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.









Bonus: The Exquisite Pleasure of Filling Out Sets

Please come along as I return briefly to a beloved topic in stamp collecting — the exquisite pleasure of “completing sets.” Internet stamp shopping has made it easier than ever to fill your “wish lists” with the stamps missing from your key sets — that is, if you can afford to spend the money! (“But it’s an investment!” I tell my wife, who rolls her eyes, gives me the cold shoulder, puts her foot down and closes the books.) The accompanying illustrations show how several of my recent online purchases — within my budget — allowed me to fill out two favorite sets in my British Commonwealth collection: the Ascension Queen Elizabeth definitive series of  1963; and the Jubilee Issue of 1897 from Canada, commemorating the sexagenary (60th year) of Queen Victoria’s rule. Each stamp in that latter series features side-by-side portraits of the queen as a swan-necked beauty in 1837 and a doughty dowager in 1897.

Admittedly, I have not “completed” the Jubilee set. Its values run from a half-cent to $5, including $1, $2, $3  and $4 stamps. The high values are hideously expensive. Some of the lower values cost more than I normally would want or be able to spend. But recently I got the bug, so I’ve been marshaling my resources and trolling the Internet for bargains, just to see how many from the set I could gather  …

fullsizeoutput_1448But before more words about  Canada, a few words  about Ascension.  The attractive bird issue of 1963 followed the first Queen Elizabeth definitive set of 1953 — a gorgeous and valuable  series that I have described elsewhere (see my  Ascension blog post). The 1963 set is not cheap — I had to shop around and finally bought the top two values, from separate dealers, for a combined $22.30.   I hope the images here and below help to  explain the appeal of stamp collecting in a visual way — notice the designs and the colors, also the way the completed set (below) moves smoothly from 1 penny through 1 pound, each stamp linked to the other by a common design template, each one its own handsome object, with original art, vivid color and the unifying portrait of the queen. The complete mint set sells online for $33, so I don’t know how well I did — particularly since my 1/6 stamp is cancelled. I may decide to pick up a mint 1/6 some day  — it’s not expensive. Meanwhile, I indulge my  predilection for  complete sets, even if they do include a mix of mint and cancelled stamps.



Now, on to the Canadian set, and my bold bid for the 15-cent and 20-cent stamps in the series. This set is a particular favorite of mine, and seems to be popular with many collectors. The stamps,  as mentioned earlier, are pricey! It took me  years of stop-and-go collecting to begin building my set. IMG_2190My first big move was to buying the 1/2 cent. Oddly, its price seemed to be rising sharply a few years ago. When I finally jumped in and picked up a mint copy in 2014, it cost me $22.49 — a 4,400 percent increase over face value, right? Imagine: If  your ancestors had been in Canada in 1897, they could have picked up a full sheet of these black beauties for a quarter, the face value! (Why is this low-value stamp so expensive? Why so rare? Uh, sorry, I haven’t gotten around to researching that particular subject yet; maybe later …)

Some of the mid-range values are not outrageously expensive — I got a mint 1-cent for $2.25, a mint 5-cent for $4.35. Others cost a bit more. I scored a coup, I think, when I found the 50-cent, used, offered for $39.

A word on the condition of stamps like these in relation to their value. Mint, never-hinged examples from this set command sky-high prices. Hinged mint copies go for considerably less. Used copies may cost slightly less than that. Then comes the matter of centering. A stamp may be sound in every other respect — no tears or thins, scuffs, short or missing perforations — yet still be a relative IMG_2198bargain if the design is noticeably off-center. You will notice in my set, pictured here and again below, a number of  pretty dramatically off-center values — look particularly at the 1/2-cent (skewed high), the 15-cent (low) and the 20-cent (skewed left). At least the stamps themselves are sound. And remember my urge toward “completeness,” which overcomes key considerations like mint or used — or in this case, centering. I stand by my Jubilee set, noting that each stamp is intact, if not the most elegant example you will find.

The mint 20-cent cost me a whopping $38.39 from one dealer; the used 15-cent a still-considerable $33.94 from another.  It was a thrill to insert these two rarities into their protective, black-backed sleeves (using stamp tongs, of course!), custom-cut and mount them in my British America album. Wow! The set is filling out nicely! Of course I should not expect to pick up the $1 or higher values anytime soon — unless I come into some serious money. (I saw a $2 nearly obliterated by a heavy cancel, on sale for something like $90 …)  But just having the set complete to the 50-cent would be a feat I never thought  I would accomplish;  if only I could find an affordable 6-cent! The pressure is on: Just look at that page (pictured above). The white hole in the middle cries out to be filled! Copies of the 6-cent  were available on Internet sites, all right, but the cost was daunting — $30, $40 or more. I could pick up a damaged “space filler” for much less, but that’s not my way. I insist on intact stamps, with only the rarest of exceptions.

fullsizeoutput_1472Eventually I did settle on a 6-cent, offered on an Internet site for a very reasonable $15.50. What’s wrong with it? It looked fine, though the cancellation was ugly. It seemed to have all its perforations, and the centering was even decent, so. I snapped it up. When it arrived in the mail a few days later, it fulfilled my expectations. Yes, one corner is a little greasy; the cancellation makes it look like it’s missing some perfs, even though it isn’t. It’s a sound stamp, listed as “fine.”  And the price sure was right! Plus, I got the pleasure of adding the missing piece to “fill out” this desirable set from the 1/2-cent through the 50-cent. (See below, enlarged.)


Altogether, I figure I spent a little over $185 over a period of five or more years to acquire this “partial set.” Now, let’s check online to see what this set is going for today.  According to the widely used online site Zillions of Stamps, using the middle range of prices, my partial set would cost an encouraging $296.50 — 62.5 percent more than I paid.  An all-mint partial set, 1/2-cent through 50-cent, was selling for $400 …

What a handsome series it is! Though I can’t help but wonder how many Canadian stamp collectors in the turbulent economy of the 1890s were able to buy those $1, $2, $3, $4 and $5 stamps —  any more than most collectors today can afford the inflated prices of these rare, high-value beauties  …

Photo gallery: The top values
Well, at least we can feast our eyes. Here they are, the top values of the Jubilee Issue, all lined up, like a wish list for my fantasy stamp collection.  (See below.) These images are from the Internet, of course, not  my collection. They are, so to speak, for illustrative purposes only. And what illustrations! Notice the exquisite engraving: the delicate portraits, the emblems, the stylized maple leaf border; the vivid color; the fine centering — and the high prices!  I will supply brief captions with a few details.


The $1 (color: lake) is offered for $375. It is a mint, never-hinged example, very well-centered.



The $2 (dark purple) is offered for $2,900. It is a superb example, accompanied by certificate. Notice the near-perfect centering.


The $3 (yellow bistre) is also a beautiful example. It is offered for $1,395.

fullsizeoutput_1478This example of the $4 value (purple) is marred by a heavy “railroad cancel.” The centering also is skewed toward the top. Price: $190.


This beautiful example of the $5 value (olive green) is offered at $1,035. What color! What centering!




The British Empire’s Fourth Dimension

The British Empire’s Fourth Dimension

A Top-60 Blog!

The other day I got what seemed to be a piece of unsolicited good news: My FMF Stamp Project had been selected as one of the “Top 60 Stamp Collecting Blogs” on the Internet.  Cool!

What exactly does this mean? Well, first take a look at the message the popped up on my email server:

“Hi Frederick,

My name is Anuj Agarwal. I’m Founder of Feedspot.

I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog FMF STAMP PROJECT has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 60 Stamp Collecting Blogs on the web.   (Ed: Anuj supplied a link further into his Feedspot site: )

I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 60 Stamp Collecting Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!

fullsizeoutput_1471Also, you have the honor of displaying the following badge on your blog. Use the below code to display this badge proudly on your blog.”

Opening the link, I found a listing of the other 59 stamp-collecting blogs that have received this special recognitions. And more text, starting with a sentence fragment:

“The Best Stamp Collecting blogs from thousands of top Stamp Collecting blogs in our index using search and social metrics. Data will be refreshed once a week.

These blogs are ranked based on following criteria

•Google reputation and Google search ranking

•Influence and popularity on Facebook, twitter and other social media sites

•Quality and consistency of posts.

•Feedspot’s editorial team and expert review

CONGRATULATIONS to every blogger that has made this Top Stamp Collecting Blogs list! This is the most comprehensive list of best Stamp Collecting blogs on the internet and I’m honoured to have you as part of this! … If your blog is one of the Top 60 Stamp Collecting blogs, you have the honour of displaying the following badge on your site. Use the below code to display this badge proudly on your blog. You deserve it!”

It doesn’t seem to me that my FMF Stamp Project has attracted much attention — yet anyway. But the “medal” looks totally cool, so I figured out a way to display it as a logo at the top of my home page and FMF Stamp Project blog posts. I also did a little research on and Anuj Agarwal.  According to social media, he already has had a successful career in international insurance, both in India and Great Britain and probably beyond. I imagined him being an enthusiastic stamp collector with considerable resources and free time on his hands (or else building a new fortune with this site, which seems to be an info aggregation service for its subscribers).



All this, notwithstanding that the photo he included with his email message makes Anuj Agarwal look, according to my friend George whom I shared the message with, like he’s still in junior high. (Sorry Anuj — that was George talking, not me.)

Inspired by the sheer serendipity of the whole thing — after all, the FMF Stamp Project is just a lark, and I have only just managed to clamber aboard this Internet platform — I sent Anuj (I hope I may call you Anuj) a cheery email in reply:

“It was a pleasure to get your message and notification today. I don’t know exactly what it means yet, but it sure seems like it can’t be bad. (I’m already displaying my “medal” as logo on my blog!)  It is a thrill to have my FMF Stamp Project noticed in any way. This labor of love has been going on for a year or more. I am putting up more blog posts all the time, because I have a story to tell on just about every page of my large stamp collection. I looked you up via social media and see you have had a successful career already. And your Web site looks intriguing — something that could be very useful for curious and discriminating readers. Perhaps I will learn to use it one day.

“I am a retired journalist and editor in Syracuse, NY, age 68. Now I continue to pursue my lifelong interests in music composition** and performance, as well as writing projects like the FMF Stamp Project. My stamp commentaries began as essays shared with family and loved ones. I was encouraged to put them on a blog, and with help from my stepson was able to scramble onto the platform, where I am hanging on for dear life. Having lots of fun, though!

“FYI, I lived on the subcontinent in the 1950s — in Dhaka, where my father was a diplomat. We traveled several times by train from Calcutta (Kolkata?) to Delhi and beyond, to visit my brother and sister who were studying in Woodstock. What memories …

“It is also a pleasure to make your acquaintance via the Internet— which Dan Rather calls the most significant innovation since the steam engine. I wish you every success. — Fred M. Fiske, Minoa (Syracuse), NY

** p.s. I also have a site where I have posted a half-dozen of my songs so far. Go to and search for fred fiske.”

It wasn’t long before Anuj sent me a reply:

“Hi Fred,

Thanks for adding the Badge on your Blog.

If you can add a link back to the post, we’d greatly appreciate it.

Best, Anuj

So now I need to figure out how to embed a link in the logo? Or elsewhere on my blog? Why a link to Am I opening myself up to some kind of scam? I hope not! Will this end up with my bank accounts drained, all my assets confiscated, leaving me a homeless panhandler in the snow on a street corner? Heaven forbid!

Get a grip. Don’t be so morbid. Maybe it’s just a chance to expand your audience. Enjoy the (limited) celebrity. And limited is right. When I told my wife about my new “medal,” she snickered. That’s how much of the world thinks about stamp collecting in general. And with some reason. We tend to attract geeks and nerds, like me — and not the high-tech kind. I may be a celebrity in Syracuse Stamp Club circles, but I still need $1.50 to buy a cup of coffee.

And yet … my starry eyes are starting to focus on future prizes in the sky: more readers for the FMF Stamp Project; more open-minded folks  taking an interest in stamps; renewed interest in the hobby in general — and improved prospects that my collection won’t lose value as fast as I build it up.

My daughter Molly, who is Mideast bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, heard the news (from me, via email) and responded with words of encouragement:

“Way to go YOD (Ye Olde Dad)! I KNEW you needed an online presence, and would get a kick out of it. Look at all you’ve been doing, between the stamp blog and your music. Am really excited for you. What a great outlet, and — as I predicted — you have an audience. Now, if you could only monetize it…  love from Cairo, where the weather is fantastically cool.”

Encouraging words, indeed. But forget about the push to monetize. We stamp collectors generally have a pretty modest and realistic assessment of our beloved pastime. While we can’t get enough of it ourselves, we all too readily accept that most of the world doesn’t care a hoot about stamps.

Nevertheless, through the FMF Stamp Project, I think I have managed to open a conversation about stamps aimed at a general audience, using the resources of the Internet to enrich my commentaries with glorious illustrations of enlarged stamps from my collection and elsewhere. Now, being selected as one of the 60 best stamp blogs —  “from thousands” (really?) — I am (modestly) thrilled. Perhaps it is slightly ridiculous. And so, I offer a bit of silliness to celebrate this new distinction: **

Let me collect my thoughts before I become unhinged by the thrill of having my FMF Stamp Project selected as one of the 60 best stamp blogs on the Internet. I know skeptics may suspect an ulterior motive behind this “medal,” and wouldn’t touch it with 10-foot tongs. They’d demand that the whole thing be canceled. Nevertheless, I am inclined to commemorate this happy event as a definitive comment on the good quality my work, and hope my commentaries will be engraved in the minds and hearts of a growing audience. My aim, of course, is to promote stamp collecting, a hobby whose popularity seems to have worn thin.  Yielding to despair and admitting I am licked would mean being stuck in a declining market that could only mean damage for my own collection. My focus is on encouraging more and more people to consider stamp collecting, in hopes that committing philately together will improve the condition of my beloved hobby.

** The italicized words all refer to stamp-collecting; if you can’t figure out how, ask a stamp collector!

Congo stamps: The slide show

This is the gist of a talk I just gave at the Syracuse Stamp Club. Vice President Dan invited me to focus on Congo stamps. I already had presented once on this subject, but Dan said he was still confused about the “different Congos” and which stamps went with which. I readily agreed to take on this intriguing topic. I assembled a group of digital images of stamp “signposts,” mostly from my collection, to  help navigate the turbulent currents and tributaries of Congo-related philately. My presentation took the form of a quiz: Look at the stamp projected on the screen and identify or guess which “Congo” it came from. Also: see if you can stump the presenter with your questions. (I don’t know everything about Congo stamps!) Comments afterwards from the audience of 20-plus indicated they liked the program, so it seemed worthwhile to recapture some of it for the blog. On with the show — a quick narrative guide through 42 slides.

fullsizeoutput_71a1. Here is the first set of stamps issued in what would become the Belgian Congo. They picture King Leopold II of Belgium, and look a lot like Belgian stamps of the period. You can just make out the tiny writing, “Etat Ind du Congo.” That means “independent state of the Congo” — though it was anything but! What it really meant was that King Leopold was “independent” of accountability to his own government or anyone else but God. He ran this vast colony as his private fiefdom. Though he never set foot in the Congo, he micromanaged the place from his palace in Brussels, built a vast and exotic Congo museum complex in his royal gardens. While he mouthed platitudes about Christianity, civic progress, development and moral uplift, he ruthlessly suppressed indigenous populations. He exploited the country’s ivory, rubber and other resources for his own profit. He also issued stamps for his “independent” state. This set of five stamps catalogues at several hundred dollars, largely due to the rare 5 franc value.

fullsizeoutput_7242. The Congo may have been a vassal state of a callous ruler — Joseph Conrad  used it as the locus of his haunting novel, “Heart of Darkness” — but King Leopold did manage to put out some pretty stamps. Look at this lovely two-color engraving from the 1890s of the growing town that was to become Leopoldville.

3. By 1906, King Leopold’s Congo was such an embarrassment to the “civilized world,” thanks to the investigations and reports of  reformers like Roger Casement and Edmond  Morel, that the Belgian government had to step in and taking control. The “independent” Congo henceforth became the “Belgian Congo.” By the time the old king died in 1909, the regime in Brussels had issued a set of stamps obliterating the old title with the new name: “Congo Belge.” There are two sets: In one, the stamps are hand-cancelled; the others, as in this illustration, were machine-cancelled, worth considerably less.

4. The powers-that-be quickly followed up with another short set, using the same designs
as the earlier series, but with the new name. This engraving  shows the busy port of Matadi. But there was a festering problem: Since Belgium is a bilingual nation — French and Flemish — the French-only stamps were a political irritant.

5. Belgian stamps were bilingual by the 1890s, so the fullsizeoutput_71d Belgian Congo had to  accommodate the proud and vocal — and touchy —  Flemish constituency as well.  Here is the result. It turned out to be relatively easy to keep the central images of the original set and redesign the borders to make room for “Belgisch Congo” as well as  the French name. This  charming two-color engraving depicts the railroad from Leo to Matadi, at the time a considerable  engineering feat. Alas, the mammoth construction project took its toll in lives, most of them Congolese.

6. The “bilingual imperative” now in place for Belgian Congo stamps did have some awkward moments. Take this set from the 1940s — or rather, two sets from the 1940s. The  nicely engraved stamps were identical in every way — except that in one set, the country’s name was printed first in French, then in Flemish; in the other set, the names were reversed.

















7. This awkward practice continued, off and on, into the 1950s. This double set featuring Belgian King Baudouin was issued five years before independence.
















fullsizeoutput_75f   8. What’s this? A set from 1930s Belgian Congo, overprinted “USA Airmail”? With denominations in U.S. cents? What gives? I wish I had a satisfactory answer for you, but I don’t. Were Americans really a presence in the Belgian Congo? Was this overprint used at the U.S. embassy, or by troops passing through? So far, it remains a mystery to me. Whatever its provenance, the set isn’t expensive to buy.


9. Right about now would be a good time to introduce a map of the Congo, so you can get  geographical idea of the stamp-issuing areas  represented in coming slides.  I lived in the Congo from 1962 to 1964, when I was 14-16 years old. My father was a diplomat, and we lived in Leopoldville, the capital city in    western Congo, not far from the Atlantic Ocean — or the Equator. The areas I will be discussing up to 1,000 miles from Leopoldville, in central and eastern Congo — Katanga in the southeast, Kasai in the center, Stanleyville in the northeast. Then there is Ruanda-Urundi, a separate Belgian territory bordering on the Congo’s eastern frontier.  I also will have things to say about the territory around Leopoldville — both south and north.  This map highlights the divisions of the “crisis years” between 1960 and 1964. This refers to the breakaway republics of Katanga and South Kasai, as well as so-called Simba uprisings around Albertville (northern Katanga) and Stanleyville (center-north), all of which produced postage stamps.

fullsizeoutput_129c10. This stamp marking the secession of Katanga shows a lot of gall. Not only does it co-opt a stamp from the “mother nation” of the Congo, it blots out that nation’s independence day with its own date, cleverly leaving “1960” uncovered. It also leaves alone the banner  “Independance” (inedependence), but  obliterates “Congo” with the audacious overprint “de L’Etat du Katanga” (of the state of Katanga). The essential illogic of this stamp, however, is that it depicts the whole nation of Congo and doesn’t even identify the rebel province that is declaring its independence.

fullsizeoutput_78c11. Here’s a semi-postal stamp from Katanga picturing the renegade leader, Moise Tshombe (who I once met, by the way, but that’s another story). It features the copper crosses that are emblems Katanga, literal currency at one time,  and a key source of the region’s economic well-being, such as it was.

fullsizeoutput_129b12. This Katanga set seemed quite modern for 1961. The indigenous bas-relief sculpture has primitive charm, though the characters do bear some resemblance to “Mr. Bill,” the hapless, creepy clay figure from early “Saturday Night Live.”

fullsizeoutput_74d13. I include this cover of Katanga stamps, all of them overprinted Belgian Congo stamps, because I am quite proud to display such a rich sample of postally used examples from a country that only existed for a couple of years. I expect it is worth as much as $20 or more — if you can find a buyer for this obscure stuff.

Version 314. These 1950s-era definitive stamps from India are familiar enough. But what’s with the “Congo” overprint? Here’s what: During the troubles in Katanga, the United Nations stepped up with peacekeeping troops to try to straighten things out. There also were troops from  Sweden, Canada and Ireland, but the Indians seem to be the only ones who issued their own stamps — or rather, their own stamps overprinted “U.N. Force (India) Congo.” Was it national pride? Was there a practical purpose, i.e., to provide the troops with stamps to use on letters home? If so, where are the covers with cancelled copies of these stamps? I’ve never seen one. If they exist, such philatelic oddities must be quite rare and valuable. India also overprinted this set for troops serving the United Nations in Korea (1953), Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (1950s) and Gaza (1965).

fullsizeoutput_76615. Here is another overprinted set, this one involving the Belgian Congo flowers set of 1952-3. The set became the first issued by the independent nation, which was overprinted “Congo.” Here the same colonial flowers set was used for the breakaway republic of South Kasai, a renegade central province. This was only a half-hearted rebellion — South Kasai never broke relations completely with the central government, and President Albert Kalonji retained his seat in the Congolese parliament.

fullsizeoutput_76716. Here are the rest of the stamps issued by South Kasai, including original designs, i.e., not overprinted Congo stamps. The rebellion petered out in a few months, and Albert Kalonji, (pictured here) the president of the short-lived state,   ended up in exile — but alive.



17. The transition from colony to independence was haphazard in the Congo — socially, politically, economically — and philatelically. There were missing or misplaced overprints and surcharges, upside-down printings (“inverts”) and other varieties. As a 15-year-old stamp collector In 1964, I was able to buy stamps at the downtown Bureau de Poste to create a cover using six different versions of the original 6.50-frank stamp of the animal series depicting two leaping impala.  fullsizeoutput_76a

Top row, left to right: 1. the original stamp, issued in 1959;  2. the same stamp, overprinted “CONGO” in red, issued 1960;  3. ditto, overprinted in black.

Lower row, left to right: 1. ditto, with a silver surcharge “5F” and red  overprint, 1964;  2. ditto, with silver surcharge and black overprint; 3. finally, with a silver surcharge as well as a silver bar behind the black inscription “Republique du Congo.”

I created another covfullsizeoutput_769er with five different varieties of the 20-centime stamps from the same animal series, featuring a rhinoceros. Can you pick out the differences. The last item, lower right,   is a most peculiar error. Let me explain:

While the original Belgian Congo stamp was successfully surcharged “1F” on a silver rectangle, the “REPUBLIQUE DU CONGO” overprint is missing. This means the stamp looks for all the world like a new “Belgian Congo” stamp — issued in 1964, four years after independence! (This stamp is not listed in my Scott catalogue.)

fullsizeoutput_78518. Here is a Congo stamp featuring Patrice Lumumba, the controversial first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960. Only the stamp is not from that Congo, but from the “other” Congo — the former French Congo, now the “Popular Republic of the Congo.” Lumumba has never appeared on a stamp from his own country  — not a big surprise, since he was assassinated with the acquiescence or connivance of Congolese leaders Joseph Mobutu, Joseph Kasavubu and Moise Tshombe. It was up to other African nations like the neighboring Congo, ruled by Marxists and self-styled Marxists over the years since its own independence, to memorialize the mercurial Lumumba.



19. Here are stamps from early in the former Belgian Congo’s independence years. They honor Dag Hammerskjold, the UN leader killed in a plane crash in September, 1960 while trying to mediate the standoff between Katanga and the mother Congo. The overprint reproduces a slogan from the short-lived administration of Congolese Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula — “paix, travail, austerite” (peace, work, thrift).In 1962, the earnest, honest Adoula seemed to hold out hope for a better future — but his tenure was cut short by events and plots.



20. Congo’s president from 1960 to 1965 was Joseph Kasavubu, a wily politician from an important tribal family. He managed to hang on through the Congo’s most turbulent years, only to be dismissed into  retirement after a young colonel named Joseph Mobutu took over in 1965.





A young Mobutu

21. After Kasavubu fired Adoula as prime minister in 1964, he called on Moise Tshombe, the exiled former leader of the Katanga breakaway province, to try and bring order to the Congo itself. This was not quite like Jefferson Davis being invited to take over after Abraham Lincoln, but you get the idea. Tshombe lasted about a year, whereupon Mobutu and the army stepped in. He rapidly consolidated his power and proceeded to rule the Congo for the next 30 years with a combination of harshness, violence, cruelty,  indifference toward his people, hypocrisy and narcissism, monumental greed and selfishness. Would you like to know how I really feel about him?





fullsizeoutput_7e322. Mobutu’s most cynical act was his claim of “authenticity” — that he somehow embodied African values and aspirations. He renamed his country “Zaire,” in ancient tribal tradition, gave himself fancy new titles, and began to sport a walking stick and leopard-skin hat.  This Zaire stamp says more than its designers may have intended. It pictures Mobutu contemplating the big diamond — loot! And what kind of guy has himself depicted on a postage stamp wearing sunglasses? Shifty!


23. Here’s an even better likeness of Mobutu — again, probably not intended by the stamp’s designers …












fullsizeoutput_128a24. Now for a U-turn back to 1915, folks! Back to World War I, which was being fought in Africa as well as Eurasia. Germany had maintained  a colony in east Africa since the 1880s. After hostilities broke out in 1914, it didn’t take long for the English to the north and east, and the Belgians in the west, to overwhelm German East Africa’s forces. They divided the spoils: Britain “took” Tanganyika, and the Belgians moved into what is today Rwanda and Burundi (see maps, above and below).  The first stamps from these countries were hand-overprints on the current Belgian Congo pictorial set, like this one. These stamps are quite rare. Mine cost $29.85. It catalogues for much more than that. My scribbled note “authenticated” means the stamp carries the desired mark on the back. (I guess there are counterfeits of this rare set.)


25. Here is the image of a stamp from the first set of “Ruanda,” also in 1916. It’s captured from an Internet screen, and is on sale for “just” $400! That’s a rare stamp!






26. The reason the Ruanda and Urundi stamps are so valuable is that so few were issued. They were soon replaced by a set with this busy overprint — in two languages. The inscription in French and Flemish reads  “German East Africa: Belgian Occupation.” The lettering partially obscures the delicate engraved designs. Aesthetically, overprints are ugly, marring the appearance of a stamp. In this case, postal authorities might as well  have printed the names on blank paper!



27. How about this one — an overprint on top of an overprint? You should be able to make out a faint hand-stamp “Tabora,” above the black line rising from left to right. The Scott catalogue says these local overprints were not authorized, and assigns them no value. This item from an Internet image was on sale for  a cool $99 — too rich for my wallet.







28. How about this item? It’s really not fair for the stamp designers to be so cagey. You can make out that it’s a Belgian Congo stamp, or at least was one originally. Then there’s a red cross and a  printed number, presumably designating a  charitable contribution of one franc on top of the stamp’s one-franc value. That’s decipherable. So is this a Congo stamp, or what? And what the heck is “A.O.”?  For answers, you need a philatelist, or historian, or at least someone with a Scott catalogue who knows where to look.  Then you would learn that “A.O.” stands for Afrique Orientale — East Africa. This is in fact another stamp from the Belgian occupation of Ruanda and Burundi — which in 1922 became the Belgian mandated territory of Ruanda-Urundi. One wonders how a stamp like this would be received by the indigenous population. Would they pay the extra franc for the Red Cross? Or as some philatelists suggest, did most  stamps like this one (which aren’t that pricey today) never even reach post offices, but rather go right to collectors?

fullsizeoutput_128c29. The first stamps of Ruanda-Urundi were overprints of a 1920s definitive set from the neighboring Belgian Congo.  I suppose it would be a stretch to call them stamps from the Congo, though the name is on them.






30. Here is a beauty from the first set inscribed with the name Ruanda-Urundi, in the 1940s  — a handsome portrait, and a fine example of the engraver’s and colorist’s art.









31. This stamp  commemorating the Olympic Games came out just as the Congo was preparing for its independence day June 30. The set shares the designs with last issue from the Belgian Congo.  Ruanda-Urundi remained tied to Belgium for another year before splitting into the Kingdom of Burundi and the Republic of Rwanda. The extra year didn’t prepare either nation any better for independence than the devolving Congo to the east.  The people of all three nations would continue to suffer, trading colonial oppression for corruption, misrule and tribal violence.




32. The first Burundi stamps carried clumsy  overprints on leftover Belgian Congo stamps from the 1952-3 flower set.










33. The first Rwanda stamps bore slightly fancier overprints, still using stocks of Belgian Congo stamps, this one from the animal series of 1959.











34. Both Rwanda and Burundi soon were issuing stamps of their own design. This one includes a portrait of Burundi’s king, who soon enough would be sent packing.




35. Before I bring you more or less up to date, a quick history lesson about other “Congo” stamps. Here’s one from the 1900s inscribed “Congo Francais” — French Congo. Now look at the next image.










36. These two stamps are inscribed “Moyen Congo” — Middle Congo — along with the name above, “Republique Francaise.” Why Congo and Middle Congo? Aren’t they both French territory? What’s the difference? Does it matter? Indeed it does. The original French Congo overlaps with modern-day Gabon, a small nation located along the west coast of Africa, north of the Congo. Middle Congo covered a much larger territory across the Congo river from the Belgian territory.

fullsizeoutput_129637. Middle Congo eventually took over from French Congo, and the territory issued stamps into the 1930s, when it joined French Equatorial Africa. The first regional issues included this overprint from Middle Congo. Upon reaching independence, a large part of Middle Congo unfortunately was dubbed the republic of the Congo. The fact that there are two Congo republics across the Congo River from each other has created decades of confusion, helping to make this slide show necessary!

fullsizeoutput_129338. Finally, one more “Congo” in this tangled philatelic history. The stamp pictured here was issued in 1914, and represents a colonial territory of Portugal that straddles the western “lip” of the then-Belgian Congo that extends to the south Atlantic ocean.   This small “Congo” territory gave the Portuguese access to the Congo river delta. Portugal also controlled Angola, directly to the south of Belgian Congo. (see maps). While the Portuguese only used the name “Congo” until 1915,  it kept control of the territory as part of  Angola until independence in 1975. Today it is the free Angolan province of Cabinda, still straddling the northern border of the Congo. There is an independence movement in this tiny province. There also are stirrings from others in the region who dream of resurrecting the ancient “Kongo” kingdom. This unlikely development would only happen if land is ceded from four countries that mistrust each other — Angola, both Congos and Gabon. A final reflection: I wonder what the indigeneous population thought  when they first saw this stamp back i 1914, which depicts a fierce-looking caucasian (actually the harvest goddess Ceres), wielding what could be a machete …

39. Now, to start wrapping things up. Mobutu finally was forced out of the country in the mid-1990s, decamping to his European mansions, where he died soon after, having  precious little time to enjoy the estimated $15 billion he st0le from his country. In 1997, in an act of embarrassment, or wishful amnesia, or spite, the powers-that-be changed the country’s name back to Republic of the Congo. This did not portend happier times for the much-abused Congolese people, alas. Even though Mobutu was gone, the country was worse than bankrupt, and misrule continued under Laurent Kabila and then his son, Joseph Kabila. This stamp captures the ethos of the post-Mobutu fullsizeoutput_75cera — “Zaire”: is blotted out with an ugly black rectangle.  The country’s name underneath is an almost-indeciperhable “Rep Dem du Congo.” There is a new value, with the old one covered by another black box. A vulture or hawk perches menacingly amid these dark blots. The eBay seller wanted $29.99 for this odd, apparently unlisted stamp, acknowledging that it might be bogus.



40. As it turns out, the Congo had to contend with a number of bogus stamps issued in 1997. These slick, multicolored philatelic items, still carrying the name “Zaire,”  commemorate  folks who had nothing to do with the Congo, like John Lennon, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. The stamps were officially declared illegal by Congolese postal authorities, who alerted the Philatelic Webmasters Organization. This group collaborates with the Universal Postal Union to call out spurious issues. The postmaster in Kinshasa identified  “a certain number of philatelic products still printed with the country’s old name (Zaire).” These stamps would not be admitted for sale or use in the Congo, the note said. You can still find these fake stamps for sale on eBay. Buyer, beware!

fullsizeoutput_132141. So we come to the end of this slide show, with an image of an authentic issue of stamps from the  modern-day  Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pretty stamps, eh? Don’t be fooled. There’s nothing  pretty about the way Congo is being run today. I wish I could say otherwise.


42. The Congo today. Note the name changes of provinces, the location of the Angolan province of Cabinda in the far west, and Rwanda and Burundi in the east.

Bonus: Pietersburg!

fullsizeoutput_a07This thrilling selection of stamps arrived in the mail the other day, in a small flat package from South Africa. The stamps are from 1901, during the last days of the South African Republic (ZAR) based in Pietersburg (Transvaal), where tough, stubborn old Paul Kruger concluded  his decades-long conflict with the British and dominance of black Africans. Much blood was shed and misery visited on the people before  Kruger’s forces were defeated. Kruger’s strong convictions, military and political leadership


Paul Kruger in his prime.

helped to secure the Afrikaner tradition in South Africa’s culture. This wily Cape Colony farm boy should rank with the most adept of southern Africa’s tribal leaders — except for one thing. Unlike the Zulu, Matabele or  Xhosa, his tribe was a bickering lot of caucasians: Boers, Dutch settlers, Germans, Huguenots and diverse others, some tracing their African ancestry to the 1600s. (Kruger’s German forebear landed in Capetown in 1713.)

Kruger was old enough to take part as a child in the Boers’  Great Trek inland in the 1830s. He was present at the signing of the Sand Hill Convention with Britain in 1852, and was  instrumental in sustaining  the Boer-dominated  ZAR in ensuing decades. These “Pietersburg” stamps — authorized Boer provisionals — were printed by the local newspaper and issued only between March 20 and April 9, 1901.   Kruger had moved his government from Pretoria to Pietersburg to avoid capture by the British. By the time the stamps were placed on sale, the South African Republic was well on its way to defeat by British guns and troops. Kruger narrowly escaped to neighboring Laurenco Marques, Portuguese territory.

The rather undistinguished-looking stamps are listed in the Scott catalogue under Transvaal, the British name for the territory, with a smaller headline announcing,   “South African Republic,” and a special subsection for  “Pietersburg Issues.” Paul Kruger surely would object to this ranking, since his republic, spanning all but six years between 1869 and 1902, was a sovereign nation. The Scott catalogue explains, rather lamely: “Although issued by an independent state, the stamps of the South African Republic are included in this section (i.e. Transvaal) in accord with established philatelic practice.” Sounds like a British tilt, if you ask me. Philatelic protocol, like history, favors the winners.

At first glance, the Pietersburg stamps in the group all look alike. Be not deceived! Join me in a quick tour of this particular philatelic weed-lot — a game of Each-of-these-things-is-slightly-but-distinctly-different-from-the-others. Can you spot the differences?   Here’s a hint: The four stamps in the top row are the same, but different from the two in the second row, which in turn are different from the three in the third row. Now can you spot the differences?

Version 2

Stamp from Row 1

No? OK, look closely at the first-row close-up. Notice the stamp’s elements: the denomination (four pence) in a framed box, above the  large date “1901”; on either side  the inscription: “Z. AFR. REP.” — an awkward contraction  of the country’s name (then again, “ZUID AFRIKAANSCHE REPUBLIEK” is quite a handful of letters to have to strew across any postage stamp); finally, at the top the announcement, “POSTZEGEL” — postage. There is also a handwritten scrawl, but let’s not talk about that just yet.




Version 3

Stamp from Row 2

Now look at the second-row close-up. All the elements are there — but with a subtle change. See it? Look at the number, “1901.” Compare it to the date in the first close-up. Now do you see it? Why, sure! In No. 2, the date is at least one millimeter smaller. It’s a completely different stamp!








Version 4

Stamp from Row 3

On to Row 3. Again, all elements are present. (Notice the extremely large margin on the blow-up example I have included — a stamp from the side of the plate, I’d guess, probably no extra value.)  What is the difference here? Still stumped? All right … Look closely at the word “POSTZEGEL” at the top of the stamp. Compare it to the same word in close-ups No. 1 and No. 2. Notice anything? Sure! In the top two, the “P” is distinctly larger than the other letters. In No. 3, however, all the letters are the same size. It’s a completely different stamp!

Now, quickly, back to the handwritten scrawls, which appear on each stamp. Compare them, and two things are clear: the scrawl is visibly similar on each stamp; and  each one is slightly different — unique, probably. To “cancel” or “certify” these for postage, it seems a Boer bureaucrat — or was it Kruger himself? — had to sign each stamp issued in what remained of the South African Republic/Pietersburg during this three-week period in the spring of 1901. Maybe the same person didn’t sign every stamp, but it sure looks like it. Perhaps the  inscription means “cancelled” or something else. This is the only set of “hand-cancelled” stamps I’ve seen processed this way. (Yes, there are the rare British Guiana hand-cancels of 1854, and the fabled Bermuda Postmaster stamps of 1848 — but let’s not go there.)

Perhaps because of this singular “cancellation” process, together with relative scarcity, if not rampant demand, these Pietersburg stamps retain considerable value — $30 to $40 apiece in catalogues.  I got a bargain online, paying about $40 for the selection of nine stamps that include all three printing varieties. (The catalogue also lists perforated sets, and a few stamps with red scrawls instead of black.)

The Pietersburg stamps occasionally are available online — for a price. Curiously, you can find copies that have been cancelled the traditional way, with a circular date stamp, selling at a discount. Which begs the question: If the stamps already are marked by a hand scrawl, why cancel them again? Was the scrawl not universally recognized? Is it a signature at all? Am I asking too many questions? Yes!


Double cancel? This Pietersburg stamp carries the scrawl as well as a circular date stamp. What gives? (This illustration comes from the Internet, not my collection; I held out for stamps without the taint of “cancelled to order” (CTO)

The Scott Catalogue merits a word at this juncture. It acknowledges that “cancelled” copies of the Pietersburg stamps exist, but warns they may be spurious. The editors opine: “Used  copies are not valued, as all seen show evidence of having been cancelled to order.”  Ah! Those freighted words: cancelled to order, or CTO.  This means postal officials devalued, or “remaindered” their own stamps by cancelling them right in the office. Don’t ask me why, or I’ll have to do more research. But the practice has been widespread in philatelic history. Stamps going back to the Victorian era carry the unmistakable markings of in-house cancellation, an intentional practice which supposedly renders the postal “remainders”  worthless. Those stamps tend to bring weaker prices in today’s philatelic marketplace. Over the decades, many nations (though not ours) have produced reams of CTO sets, which I imagine are sold at a discount in shadowy stamp bazaars. The whole CTO thing makes me queasy, so I don’t really care to look into it too deeply. I mean, I want the stamps, but I don’t want to be scammed by worthless paper.

I have been on the lookout for Pietersburg stamps since rediscovering the blank spaces in my British Africa album and wondering about these strange designs and their apparent rarity. After learning the back story, and hearing about the suspect “cancellations,” I have been holding out for copies without the circular date stamps. Now, with his latest find, I seem to have acquired a cache of the real thing: stamps with the unique scrawls (the catalogue calls it “initializing”), no CTOs, all three varieties represented. What a find!  …


Paul Kruger near the end of the ZAR.

Back to Pietersburg in 1901. The ZAR stopped issuing its stamps after just three weeks. For Paul Kruger and the Boers, the end was near. The war against the British was lost, though diehard Boer guerrilla fighters held out in the veld.  British countermeasures included a scorched-earth policy that produced thousands of destitute women and children — and an early incarnation of concentration camps. The aging “Uncle Paul” made his way by ship to Europe. He refused to return to a southern Africa ruled by the British, and died in Switzerland in 1904, aged 78, survived by many of his 17 children.

As you can tell, I am proud to add these unusual stamps to my collection, and may decide to install the small display shown in the photo at the top of this article as-is among the pages of my growing South Africa collection. The evanescent postal history of the Pietersburg stamps spins off  grim and gripping tales of ZAR conflict and resistance. During the first British takeover in Transvaal in 1877, postal authorities overprinted ZAR stamps with the initials “V.R.” — Victoria Regina — then issued a set with the queen’s portrait. When the Boers took charge again in 1884, they overprinted the Victoria series with Afrikaans surcharges before issuing their own stamps. As the British swept into Boer territory again in 1900-1901, they stamped “V.R.I.” on more ZAR sets — though not on those last ones from Pietersburg. (Maybe because of all those worthless CTO sets?)

Kruger’s last stand followed decades of pushing, shoving and shooting between British and Boers — with black Africans caught in the middle. Both sides issued their own stamps or overprints while in power. The Pietersburg story comes from one corner of southern Africa. The philatelic adventures multiply with the varieties of provisional stamps issued in Lydenburg, Wolmaransstad and Rustenburg, and from the “pseudo-siege” and destruction of Schweitzer-Reneke.

Elsewhere, more Philatelic history was being made. From the Cape of Good Hope to Zululand, competition, conflict and conquest — and the stamps reflecting it all —  roiled southern Africa between the 1870s and World War I.

Take one more moment to moon over this small, nondescript but dear Pietersburg collection; examine and re-examine the subtle differences and wonder what reasons lay behind the changes (Why a smaller date? Why a smaller “P”?); take note of printing variations, differing paper tones and above all, those enigmatic scrawls. I imagine a florid, nervous man in a sweat-soaked linen uniform and pith helmet, perched nervously on his stool inside the Pietersburg post office in 1901, pen in hand, inkwell at the ready, conscientiously initializing each stamp from the doomed republic as British guns sound in the distance …


Transvaal, a South African province until it was partitioned in 1994, covered 110,000 square miles and contained the modern capital city, Pretoria. (South Africa still has three capitals — Pretoria for executive government, Cape Town for parliament, Bloemfontein for the judiciary.)  Its first stamps were issued in 1869 by the Boer-led South African Republic (ZAR). In 1877 British forces occupied the state, but the ZAR was restored in 1884, and lasted until the end of the century, when Britain took over for good. That historical overview cloaks an era of violence, bloodshed, intrigue and ruthless politics as conflicting forces tried to prevail in a land where whites held dominion over indigenous black populations. Stamps from the era are emblems of a turbulent time. Some of these stamps are exceedingly rare and command prices in the hundreds, even thousands.

After spending so much time writing about the Pietersburg sets, issued in the last days and hours of the ZAR, I recalled I still lacked a remarkable set of stamps that would make a resonant visual counterpoint to the last Boer issues. In 1877, as the British initially took over, postal authorities began overprinting ZAR stamps with “V.R.” — Victoria Regina. These overprints took different forms, and included for the first time the name, Transvaal. I suspect some collectors have made it their philatelic mission to assemble and study these overprints. (** see footnote, below.)  Another set of stamps, issued between 1878 and 1880, feature an engraved profile of Victoria — an elegant   portrait of a mature queen in the fourth decade decade of her reign. I decided to go after this small set —  though the stamps aren’t cheap, with catalogue  prices ranging from a couple of bucks to $70-plus. Oddly, the 1/2 penny stamp, the lowest value, is one of the costliest. Needless to say, I didn’t end up with that one, or the top-value 2 shilling, either. I did manage to snag the


It’s always a thrill when the envelopes arrive!

others, though It took some doing. I ended up buying from three separate dealers, with a total outlay of nearly $60.

As usual, it was a thrill when the letters arrived. Notice the  colorful stamps the dealers used on their packets. (The stamp on the middle cover has a scuff. This is a great use for flawed mint U.S. stamps — they are still good for postage!)

After a while I opened the fullsizeoutput_a16envelopes. Here is what the contents look like, just as they spilled out. Dealers and experienced collectors know how to protect and ship stamps. It’s not hard. I don’t recall ever receiving a stamp damaged in transit. The only complaint I have is sometimes, a package will include sticky tape in close proximity to a stamp, which to me is a no-no.

Next, I assembled the stamps I ordered, mounting them on cut-down stock pages to admire on my desk before putting them in my album and forgetting about them for a while. In addition to the Victoria set, the envelopes also contained two more Transvaal stamps I ordered — from 1904, with a profile portrait of Edward VII, who by then had succeeded his late mother. For good measure I also acquired three early Mauritius stamps I need. You never can tell what you’ll end up with when you go shopping online …

fullsizeoutput_a14The main event, however, is the handsome 1878-80 Transvaal Victoria set  — five values in all, missing only the 1/2d and the 2 shilling. I admit they are not all in great shape. Some are missing perforations, the centering is not great, and one stamp has a thin spot on the back. Yet I still was willing to pay for the set. I mean, think about it: The stamps are nearly 140 years old. They started out being bought at a ZAR/Transvaal post office counter, stuck to an envelope and sent through the mail, involving carriages, trains and sailing ships, possible all three. So what if a couple of them are what is called “space fillers” — that is, they will never have much value because of their flaws. I go back to the emblematic significance of these stamps. They are artifacts from  a long-ago time and place of imperial Britain asserting itself over the Boers. For a while, British rule would be fragile and temporary in a state that continued to be bargained for and fought over — as though it actually belonged to either side.

** Footnote:  See, for example: Philatelic Series CD 81, “The South African Provisional War Stamps,” by B.W.H. Poole (1901).  Contents: Orange River Colony – First Printing, Varieties Of The First Printing, Second Printing, Varieties Of The Second Printing, Third Printing, Varieties Of The Third Printing, Second Issue, Varieties Of The Second Issue; Transvaal – Varieties Of The First Issue, Second Issue, Varieties Of The Second Issue; Mafeking Siege Issue, Varieties Of The Mafeking Siege Issue; British Local Issues – Lydenburg, Rustenburg, Vryburg, Wolmaransstad, Kuruman; Boer Local Issues – Pietersburg, Vryburg, In Dienst; Other Emissions – Krugersdorp, Schweizer Reneke, Commando Brief. Profusely illustrated with photographs of actual specimens. 56 pages.