offered a diverting little side-trip. The early sets featured large numerals, then an embossed coat of arms.





fullsizeoutput_a19 Just before World War I came a long set with profile portraits of “Prince Regent Luitpold.” Ever heard of him? How about “King Ludwig III,” whose short-lived reign began in 1914?






fullsizeoutput_a1a Later, Bavarian stamps were overprinted “Volksstaat Bayern,”  then “Freistadt Bayern.” Sounds like the Bavarians were having trouble deciding what to call themselves. The matter was resolved in 1920 with overprints stating, “Deutsches Reich.” The Scott catalogue notes that the Bavarian stamps overprinted by the reich were postally valid throughout Germany, “but were used almost exclusively in Bavaria.” Hmm. Is that interesting or not? I maintain stamp collecting is full of interesting historical tidbits — some perhaps more interesting than others.

fullsizeoutput_a1bBefore wandering off, let’s have a look at those colorful stamps as they arrange themselves into sets.












Version 2And to top it off, how about the oversize portrait of a jaunty Prince Regent Luitpold, sporting a  Tyrolean cap? And check out the gorgeously gaudy Art Nouveau tribute to the old prince to celebrate his remarkable 50-year Silver Jubilee in 1911 — which seemed like an auspicious year in Bavaria, until you remember that in three years, World War I would toss everything into a cocked Tyrolean hat.


Bonus: A Rogues Gallery of African Leaders on Stamps, Part Two

In a new biography of George Washington, author John Rhodehamel doesn’t shrink from the less-than-heroic qualities of the “father of our country.” Washington owned slaves his entire adult life, freeing them only upon his death through his will. He betrayed his abhorrence for factions and partisanship in his advocacy of the Federalist Party. Yet while apochyphal stories like the cherry-tree incident and the coin-toss across the Potomac contributed to a cult of personality that bore little resemblance to reality, and while his powdered wig and wooden expression on the dollar bill further distance him from flesh-and-blood humanhood, Washington nevertheless lived a life of probity in his time. He was ambitious, seeking advancement in his military assignments and before that, as a landowner and gentleman farmer. He was a charismatic leader in war and peace. Regal in his bearing, he commanded loyalty from his men, and fearlessly waded into the center of battles. He was not corrupted by power, even in the presidency, retiring with relief after two terms. He may have left office one of the richest men in the new nation, but he entered office the same way.  No, Washington was not perfect. Nor were Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin and the rest of the founding fathers; nor Abraham Lincoln, for that matter. But they remain worthy of admiration for their abilities, their integrity and their remarkable service.

fullsizeoutput_1530I wish I could say the same for the African leaders who came to prominence in the days, months and years after independence, beginning in 1957.  In Part One of this commentary, I embarked on a journey seeking at least one honest man who took office in a newly sovereign sub-Saharan African nation. I did find Barthelemy Boganda, who died in mysterious circumstances a year after becoming the first president of the Central African Republic, and therefore didn’t have much chance to demonstrate his abilities. Beyond that dubious what-if, I was unable to find that honest man in my rundown of post-independence heads of state. Instead, I encountered a rogues gallery of characters, many of whom showed great promise during the final years of colonial rule, but all of whom eventually betrayed their trust, squandered their opportunities and their integrity.

As I continue my search in Part Two, I will gloss over the sorry records of some of Africa’s most notorious dictators who came later — like Uganda’s Idi Amin, whose atrocities and  sadism eclipsed the dark deeds of his autocratic predecessor, Milton Obote. In Kenya, Daniel arap Moi’s brutality and repression have been well-documented. Robert Mugabe’s dismal decades at the helm in neighboring Zimbabwe are well-known. The depressing history of Congolese independence, from Lumumba through Tshombe to Mobutu and beyond, has been told elsewhere (see, for example, my Congo-related stamp blogs).

But how about others? Surely some African leaders among the dozens who came to power in the decade after 1957 remained uncorrupted; practiced democracy as well as they preached it; served their people with integrity and skill. Let us find them if we can …

Siaka Stevens

fullsizeoutput_1439When this guy took over, the former British colony of Sierra Leone in west Africa still aspired to post-independence prosperity.  Stevens gave it a try, but soon succumbed to corruption and repression. It may be superficial of me to be so influenced by appearances, but really, take a look at these stamps. Does the portrait do President Stevens justice? He is dressed respectably enough in traditional Muslim garb. But notice how he appears to be looking to the left. The result is cartoon-like — a plump-jowled, shifty-eyed smirk that does not belong on a stamp, or a campaign poster. Check photo images of the man online, and you’ll find a good-looking guy — a lot more respectable-looking than this. Actually, the stamp proves more revealing than not. For Stevens was a shifty character, all right, during his 18 years of rule — and misrule. After a very few productive  years, his regime gave way to venality, paranoia and brutality. He executed former allies as traitors, but managed to retire in one piece himself. Stevens died in 1988, age 82.

Sierra Leone’s independence story started very differently, in 1961. Its first president, Sir fullsizeoutput_1500Milton Margai, was a moderate democrat who worked hard to bring all sides together and get things done for his people. He did not seem to crave money or power. Educated as a doctor in Sierra Leone and England, he ran an in-country dispensary for many years, delivering babies and developing effective child care and literacy networks. He rose steadily under colonial administration, then moved smoothly into the presidency. His death in 1964, at age 68, left a lingering “what if …” asterisk in Sierra Leone’s history. The New York Times observed at the time that Sir Milton, who had been knighted by King George VI in 1950, was “the mildest and most unexpected nationalist leader Africa has produced.”

Like Barthelemy Boganda in the Central African Republic, Margai seemed to be the Man of the Hour. Yet for both men, their time passed too quickly. Whether they would have remained true to their principles, or fallen victim to temptation as so many others did, who’s to say?


FOOTNOTE: Initially I wondered if the African leader depicted in this Sierra Leone stamp from 1961, identified as Bishop Crowther and posing in front of Old Fourah Bay College, might have been another of those holier-than-thou post-independence types, like Fr. Youlou from the Congo. When I looked him up, I discovered a different story entirely. fullsizeoutput_14ffThe Most Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the man honored on this stamp, lived from 1809 to 1891. Affiliated with Old Fourah Bay College, he became the first African Anglican bishop in NIgeria, also identifying with his kinsmen in neighboring Sierra Leone.  Old Fourah Bay College, today a UNESCO Heritage Site, dates back to 1827. It remained the sole institution for higher learning in British west Africa until World War II.  While this footnote fails to moves us along our path in search of honest African independence leaders, I include it  as an interesting historical tidbit. Besides, it’s a pretty engraving, don’t you think?

The long and short of it is, Sierra Leone under Stevens and his successors proved a collective disaster. By the late 1990s, the nation  had descended into civil war. A fellow named Charles Taylor from neighboring Liberia got involved, and things really went bad. More about that Great Dictator later.

Hubert Maga

fullsizeoutput_143fAt his death, Hubert Mega was remembered by the Guardian’s Kaye Whitman as “a tall, placid figure” who “caused little offense.” The reporter had witnessed Dahomey’s strange governmental minuet in 1972, just before a Marxist regime took over for a long, benighted reign. Amid threats of coups and countercoups, three co-presidents, including Maga, arranged a rotating schedule of governance. “It was an unworkable arrangement,” wrote Whitman. “I recall being in the capital, Cotonou, in May 1972, when the triumvirate rotated. All three presidents, clad in frock coats and top-hats, solemnly changed seats in a movement of musical chairs, while a brass band played. Then their wives did the same. Nothing could have more symbolized the farce that Dahomey politics had become …”

Back in 1960, Hubert Maga had started out as sole president of the newly emancipated French colony. He was another Francophile west African leader,  educated in France and at the  Ecole Normale William Ponty in Senegal. A teacher and headmaster, he rose in colonial politics because of his affability. In an unusual distinction, he served in the French Cabinet, as minister of labor, for half-a-year in the 1950s. As a compromise choice for president, he may have satisfied no one. His main goal seems to have been to avoid controversy — and enjoy life. “He was naive,” wrote Whitman, “and in power, made classic mistakes, notably thoughtless extravagance while presiding over an unworkable economy.” No statesman, he. By 1963, the public was sick of his $3-million palace and lifestyle to match. He was typically out of the country on a junket when the military stepped in. Though he was arrested after his return to Dahomey and charged with embezzlement, he was allowed to relocate to Paris, where he could wear his Homburg hat and  patent leather shoes and hobnob  with the political set. After his return to Dahomey/Benin in 1970, all was forgiven — at least until the 1972 coup, when Maga and his colleagues were thrown in jail. Released in 1982, he wisely kept a low profile until his death in 2000 at age 83.


Gregoire Kayibanda and King Murani Mwambutsa IV

fullsizeoutput_1443Gregoire Kayibanda was the first elected president of Rwanda after the small, former Belgian territory achieved independence in 1962. He came into office as an advocate for the Hutu tribe, which already had a long history of tension and bloodshed in contretemps with their Tutsi cohabitants. Hutu resentment over Tutsi dominance extended far back in colonial times, when the Belgians tilted in favor of Tutsi control. Though Kayibanda promoted republican government, he wasted no time setting up a one-party state. By 1965 he was running for re-election as the only name on the ballot. By 1973, Kayibanda had accumulated enough enemies and lost enough support that he could be kicked out in a “bloodless” coup that eventually led to some 55 deaths. Alas, two of the lives lost were those of Kayibanda and his wife. Detained in an undisclosed location, they reportedly starved to death. He was 52.

Burundi is the other “postage-stamp-size” country next to Rwanda. They used to be the Belgian territory of Ruanda-Urundi. At independence in 1962, Rwanda had abolished its fullsizeoutput_1445traditional monarchy. Burundi chose another course — at first. King Murani Mwambusta IV remained on the throne at independence. In this stamp he is depicted in his smart uniform, gazing stolidly from a wreath frame at a map of his newly-independent land. “Royaume de Burundi,” of course, means Kingdom of Burundi.

Mwambutsa IV had an extrordinary, 51-year reign, starting when he was just three years old in 1915. At the time, his homeland was part of German East Africa. The Belgians who took over the next year maintained direct rule through the monarchy in both Burundi and Rwanda.  Mwambutsa was represented by a regent, then a regency council, before taking over as king in 1929. Apparently he was a successful enough caretaker for the colonial rulers, somehow managing to balance Hutu and Tutsi interests. (Oh I forgot, it was a Belgian vassal state, so the imperialists could impose a peace on the tribes anyway.)  After independence, Mwambutsa tried to maintain his balancing act, appointing Hutu and Tutsi prime ministers one after the other. But the string played out and in 1965, Hutu military officers staged a coup. Even though the coup failed, the king decided to skedaddle to neighboring Congo, then settled into comfortable exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1977, age 64 or 65.

fullsizeoutput_152bA word about King Mwambutsa’s son, Prince Louis Rwagasore. Born in 1932, the heir to the throne was educated in Burundi and Belgium, and was active in nationalist circles well before independence. He married outside his tribe, and was an effective champion of keeping the peace between Tutsi and Hutu. He  criticized the Belgians for exploiting tribal friction for imperial ends — a  fateful challenge. His drive for independence and sovereignty earned him the nickname of “Burundi’s Lumumba.” After his party won 80 percent of the vote in national elections in 1961, he was named prime minister. Two weeks later, he was assassinated while having dinner at the Tanganyika Hotel in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. The alleged killer, Jean Kageorgis, was a Greek national, linked to three Burundians. Although there was no official investigation, Kageorgis implicated the Belgian regent as well as the governor-general. The regent, Roberto Regnier, is reported to have declared, “Rwagasore must be killed.” Would Prince Louis have been Burundi’s honest and true founding father, had he survived? Why bother to speculate?

fullsizeoutput_152eInstead of Prince Louis, Burundi wound up with Michel Micombero, not yet 30 years old, in 196. The monarchy was abolished. Wikipedia bluntly states that Micombero “ruled the country as its first president and de facto dictator for the decade between 1966 and 1976.”  A Tutsi, Micombero would not tolerate dissent, particularly from the Hutu majority. He purged the government,  and may have killed more than 100,000 of his tribal rivals in the process. Hutu resistance led to a bloodbath in 1972 in which as many as 100,000 more Burundians died, most of them Hutu. By the time he was kicked out in another military coup, Micombero  had amassed enough ill-gotten wealth to withdraw in comfort to Somalia, where he died in 1983, age 43.

The various coup plotters and schemers who came to power in Rwanda and Burundi set the terms for decades of self-serving regimes that practiced tribal bloodletting and general indifference to the overall well-being of the  people.  These corrosive cycles of dysfunctional governance led to the charnel house that Rwanda became in one horrifying stretch of 100 days in 1994, when as many as one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed. Burundi was not spared the scourge of further tribal warfare and bloodshed, either.

Sylvanus Olympio

fullsizeoutput_145cWith a name like Sylvanus Olympio, this African leader must be someone to contend with. In this crude image from a  postage stamp, he appears as a smiling ghost bearing his nation’s banner like a shroud. Well, maybe not, but please allow a bit of philatelic license, since Olympio’s story is indeed a sad and macabre one. The first president of Togo was the scion of a prominent Togolese family, whose similarly exotically-named members were descended from Afro-Brazilian traders. His grandfather was Francisco Olympio Sylvio, his uncle Octaviano Olympio. When Sylvanus was born in 1902, Togoland was a German protectorate. Its imperial rulers shifted between England and France in ensuing years. Togo became a trusteeship in the last days of the League of Nations, then under the United Nations. By this time, Olympio had received his education, including a stint at the London School of Economics, and had risen through the ranks of Unilever to head all the company’s operations in Africa. Olympio did not share some of his fellow African leaders’ infatuation with all things French. Indeed, his animosity led the French at one point to bar him from voting or running for office — restrictions the Quai d’Orsay had to withdraw after his party won every seat on the national council. Olympio became prime minister, took on multiple Cabinet posts, and was elected president in 1961.

In office, Olympio was a rare African leader who sought to restrain spending, particularly on the military — an impulse that may have tripped him up in the end. At the same time, he joined his fellow autocrats in consolidating power into a one-party state. It was disgruntled military offices who broke into his house after midnight on Jan 13, 1963. His body was found before dawn, just outside the U.S. Embassy. Etienne Eyadema, the ruthless dictator who took over Togo in 1967 and hung on until 2005, famously claimed he shot Olympio as the ousted president was trying to flee. Olympio’s family remained in exile during these dark years. Today, Sylvanus’s son, Gilchrist Olympio, is a leader of the political opposition — for what it’s worth.

Sekou Toure

fullsizeoutput_14af“Work, justice, solidarity.” The marching orders engraved on this elegant stamp ring with optimism and determination — like  slogans from other African nations that were honored more in the breach than the observance. Was the Republic of Guinea to be any different, under its first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure?

In a word, sadly, no. Handsome, imposing, charismatic, Toure came from an aristocratic family. His great-grandfather, Samory Toure, was a Mandinka king who built the Wassoulou Empire in the 19th century, defeating multiple smaller African rivals before being exiled to Gabon for his resistance to French colonial rule. The young Toure began his career with the postal service, then advanced through labor organizing to politics. He insisted on complete independence rather than continued association with France, and remained non-aligned during his long tenure, from 1958 until his death in 1984 at age 62. Toure built a one-party state, and was regularly re-elected from atop a single slate of candidates. He also built concentration camps for his political rivals. By the end of his life, Toure may have been responsible for 50,000 deaths. His militantly socialist state snubbed democracy and an open society, and never managed to achieve economic prosperity. His dismal record has hindered efforts to remember him as a champion of African self-determination.

Ahmadou Ahidjo

fullsizeoutput_1453Look at the face of the earnest young man portrayed in this postage stamp,  issued by newly independent Cameroun in 1960. The handsome young Prime Minister Ahmadou Ahidjo stares out placidly, emanating an aura of good will and benign intentions. His cap and robes bespeak a new African statesman, ready to lead his people into an era of peace, prosperity and self-realization.

He almost made it. Historians credit Ahidjo with establishing and maintaining a relatively stable and prosperous state. He had to deal with  multiple ethnicities and contentious territorial issues between Francophone and British spheres of influence. That he did so by consolidating power into a one-party state, supported by an undemocratic constitution that gave him dictatorial powers, diminishes his luster considerably. Lacking the charisma of some of his neighboring leaders, Ahidjo had other assets. Earlier he was a civil servant who traveled and worked throughout the country; that helped him promote a sense of national unity.  After he resigned in 1982, supposedly for health reasons, he sought to remain an influential figure in Camerounian politics from his perch in France. However his successor, Paul Biya, assiduously erased images and records of his predecessor’s time in office. After Ahidjo died in 1989, age 65, there were few visual reminders left of Cameroun’s first leader.

fullsizeoutput_1452King Moshoshoe II 

Now let’s take a quick detour through former colonies of British east and southern Africa. Lesotho used to be Basutoland, a high-plateau enclave surrounded by South Africa. To an extent a  subsidiary of its giant neighbor, Basutoland at least it avoided the scourge of apartheid! The man previously known as Constantine Bereng Seeiso became paramount chief of Lesotho in 1960, succeeding his father. He took the name of the first King Moshoshoe, a legendary and canny ruler from early colonial days. Moshoshoe II never had much power, even in his small fiefdom. He continued his rule after independence in 1966, but was beset by plotters. Primary among them was Leabua Jonathan, who seized control and suspended the king in 1970. Jonathan’s less than distinguished rule lasted until 1986 with his ouster, house arrest and death the next year from a heart attack, age 72. Moshoshoe eventually went into exile in Great Britain, where he had studied earlier and taken to the life of an English country gentleman — fishing and hunting. He returned to the throne in 1995. The next year he was killed in a car accident, age 57.


King Moshoshoe I is depicted here on a stamp from Basutoland commemorating the soon-to-be-independent nation’s national council in 1959. “Laws of Mohesh” refers to the policies of this enlightened leader of the Basotho people.

A few words about Moshoshoe I: Now, here was an African leader worthy of the name! A great diplomat, linguist, military strategist (his soldiers beat the Boers), peacemaker, negotiator — you name it, he done it. He built up his Basotho nation in the early decades of the 19th century by integrating other tribes, sharing land and providing mutual security — including protection from raiding parties of the Zulu King Shaka, as well as the Nguni clans and the Boers. He took in refugees and war victims, remaining impregnable at Thaba Bosiu, his redoubt on the Qiloane Plateau. In 1868, he negotiated an agreement with Queen Victoria making Basutoland a British protectorate, thus establishing secure boundaries with the Boers of the Orange Free State. The association served the interests of Great Britain, which could add another territory to its empire, and Moshoshoe, who gained protection from tribal foes and the Boers. Ultimately, Moshoshoe’s agreement would spare Basutoland the bitter years of South African apartheid, and deliver intact the new nation of Lesotho. In this way, unlike the many arbitrary national boundaries set by imperialists in Berlin and Versailles, the borders of modern-day Lesotho have historical and national legitimacy. The Basotho kingdom-state has survived from pre-colonial days —  thanks in large part to the visionary leadership and nation-building skills of Moshoshoe I, who died in 1870, age 84 or so.

Hastings Banda and Kenneth Kaunda


The less said about this pair, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Well, let me just tell their sorry-ass stories now and get it over with.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Hastings Kamuzu Banda: “He generally supported women’s right, improved the country’s infrastructure and maintained a good educational system relative to other African countries …”  (so far so good) ”… but also presided over one of the most repressive regimes in Africa.” Torture was common, political murder not uncommon. Human rights group estimate he may have caused the deaths of 18,000 political opponents and others during his 33 years in power.

fullsizeoutput_1531Banda was barely Malawian himself. He was born in what was then British Central Africa, circa 1898. In his 20s he was offered a scholarship and went abroad to study. He would not return to the former colony of Nyasaland for another 42 years, as its first president. He lived and studied in the United States (Ohio and Indiana), then Great Britain. He built a career as a country doctor, became an elder in the Church of Scotland, found himself an English girl and settled down. Does this sound like the back story of one of Africa’s most repressive dictators? How to explain the transformation? Frankly, it’s beyond me.

But it happened. By 1971, President Banda had abolished all parties but his own. The legislature declared him president for life. He cultivated the image of an eccentric but kindly English schoolmaster with his tweed three-piece suits, matching hankies, walking stick and fly-whisk. Yet he could be blunt when describing his mandate: “Everything is my business. Everything. Anything I say is law … literally law.” In one chilling incident, when he was under pressure to restore multiparty democracy in the 1980s, he had several dissident members of his Cabinet arrested. They later reportedly died in a “traffic accident,” though an official report in 1994 determined the poor men were killed by having tent pins driven into their skulls.

While killing his rivals, Banda promoted himself shamelessly. He ordered his portrait to be displayed everywhere. In the cinema, before every movie his video image would wave to theater-goers. A bevy of dancing girls would have to meet his plane at every stop — dressed in cloth emblazoned with his likeness.

Give this at least to the long-suffering Malawian people: You couldn’t fool all of them, all of the time.  In 1993, a referendum ended Banda’s “life” presidency. When he ran for president in democratic elections, he was defeated. Afterwards, he was tried for the murder of his cabinet officers, but acquitted for lack of evidence. He died in a South African hospital in 1997, aged about 99. It is said he left a  fortune of some $320 million.

As for Kenneth Kaunda, the towering, square-jawed, piercing-eyed son of a Scottish missionary — well, let’s get right to it. Kaunda became a teacher, like his father, only he fullsizeoutput_1533didn’t stop there. The active nationalist turned out to be a natural  leader. Once taking office as the first president of Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, he didn’t let go for 38 years. After banning all parties except his own, Kaunda went about acquiring majority stakes in the foreign-owned companies that did most of the business in Zambia. Meanwhile, he became known for his florid emotionalism, brandishing an ever-present white hankie he would use to mop up his copious tears, expounding on world affairs in soliloquies laced with Biblical references.

fullsizeoutput_1532Unfortunately for Kaunda, the economic slump after the gas crisis of the 1970s left Zambia heavily in debt. As things went from bad to worse, Kaunda grew more autocratic and repressive. After economic and diplomatic pressures could no longer be ignored, he agreed to multiparty elections in 1991 — and promptly was voted out of office. At least he didn’t contest the results, thus becoming only the second African head of state to relinquish power after an election (the first being Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, earlier that same year). Later on, Kaunda was variously accused of plotting a coup, arrested and temporarily  deprived of his Zambian citizenship. Still later he became an advocate for AIDS prevention and treatment.  At current writing he is living comfortably, age 93.

To sum up

I acknowledge the slapdash, scattershot approach I have taken to telling the stories of these African leaders, most of them rogues. I know I have left out some of the biggest rogues — like Robert Mugabe, who has held Zimbabwe by the throat for the past 40 years; or Daniel arap Moi, who terrorized Kenya from 1978 until 2002. Their stories have been told and retold — like that of Idi Amin, the bloody Ugandan dictator and socipath. I have decided not to revisit those twice-told tales. Some of the worst offenders came later on; my focus is on those  who stepped up in the early years to represent their nations and build them into what they became — or more commonly, failed to become. They were the ones  who set the standard, who took the solemn responsibility for leading their countries and serving their people. Their performance was the template for their successors.

I have saved two of the most promising leaders for special consideration: Julius Nyerere of Nigeria and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. The urbane, intellectual Nyerere was a charismatic leader and brilliant social and political theorist. Kenyatta — fearless, ebullient, leonine, seemed to embody the pride and ambition of a  new nation and a new continent. A brief treatment of each of these remarkable lives could be inspiring … yet I am afraid the end of each story will be a disappointment.

Julius Nyerere 

Wikipedia, as usual, gets right to the point. Nyerere started out well enough, it said, applying his intriguing theory of ujamaa — Swahili for “familyhood” or socialism — to policymaking. The aim of his Arusha Declaration was to blend Fabian ideas absorbed while at the University of Edinburgh with African traditions of communal living. How did it turn out? Not good. “(H)is policies led to economic decline, systematic corruption, and unavailability of goods,” Wikipedia reports. After forcible relocations to collective farms in the 1970s, public disorder led to near-starvation. When he stepped down in 1985, after nearly a quarter-century in power, Nyerere left a country among the poorest and mosfullsizeoutput_146ft dependent in the world.

But what bearing! What inspiring words! What a dashing figure! (Though if I were him I’d lose the Chaplin/Hitler mustache.) Nyerere was one of 26 children of a tribal chief. He showed great promise, and was educated at Tanganyika’s Tabora Government School, which he later called “as close to Eton as you can get in Africa.” He became a teacher, then studied economics and history — and got involved in the colonial politics of Dar es Salaam, the capital city of the U.N. trustee state under British supervision. He traveled throughout Tanganyika,  using his skills and charisma to win support for independence.

Once in office, Nyerere suppressed trade unions and the political opposition, just like that. He was re-elected every five years — unopposed.  There is some blood on his hands as well, resulting from factional plotting in 1980 and 1981. On a more upbeat note, Nyerere’s socialist-communalist ideas may have worked better in the Pacific atoll nation of Vanuatu than in Tanzania. There, Prime Minister Walter Lini credited Nyerere  as an inspiration for his own theories of Melanesian socialism.  Another interesting aside: Nyerere’s ujamaa was a  factor in the development of African hip hop! I kid you not. According to my sources, DJs in Nyerere’s day were officially encouraged to broadcast rap messages expounding on the values of ujamaa — messages of freedom, unity, family and tolerance. Nyerere’s was trying to build popular culture in a way that bridged tribal and national divisions. In the early years of independence, various combinations linked Tanganyika with Kenya, Uganda and the Indian Ocean island nation of Zanzibar. Tanganyika and Zanzibar ended up linked, with the curious hybrid name Tanzania. Kenya and Uganda went their separate ways.

Do you suppose Nyerere’s ujamaa  campaign worked in Tanzania? You don’t find the same stories of tribal division and conflict there as elsewhere. To think that hip hop music had something to do with it! When western hip hop music arrived in Tanzania a decade or so ago, it was welcomed by a population that seemed to know all about it.

Need I mention one of Zanzibar’s last, unlamented leaders? Abeid Karume took over in a “revolution” in 1964 that amounted to an ouster of Arab elites who had ruled for decades under tottering old sultan. He imposed a repressive one-party state on his people, complete with arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture and summary execution. His purge of the Arabs hollowed out his nation’s economic life. He grew obsessed with his cult of personality, adopted wildly impractical economic schemes, and generally ill-used his citizenry until 1972, when a disgruntled general finally shot him to death as he sat drinking coffee and playing the Swahili game bao with his cronies at party headquarters. While large crowds turned out for his funeral, they were reported to be remarkably quiet.

Like Zambia’s Kaunda, Nyerere distinguished himself after his retirement. Making the village of his childhood his base, he traveled widely, advocating for poor countries and receiving honorary degrees all over the world. He helped mediate a conflict in Burundi in 1996, three years before his death in London, age 77.


fullsizeoutput_1451Jomo Kenyatta

One of the most sophisticated of post-independence leaders, Jomo Kenyatta was a relatively moderate leader of a relatively prosperous sub-Saharan African nation. “Relatively” is used advisedly. There may not have been mass slaughters and extravagant waste. But there was the same impulse as occurred elsewhere to consolidate power into a one-party state. And there was a slide into corruption and self-dealing for Kenyatta, his family and Kikuyu kinsmen.

Author of the thoughtful treatise, “Facing Mount Kenya,” Kenyatta studied both in England and at Moscow’s Communist University of the Toilers of the East. Born humbly to Kikuyu farmer-parents in what was then British Each Africa, he found his way to a Church of Scotland mission where he got an education. He apprenticed as a carpenter, and subsequent work brought him into labor and political circles. He traveled to England to press for land reform, then remained for several years of study there and in Moscow. Back in Kenya, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of collusion with Mau Mau rebels, convicted in a biased courtroom and jailed until 1961, when he emerged the odds-on favorite for post-indendence leadership.

Taking office in December 1963, a jubilant Kenyatta counseled a deliberate path toward full sovereignty, which meant retaining many British civil servants and only gradually replacing them with trained Africans. Kenyatta offered this remarkable farewell tribute to his former colonial masters: “We do not forget the assistance and guidance we have received through the years from people of British stock: administrators, businessmen, farmers, missionaries and many others. Our law, our system of government and many other aspects of our daily lives are founded on British principles and justice.”

In one key respect, however, Kenyatta veered from the circumspect path of the imperialists: corruption. Here is a damning indictment of Kenyatta and his cronies from Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report of 2013: “The regime of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was riddled with land grabbing which was perpetuated by him for his benefit and members of his family … (B)etween 1964 and 1966, one-sixth of European settlers’ lands that were intended for settlement of landless and land-scarce Africans were cheaply sold to the then President Kenyatta and his wife Ngina as well as his children … throughout the years of President Kenyatta’s administration, his relatives, friends and officials in his administration also benefited from the vice with wanton impunity.”  Whew!

In the 1970s, Kenyatta’s health began to fail, and his cronies pretty much took over — increasing, if possible, the extent of their greed. He died in office in Mombasa, the Kenyan capital, age 86. His successor was his longtime vice president, Daniel arap Moi — a scoundrel if ever there was one …

Great Dictators series

You’d think Somalia would know better. This struggling nation in the Horn of Africa has been wracked by coups, droughts, civil war and shooting war, tribal bloodletting and the virtual disintegration of orderly government. Its leaders have included some of the most dastardly scalawags ever to swagger along the Somali coast. Yet this same Somalia somehow managed to issue a series of postage stamps with the theme, “Great Dictators.” fullsizeoutput_1469These stamps pay tribute to tyrants like Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein. There is also a shout-out to Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic/Empire, looking extremely smug and self-satisfied (see Part One for more details); and Liberia’s murderous warlord Charles Taylor, conscriptor of child soldiers and current war-crimes prisoner in an English jail. (I haven’t written about Taylor because he was not around yet in the first years of independence.)

I’ll admit to a kind of stunned attraction to these gaudy celebrations of tyranny and vice. But really, do you think it’s quite right?




It comes down to Mandela fullsizeoutput_14c6

OK, it’s come to this. I give you: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).

Unimpeachable. Indestructible. Loved by all the world. Incorruptible. Honest, kind, wise. We know his story — the promising start … The clash with South Africa’s racist regime… The long imprisonment. We know the happy ending — release from prison … Election as president and distinguished service for five years … Continued work to deconstruct apartheid, reconcile peacefully, maintain a course toward progress and prosperity … Until the end …

One salient fact stands out for me: That Mandela was detained for 27 years —  from his initial, cruel exile on Robben Island (1964-82) until his final release from Victor Verster Prison in 1990. All those years, he was a captive of a racist white regime whose institutions systematically suppressed and marginalized the majority black population. How Mandela managed to emerge as a peacemaker and reconciler is one of the wonders of the world.

Apparently the best way to groom a democratic leader in Africa is to incur his enmity with a racist system of government, then throw him in prison for decades. That’s pretty depressing, isn’t it? Reaching for a lighter reflection to end this mixed account, I offer the following illustrations as an editorial comment:


Wouldn’t it be grand if we could have figured out a way to clone Mandela?

fullsizeoutput_14daLATE ADDENDUM: Daughter Kate, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia, just made a case for Botswana as an example of a sub-Saharan nation that made a smooth and sustained transition to democracy. (Namibia, formerly South West Africa, also is a stable democracy. But it did not gain its independence from South Africa until the 1990s,  so it’s not eligible for consideration in this contest.) Botswana, formerly the British territory of Bechuanaland, became independent in 1966 — among the last of the first wave. Perhaps there was a chance to learn from the disastrous experiences elsewhere. That same year of 1966, Ghana’s Kwama Nkrumah, the tarnished avatar of African independence, was ousted in a military coup. In Botswana, unlike most of its neighbors, one elected leader after another proceeded in a sedate pace. The fact that no single “strong man” emerged is bracing. There were no coups, no major plots. Today Botswana could lay claim to being the most stable democracy in Africa. How this happened is beyond the immediate purview of this stamp commentary. I will only comment that eight out of 10 citizens of Botswana are from the same tribe. The country is about the size of Texas, with less than one-10th the population. The tribal party has dominated in politics and power all these years. And while the gross domestic product of Botswana is relatively impressive (again that word “relatively”), I have not yet discovered how the standard of living in Botswana has changed since independence. At the same time, I will be eager to learn about the best practices in governance that provided for so many years of peace — and wonder whether those practices might be applied beneficially elsewhere …

A FINAL COMMENT: It just struck me that I haven’t addressed South Africa in much detail in this commentary.  I hope to do so at length at a later date. South Africa is a case unto itself; in Alexander Pope’s phrase, “a being darkly wise, and rudely great.” When the imperial realms of France, Britain and others were breaking up in the 1960s, South Africa’s British and Boer descendants held firm to their sovereignty within the British Commonwealth — and to the racist system of apartheid. If you were a white landowner in South Africa, you enjoyed rights similar to your counterparts in Europe, the USA and the rest of the developed world. If you were black, all bets were off. Whether to classify the rulers of apartheid South Africa as dictators, tyrants or autocrats is problematical. The leaders were duly chosen in free, fair, contested elections — without black votes. The minority white “tribe” may have been democratic within its enclave, but those blessings did not extend to the black majority. Mercifully, the days of apartheid now recede into history —  with careful records and a process of reconciliation to ensure that this ugly legacy is not forgotten. Today, South Africa is an economically vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state. It remains by far the most prosperous nation in sub-Saharan Africa, with political pluralism and democratic elections. More than a few cautionary signs — and perhaps some clues to a brighter future for all sub-Saharan Africans —  might be found along the winding road through South Africa’s history.   END OF COMMENTARY



Bonus: An African Rogues Gallery on Stamps, Part One


This connects to my concern about the fate of Africa since independence. My commentary really is about trying to find a worthy leader among the dozens who came to power as French, British and Belgian colonies gained independence more than half-a-century ago. Originally I saw these leaders depicted as handsome statesman on the stamps I collected from nations with exotic names like Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Congo. Then I lived in Africa as a teenager and saw things close-up — but from a sheltered perspective, as  my father was a diplomat.  The inspiring portraits and imagery on the post-independence stamps of sub-Saharan Africa caught my eye — and I still admire the delicate engravings and beautiful designs. The more I learned about these “inspiring” leaders, however, the more disillusioned I became. Is there no honest father of his country among them? This bunch of cruel, self-dealing, power-hungry egotists, opportunists and worse gave in to their post-colonial ids during the heady days, months and years after independence. In telling their cautionary tales, illustrated by the stamps they issued in their own honor, I hope at least to move the conversation along    FMF



Take a look at these two stamps from Africa, issued more than half-a-century ago. One is from Ghana, the other from the Central African Republic. Both depict the leaders of fullsizeoutput_144afullsizeoutput_145anewly emerged sovereign states in optimistic, hopeful terms. Ghana’s Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah looks out from an oval frame — calm, alert, focused— over a map of Africa with Ghana defined as a rectangular dot in the west. In the foreground, a palm-nut vulture  is on the wing. In the Central African stamp, the engraved image of Premier Barthelemy Boganda glows with his joy and enthusiasm. He smiles broadly, as if partly in wonder. His glassy gaze is focused upward toward … a bright future? He poses under the colorful flag of his brand-new nation.

There was some cause for optimism as the former colonial territories of France, Great Britain and others declared and were granted independence, starting with Ghana in 1957 and accelerating through 1960. Standards of living in many sub-Saharan states had risen as economies benefited from the postwar growth and investment in new industry and commerce. Imperial rule was moderating, adopting more inclusive and representative practices. The seemingly limitless potential of Africa’s resources was matched by a burgeoning labor force. Hopes and expectations were high that independence would bring new prosperity to sub-Saharan Africa’s 50-plus nations — prosperity now shared equitably with indigenous populations shortchanged under colonial rule.

Yet other factors were not as auspicious. Imperial rulers had not expected to set their colonies free so soon. Some had devised blueprints that would defer the day of deliverance for years, even decades. When liberation movements and foreign pressure forced their hands, colonial governors abandoned their orderly timetables. It quickly grew apparent that decades of racist policies had left indigenous Africans woefully unprepared for the job ahead. There were few trained civil servants, teachers, doctors, engineers. Kenya’s first African lawyer began practicing only in 1956. In Northern Nigeria there was a single college alumnus. In the entire Congo, there were just 30 black university graduates. Only 136 Congolese students graduated from high school in 1959-60. This was no accident: restricting indigenous access to higher education and the professions was an intentional strategy designed to perpetuate white rule and native subordination. Lovanium University, the first post-secondary school in the Belgian Congo, did not open until 1954. The University of East Africa, serving Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, opened only in 1963.

Yet even these challenging circumstances could not have foretold the record  of misrule, malfeasance, corruption and violence compiled by one African leader after another, from one end of the continent to the other, year after year, decade after decade. This sorry tale has many sordid chapters,  the latest of which are still being written. It didn’t take long for the frothy days of liberation to be curdled   by the metastasizing greed of rulers intent on self-enrichment, tribal supremacy, patronage and perpetuating their power. Repressive one-party states emerged in Ghana, Niger, Dahomey, Togo, Mauritania, the Central African Republic and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and variations held sway in Kenya, Guinea, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Malawi, and elsewhere. In one stunning and heartbreaking case after another, African leaders betrayed their early promise. They inflicted appalling cruelties on their political enemies and other innocents, and displayed a shocking indifference to the public welfare. They mouthed platitudes while enriching themselves, their families and cronies — and all too often, murdering their rivals.  With dismal consistency, indigenous African leaders failed to live up to their own goals. Men who had demonstrated ambition and promise in their early lives, who had achieved educational, public service and military distinction under colonial rule, proved towering disappointments after they took office. The great potential of the continent to yield its riches for the benefit of its people has been squandered. Today, I would argue, few Africans experience a higher  standard of living than before independence.

If I attempted to tell you why this is so, or how things could be better, I would have to be writing something other than a stamp commentary. Since stamps are my thing, what I will do here is explore, in brief written sketches, the woeful stories of a succession of African leaders whose  images and portraits appeared on stamps.  The arcs of their lives, the patterns established during their tenures in office, more often than not will be cautionary tales, some  with truly disturbing aspects. The end result, I hope, will be illuminating, if not definitive or prescriptive.

I already have described in some detail the troubled history of post-independence leadership of the former Belgian Congo. (see Congo blog posts). It is a sorry tale indeed that unfolded around Patrice Lumumba, Cyrille Adoula, Joseph Kasavubu, Moise Tshombe, Albert Kalonji, Joseph Mobutu and their successors. It needs no retelling here. Instead, let us start with the two leaders mentioned above — Nkrumah and Boganda.

(A note on the stamp illustrations that follow:  Rather than include photographic images of these African leaders, I use only stamps, intentionally. They are authentic, contemporaneous visual records. I believe they are particularly revealing in that they reflect not only their subjects, but the ways they were strategically positioned to appear at the time. Some or most of these stamps were produced abroad, particularly the beautiful engraved portraits crafted by skilled French artist/engravers. The stamps are official issues of their nations. Not all leaders chose to emblazon stamps with their formal portraits, so it’s fair to suggest those who did were fostering a cult of personality. Many of these leaders did succeed in wooing, or at least dazzling, their constituents, in spite of their misrule and misdeeds. They were popular, regardless of rigged or non-existent elections, political repression and worse. Some of these portraits reflect the odd blend of French high culture and African popular culture. The connection between the French and the favored indigenous elites was deep, and continues to be reflected in francophone Africa. To a lesser extent, British culture still influences Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia, and a host of countries in east Africa. While these associations may take bizarre forms, I can’t help but think they still could prove useful in the long run …)

Kwame Nkrumah


By the time this souvenir sheet appeared in 1964, complete with a backdrop of sheet music (the national anthem?), the thrill was long gone. Kwame Nkumah would be abruptly deposed two years later.

This west African nation seemed uniquely poised to make the most of its independence, granted in 1957. When Kwame Nkrumah, the handsome, charismatic young leader of Ghana, took the radiant Queen Elizabeth of England into his arms for a dance at State House in Accra in 1961, it seemed like an interracial fairy tale made real. I suspect neither party could have known at the time that the fairy tale would prove a fantasy, and that reality would turn into a nightmare. Humbly born, Nkrumah showed promise as a student. His mentors eventually enabled him to go to the United States, where he studied at Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania. He lived and worked in America for 10 years, returning to Ghana just as nationalist sentiment was rising. He weathered the storm of the independence protests, and emerged as a leader. The leader. Amid a surge of popular support, Nkrumah was selected to lead the new nation, whose name he had proposed: Ghana. As a key member of the colonial administration, Nkrumah had played a role in growing the postwar economy of this “model colony” of the Gold Coast. As a nationalist leader, an idealistic socialist who favored pragmatism, Nkrumah seemed suited to play a mediating role between the global interests competing for influence the continent. On his own after independence, Nkrumah continued to talk the talk of freedom and development. But by the mid-1960s, he had neutralized his rivals, sometimes with violence, and consolidated power. He abandoned regional assemblies within two years of taking over. His new constitution in 1960 allowed him to rule by personal decree. He curtailed the media and civil liberties, eventually creating a one-party security state. But though he remained an object of cult worship — at home and abroad — he could not overcome factional differences. Nkrumah grew rich off a system of bribery and corruption that benefited his family and coterie. When he attempted to co-opt the military, in 1966, he was deposed. He withdrew to neighboring Conakry, Guinea, where he lived in restless retirement until his death in 1972, at age 62, from prostate cancer.

Barthelemy Boganda

The story of Barthelemy Boganda is one of promise unfulfilled — which is as much as to say, promises broken. The ambitious native son of the French territory exotically named Ubangi-Shari was the first Ubangi elected to the French parliamentary assembly — under the colonial pretense that all subjects of  foreign territories were full-fledged French citizens. Quickly realizing the sham of this arrangement, Boganda went home to advocate for self-determination, at first as a federated community of equatorial African states, then just for Ubangi-Shari. He did not call for total independence, but for shared rule. In 1958 he got his wish, and successfully pushed through a new, democratic constitution for the Central African Republic. On March 29, 1959, he boarded a plane in rural Berberati to return to the capital city of Bangui. A mid-air explosion killed all aboard. Traces of explosives were found. Rumors swirled of a plot by business  interests, French secret service complicity, and the evil designs of is estranged wife. But the cause was never determined — not surprising, since there was no inquiry. Boganda’s untimely death at age 49 brought to power …


Boganda’s successor

David Dacko

Another promising young man from a rural village, David Dacko became Boganda’s protege and successor. Between 1959 and 1965, his tenure was marked primarily by his consolidation of power, establishment of a one-party state, and a pattern of bribery, corruption and bloated bureaucracy at every level of government that has plagued that nation — and other sub-Saharan African nations — ever since. Although the nation’s diamond industry grew, the benefits did not flow to the people. His popularity had faded by the time he was overthrown by one of his generals. Though he eventually returned to serve the government, and indeed became president again in 1979, he was sacked for good in 1981. Dacko remained active in politics until his death, at 73, in 2003.  The period between his two terms of misrule was filled by the macabre antics of one of Africa’s most bizarre and terrifying dictators:


An early portrait depicts Bokassa with all his military medals — including for service to Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the French army during World War II. 

Jean-Bedel Bokassa

“Central Africans,” declared the rebellious colonel, “a new era of equality between us has begun …”  It was nothing of the sort. Instead, one  predatory leader (Dacko) was replaced by an even more predatory one. Though Jean-Bedel Bokassa was related to both Boganda and Dacko, he made them look positively restrained in contrast to his rapacious and violent years of dictatorship. Self-promoting and self-indulgent, obsessively drawn to the life of luxury, Bokassa would not tolerate dissent or political competition. The French newspaper Le Monde speculated on which grisly technique he used to dispatch one rival: “Did Bokassa tie him to a


Family man? Bokassa had 17 wives and as many as 50 children. Did he really beat schoolchildren to death with his ceremonial cane? 

pillar before personally carving him  with a knife he had previously used for stirring his coffee in a gold-and-midnight-blue Sevres coffee set, or was the murder committed on the cabinet table with the help of other persons?”

Growing increasingly erratic, Bokassa had himself crowned “emperor” in 1976. His coronation cost a


Some might see a statesman. I see a thug. 

reported $20 million —a big chunk of the national budget at the time. Popular dissatisfaction produced food riots — and subsequent massacres. The final outrage was an attack that killed as many as 100 schoolchildren who were protesting an order to buy costly uniforms emblazoned with the emperor’s likeness. After some children threw rocks at his passing motorcade, Bokassa was said to have stepped from his Rolls Royce limousine to  help club some of the children to death with his cane.


Sorry buddy, the imperial crown doesn’t make you any more attractive …

Finally deposed in a coup assisted by the French in 1979, Bokassa first lived in exile at his chateau near Paris, to the increasing discomfort of his neighbors and hosts. Eventually he returned to the Central African Republic, where he was arrested and tried on numerous capital charges. Although he declared his innocence — “I’m no saint,” he testified. “I’m just a man like everyone else” —  he was convicted and sentenced to death. On one charge, though, he was acquitted: cannibalism. Prosecutors could not establish beyond reasonable doubt that the carcasses seen in his meat locker were human flesh. Nor could they prove that his cook used the meat to prepare occasional meals for Bokassa and his guests, including French President Valery Giscard D’Estaing. Bokassa’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was granted amnesty in 1996, and died at home, age 75, in 1993.

Fulbert Youlou

fullsizeoutput_1458This fellow may look like an overgrown Boy Scout or a benign man of the cloth, but do not be deceived. He was just as venal and power-hungry as the next African strong man. Fulbert Youlou was a brilliant student in his village, and rose in the network of the Catholic church to be ordained a priest. Along the way he came briefly into the orbit of Barthelemy Boganda, soon to head the Central African Republic. Trading on his clerical collar and his nationalist connections, Youlou  parlayed himself into the seat of prime minister, then president after the former French Congo became the independent Congo Republic in 1960.  He encouraged a cult of personality, in part by ordering the issuance of stamps bearing his likeness in his religious garb, though by this time he had been defrocked because of adultery and polygamy. His big ego and eccentric ways soon got him in trouble — one story tells of him pulling out a revolver to force members of the National Assembly to withdraw a challenge. Inheriting one of the more robust economies among French territories, he focused on expanding his political control and limiting the opposition as the national debt increased. Accused of corruption and anti-union violence, he was forced out in 1963. At first imprisoned in Fulbert Youlou Military Camp, he was released but remained a target of the pro-Marxist regime. He fled across the Congo river to Leopoldvile, in the by-then-former Belgian Congo, where he was granted asylum. Eventually he resettled in Spain, where he died of hepatitis in 1972, aged 64.


Get a load of this item: An airmail stamp from the Central African Republic celebrates “The Great Reconciliation” — presumably between the CAR, whose leader, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, poses in the middle; the Republic of the Congo, featuring Joseph Mobutu at left; and Chad, whose president, N’garta Tombalbaye, is on the right. What a trio! My first impression was of some costumed dancers doing a cakewalk. Are they in drag? The way Tombalbaye and Bokassa daintily raise their clasped hands is worthy of a minuet in the court of Versailles. I can’t tell whether the stick between Mobutu and Bokassa is being gripped by one or the other — or both. Notice how Mobutu and Tombalbaye are dressed in matching outfits, one lime green and the other turquoise, that somehow signify authenticite, or African authentic-ness. This was a campaign Mobutu developed as a photogenic distraction from his systematic plunder of the Congo. It seems he persuaded his fellow ruler from Chad to play along. The fellow in the middle, meanwhile, looks jaunty in his trim brown suit and porkpie hat. Bokassa could be a Vaudeville song-and-dance man out on the town. One can almost hear the High Life band in the background, belting out a central African cha-cha. The “great reconciliation” this stamp boasts about apparently involved the three leaders agreeing to forget their past differences and resurrect something called the United States of Central Africa. If you never heard of this union of nations before, I’m with you. I’m at a loss to tell you anything more about it, including what if anything it ever accomplished; certainly nothing for the beleaguered and horribly misrepresented populations of Chad, CAR and the Congo. However, I can all too easily conjure many benefits that flowed from the USCA into the pockets and Swiss bank accounts of Mobutu, Bokassa and Tombalbaye. OK, let’s not put the president of Chad just yet into the same venal category as Mobutu, or the near-psychopathic category of Bokassa. At least, not until we look a bit into his background …

N’garta (Francois) Tombalbaye

fullsizeoutput_148fChad has been more or less a basket-case of a nation ever since independence. When it wasn’t drought or civil war, it was encroachment by plotters from surrounding nations, led by Libya’s Moammer Gadhafi. There were some real wrong-os in charge of Chad during those decades, including the fanatic Hissen Habre. Could it be that Chad’s first president, Ngarta Tombalbaye, broke the pattern? Could he have been, like CAR’s Boganda, a well-intentioned, bright young man with good values and leadership skills? I hope so, because then there would be two African leaders I can look up to. On the other hand, I shudder with anticipation as I turn to his life story, for it surely cannot have ended well. If he wasn’t killed under mysterious circumstances, as was Boganda, it is all too likely that his good intentions went awry as he yielded to the temptations of power. At least we might hope things started out well …

OK, our hopes turn out to be unfounded. Tombalbaye’ s thumbnail bio on Wikipedia begins on a promising enough note — a teacher and trade unionist, leader of the Chadian Progressive Party … “Tombalbaye was appointed the nation’s head of government after independence on August 11, 1960.”  The note also said he ruled until his death, in 1975, aged 56. Then came this chilling coda: “He ruled as a dictator until his deposition and assassination by members of the Chadian military …”

Oh dear. Like a latter-day Demosthenes of the sub-Sahara, I continue in vain my search for an honest African leader … who survived …

By the way, do you find it at all unusual that while some African dictators like to adopt costumes of African “authenticity” (Mobutu), others enjoy posing as dark-hued members of a dynastic royal line? Indeed, the doomed Tombalbaye did both. Remember the cakewalk for “reconciliation,” where he was depicted in a kind of Nehru-Dashiki jacket, along with a knock-off of Mobutu’s leopard-skin cap? In contrast, on his formal portrait stamp, above, he appears in a white tie and tails, complete with crisply creased collar tips and a bright yellow-and-green sash. In another incarnation of colonial cross-dressing on the other side of the continent, Uganda’s murderous Idi Amin liked to wear a kilt and fancy himself “the last King of Scotland.” Among the other dandies at the dictators’ debutante ball were Gabon’s Leon Mba, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, Modibo Keita of Mali and Maurice Yameogo of Upper Volta. Oh, and the poet/politician/polymath, Leopold Senghor of Senegal. Did any of these really live up to their images?

fullsizeoutput_1457Leon M’ba

Born into a relatively privileged family, M’ba obtained employment in the civil service, and use his charisma and social talents to line his pockets and further his ambitions, under the banner of African nationalism. One colonial administrator observed dryly: “Leon M’ba not only was the leader who had claimed for personal use the colony’s money; He enjoyed also a considerable amount of prestige … which he got from witchcraft activities he practices. As we was intelligent, he exploited this situation to extort the people he had to administrate, also the cabal which he had formed. But on the other hand, he knew how to flatter the representatives of the authority …”  As Gabon’s first president after independence in 1960, he vowed to establish and lead a democratic government.  Yet he promoted  a cult of personality, and consolidated his power. As the French secret service reported: “He regarded himself as a truly democratic leader … Still, he wasn’t happy until he had the constitution rewritten to give him virtually all power and transforming the parliament into high-priced scenery that could be bypassed as needed.”  Establishing what would be called a “hyperpresidential” regime, M’ba had songs sung in his praise, and stamps and loincloths printed with his likeness. By 1964, conditions had deteriorated to the point that rivals could mount a successful coup. The only trouble came from Paris, where Charles de Gaulle stood by the man who had served France during World War II. (He did the same for Bokassa and others). M’ba was restored to office in Libreville by French troops. He spent his remaining months surrounded by French aides and officers, growing increasingly sick and infirm. In 1967, he was re-elected with 99.9 percent of the vote — a landslide aided by the fact that no one dared to oppose him. Days before he was to take his oath of office, he died of cancer, aged 65. He was succeeded by his vice president, Albert Bernard Bongo.

fullsizeoutput_145bFelix Houphouet-Boigny

This elegant Francophile — what a name! — may have been one of the more reluctant African liberationists. Descended from tribal chiefs, he thrived under French colonial mentorship — and developed a distinct taste for French culture. He would have preferred to maintain strong links to france instead of exercising full independence, but when the chance came, he took it, serving as president for 33 years. At his death in 1993, aged 88 (at least), Houphouet-Boigny was the world’s third-longest serving leader, after only Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Il-Sun. His focus on development made Cote d’Ivoire one of Africa’s few early success stories — cocoa production tripled between 1960 and 1980; coffee doubled, spurring an export boom. Meanwhile, the industrial sector was expanding at a welcome rate of 10 percent-plus per year …

Then what happened? The president, affectionately nicknamed “Papa Houphouet” or simple “Le Vieux” (The Old One), had calmly adopted the autocratic ways of his neighbors. There were no meaningful elections in his one-party state for decades. Houphouet-Boigny and his coterie profited handsomely from the “Ivorian miracle” — not so much the ill-served citizens of the Ivory Coast, who didn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. The president bragged openly about the “billions” of francs he had earned from his enterprises and deposited in Swiss bank accounts. “There is even a bank that manages my profits in avocados, of which, I think, I am the main producer in Cote d’Ivoire.”

When commodity prices dropped in the 1980s, the over-leveraged statist economy tanked. In 1987, the regime admitted it was bankrupt.  Still revered in the west as the “Grand Old Man of Africa,” Houphouet-Boigny continued to live in high style at his palace in Yamoussoukro, modeled on Versailles. There he also could worship at his local church, the world’s largest. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace cost the Ivorian people $300 million to build.

fullsizeoutput_1492Did the average Ivorian family benefit from Houphouet-Boigny’s decades of high-handed rule? If you’re patient, some day I’ll look up the statistics on per capita income in 1990 compared to 1960, adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, my guess is that things stayed pretty much the same for most of the common folk. There were no coups or civil wars, but not much of a windfall from independence — except for the favored few, to be sure. After President Felix’s death in office in 1993, things such as they were quickly fell apart. The Ivory Coast has been plagued by political instability by coups, economic reverses and civil war practically ever since. Whatever else he may have done, Houphouet-Boigny was not able to build a secure nation-state during his many years on the world stage.

My speculations extend to another elegant West African leader, the poet   and philosopher-statesman Leopold Senghor from Senegal.   Interestingly, I could not find a stamp from Senegal bearing his likeness — though in my searches I did come upon one fullsizeoutput_1494philatelic tribute stamp — from Moldova.

Long-lived like his sometime-friendly neighbor, Houphouet-Boigny, Senghor was born into a rare bourgeois African family — his father was a businessman with six children and access to Catholic boarding school. By the time he was a teenager, Senghor was captivated by French literature. He managed to spend more than a dozen years traveling, studying and living in France, then became one of the future African leaders who would serve with distinction in the French army during World War II. Like Houphouet, Senghor was comfortable in the “French compound,” and was in no hurry to declare independence after the war. He and his sophisticated cohort enthusiastically adopted the pose of black Frenchmen; as he put it, “Our ambition was to become photographic negatives of the colonizers.” Back home, as he rose in the ranks of colonial administrators, he wrestled with nationalism even as he appreciated the colonial domicile.  “We have grown up in it, and it is good to be alive in it, he said. “We simply want to build our own huts.” Mesmerizing with his poetic and analytic abilities, Senghor beguiled all he met, and his political skills propelled him to the presidency at independence in 1960. Would you be surprised to learn that he wrote the new nation’s national anthem?

In office, Senghor presided over a growing economy, published his poetry and spread his gospel of “negritude,” even as he maintained close links with the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. He also developed his venal and autocratic skills — spreading the wealth to his coterie and to maintain his power. Dissent was not tolerated. Senghor tried to reinvent himself as a democratic leader several times, then became the first post-independence African head of state to step down voluntarily, in 1980. In 1984 he was elected to membership in the French Academy, that nation’s highest honor for cultural contributions. Senghor died in France in 2001, aged 95.

Whether Senghor loved France more than his native land is something I won’t even speculate on. Once again, however, I am left wondering (lazy scholar that I am) how the average Senegalese family fared during Senghor’s long tenure. Were they sufficiently beguiled by his poetry, his elegant charm, his mantra of “negritude,” to ignore the fact that their standard of living was hardly budging? What good has the French Academy ever done them?

fullsizeoutput_1441Maurice Yameogo

There seems to be very little written about Maurice Yameogo the first president of the Republic of Upper Volta  (now Burkina Faso). He served from 1959 until 1966, and died in 1993, aged 71. During his tenure there were crises that required military intervention. Eventually, Yameogo was ousted in a coup led by Lt. Col. Sangoule Lamizama, whose dictatorial rule would last more than two decades. Yameogo, known popularly as “Monsieur Maurice,” for his elegant manners and wardrobe, was a feeble exemplar of a democratic leader. Soon after he took office he banned all political parties but his own. Popular unrest continued as conditions worsened, until the military finally cracked down. Then things went from bad to worse.

fullsizeoutput_1495Modibo Keita

I have just one more Francophile dandy for you: Modibo Keita, first president of Mali (1960-68). Isn’t that a beautifully engraved portrait of a distinguished statesman?

Alas, he was no such thing.  Claiming kinship with the founders of the Malian empire, Keita grew up in the capital city of Bamako, got an education and became a teacher. His skills as a political leader quickly grew apparent, and he was elected to the National Assembly of France as a favored African delegate. When independence came, he was a natural choice. Unfortunately, his scholarly infatuation with socialism led him into disastrous economic experiments that ended badly. Simultaneously he was jailing his political opponents. Then he suspended the constitution, recruited violent militias, and devalued the Malian franc. In the ensuing popular uprising, Gen. Moussa Traore stepped in, threw Keita out of office and sent him to prison in rural Kidal. He was returned to the capital as a conciliatory gesture in 1977, but died before he could be released. He was 61. Keita was officially rehabilitated in 1992, after the death of Moussa Traore, the guy who led the coup back in 1968.  By 1999, there was a monument in Keita’s honor standing in Bamako. I don’t know if it depicts him in white tie and tails, or if it should.

Bye for now

This seems as good a place as any to end Part One of this African Rogues Gallery on Stamps. Well, it’s a terrible place to stop, actually, if you consider the fate of Upper Volta after the ouster of the dastardly “Monsieur Maurice,”  or poor Mali, now once again wracked and destabilized by a coup. The pioneer of African nationalism, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, turned out to be a mountebank, a martinet and a self-serving hypocrite. Those who followed him in Ghana and beyond also betrayed their responsibilities and their people. I had hoped to find inspiring models of statesmanship in either Felix Houphouet-Boigny or Leopold Senghor. But no. Where, oh where is the leader in sub-Saharan Africa in the post-independence days who acquits himself (or herself) with honor and integrity? Who overcomes tribal divisions, builds coalitions and cleaves to democracy, no matter what? Who maintains efficient administration and integrity in public life, resisting the temptations that come with power? You will not find him in Part One — but perhaps we will find one in Part Two, for there is much more to come. Don’t abandon all hope — yet.