Zimbabwe’s Heroes? Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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











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


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

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

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

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

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

A published list of Mugabe goodies includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


Somaliland — Yesterday and Today


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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

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


Muhammad Egal

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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



Version 2


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

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

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



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



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





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

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

Version 2

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


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











Bonus: The Very Latest

My latest stamp order should be winging its way back to me — a half-dozen envelopes from near and far. This time I’m trying to build up my collection from St. Vincent, a British colony in the Caribbean (independent since 1979). I bought 20 (!) stamps on my wish list through Stamps2Go.com — which is a great online resource for the picky collector, since you can search for stamps via Scott catalogue numbers. I spent $45. I think it was worth it, though my wife would reliably disagree.

fullsizeoutput_2587Herewith a running commentary on the stamps as they arrive.

Version 2


Today, three envelopes came, with stamps from the earliest days through George VI. I now have a fragile copy of No. 2 (right) — a delicate portrait of Victoria from the 1860s that looks like a gossamer butterfly wing printed on a silk cobweb.  (There you have it — a stab at philatelic purple poesy!) The stamp is cut awfully close at the left, and such perforations as there are, are ragged — but it’s still a respectable example for $7.

Version 3

I also picked up this magnificent, oversize engraving of the Seal of the Colony,
carmine lake and richly colored. It dates from 1888. This is actually the second stamp with this design. The first, issued in 1880, had a different watermark and is very dear. (Mine cost $12.50.)  The design is so classic, it was used for the top values of the first Queen Elizabeth definitive set in 1955 (below) — 75 years later!


Version 4The Seal also appears in these next stamps, from the Edwardian era. There are three distinct “sets” using this design, which differ in such details as the inscription on tablets below the figures — and whether or not there is a “dot” in the numeral lozenge. Some of these stamps are quite costly. I paid a few bucks for the ones pictured here. 

Version 5These George V definitives are from two long sets that differ only in watermark: One set has a “multiple crown and CA” (for Crown Agents) watermark; the other carries the “script crown and CA” watermark. Ah, watermarks! The bane of my existence (along with perforations), which I suppose I shall have to write about sometime …

Version 6Here is also a pretty 1-cent definitive from the George VI decimal series. It only cost me a dime, and it fills one of the few remaining holes in a long set that, when complete, will be spectacular!




Nothing in the mail today. Rats.

I didn’t get to the mailbox until mid-afternoon, and was looking forward to receiving at least one or two packets from the St. Vincent order. Alas, no. 

You know the feeling: You are expecting a letter, and it doesn’t arrive. Maybe it will come the next day, or the next day. But there is still a let-down. You want it now! You turn from the mailbox, bereft in a modest sort of way. I am reminded of the feeling I got more than 50 years ago, back when I was a young stamp collector in Heidelberg, Germany, dreaming of my next packet of stamps arriving from a post office in a faraway land — Ascension, British Guiana, Bechuanaland Protectorate — where I had sent a money order. Inside would be a post-office-fresh set of their exotic definitives. Day after day I would get my hopes up, only to have them dashed when the letter didn’t arrive. Sometimes it would take weeks longer than I expected. Sometimes the letter would never come, and I would have to figure out why.  (Who knew philately could be such an emotional rollercoaster? For more on this, check my thrilling blog post of January 2018, “Too Many Georgetowns …”)  

It’s different, getting letters from stamp sellers, compared with what the postman in Heidelberg delivered every now and then: those long, light-brown envelopes inscribed “On Her Majesty’s Service,” containing plump accumulations of fresh philatelic gems. Still, it’s fun to be able to feel a resonance with the same delicious sense of mild disappointment over the wait, and to remember, along with that teenaged stamp collector: There’s always tomorrow!


Yahoo! Two more envelopes came in the mail. That leaves just one outstanding. I feel the thin-ness of the envelopes and decide neither one is the order containing eight lots. That still leaves some very interesting stamps to look at. Let’s get right to it.

fullsizeoutput_2588First, notice the envelope from Arizona. Somehow, a 10-centime stamp from French Guiana in the 1940s is stuck next to a standard “forever” stamp honoring the bicentennial  of Illinois. Both stamps received a proper Phoenix, AZ, cancellation. I suppose you could just dismiss the exotic stamp from “Guyane Francaise” as an interesting label. To be the sure, the delicate engraving of an attractive young Guyanese musician resting in a hammock is  more interesting than the neighboring stamp with its map of Illinois made of golden rays and blue sky. Still, a U.S. stamp is a U.S. stamp, and a French Guiana stamp means something else. Does the U.S. cancellation mark


The seller used this promotional postcard as backing for the lots in the envelope he sent me. It depicts a beautiful, two-color engraved stamp from old China. Good idea! Thanks!

represent an endorsement of the colonial regime? Does that make us symbolically complicit in imperialism, even a century later? Have I asked enough questions? Shall I ask any more?  OK. Does this cancellation of a foreign stamp simply indicate carelessness on the part of the USPS? Maybe a clerk wasn’t paying attention. More likely, a cancellation machine was not paying attention. Or  someone wasn’t paying attention to the cancellation machine. Or no one cared. Could be that someone (or some machine) detected there was a legit stamp on the envelope. There was a perfectly good address — and return address.  What else matters?

Now, if a letter carried only French Guiana stamps — and a U.S. postmark! — I would be alarmed. In effect this means you could mail a letter using a Christmas Seal, a child’s sticker, a propaganda label. And that, my friends, would signal the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

fullsizeoutput_2589Now, here’s a coincidence. Take a look at the second envelope that arrived today. It presents a small array of common U.S. postage stamps of the recent past, a  return address label on the left, and in-between — a sticker! I almost missed it. Under the heavy cancellation you can make out a cheery snowman and the word “Celebrate.” Cute. If it’s a cancelled label, can I add it to my collection? Does this sticker gain extra cachet among Cinderella collectors because it got cancelled by the USPS?

Whew! Will I ever get those envelopes open? Is anybody still reading?

… By the way, it turns out my prediction was wrong:  One of the envelopes did contain the large number of lots. Lots of lots to pore over. Some fun! 

fullsizeoutput_258bAs you will notice on the stockcard (right), where I have arranged them temporarily, this new batch of St. Vincent stamps includes definitives from the reigns of Edward VII, George V and George VI.  There are three more stamps for my Seal of the Colony sets. Annoyingly, though my order lists No. 95, the seller instead sent me No. 97, a stamp I already have in my collection. Perhaps I will complain … it only cost $1.50 …  What’s particularly galling, though, is that No. 95, which I had ordered, was one of the two-stamp set “without the dot.” I want it, so that I can observe, compare and contrast the subtle differences between the stamps “with”  and “without” the “dot.” Don’t you understand? I want it, I want it! Time for a philatelic tantrum!

 Calm down, calm down. Look, aren’t those George VI, two-color, engraved definitives (bottom row) gorgeous? I just can’t get enough of them … Well, I do have all of them, having just completed the two sets with these four acquisitions. 

Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the last letter, which should contain two more George V definitives. Then I can go ahead and paste all the new arrivals in my album. (By “paste,” of course, I mean using hinges and protective mounts, so my stamps always stay safe!)

Many days later …

Rats again. The last letter never came. Now it’s been nearly a month, so I’m about to write it off. The two George V stamps only cost a couple of bucks, and postage and handling was just a buck more, so what’s the difference? Nevertheless, I did file a “complaint” with the Stamps2go web site, which then gave me the seller’s email, so I sent a personal note as well. The note to the web site read:  

“Hey, I don’t want to make a fuss, this is no big deal. I just never received the stamps (st. vincent nos. 109, 124) at 107 Fleetwood Lane, Minoa NY 13116); seller says he shipped them June 4. It is now June 30. I don’t know how to let him know this otherwise than through a complaint. They only cost a couple of bucks, no big deal. Just saying …   Fred Fiske, Syracuse (Minoa), NY USA”

I revised my note for the direct email message, and added a p.s.:  “Because I didn’t have any other way of reaching you, I had to file a ‘complaint’ with Stamps2go. I hope I can withdraw it so it doesn’t go on your record …” 

The way the complaint process works is this, I discover: If you file a complaint, you and the seller have several weeks to resolve the problem. If the matter is not settled at that point, a black mark goes on the seller’s record — but only if the buyer marks the matter “unresolved.” Otherwise, Stamps2go assumes the issue  has been resolved, and wipes the slate clean.


To follow up a point I made earlier, about wanting one stamp and getting another —  I did decide to act on that matter as well. Somehow, I figured out the seller’s email, along with the fact he is a preacher in Arizona, and sent him an e-note. In the process, it seems I mixed up his church business and his stamp business. Oh well. 

Here is the original note I sent him:

“Rev. Yeaw — I realize stamps have nothing to do with the Unity Spiritual Center. But I thought it was more ‘spiritual’ of me to go to you directly this way, rather than file a ‘complaint’ with Stamps2go. I appreciate your stamp service and love Stamps2go so I’d rather bring this to you directly — I ordered St. Vincent No. 95 and you sent me No. 97. Please email me at the address above if there’s anything to discuss. Otherwise, never mind. The stamp only cost $1.50, so I can let it go … Best, Fred Fiske, Syracuse NY”

Happy to say, Rev. Yeaw responded promptly: 

“Fred, you are more than welcome to return the stamp. I will replace it and refund your postage.  Thanks   Jim”

He added this postscript:  “PS Please email me as above or the stamps get stuck in the middle of many emails re church business.”

Message taken. I sent the unwanted No. 97  back to him, at his return address. Sure enough, a few days later another letter arrived from Arizona — this one containing the desired No. 95 — 1d,  “without the dot”!  The letter also contained a fresh “forever” stamp — refunding my postage. Good deal!

fullsizeoutput_2672fullsizeoutput_2670 fullsizeoutput_2671





OK, quiz time: Here are all three examples of the St. Vincent 1d. stamp from the Edwardian era. Can you spot the differences?  Hints: The tablet inscriptions in No. 1 are reversed in Nos. 2 and 3; Nos. 1 and 3 have a dot under the “d” in “1d.” No. 2 has not the dot. Are you having fun, comparing and contrasting? I am!




The kicker: along with the regular USA Forever stamp used on the envelope, the mischievous Rev. Yeaw once again added a foreign chestnut — in this case, a 1930 stamp from Wallis and Futuna, French island territories in the south Pacific.

All in all, it has been a satisfactory order — with one loose end still hanging. I can live with that. …


ADDENDUM: Today I heard back from the seller about my complaint (see above). This is quite exciting — a first for me.

“To: fred fiske   From: Stamps2Go      A refund of $1.80 has been authorized by DENNFERG … . Please allow up to 72 hours for your refund to be processed and issued. (editor: the refund was confirmed several hours later)    The seller included this comment about the refund… ‘I am sorry your order was delayed.  I could not locate #109.  Refund is for the stamp and shipping.  Revised mailing date for the other stamp is July 2.’ ”

Wow. This means not only that I am receiving a refund for No. 109, the stamp the seller could not locate — plus shipping — but I also am likely to receive the other stamp, No. 124, which the seller was able to locate! (Though I still don’t quite understand why the seller noted at first that the order’s shipping date was June 4 … Never mind.)  Which would tie up the last loose end!

fullsizeoutput_2673Last loose-end tie-up:  The long-awaited No. 124 (George V, 3d) arrived  from the seller in Missouri. Yahoo! I went to the web site and checked the box noting the complaint was “resolved.”  I also sent the following note directly to the seller:

“Dennis — Today (July 5) I received from you a nice copy of St. Vincent No. 124. I also have been notified of reimbursement for the other stamp you did not have in stock. We are all set, and I have marked our transaction issue ‘resolved.’ Thanks! I look forward to doing more business with you …     Best, Fred Fiske, Syracuse, NY”

It took more than a month, but the results are worth it!  Just look at this mini-collection of St. Vincent stamps (below), all ready to start putting in my British American album. Let this story provide you with insight into a useful quality for the stamp  collector: patience!



What follows is an illustrated depiction of the deeply satisfying experience available to this (or any) stamp collector — adding key values, filling blank spaces that expand or complete sets. In this case, I am enriching my British America album with the St. Vincent stamps purchased in my latest online shopping expedition. Enjoy!




It’s fun to be able to fill the space for the first stamp from any country, and this example from St. Vincent is a colorful addition, to be sure! (Instructions to reader: See the album page, above left,  with the image and empty space for No. 1, marked with an asterisk; then see the space filled, above right.)




The elegant 5 shilling stamp from 1888 (right, below) rounds out a page that includes the Victoria sexagenary set from 1898 (marking her 60-year reign). Hmm. Looks like I need to work at filling some of those empty spaces. I fear the project will be costly, however …



See to the left the sparsely populated “before” page where I am struggling to build sets from the reign of Edward VII.

Now look below — left and right — to view the happy “after” result, supplementing all four sets. Things are filling in nicely. I believe I am on my way!

Notice in the lower right image the three different 1d stamps are on display — including the one “without the dot” that I had to place at the side, since the album page did not design a space for it! Hey!


















Now we shall let George V have his due (“before” is below left, “after” is right) . While I was only able to add one new stamp to the first set, the second set (different watermark) is now just a tongs-throw from complete! (An expensive proposition, though — the set includes a L1 stamp that sells online for more than $70 …) fullsizeoutput_2693fullsizeoutput_269e










Finally, here is the first George VI set, both the album page with illustrated gaps (right) and with the gaps filled (below). See the next images and caption for my action-packed conclusion.



Here it is, folks — the second George VI set, this one in decimal currency (1948-51) instead of English Sterling (1938-47). (“Before” is right, “after” is below.) This set is otherwise identical to the first one, so my comments really apply to both. I just wanted to remark on the gorgeous hues of these beautiful two-color engravings. The catalogue listings make my mouth water and my eyes sparkle — 5 cents, chocolate and green … 6 cents, dark violet and orange … 7 cents, peacock blue and indigo … 12 cents, claret and black … 60 cents, deep blue and orange brown … $4.80, gray-black and violet. Can you pick them out, below? Are you with me? Is this an inspired example of color and design? Say yes!



You will recall my reference above to two envelopes received from Rev. Yeaw, a stamp seller in Arizona, that carried odd pairings of vintage foreign stamps along with the prescribed U.S. postage stamp.  Now suddenly I remember my late mother did the same thing! Look below, and you will see a postcard she sent me in 1993. The card includes a pre-printed stamp from the Belgian Congo, overprinted “Congo.”   Mother brought this card back with her from the Congo, where she and my Pa were stationed between 1962 and 1964 with the U.S. foreign service. They settled in Moscow, Idaho in 1970, and after all these years, despite the intervening  cascade of fullsizeoutput_2739cards and letters  she sent to family and friends around the globe, she still had a supply of these crude postcards from the newly independent Congo.  So she used one for a note to me, applying the current 19-cent U.S. postcard stamp to make it legit. It seems my old ma was a philatelic wit in her own right. Or perhaps just a thrifty Scot.

One more thing: Notice the card at the bottom, also mailed to me by Mother from  Idaho in 1993, carries only the pre-printed postcard stamp from Belgian Congo/Congo. Yet it was duly cancelled, traveled through the U.S. postal system, and reached me in good order. What gives?

TO BE CONTINUED            


Bonus: Stamps from All Over

Another recent foray into online stamp-buying cost me $99 bucks or so. The sellers were so on-the-ball that the packets started arriving within two mailing days. fullsizeoutput_24c2Way to go! In following days, I received a delightful philatelic cascade of seven envelopes. As it happened, each letter  was from a different state:  Virginia, Washington, Tennessee, Ohio, Arizona, Illinois and Nevada. This was pure coincidence — I was not trying to set a record for sellers in different states, just trying to fill out my Bechuanaland and Somaliland collections. What does this diversity suggest? For one thing, that stamp-collecting is deeply embedded in the U.S. heartland. At least, a lot of folks with stamps they want to sell are living all over the country. Maybe they are selling off their stamp collections, or just having fun in retirement. Maybe some of them are still collecting — selling some stamps and buying others.  I received this poignant note from one seller: “Fred, Thank you for your order. Please keep checking. Every stamp I sell from my collection helps my family buy things we need to get by. May God bless you, Gregory.”

Philatelists are fortunate to have entered a new landscape of stamp collecting — accessible and enriching as never before — through the magical doors of the Internet. In the lively stamp-ing grounds of today you can pick up bargains, no matter whether you collect American, British Colonies, foreign, topical or other specialties.   You can bid boldly at auctions, haggle with sellers, systematically fill out your sets, even sell your duplicates. The Internet also provides virtually limitless opportunities for research and enjoyment of the hobby — its history, stories, and images both stirring and beautiful. It’s never been easier or more fun to collect stamps. What are you waiting for?

These buying sprees of mine have not been a regular thing — maybe once or twice, every couple of years. Perhaps there will be more such sprees, since I have to start cashing in my IRA after age 70 and 1/2. After all, it’s a good investment, right? Plus, it’s lots of fun!

fullsizeoutput_24c3Here’s how I handle my cache of new lots. First I slice the envelopes with my letter-opener, draw out the contents, spread them out on my desk and admire the  resulting philatelic clutter. I harvest the colorful stamps the sellers pasted on the envelopes for postage, and stash them in the large envelope I use for such accumulations.

Then I check the sellers’ manifests to see what is what and make sure I got the stamps I ordered. (This is when I discover today that in my haste, I’ve bought quite a few  duplicate stamps. Oops!)

Carefully, I update my want lists, crossing out the recorded catalog numbers of stamps I am adding to my collection..

Turning to my British Africa album (for Somaliland, Bechuanaland et al.), I mark an asterisk (*) in light pencil on each space to fill on the appropriate page, with a notation underneath of the year of purchase and the price (if over $2.50).

When I’m done, I am free to discard the paperwork and rearrange the new stamps as I choose. The resulting stock cards turn out to be quite pleasing to  the eye —


These stamps from Somaliland Protectorate (above) span the reigns of two kings — Edward VII and George V — and are from three sets, including one with a change of watermark. Don’t they make a pleasing view with their restful colors? The 12 anna (upper right) is described as “ocher and black”; the 2 anna (lower left) is “red violet and dull violet”; the 3 anna to the right is “gray-green and violet-brown.” Such delicious colors! You may notice I picked up two copies of the Edward VIII 1 anna stamp. The cancelled one didn’t cost much, but then why buy the mint one for $3.50? Hmmm. Looks like FMF got a bit careless in his buying spree…

seven early stamps from Somaliland Protectorate, a whopping 16 stamps for my Bechuanaland collection, and attractive items from Sierra Leone and Tristan da Cunha.

The final step, of course, is to “paste” the stamps into my British Africa album, using either stamp hinges (for low-value used


These stamps (above) offer a mini-history lesson. Here goes: Top left is a Victorian stamp of the 1880s, when British Bechuanaland was carved out of the Bechanaland Protectorate. British Bechuanaland eventually became part of South Africa, but Bechuanaland Protectorate continued until independence in 1966, when it became Botswana. You see here a succession of Bechuanaland Protectorate stamps featuring Victoria, Edward Vii, George V and beyond. There is a set (cheap) marking the Royal Visit in 1947, featuring a tired-looking George VI and a radiant young Elizabeth, still six years away from becoming queen. Finally there is a trio of high value Elizabeth II definitives from the 1950s (not cheap!) that completes a set for me. To the right is a high-value decimal surcharge that signaled the onset of the 1960s.

stamps) or black protective  mounts (for unused or higher-value stamps.)

As I contemplate these desirable additions to my collection, I suddenly am struck by the way the vectors of the senders in all those various states converge on my desk, in my house just outside of Syracuse. With two or three lots coming from some senders, up to a half-dozen stamps from others, these mailings produce


I confess: these stamps (above) have nothing to do with filling out my Somaliland or Bechuanaland collections. They just kind of hopped into my basket as I wanderled through the philatelic phorest. If you must know, I’ve been trying like the dickens to add to a handsome 1932 pictorial set of George V from Sierra Leone (top left stamp), with little success; indeed, I think I paid more than $3 for this one @##$%$ stamp! The Tristan da Cunha definitives from the 1950s were much cheaper — and aren’t they gorgeous two-color engravings? Notwithstanding their shortcomings as imperialist oppressors, colonial administrators were at their best when they issued beautiful stamps like these. Oh, and the Red Cross Centenary stamps at the bottom are part of an “omnibus” issue, which means all the colonies put them out. We collectors are left dutifully to accumulate these virtually identical stamps, most of them moderately priced, from all over the empire and place them in their designated spaces in our stamp albums. Hmmm. Did I ever tell you that stamp collecting is completely rational in all its aspects? I don’t believe so.

an exotic, colorful jumble.  Once organized and displayed on stock cards, however,  you find seven Somaliland Protectorate stamps, harmoniously designed and colored, arranged in two orderly rows. On a separate stock card, a small collection of 16 Bechuanaland stamps chronicles a mini-history of the British territory, from Victorian times to the decimal era of the pre-indepen-


Oops! I inadvertently bought all these duplicate stamps during my recent spree. One of them is quite pricey! I must be more careful. I feel like a whale that sucked in too many sardines. I suppose I could return them for a refund. But why bother, for the ten bucks or so they cost? Better idea: put price tags on the stamps to remember what I paid for them, and try to recoup my costs at the next meeting of the Syracuse Stamp Club!

dence 1960s.

You could plot a line on a map to the return address on each seller’s envelope — Washington State, Virginia, Ohio, Arizona — and produce  a pinwheel pattern of no discernible significance. Yet the stamps, once placed in order on the stock cards, unite to convey a coherent and resonant sense of unity, history and artistry.


Bonus: First, You Buy a Stamp …

You know this already if you are a stamp collector, or if you have been reading my FMF Stamp Project blog posts; or you may sense this intuitively: One of the strongest impulses of a collector is to fill in a key blank spot on an album page — say, the one missing stamp that makes a desirable set complete. (See “The Exquisite Pleasure of Filling Out Sets,” April 2017 blog post.)

Version 2That’s how my latest buying binge started. I spotted a long-desired stamp — the 5 shilling from the first (and only) Queen Elizabeth set of Somaliland Protectorate, a small territory formerly under British supervision in the Horn of Africa. It’s a charming little stamp, a two-color engraving, emerald green and brown, issued in 1953. The young queen’s portrait sits next to a delicately etched Martial Eagle perched on a promontory in a rocky  landscape. I recently acquired the 10 shilling of the set, and lacked only this stamp to complete my series. But the stamp is not cheap — prices on the Internet range upward from $11 to $28 for a mint copy. So when I noticed it in a “sale” email, going for $9.50, it got my attention. Not only that: The seller added to his pitch the phrase “…or best offer.” Plus, shipping was free. I shaved 50 cents off the asking price and submitted my offer for $9, which was promptly accepted. (How low should I have gone?) Hooray! My set would be complete.

Then I thought: Well, gee, it’s free shipping. The seller is promoting more of his “British colonial classics.” The one I bought certainly was priced right — and I got it even cheaper in my low-ball offer. Why not take a look? And I was off to the stamping grounds …


Here is the envelope my stamps came in. The seller thoughtfully provided a colorful assembly of vintage U.S. issues.  It’s always fun to get a package like this!

Before I was done, my $9 bargain (with free shipping) had ballooned to $99.50. (I look through walls and see wife Chris rolling her eyes as I write that sen-tence. “But Chris, it’s a good investment,” I protest in my imagination. Then I imagine  another eye-roll. I will only say in my defense that this kind of spending is not an everyday indulgence!) On some of the stamps, I offered 50 cents less than the asking price. On others, a buck, even two bucks off. In every case, my offer was accepted. Cool! Overall, I probably saved about 10 bucks off the already


Here is an entrancing quartet of stamps from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, issued 100+ years ago, when it was a British colony. Notice the subtle color pairings — deep violet and brown orange; carmine and black on light blue paper; blue and violet on light blue paper. The 1/- value I have enlarged (below) to show the badge of the colony (a cross? a lyre? a muse?) is in fetching shades of black on green paper. The seller listed prices on each card. I paid a fraction of those amounts — $34 for all four lots.

reasonable asking prices. Plus, I saved more on avoided shipping costs. Seen another way, I spent about 100 bucks on 14 lots, many of them single stamps. Did I get a good deal? Probably not a bad one, if you think stamps are ever a “good deal.”




Version 2















One thing I know for sure: Roger Fenna from Black Mountain, N.C., sure knows how to move his stamps!

The following is a gallery of other items I picked up — all because I bought  that first stamp …


This stamp is identified as “39u” — which I guess means No. 39, used. No kidding! It’s a heavily cancelled stamp of the Edwardian era from the colonial territory of East Africa and Uganda, one of the many administrative iterations of that imperial region. The seller lists it at $40. I got it for $5.


“Oil Rivers” was an evocative if hardly alluring name, conjuring images of black oil gushing from a steamy tropical delta. Back in the 1880s, it referred to a region of Nigeria exploited by the British for its palm oil. Today Nigeria is indeed one of the world’s richest producers of black oil — a source of great wealth for the  elites, if not for the average Nigerian. When I  get around to reviewing my Nigeria collection, it will be fun to run through the various names that chronicle the efforts of British imperialists to make geographical sense of their vast, unruly colony, or protectorate, or whatever. (I paid $4 for the stamp.)


Postage due stamps (or surcharge stamps) have a long history, both in the United States and around the world. Most of them are pretty boring to look at, but some are surprisingly pricey. Imagine, paying $25 or more for these three black-and-white items from Grenada. (I paid $6 for them, $11 for the Malta set, below). Why do I buy them? Because those empty spaces in my albums taunt me, and the collector’s quest for completeness compells me to fill those spaces when I can.



This early stamp, from Turks Islands (today part of Turks and Caicos Islands) depicts a crudely elegant Queen Victoria in profile (No. 2, 1867). The catalog price is $140, and it is offered elsewhere online at $33.79, “or best offer.” I paid $15.50 for it. Checking a bit further, I noticed there also are expert forgeries for sale on eBay — like the image reprinted below. Gee, you could have fooled me …




I’ll just crowd in these last two items before I close. Above is one stamp in the long, numerous series of George V definitive sets issued during his reign (1911 to 1935), this one from Leeward Islands. “Leeward” stamps were used in a half-dozen Caribbean islands, including Antigua, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica. As you may suspect, it adds to a set I am building, piece by piece, over the years. Ditto for the stamp below from Antigua. A stunning example of two-color typography from 1903, this high-value stamp, like others in the series,  features the seal of the colony in black, surrounded by an elaborate red-violet border. Exquisite craftsmanship! (I paid $7.50 for it, a couple of bucks for the 1/- stamp above.)


Oh yes, one more offering: Here is a visual treat — filling out that Queen  Elizabeth set from Somaliland Protectorate. Watch me add the missing stamp. Ahh! Enjoy it vicariously!



Before …












… after.









Ain’t that set a beauty? Valuable, too. It’s selling online for $50 or more.


Bechuanaland: An Introduction

fullsizeoutput_23deAlthough I am not a “topical” stamp collector, there is one “topic” I have a soft spot for — stamps on stamps. For some reason, the framing of a stamp-within-a-stamp holds special appeal to me, like a trompe l’oeil painting by William Hartnett — a philatelic diorama; not to mention that the reproductions of early stamps are usually very fine on these commemorative issues. I have quite a few of these stamp-on-stamp issues, and would be glad to share them in a post if you wish.

At right is one stamp-on-stamp from the southern African nation of Botswana. Issued in 1985, it commemorates a century of postage stamps — though the region was called Bechuanaland in 1885. I’m struck by the decision of postal authorities in the sovereign state of Botswana, which gained it independence from Great Britain in 1966, to issue these stamps  at all. Stamps appearing in this set were put out during the years when the area known as Bechuanaland was part of the British Empire. Were the tensions of post-colonialism over by 1985? Was all forgiven between Motswana (the name for Botswana citizens) and their former colonial rulers? Were there nostalgic anglophiles in the post office who still valued British tradition? Or were they exercising a fine sense of irony, reprinting these emblems of colonial subjugation with a wink and a nod, with the proud banner of “Botswana” emblazoned at the top?

Such speculation may be idle, but it’s just the thing to amuse stamp collectors. In this short post, profusely illustrated as usual, my plan is to have some more fun with these stamps on stamps. I also must provide as background a short course on the interesting history of Botswana/Bechuanaland across the century prior to 1985. Finally, I expect I will have to share with you my impressions of why Botswana has sustained a relatively sturdy democracy in its first half-century of independence — an anomaly in sub-Saharan Africa.

… All this, by way of circling back to what will follow: a review of my Bechuanaland stamp collection, continuing my British Africa stamp review that was interrupted so long ago, after Basutoland/Lesotho. It’s all riveting stuff. On to Bechuanaland!

By the 1880s, the swashbuckling imperialist Cecil Rhodes was clamoring for the Cape Colony to claim dominion over the arid plains to the north known as Bechuanaland. In 1883 he made his case to “Grandmama,” his irreverent nickname for the Victorian home government. He invoked the shades of Livingstone and Moffat and their missionary roads of past decades. The path north could be the “Suez Canal” of trade to the interior, Rhodes argued. But Gov. Scanlen of Cape Colony demurred, dismissing the sparsely populated region as mostly desert, ruled by squabbling chiefs — in short, not worth the effort.

Still, imperial authorities in London were uneasy. Boer freebooters were streaming across the border of the Orange Free State, seeking new pastures and opportunities in what there was of a Bechuanaland veld. The neighboring Ndebele tribe also had aggressive territorial designs on its longtime Tswana rivals. In 1885, Sir Charles Warren left the Cape Colony with 4,000 imperial  troops. As he moved north, he signed treaties of protection with local chiefs. Among them was the remarkable Tswana leader, King Khama III.

fullsizeoutput_23dcKhama rightfully deserves a biography of his own — indeed, the first account of his life was written in the 1880s, when the king and his entourage visited London to lobby for British protection from the Boers, the Ndebele and expansionists like Rhodes. Khama enjoyed an audience with the queen, and drew enthusiastic crowds at receptions sponsored by evangelical groups who applauded Khama’s conversion to Christianity and promotion of “civilized” values like education,   modernization and monogamy.

Khama had become king in 1875, after prevailing in power struggles  between tribes and family members that included three assassination attempts and a fateful dispute over a lost cow. He earned his title, Khama (the Good)  by his far-sighted policies, which included consolidating and expanding his sparsely populated territory, fostering trade with all comers, and promoting up-to-date farm techniques.   He was particularly adept at blending traditional practices with western innovation — for example, using the voluntary labor of tribal mephato contingents to build schools, silos and irrigation systems.

Khama was a charming, charismatic leader and an effective, multilingual  diplomat. He prevailed in the climactic confrontation with would-be usurpers on his borders.


Above is a map of Bechuanaland before 1885, surrounded by variously covetous neighbors like the Germans to the west, the Cape Colony, Boers from the Orange Free State and Transvaal, as well as smaller state-lets like Stellaland, Griqualand West and East, and the Orange Free State. The map below shows how the crown colony of British Bechuanaland (all pink) in 1885 was carved out of the larger Bechuanaland Proectorate (outlined in pink).. The crown colony incorporated smaller states into what would become provinces of South Africa.

The deal reached in 1885 created the Bechuanaland Protectorate, under direct imperial supervision, shielding the lands of King Khama from schemers and squatters in the Transvaal and the Cape Colony as well as the Ndebele and other hostiles.

The southern region of Bechuanaland, meanwhile, became  British Bechuanaland, a crown colony.  By and by, that southern portion was absorbed by the Cape Colony, then  joined the Union of South Africa in 1910. As the years passed, pressure continued to turn over the protectorate to fullsizeoutput_23f1South Africa or Rhodesia. But Khama and his colonial protectors would have none of it. Thus it was that Bechuanaland Protectorate was spared the blight of apartheid that settled on South Africa after 1948. Those living in the southern portion of the Tswana ancestral lands eventually were consigned to the hollow South African “homeland” of Bophutatswana, one of the last concoctions of the apartheid state in the years before Nelson Mandela ushered in the new South Africa in 1994.



Bechuanaland changed its shape over the years before becoming Botswana, as you can see by comparisons with the current map, above.

In its early years, Bechuanaland Protectorate was largely self-governed; the British ruled with a light hand. In the 1890s, however, local sovereignty was curtailed as colonial officials took over administration of the territory. The protectorate did not escape the racial discrimination and economic exploitation endemic to colonialism.

(Text continues after illustrations and captions.)



Above left is the real stamp of 1897, from my collection. On the right is the image on a stamp from Botswana, issued in 1985 to commemorate a century of postage stamps in the region. Below are images of a British Bechuanaland stamp. I think it’s fun to compare the real thing and the image, don’t you? Early issues from both regions were overprinted stamps from Great Britain and the Cape of Good Hope (a/k/a the Cape Colony). Bechuanaland Protectorate issued stamps from 1888 until Botswana’s independence in 1966. Stamps from British Bechuanaland first appeared in 1886, according to the Scott catalogue. British Bechuanaland was annexed by the Cape Colony in 1897.



The first original stamps of Bechuanaland Protectorate, in 1932, feature a charming engraving of grazing cattle. British King George V, in a three-quarters portrait, gazes out regally and benignly. He is near the end of his reign. It seems the set was such a hit that postal authorities kept the vignette and design for the next two monarchs, simply substituting portraits of George VI and Elizabeth II (see below — does it strike you, as it does me, that the stamp featuring Elizabeth looks more modern than the one with either George?).



I checked in my collection and discovered that the 1965 stamp (top) has eluded me so far. (It’s not expensive.) Issued a year before independence, it commemorates “internal self-government.” The name has been shortened, dropping “Protectorate.” The portrait of the queen is there. So philatelically speaking, the nation of British Bechuanaland came back to life in 1965, from its demise in 1897. Of course, that’s just a stamp story. Months later, the independent nation of Botswana was born. The other stamp illustrated here depicts the “National Assembly Building” in Gaborone. It looks like quite a 1960s-modern monstrosity, but that’s just one critic’s opinion. I was curious, however, to see how the National Assembly Building has held up over the  past 50 years. Is it still standing? Has it been replaced? Expanded? Thanks to the web and Google Earth, I got some answers (see photos below).


Above is a view of the columns, courtesy of the Internet. Below  is a Google Earth image of the National Assembly Building, seen from a brick plaza. It looks well-maintained and accessible — but not quite like the rendering on the stamp! The stamp doesn’t show a tower, or a large central arch. Was that image in 1966 just an architect’s rendering? If so, shouldn’t it have been labeled as such? Tut! tut!


The protectorate’s economic dependence on South Africa was underscored by the fact that its governing institutions were located in Mafikeng, south of the border. (The capital is now Gaborene, within Botswana.) King Khama died in 1923, and was succeeded by kinsmen. After achieving independence in 1966, Botswana’s voters have elected and re-elected Khama’s descendants. Its first president, Seretse Khama, was a legitimate Ngwato heir; his son, Ian Khama, was elected in 2008.

This is a remarkable, inspiring tale — how more than a century ago, a strong African leader forged a nation that survived decades of colonial interference to  emerge as a rare success story in Africa. There is no denying the skill with which King Khama in the 1880s maneuvered among the likes of Queen Victoria and Whitehall, Cecil Rhodes, Boer squatters, rival tribesmen and hostile Ndebele. Also impressive was the record of independent Botswana’s first rulers — Seretse Khama, then Quett Masire — who had to maneuver among the quarreling factions of Rhodesia, South Africa, Angola and other troubled neighbors. That Botswana’s fairly elected leaders kept their nation at peace, with a sound and growing economy and a minimum of corruption, seems nearly a miracle.

fullsizeoutput_23e8There is a fairy tale quality to the story as well — how in 1948 Seretse Khama, then a dashing young law student and tribal prince in London, met Ruth Williams, a white English girl. The couple fell in love. After several months Khama proposed and Ruth accepted. There was a predictable uproar over this fullsizeoutput_23ebinterracial courtship — from the church, from the colony, from the tribe. Just about everyone was against the marriage — except Ruth and Khama. The butt-inskis even persuaded the vicar to cancel the ceremony on the morning of the wedding — but the good cleric reportedly found a way to sneak it in after an ordination ceremony at the cathedral later the same day. Khama then faced the combined wrath of peers and mentors.  “I still want to be your chief,” he told his people. He also declared: “I cannot leave her.” The couple was compelled to live in exile for six years (in England, naturally). Eventually Khama and his bride were allowed home — after he renounced his throne. He arrived to a hero’s welcome in 1956. Kwama was elected Botswana’s first president in 1966, and served with distinction for more than three terms. The couple had four children. Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980, Dame Khama in 2002. Their romantic saga unfolds n the movie, “A United Kingdom,” released in 2016.

Post-script to this anecdote: Seretse and Ruth Khama’s son, Khama Ian Khama, was elected president of Botswana in 2008 and had a successful 10-year presidency. Some day this biracial president-son may be known as Africa’s Obama; or will the former fullsizeoutput_23eeU.S. president — also the son of an interracial couple — be remembered as America’s Khama?

For more than a half-century, the Republic of Botswana has been a model government in Africa, successfully blending democratic practice with respect for tribal ways. It has not seen coups or civil war, and enjoys a relatively robust tourism industry. Per capita yearly income of more than $18,000 is near the top for the continent. Granted, there are only two million people in a nation the size of France; a nation, moreover,  blessed with rich deposits of diamonds.  Botswana has the lowest corruption ranking in Africa, and the highest rating in human development indices.  Botswana’s leaders have broken ranks with their peers in speaking out against corruption and abuses in Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere. While Botswana benefits from certain anomalies, its achievements are real. Indeed, Marvel enthusiasts may wonder if Botswana is linked to the  Black Panther’s mythical kingdom of Wakanda.

In 2017, when former president Ketumile (Quett) Masire died, New York Times obituary writer Amisha Padnani described how he “for nearly two decades helped transform his arid and destitute country into the envy of other African nations.”  In “The Fate of Africa,” author Martin Meredith applauded Botswana’s “enduring multiparty democracy” and “sound economic management,” noting that the government “has used its diamond riches for national advancement and maintained an administration free from corruption.”

And yet, more must be said before we end this African fairy tale.  Consider these qualifying factors (oboy, here cometh the lecture):

  1. The discovery of diamonds soon after independence considerably eased Botswana’s economic difficulties — though responsible stewardship of this new wealth by Botswana’s leaders has been a key to prosperity.
  2. Other than benefiting from this good fortune, Botswana, like the Bechuanaland Protectorate before it, has depended economically and otherwise on its giant neighbor, the Republic of South Africa.  To give a philatelic example of this dependency: In 1961, when South Africa introduced decimal currency, then-Bechuanaland Protectorate had to scramble to surcharge its sterling-currency stamps with decimals, then print its own. Botswana played a nuanced role  before South Africa emerged as a multi-ethnic democracy  in 1994. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Botswana yielded to South African pressures, but also harbored anti-apartheid fighters from the banned African National Congress.
  3. Not to be too cynical, but Bechuanaland is a backwater — nearly as large as Texas, most of it arid plains, with a population of 2.1 million (the Bronx?).
  4. Most telling in my view is that 79 percent of Motswana come from the same tribe — the Tswana ethnic group.  The overlap between voter, tribe and government is commanding.  I don’t want these factors to undermine my respect and admiration for Seretse Khama, Quett Masire and the other honest leaders and civil servants. In that respect, Botswana is a model state. It should be a model for neighboring Zimbabwe (population: 15.6 million), where the Shona tribe has a similarly lopsided majority, and  corruption and political violence are epidemic. If tribal compatibility can foster good civil government, it clearly is not sufficient. And what about Kenya, where five major tribes vie for influence? Or the vast Congo, with hundreds of rival groups? Must an African state be ruled by one tribe to succeed? I hope not. I believe the most successful states are like my own, the USA. Our civic foundation is respect for individuals and their rights,  regardless of tribe. I believe a  diverse society is more dynamic and vital than a mono-cultural one. A diverse society does not countenance a member of one tribe killing another, and outlaws discrimination. This practice contradicts a social system in Kenya that pits Kikuyu against Luo, even as it has little use for a civic culture like Botswana’s, where one tribe runs everything. To rearrange Africa’s national boundaries so that they incorporate, as best as anyone can calculate, the sphere of one tribe’s influence — eek, what a chore! Is it even possible? What next? Alert members of each tribe that henceforth, “their” nation will be over there. So they’d better move if they don’t live there already. And if they don’t move? Will their fate  be like that of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi? What about folks who  intermarry? What about their children, and grandchildren? In the  multiparty, multiethnic, tolerant model, all struggle together to find a way forward, making what contributions they can to a better life. (Here endeth the lecture.)

Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! LAST PART — 5. ‘Real’ Cinderellas: A nightmare of abuse and excess


My first thought on seeing this stamp was: How absurd! Tobogganing in Yemen, an arid Mideast nation? Forgive me if it turns out Yemen had a bobsledding team in the Olympics or something. I still wonder about a stamp like this, how the average Yemeni would relate to it as an emblem of national character. Illegal? Excessive? Abusive? Undesirable? Irrelevant? Take you pick. There are just too many stamps these days that deserve such labels.

I can hardly wait to bring this extended discussion of so-called Cinderella stamps to its long-awaited conclusion, so this essay will be mercifully short. The whole topic is kind of creepy. It started out innocently enough, with fake stamps, satirical stamps, even artistic imaginings. But it veered into forgery, propaganda, self-dealing, deception, political intrigue and cynical commercialism. In recent years, philately — stamp-collecting — seems to have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stamps deemed “undesirable” by sensible philatelic authorities.

To bring us up to date, what has happened to Cinderellas/Illegals is what has happened to stamps themselves. The proliferation of topical sets saturates a market of collectors who, to the extent they still are collecting, pay attention not so much to the country of origin as to the theme and artwork. Stamp presses churn out sets and souvenir sheets that never get close to a post office in the land they are nominally from. It’s a stamps-by-contract proposition, and I think it stinks. But who am I to complain? I just get to brush past the phenomenon with a few more observations and detail about “abusive” and “excessive” and “undesirable” stamps. Then, at long last, I can return to my appreciation of stamps that really are, well, stamps.

Below is a quick overview of abusive stamps, gleaned and adapted from online posts by the Philatelic Web Masters Organization. The PWMO also presents a useful case study of an abusive stamp issue — celebrating ping pong, of all things.

According to the PWMO, abusive issues are those that were legally issued by postal administrations, but which do not comply with the terms of the ”Philatelic Code of Ethics,” for use by member countries of the Universal Postal Union. The code was established by the World Association for the Development of Philately. WADP in turn is the group that worked with the UPU to create the WADP Numbering System [WNS] for stamps in 2002. The Code of Ethics was approved in 2008 by all member countries of the UPU.

Key provisions of the code of ethics call out stamps that do not meet the internal needs of the countries for their postal traffic, and sometimes are not even sold in the countries themselves. (For more detail, see blog post, September 2017.)

The PWMO, writing in 2013, did not know of any special reporting procedures for code violations similar to those set up by the UPU to detect and expose illegal issues. Indeed, as the PWMO points out, postal administrations are not about to acknowledge having signed contracts that do not comply with the Philatelic Code of Ethics. The important and sometimes difficult task of holding postal authorities accountable thus falls to organizations representing collectors, such as WADP, and its component International Federation of Philately (FIP).

Unfortunately, the PWMO goes on to say, “we haven’t seen any action or reaction from WADP in the field of abusive issues, despite its existence for over 15 years. … Collectors are presented with a fait accompli — the many abusive issues on the philatelic market — and we observe that we are among the few who deal with these issues. …”

The ping pong issue of 2013 came to light thanks to a topical collectors’ group — the French Association of Table Tennis Collectors (AFCTT), which keeps up with new issues on its topic, worldwide. The issue from the west African nation of Niger was  listed on the website of the Lithuanian company Stamperija (Motto: “Production & Trade in Philately”); it consisted of four stamps in a souvenir sheet, both perforated and imperforate.

Here is an image of the offending souvenir sheet from the Republic of Niger, which appeared in 2013. Postal authorities in NIger claimed it was a legitimate issue, but only available through the printing firm in Lithuania. Hmm. Could it be that table tennis, like butterflies, is a topic that invites spurious stamp production? I include more illustrations of gaudy ping-pong stamps from a hodgepodge of nations, below. There are many more. I ask you: Are they all legal? Are they excessive? Undesirable? How is a collector to tell which issues are legitimate, and which are the product of stamp mills producing for the topical market? The French Association of Table Tennis Collectors has done heroic work in exposing this fraud. But I fear they are outmatched by the sheer volume of undesirable philately. 

“Because it could not find these stamps on the website of the Post of Niger,” the PWMO reported, “the Association contacted the postal administration of Niger to inquire about the legality of this issue … The Director General of the Niger Poste replied, stating that they were legitimate stamps that could only be purchased through the company Stamperija. In a second message, the Niger correspondent used the term ‘legal copies,’ not ‘stamps’!”

The French topical collectors group appealed to the UPU, and received a prompt response from Louis Virgile, Programmes’ Manager for Philately, who dismissed the ping pong issue as “a practice which, although legal, is nonetheless curious, and can be characterized as an abusive issue.”

The AFCTT then blacklisted the stamps and alerted members on its blog:
”… please be advised that the issue of Niger will not be provided to members, and that in defense of true philately, we ask all of you not to buy this type of issue. ”

When I last checked, the sheet was selling online for $13 and up — a strong price, particularly for a stamp deemed “abusive” by the UPU. Exactly what kind of issue are we talking about? How does one “abusive” issue stand out, in contrast to another fullsizeoutput_209a“legal” issue? How can the average collector distinguish one from the other in this philatelic hall of mirrors?

Three years earlier, in 2010, the PWMO posted another useful essay, “So Many Stamps,” noting how a few countries had gone plum loco in the number of stamps issued: Gambia (632 stamps in 2000), Tanzania (581 in 1999) and Liberia (771 stamps in 2000, a record number for a single country in a single year, prompting the PWMO editor to observe that the country was going through a civil war at the time).

The PWMO had been tracking this over-issuance of stamps for years. The fine point is to distinguish which stamps — legal stamps — are way in excess of what is needed: “(T)here is a certain fight against illegal stamps,” wrote the PWMO in a plaintive note from 2002, “but what will be done about the exaggerations?”

fullsizeoutput_209fPerhaps the editor need not have worried. Natural market correction serves the interests of philately. By 2009, it seems, most countries were well below 200 in new stamp issues for the year. They may have discovered the diminishing returns of
excessive stamp production. There also was the new code of ethics that all UPU members had ratified in 2008.

Still, the PWMO could not resist another tweak at Liberia. It pointed out that it would cost a collector $491 to buy each of Liberia’s new stamps in 2009 — at face value. fullsizeoutput_20a6This, in a country with “poor economic performance,” “a fragile security situation,” “lack of infrastructure,” and so on. Indeed, what was Liberia thinking?

In another posting, the PWMO’s impeccably informed Victor Manta complained about stamps for legitimate (or at least sovereign) states that are not produced in-country, but by “agencies and private companies.” The stamps were not only printed but sold outside the issuing country. “They do not correspond to the internal needs of the country for postal traffic,” Manta wrote, “and are often not even on sale in the fullsizeoutput_20abissuing countries!”

Manta went on to chastise reputable stamp catalogue publishers like Scott, Michel and Yvert, which continue to list “huge, never-ending stamp hyper productions.” He continued: “The last example was that of the little Salomon Island (sic), that issued on average roughly 500 different stamps and 150 different S/S (souvenir sheets) per year, as well in 2013 as in 2014, this according to the Scott catalogue that listed them in 2015!”


Here is a remarkable example of a stamp, or souvenir sheet, that is suspect for multiple reasons. The first clue is that it comes from St. Thomas and Principe, a tiny island nation off the west coast of Africa. Next, it celebrates the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, an anodyne enough topic but a reliable target for the topical stamp mill. Can’t tell if the athletes involved have anything to do with St. Thomas and Principe, though I doubt golf is the national pastime. I wonder what 96,000 Db are worth — enough to mail a letter, one hopes. The oddest thing about this issue is the way the woman ping pong player is holding her paddle. The online stamp dealer helpfully provides an enlargement showing her hand covering about one-quarter of the paddle surface. Impossible! What a fraud!

By the way, the web masters site notes that as early as 2000, when 17,836 stamps and souvenir sheets were issued worldwide, the face-value cost of buying one of each surpassed $17,000 for the first time. Are these numbers too big? Who’s to say? I say: Listen to the market.

Let’s return to that word “abusive.” A country like Liberia that issued 771 stamps in a single year — that is, legitimate stamps, not illegals or Cinderellas — is abusing stamp collectors, or at least inundating them in a philatelic phlow that threatens to drown any residual pleasure they still get from the hobby. An illegal Olympics set put out by some slick stamp mill is certainly undesirable. But so is an Olympics set from a country like Liberia, whose “fragile security situation” makes the Olympics hardly worth celebrating — particularly when such sets of stamps are part of a blizzard of other sets which, like winter snow, are never seen in Monrovia, or at post offices anywhere else in that benighted land.

In 2013, the web masters (PWMO) offered a long list of “Undesirable / Abusive Stamps.” Actually, there were two lists. The first was compiled years earlier by Bengt Bengtsson, who is described as “a philatelic judge from Sweden.” Bengtsson’s list, he declared in 2001, covered “undesirable stamps” he believed should not be included in philatelic exhibitions. The list included some of those “For the Record” countries listed in my previous essay/blog post (Ajman, Was al Khaima, Grenadines and the rest), along with others like Wikingland, Nagaland and Iso, which were never real countries. He also usefully listed the interval of years when the spurious issues appeared — often continuing to the present day (“Fujeira/since 1967; Yemen, Republic/May 20, 1967-Oct. 31, 1972; Redonda/all”)

The second list issued under the auspices of PWMO added a host of new names. The reason for the expansion, the editor explained, was to include “stamps from countries that have issued too many and too expensive stamps.” That is, even if they are officially legal, they ought to be illegal! Again, the list provides bracketed years when the offending stamps appeared.

It’s a long list. It includes Antigua and Barbuda (all stamps since 1984); Bhutan (everything since 1964); Gambia (since 1985); and Togo (1965-90). Check out the lists yourself if you like: Go to the Philatelic Web Masters site, PWMO.org, and search for undesirable/abusive stamps.

The days of postage stamps may be numbered, so this whole anguished discussion about what is illegal, undesirable and abusive will become a moot point, a philatelic phoot-note. What is or is not excessive may be lost in the mists.


Look at this gorgeous pair of engravings, depicting Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin. Released in 2016, they are modeled on classic U.S. designs of the mid-1800s — every bit as elegant and authentic now as they were then. In this and a few more images on the next page, I start to return from the unsettling parallel world of Cinderellas to the reassuring realm of “real” philately. Yes, stamps are still being made the “old” way — carefully, artistically, with attention to relevant themes, accessibility and ease of use.

My hope, however, is that philately’s phirm phoundations ultimately will stand the hobby in good stead; that the sheer usefulness of stamps have made them authentic emblems of every nation, thus creating universal allure and enduring value for collectors. At this writing, “legal” stamps, which started to appear in 1840, continue to be issued around the world. At their best they are absorbing, often beautiful cultural artifacts. They reflect the individuality, creativity and national character of their sovereign states. Why should this charming practice ever end?


I wonder if many of you have even seen these beautiful U.S. stamps put out to celebrate the centennial of our national parks. They come from a sheet of 16 stamps the USPS bestowed on us in 2016 (still available at face value from USPS.com — or at your local post office). I think they were printed a little too small — these images are enlargements of the originals. Still, they are exquisite, aren’t they? Considering how they slipped by us with little notice, I wouldn’t wonder that cancelled copies might be worth something in the future — that is, if stamp collecting has a future!


France has been issuing beautifully engraved stamps for many decades, and the image above from last year is a fine recent example. Immediately below, the arresting portraits of wildlife on these recent stamps from South Africa are splendid emblems of that proud nation. At the bottom, a new British stamp pays tribute to the video masterpiece, “Game of Thrones.” It is one of a series of artistic vignettes based on the blockbuster fantasy series filmed in Northern Ireland and Scotland, among other places. You will note that there is no country name on the stamp, just a white silhouette of Queen Elizabeth II. Thus Great Britain carries on a tradition established in 1840, when it issued the world’s first postage stamp — a black-ink engraving of Queen Victoria in profile, with the sole inscription,”One Penny.”




Cinderellas, Part Four: Illegal Stamps! 4: A Spreading Stain

fullsizeoutput_1f99Contemplate, dear reader, this image of a (cancelled-to-order) stamp, nominally from Equatorial Guinea, a tiny sovereign state on the west coast of Africa that has been grievously plundered and misruled by its leaders, both under Portuguese dominion and in the half-century since independence. The stamp is pretty enough — though the full-color reproduction of an Auguste Renoir painting of a very naked, very pink, big-bosomed young woman seems a bit, well, over the top. Can you seriously imagine a beleaguered citizen of this outlaw African state finding one of these in her or his local post office, for use on outgoing mail? Not likely. Remember all those rules set by the Universal Postal Union about what constitutes a legitimate stamp? (See blog post, September 2017.) Well, this stamp breaks most of those rules. It certainly has nothing to do with Equatorial Guinea. It’s doubtful it ever went on sale in the country, or if so was widely available for purchase. It is by no possible rhetorical stretch an emblem of Equatorial Guinean culture or sovereignty.

fullsizeoutput_1fa5Ditto with the second stamp portrayed here — an image of Jiminy Cricket, the  animated character from the Disney film “Pinocchio,” painting an Easter egg. Huh? Tell me why this is anything but a crass effort on the part of “Grenada Grenadines” (or better put, the philatelic agents) to cash in on the market for topical stamps. I wonder if there is an envelope bearing this stamp that actually went through the mail …

There was a time, dear readers, when most stamps were legal. Sure, there were plenty of Cinderella fantasy stamps out there, indeed since the very beginning of stamps. (Read about the satirical “Mulready” covers of 1841, in the blog post of August 2017, “The First Cinderellas.”) But these only  masqueraded as postage stamps. Propaganda labels in wartime were something else, as were forgeries. For the most part, stamps were produced under government supervision, readily available at post offices for citizens to buy and use to send mail. The world of extra-legal Cinderellas was pretty tame and innocent — at least until the 1960s.

As late as 1969, my copy of the Scott standard stamp catalogue listed no “illegals” or “undocumented” or “non-standard” items. Neither did my 1971 catalogue. But by 1977 there was a short section, “For the Record,” which  listed “items” that “appeared on the market in the 1960s and 1970s, and have not been listed in the Scott Standard Catalogue.”

There followed 14 pages of fine print listing hundreds of stamps put out under the names of real countries, or at least real territories, as follows:

Aden (three states), Ajman (Manama), Anguilla, Bangladesh, Barbuda, Biafra, Cyprus (Turkish mail), Dubai, Fujeira, Grenada (Grenadines), Jordan, Qatar, Ras al Khaima, St.Vincent (Grenadines), Sharjah (Khor Fakkan), and Umm al Qiwain.

A few comments on this list:

fullsizeoutput_1fb7** The spurious issue from Bangladesh listed in the catalogue came from 1974. It was a suspiciously anodyne souvenir sheet and set of four stamps honoring the Universal
Postal Union. At right is an example from the set, depicting what appears to be a postal runner from Bangladesh. The scene  would argue in favor of this being a legitimate stamp promoting local folkways and sovereignty. Apparently not.





fullsizeoutput_1971Also interesting is one of the first sets issued after East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971 and became Bangladesh. The set of 15 variously depicts a flag, a map and a portrait of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The catalogue bluntly notes that the set “was rejected by Bangladesh officials and not issued. Bangladesh representatives in England released these stamps, which were not valid, on fullsizeoutput_196fFeb. 1, 1972.”  The same designs appear  in the first official set from Bangladesh  (examples at right) — though the nation’s name is spelled in two words — Bangla and Desh. I have not learned why the other set was rejected, and illegal. I admit I have it in my collection, though. I bought it for a couple of bucks at a stamp show. I wonder if the violent and bloody birth pangs of Bangladesh had something to do with this mixup. Peace had barely been restored and the Sheikh was released from solitary confinement only in January, a month before the spurious stamps were issued.  Things never really settled down  under Sheikh Mujib — earnest, bespectacled, charismatic and a dogmatic socialist. In 1975, he and members of his family were gunned down by army officers during a coup that returned the region to benighted martial law and years of unrest.

fullsizeoutput_1973While we’re on the subject of Bangladesh, how about these provisional overprints of Pakistani

Here is a little bonus, above: This is actually Scott No. 1 from Bangladesh, a stamp I just found on the Internet. It appears to be genuine, if crude — consider, for example the cancellation, which looks authentic, not cancelled-to-order. It is offered online for $5 — a considerable sum for such a stamp these days

stamps? The examples illustrated here are from my collection. How could I resist spending a few bucks to acquire evidence of the first philatelic yowls from a new-born nation? The impression is that these stamps were overprinted — crudely, often by hand stamp — for use during the chaotic time between East Pakistan’s demise and the formal issuing of Bangladesh postage stamps. But if so, where are the envelopes displaying cancelled copies of these overprints? Until I find such evidence, I am inclined to dismiss or at least quarantine these examples as illegals, Cinderellas, or both.


Here is a stamp from Biafra’s first definitive set, which of course is simply a Nigerian stamp with the name crossed out, overprinted “Sovereign Biafra” with the Biafran coat of arms — a peculiarly British holdover custom and barely visible in this crude production.

** Stamps from Biafra, the self-declared republic (1968-71) carved out of the Igbo region of southeastern Nigeria, are in a special category — with ephemeral  philatelic companions such as Katanga, South Kasai and other states whose claims to sovereignty never quite made it past global review  — but who still managed to produce stamps. (For more on Katanga and other breakaways in the Congo, see the blog post “10 Interesting Anecdotes about the Congo,” March 2017.)

I don’t believe the UPU recognized Biafra’s stamps. If you find a cover with cancelled Biafra stamps, save it!





Such was the chaos in Biafra that philatelic errors quickly appeared — like this example from the definitive series where the printers neglected to cross out “Nigeria.” Errors like this still are likely to command double-digit prices — this image is from the Internet, not my collection.


Eventually, Biafra got around to printing its own stamps — probably in England, Germany or somewhere else. Included in these spurious issues was the obligatory butterfly set — a topical issue which seems to raise a red flag for potential illegality, for some reason. Not that Biafra wasn’t still a nation struggling to make its way; I’m just saying that the Universal Postal Union never officially recognized stamps from Biafra. There are some suspicious signs about this set. First off, how many Biafran letter-writers need a 5 shilling stamp, or even a 2/6 stamp? Alternately, if the currency was unrealistically inflated, what good is a 4 pence stamp? Having never seen these or other Biafran stamps offered as cancelled copies from envelopes that went through the mail, I am inclined to side with the UPU and declare these stamps illegal. Sorry, Biafra. (I also confess I have a nearly complete Biafra collection, which may be worth a couple hundred dollars — purely a philatelic collecting oddity, but there you have it.)


These may be the rarest stamps from Biafra, if anyone cares. Someone must, because they are offered online at up to $20 or more for the pair. The stamps honor “Biafra – France Friendship.” They are overprints on the original overprints of Nigerian stamps. One seller describes “the scarce and rarely seen 2-value set overprinted ‘Biafra-France Friendship’ and surcharged 5 shillings and 1 pound respectively.” The seller adds: “Scott does not list this as a regular postal issue but does mention it and places a value of $27.50. … Very difficult to find, and I suspect considerably undervalued.” The seller offered it for $22.95. I still haven’t summoned the reckless abandon to throw $20-plus out there and catch these stamps, reel them in to make by Biafra collection complete. But writing that last sentence strengthens my resolve.…


Biafra issued this startling souvenir sheet to mark its second anniversary of independence. Some anniversary. One could question the use of somber, malnourished, even starving children to celebrate sovereignty, or celebrate anything but the regime’s failure to prevent the misery and death of its people. Maybe the goal was to garner international sympathy (and money). This stamp, and a subsequent re-issue of the sheet overprinted, “Save Biafra!” bear mute witness to tragedy, not freedom.



I don’t mean to put The Palestinian Authority in the same basket as Biafra and other failed states. But it somehow fits at this point in the narrative of illegal stamps, because The Palestinian National Authority (PA? TPA? PNA? TPNA?) is still a work-in-progress. Consider for example: The above stamps were issued in 1994, after the historic Oslo Accords. The agreement established the PA as a governing entity, though of a “state” that barely existed — and exists today, some would argue, more in wishes and dreams than in reality. Consider, next, the issue below:


This souvenir sheet, released 18 years after those first stamps above, announces “A State is Born” — the state of Palestine. It depicts PA President Mahmoud Abbas brandishing a document — presumably the UN’s recognition of the PA as a non-member observer state. Before, I guess the PA wasn’t a state, just an “authority.” After 2012 it’s been a full-fledged … er … about that “two-state solution” — I thought that was still being negotiated, if not all but abandoned by both Israel and the PA. How could there be a Palestinian state already? If so, can we celebrate the end of this long, wearying stand-off?


Above is No. 1 from Fujeira. It looks like a legitimate enough stamp, featuring the ruler and a native fowl. But then look at No. 1 from Umm al Quiwain, below. If these are two different states, why do the stamps look like they are from the same set? Are they legal? I ask you …

** Notice that some of the philatelic phelons putting out illegal stamps  have issued legal stamps right along — like Qatar and Jordan. And what about those seven Arab Trucial states that combined into United Arab Emirates in 1972? (Want a list? They are Fujeira, Ras al Khaima, Umm al Quiwain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman.) The UAE began issuing  legal postage stamps, though entrepreneurial printers had been churning out philately for years for Fujeira, Ras al Khaima, Umm al Quiwain and others.  Spurious and illegal! warns Scott. Beware of all fullsizeoutput_1fa1those sets honoring Winston Churchill and JFK, the Olympics, famous artists, butterflies and the rest. My Scott catalogue wouldn’t even show pictures of these “non-standard” non-stamps.




Above is part of a set from Fujeira honoring John F. Kennedy. Below are stamps from a JFK memorial set from Umm al Quiwain. Two sets, two postal authorities. Two countries? Who’s kidding whom?



Oh yes, here’s another JFK memorial stamp, this one from Ras al Khaima. Everyone got in on the JFK memorial act, it seems. According to the UPU and Scott, all these stamps are non-standard, spurious, illegal. Get the picture?

fullsizeoutput_1fb0No need to play this up, but is that really a succession of Catholic-approved Pietas in these art stamps from Umm al Quiwain (below) ? It’s downright ecumenical of this Muslim sheikdom to honor Christian icons on its stamps. What next — a celebration of Jewish holidays? At right is the obligatory butterfly stamp, this one from Ras al Khaima, more or less announcing that this stamp, like the others, is pretty much illegal.



No. 1 from Grenadines of St. Vincent, above, features a stamp from St. Vincent, cleverly overprinted above the name with the words “Grenadines of” (though it does deface the image of the heron). Soon enough, this self-declared stamp issuing entity would come out with its own definitives (see example below) — which doesn’t make them any less illegal …

** I have to add at this point: The stamps combining “Grenada” and “St. Vincent” and “Grenadines” inject fresh  Caribbean zest into the fusty realm of Cinderellas, don’t you think? Care for a grenadine? Don’t mind if I do! But a stamp from Union Island, Bequia or Mustique? I’ll pass …

Grenada and St. Vincent are surrounded by a chain of islands known as the Grenadines. St. Vincent claims the Grenadines in its neighborhood — Bequia, Union Island and Mustique, all stamp-issuing entities. The islands in Grenada’s orbit include Carriacou, Petite Martinique, Ronde Island, Caille fullsizeoutput_1fbcIsland, Diamond Island, Large Island,
Saline Island and Frigate Island. Thus far, there is just one  overall stamp-issuing authority for “Grenada Grenadines.” While some of these islands are unpopulated, how long before they, too, become stamp-issuing entities? I shudder to think …



Here is No. 1 from Grenada Grenadines — honoring the 1973 nuptials of Britain’s Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips. Their marriage lasted not quite 20 years, but the stamp — emblazoned with the crown of Elizabeth II, but still apparently illegal — will endure …



Now we come to Bequia, a charming island in the Grenadines of St. Vincent chain. Along with Mustique and Union Island, Bequia began issuing stamps years ago — none of them UPU-approved. And just look at the themes — a U.S. fullsizeoutput_1f78locomotive, a Cadillac … what in the world does any of this have to do with Bequia? As for the pretty butterfly stamps (see below), well, don’t they speak for themselves by now?










The 500th anniversary of Michelangelos’s birth came and went, without philatelic recognition from the United States or most other nations. For some reason, Grenada Grenadines thought it necessary and appropriate to mark the event with this stamp (right). It may have been a hit with topical collectors, but you need more than stamp tongs to grasp the connection between the long-dead Italian artist and the Grenada Grenadines — Carriacou, Saline Island, Frigate Island or the rest.




My next catalogue under review is from 1986, countries A-F. In “For the Record,” it supplies a rather short list of countries whose non-standard items appeared on the stamp market in the 1960s and 1970s:  Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia (Khmer), Cameroun, Chad, Comoro Islands, Congo People’s Republic, Dahomey, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea.

Some notes on this list:


Why on Earth would Cambodia issue a stamp commemorating Interpol in 1973, when it was fighting for its life? That same year the philatelic agents honored Copernicus (see below), presumably in an effort to make a few bucks from the topical market.

** The first thing that struck me was “Cambodia (Khmer).” Were these stamps from the killing fields outside Phnom Penh? I turned to the appropriate pages in the catalogue, and found stamps issued between 1972, in the midst of the fighting, through April 1975 — the very month the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. These non-standard stamps were issued while Gen. Lon Mol was trying to hold Cambodia together in the rogue state known as the “Khmer Republic.”  While southeast Asia was being bombed and bloodied, the stamps blithely paid tribute to the coming summer Olympics, the UPU centenary, Copernicus — nothing else going on around here, folks. Presumably these sets (again, no pictures supplied in the catalogue) were manufactured to be marketed to collectors, somehow. I guess it worked, somewhat. I do wonder who would want these questionable stamps from Cambodia?




The Cambodian stamp above looks forward to the 1976 Olympic games — by which time the Khmer Rouge had sent the nation careening into chaos and genocide. (Images from the Internet.)



And by the way, what does “Khmer” mean, philatelically, in relation to the fanatical regime that came to power in 1975?  Did the blood-crazed Khmer Rouge ever get around to putting out stamps during their three years of nightmarish rule and carnage? Have I asked enough questions?





Now for some answers. The “Khmer Republic” was the ethnic and civic fig leaf for Lon Nol’s military dictatorship — short-lived, as it turned out  ª1973-5). As for Khmer Rouge philately, after 1975, the Swiss blogger Victor Manta sounds authoritative when he writes:

“Many people have wondered what happened to the postal system in Cambodia after the Khmer Route came to power in mid-April 1975 and subsequently renamed the country ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ With Pol Pot at the center of power, the ultra-Maoist regime is thought by many to have caused the death of as many as two to tree million Cambodians before they were overthrown in late 1978 by Vietnamese military force.

“It is generally accepted that no postage stamps were issued by the Government of Democratic Kampuchea for domestic or international use during their control over Cambodian territory from 1975 to late 1978. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was ‘disbanded’ by the KR and no official of Democratic Kampuchea was assigned to oversee the tasks of post and communications during those years of abject terror.

“Collectors of Cambodian philately will be only too familiar with the gap in stamp catalogues for this period. Stanley Gibbons includes three small paragraphs headed, ‘Democratic Kampuchea,’ as follows: ‘… the discontinuance of postal and telegraphic services. In these circumstances no stamps were issued. Five pictorial stamps inscribed “Kampuchea”  without indication of currency were publicized early in 1978. If they exist their status would be propaganda labels.’ (2004) …

“However, written domestic communications did take place in Democratic Kampuchea. Such correspondence was, once again, limited to the senior hierarchy of the Khmer Rouge. Written communications were hand-carried and no postmark or postage stamp was necessary, nor used, as far as is known at present.

“Communications from Democratic Kampuchea to any person or agency outside of the country was only undertaken, as far as is known at present, by Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. No other people within the country were allowed to enter into any form of communication with the outside world.”

fullsizeoutput_1fbdThere was a time when Cambodia issued some of the world’s most beautiful stamps — delicate works of art that combined expert engraving, rich and subtle coloring, and arresting subjects.  Here are some I captured in images from the Internet:









Here is a stamp issued for use in Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation. I guess that makes it legal, if you accept Vietnam’s occupation as legal. (I give Vietnam credit for saving the country from the Khmer Rouge.) Whether legal or not, you would hardly say this stamp is beautiful, or finely made. A crude product, in my opinion, right down to the ragged perforations; nothing like the artistry of those old Cambodian beauties …



It is a small philatelic tragedy within the immense Cambodian tragedy that this stamp-producing tradition was lost entirely during the terrible years of Khmer Rouge misrule, followed by the indifferent philatelic efforts of Vietnam as caretaker of the “Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.” Today, 40 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh, with the Vietnamese long gone as well, Cambodia still struggles to recover its philatelic equilibrium, and probably much else beyond that.


Above is Bhutan No. 1, which features a sketchy drawing of a postal runner navigating a snowy, mountainous path — quite genuine-looking, if you ask me. The stamp with the image of a tiger (below) looks like a definitive. It is listed as cancelled-to-order, which makes it only semi-legal because it was never postally used. Why are these stamps deemed spurious? Bhutan is a real country, a member of the United Nations. It is landlocked, one of the most sparsely populated nations on Earth. My guess is that Bhutan became a stamp mill — about which more anon.



** I wonder if it strikes you, as it does me, that the countries either exploiting or implicated in illegal stamp production seem to be among the world’s … sketchiest states. Bhutan? Equatorial Guinea? The Khmer Republic? I wouldn’t want my homeland to be on that list.











Which brings us back to Equatorial Guinea, one of whose stamps illustrated the opening of this essay. Before wrapping up my  narrative, let me share some info from Wikipedia about the last 20 years of Equatorial Guinea’s history:


Sure, this team of U.S. astronauts is worth celebrating. But by Equatorial Guinea? While stamp agents were peddling the item to the global stamp market for topicals, the corrupt regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was stealing the nation’s rich resources. The people still live in misery, half the population without access to safe water.  Surely President Nguema — who somehow has acquired a net worth of $600 million during his 30-plus years in power — and his equally predatory cohort had other things to think about than honoring U.S. astronauts. Perhaps they figured gaudy labels like this would serve as a distraction from their dastardly rule.

“… Since the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea has become one of sub-Saharan Africa‘s largest oil producers. It is the richest country per capita in Africa, and its gross domestic product …  per capita ranks 43rd in the world; However, the wealth is distributed extremely unevenly and few people have benefited from the oil riches. The country ranks 135th on the UN’s 2016 Human Development Index. The UN says that less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water and that 20% of children die before reaching the age of five.

“The country’s authoritarian government has one of the worst human rights records in the world, consistently ranking among the ‘worst of the worst’ in Freedom House‘s annual survey of political and civil rights. Reporters Without Borders ranks President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo among its ‘predators’ of press freedom. Human trafficking is a significant problem; the 2012 U.S.Trafficking in Persons Report stated that Equatorial Guinea ‘is a source and destination for women and children subjected to forced labor and FC (sic) sex trafficking.’ The report rates Equatorial Guinea as a government that does not fully comply with minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

My last catalogue at hand is from 1997. (I apologize for not consulting more recent catalogues, but for the moment, I think this one will do.) The 1997 Scott catalogue has no “For the Record” section at all.

This does not mean that the Universal Postal Union folks successfully cracked down on illegal stamps, so that today, 20-plus years later, those irritating decoys and impostors are nothing more than a historical nuisance. Sorry, folks.

More likely what it means is that the stream of bogus stamps to entice collectors to part with their money has become a flood  I don’t blame the editors at Scott if they no longer feel inclined, obligated or generally in the mood to confront the whole distasteful topic. I can hardly stand to go on myself. Just one more part, soon to come, and then I’ll be done and eager to move on to uplifting and interesting stories about stamps — legal stamps!


Too Many Georgetowns, Wayward Money Orders, Obedient Servants and the S.S. Arakaka out of British Guiana


In the image above, I am not actually paging through a stamp album, but rather an atlas. It could be that I am deciding where to send my next money order …

While living in Heidelberg, Germany in 1961 and 1962, a fair portion of my busy days at ages 12 and 13  involved stamp-collecting. I got into the fun habit of sending money orders to faraway post offices, asking the postmaster to send me back stamps for the money. I received in return some wonderful sets from Malta, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gibraltar, Cook Islands — all over. Quite a thrill for a young fellow. Today the sets have increased in value, and some of the colorful, stamped covers sent back from those exotic post offices are worth something, too.


There I am, sitting at center, receiving an envelope with stamps from some far-off British Colony. Such events were quite an occasion, as you can see. Even the letter-carrier got into the act.                                 Photo credit: Mother, obviously.

Pa was an avid stamp collector as well, but he didn’t get actively involved in this zany project. Come to think of it, though, he might have been the one to suggest the scheme. Where else would a 12-year-old have gotten the idea? In any case, when I asked him if he’d like me to order a set for him as well, he did go along with the game a few times, adding money to the total to cover his share.

Sometimes I got in a jam, and had to write follow-up letters and check with the post office. A particularly byzantine process started in the spring of 1961. I was planning to send money orders and letters to George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands, and to Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana. But somehow, things got mixed up.


Above are the first five volumes of my diary, which I began in Pakistan in 1958. I include this image because I will be quoting from my diary in this essay. The excerpts are from Volumes VI and VII, below, which cover the years 1961-2.

I found a typed copy of my letter to the Cayman Islands folded in my diary, dated April 8, 1961. It’s kind of cute:

Dear Postmaster:

My name is Frederick Fiske, and I am a devoted stamp collector. Having said this, I suppose you already know what I am writing about. I would like you to send me, as soon as possible, one variety each of the current issue, as many varieties as the five German Marks that I am sending you in a money order will pay for.  …”

(The letter continues, but I must interject this comment. I already had
purchased the first two stamps in the 1953 series  — the 1/4 penny and 1/2 fullsizeoutput_1e6dpenny varieties — perhaps at an inflated price from the Kenmore Stamp Company approval service, I decided in my 12-year-old, penny-pinching brain that I would try to save myself the cost of these stamps, which would be duplicates. And so I continued:)

“… If the current issue is the issue put out in 1953, would you please leave out the first two varieties … and if a more recent issue has become current, please do not feel obligated to send it to me, 1 each, as many as the money can pay for. Please send the letter back by airmail, as quickly as possible, using my money to pay for the return postage. Please use stamps on the letter.

Thank you very much. Sincerely, Frederick Murray Fiske

I mailed this convoluted and confusing letter April 10. (“please do not feel obligated …”?) A complicating factor was that German postal rules at the time apparently required that money orders be sent separately from the inquiry letters.

My diary entry for April 10, 1961 notes:  Morn headache. Mathias is a bore. Sent m.o. to CAYMAN ISLANDS. People in P.O. didn’t know where it was. …     (Hmmm. That should have been my first clue trouble was coming… )

fullsizeoutput_1e76On April 29, I received a puzzling response from British Guiana, dated April 19. As it happens, I saved the rather undistinguished envelope in my Worldwide Covers album (see right), with the note inside. It was a form letter with some blanks filled in, titled, “British Guiana Postage and Revenue Stamps.” It came from the Chief Accountant at the General Post Office, Georgetown, Demerara State, British Guiana:

“Mr. Frederick Fiske, … With reference to your letter no.  ?  ?  date April 8, 1961, in connection with stamps on sale in the Colony, I am directed by the Postmaster General to forward a List of Particulars and Mail Order Form on opposite page. …”   It was signed:

“I have the honor to be, (Sir or Madam), Your obedient servant

(illegible signature) Chief Accountant”

Though it was flattering for 12-year-old me to be addressed by an “obedient servant,” it made no sense at all that the letter came from British Guiana rather than the Cayman Islands — though today it seems clear enough that those parochial postal clerks in Heidelberg found “Georgetown” British Guiana before they found “George Town” Cayman Islands and simply misdirected my letter (but not my money order?). In my diary entry for April 29, I note: … Had Deutsch test today, and didn’t do too well (or too badly)! Got a letter from Georgetown, Br. Guiana (no stamps) ? Must have stopped there on the way to Cayman Is.  Got new bikes! Mine cost $41.50. In aft. went riding (J, N and I).  Home at 6, and bed at 11. Might send next letter to Africa.

Hold on. Did I really think the letter somehow stopped off in British Guiana en route to the Cayman Islands? I guess my 12-year-old mind figured the fullsizeoutput_1e6cSouth American colony was a way-station for mail steaming from Europe to the Caribbean colonies. Let’s see what a map of that route would look like …

I went to Pa to get help straightening this out. He took the time to untangle the chain of events. Then he drafted the following letter, which I found clipped to my diary, in his neat, careful handwriting (very much like Kingsley Amis’s handwriting, I have discovered):

fullsizeoutput_1e96Philoweg 9


Postmaster, Georgetown, British Guiana

Dear Sir: With reference to your letter No. DPT: 953 c/168,

there has apparently been some confusion. My letter of April 8, to which you refer, was addressed to Postmaster, Georgetown, Cayman Islands, and was accompanied by a postal money order for 5.5 German marks, which fullsizeoutput_1e95amounted to nine shillings eleven pence in their currency. Apparently the money order has gone to the Cayman Islands and the letter to you. Could you please forward the letter to the Cayman Islands, so that the order may be filled. I am enclosing your mail order form, with postal money order for  XXXX German marks. According to German postal authorities, the money order must be sent under separate cover. I hope that the error may be straightened out, and that I may soon receive stamps from both Georgetowns. Yours very truly  (Fred: I’ll take them up to $1. You figure what you’d like, and we’ll add them together)


Thanks to the powers of the Internet, I was able to capture this example of Kingsley Amis’s handwriting, so that you can easily compare it to Pa’s, right beside it. I first discovered this similarity at an exhibition that displayed Amis’s journal. The letters d, m, t, h, etc are very alike. Other letters, not so much. But compare the “Yours …” in the final salutation. Makes me wonder what other qualities Pa shared with the dyspeptic GB novelist …

Have you followed me so far? I typed up a draft letter, and clipped a copy to my diary, dated May 3, 1961. What Pa and I had decided was to take the opportunity to order stamps from British Guiana, as well as get my original letter to the Cayman Islands, where it belonged.

My diary entry for May 5, 1961 notes: …Morn school. Out 1. Had new teacher sitting in at H.A.’s. Looks nice. Home after H-K’s at 5. Practiced. Mowed lawn. Worked with Br. Guiana letter, and bed at 9:45 p.m.

Diary entry for May 6: Morn school till 9:30. Then sent money order with Pa to Br. Guiana. Home for lunch.  … Philohoehe for dinner … Got a little too much to drink … am rather lightheaded as I write this!!!!!!!

So things appeared to be set in tipsy motion toward resolution:  The money order and mail order form were headed to British Guiana, and the Cayman Islands letter was soon to be forwarded from British Guiana to its intended destination. Good luck with all that!

Amazingly enough, everything worked out in the end, though not without further twists to the tale.

By June, I was growing impatient to hear from either British Guiana or the Cayman Islands. My diary entry for June 23 notes: … got new Hi-fi set. Wrote letter to Br. Guiana (again!).

On July 21 a reply came from Georgetown, British Guiana: “July 14, 1961

fullsizeoutput_1e84(To) Mr. Fred Fiske

Sir: I have to refer to your letter of June 24, 1961, enquiring after your order of British Guiana postage stamps of current issue and to inform you that the stamps were dispatched to you on June 2, 1961.

2. The inconvenience which may have been caused you by the delayed despatch is regretted.

I have the honor to be, etc. (illegible signature) Director of Posts & Telecommunications”

What the heck? The stamps were mailed June 2? My diary entry for July 21, the day the explanatory letter arrived, does not seem unduly stressed out, though:  … Letter from British Guiana! …  Hit home run. 2 in math.


These diary entries record my receipt of the two letters from British Guiana, (upper left and lower right) four days apart.

Four days later, on July 25, a substantial envelope arrived from British Guiana. My ship had come in!  The glassine envelope inside contained a  sheaf of beautiful, exotic stamps — engraved, bi-color, mint-never-hinged, post-office fresh. My diary entry for Tuesday, July 25 notes exuberantly at the top: Morn sleep, work, letter from BRITISH GUIANA WITH STAMPS!! …

There was still the outstanding matter of the Cayman Islands stamps to deal with. Another diary entry, for Thursday, July 27, notes: … Aft. to movie, “Mr. Miller Ist Kein Killer.” Was good. Also sent letter to Cayman Islands …

On August 26, I sent a another follow-up letter. My diary entry for Aug. 27 hints at my disappointment at returning from an out-of-town family trip and finding no letter from the Caymans:   … Put my stamps in Europe stock book. Only got a letter from Creech. Wrote him one, and also one to the Cayman Islands. Bed at 10:30.

On Sept. 16, out the clear blue sky and sea, the director of posts and telecommunications in British Guiana sent me the following letter:

“Mr. Frederick Murray Fiske …

Sir,  I have to refer to your letter of August 26, 1961, and to inform you that your money order was received and cashed in British Guiana on May 31, 1961, and the British Guiana postage stamps of current issue which you required were posted to you on June 2, 1961.


I must include this partial image of the letter from British Guiana with its reference to the S.S. Arakaka, or you might not believe it!

2. Although the package was posted to you on June 2, it has been ascertained that the next available sea-mail from Georgetown, British Guiana was on the 26th June, the carrier being the S.S. Arakaka. It is to be hoped that you will already have received the stamps on receipt of this letter.

3. Your letter of June 24, 1961, was acknowledged on July 14, 1961, a copy of which is enclosed for easy reference.    I have the honour to be, etc.”

Are you getting the picture here? Are you seeing how odd this is? It seems that once again, my letter to the Cayman Islands — this one mailed Aug. 26 — was diverted to British Guiana! Is this really standard procedure? (See route on map, above.) Is it something about the trade winds? Or the chronic deficiencies of Heidelberg postal clerks?

I’m not sure that the details of this last letter sank in at the time, but they have some clarity for me now. I am particularly intrigued by the delayed-sea-mail angle. I can just imagine my packet of stamps sitting in steamy Georgetown, Damerara State, British Guiana, starting June 2, waiting day after day for the departure of the packet-ship S.S. Arakaka; being loaded on board to begin the long steam voyage June 26, from the South American coast to Europe …

As I reflected on the preceding, I could not ignore a frisson of deja-vu — a ghostly echo from one of philately’s most famous stories … a story about another ship’s delay in carrying British Guiana stamps. This happened in the 1850s. As the story goes, Postmaster E.T.E. Dalton had 50,000 stamps on order, but the shipment from London in 1856 carried only 5,000 stamps. With supplies dwindling, Dalton arranged for the local newspaper printer to produce a three-value emergency set for the interim. The postmaster was not pleased with the result, however, and very few of the stamps were used. To certify authenticity, Dalton insisted each label be initialed by a postal official before receiving the normal cancel. Within eight to 10 weeks, new stamp supplies arrived from London, and the postmaster withdrew the fullsizeoutput_d4fprovisionals. Today only one example survives of the one-cent, printed on dark magenta paper, bearing the colony’s badge  of a sailing ship in black ink. When this rarest of stamps changes hands, which is infrequently, it goes for millions.

In my case, as in the 1850s, the ship eventually came in. And the director of


By the 1860s, British Guiana had plentiful supplies of new issues. Here are a few from that era in my collection. (The one-cent black on magenta, above, is NOT from my collection, needless to say!

posts & telecommunications in British Guiana (signature illegible) was correct: By the time his last letter arrived in September — by airmail, not sea-post — I had my  stamps. They had arrived July 25, you will recall, and they  deserve words of appreciative description.

The brown envelope inscribed, “On Her Majesty’s Service,” bore two nice examples of the 1954 set. On the back were a pair of thick fullsizeoutput_1e78black wax seals, embossed with a crown and what looks like the letters “STAMP AND PO’S.” The envelope inside contained gorgeous stamps, post-office fresh,  fullsizeoutput_1e79from one cent all the way to the $5. I gave Pa the complete set and kept the second set to the $1, which was as far as my money went.



I think the images above are explained in the text. Below is an image of the stamps I was able to add to my collection as a result of this mailing. As you can see, it is not a complete set — I was still missing three values. Since Pa paid a bit more, he received a complete set — which I inherited when he died. Below is the image of my completed set, along with an enlargement of one of the beautifully engraved and colored stamps therein.




As October unfolded, still with no word from the Cayman Islands, I went to the post office in Heidelberg to follow up. My diary entry for October 12, notes: Morn school as usual. Nance beat me in math test. … Aft. beat her in German test. Home 5, after seeing about my M.O. to Cayman.

I have no memory how I presented my case to the local postal authorities. Perhaps a receipt, carefully preserved? But something got jarred loose as a result.

fullsizeoutput_1e7cOn Oct. 26, a packet arrived from the Cayman Islands. In my Worldwide Covers album I still have the envelope, postmarked Oct. 23. That’s more than six months after I sent that first letter April 10, supposedly steaming toward the Caymans, but ending up instead in … British Guiana.

fullsizeoutput_1e8eMy cover album page also preserves a notification card from the Heidelberg post office that might help explain the delay in the Cayman Islands delivery. To be precise, however, I would have to decipher such phrases as “Nachforschungen nach dem Verblieb,” and “Nachforschungendegebuehr wurden by der Aushaendigung diesen Schreibens erhoben.”  The gist of it, as far as I can make out, is that the  Heidelberg P.O., in response to


The image top right shows the stamps I received in the envelope from the Caymans — missing key values, you will notice. It cost me a bundle to buy them later on. Above is an image of the complete set. (The 1 pound stamp is temporarily removed from the next album page.) Below is an enlarged image of a stamp from this gorgeous set.

my inquiry (“Ihrem Antrag”) of Oct. 12, was able to confirm that my money order (for 5.51 German Marks) had been duly received and processed in the Caymans. Between Oct. 10 and Oct. 23, the international postal bureaucracy was able to pry loose this precious packet of Cayman Islands stamps and send it winging to its intended destination, fullsizeoutput_1e92where it arrived after just three days. By the way, the card with the explanation from the Heidelberg P.O. was sent to me March 30, 1962 — more than five months after I got my stamps, and nearly a year since I sent out my first letter on April 10, 1961.

The post office can work in mysterious ways. …

The envelope from the Caymans was embellished with three of the beautiful stamps from the 1953 set. The cellophane envelope inside contained pretty examples of the set up to the 5 shilling value. All of these stamps have increased nicely in value. I only wish I could have coughed up enough German Marks to buy the set complete to the one pound,  at face value, thus saving me a considerable outlay to acquire the missing stamps from a dealer later on.

fullsizeoutput_1e89I must add this piquant detail:  the itemized list included in the packet (see right) shows that the postmaster (“… your obedient servant, etc.”) had thoughtfully omitted the 1/4d or 1/2d stamps, thus fulfilling my ridiculous request in the original letter of April 8, and saving me three-quarters of a penny for the unnecessary duplicates …

Dear Reader, if you have made it this far, I congratulate you for your patience and forbearance. There is one more little twist to this tale of international philatelic protocol, circumstance and whimsey. It involves yet fullsizeoutput_1e7danother, thick envelope from British Guiana, also preserved in my Worldwide Covers album (see right). This one arrived April 3, 1962.

Before revealing the contents of this envelope, I must provide some context, starting with a request for stamps I sent Oct. 16, 1961 to  Ascension Island, a tiny British Crown Colony in the south Atlantic, hundreds of miles off the coast of West Africa whose capital is … wait for it … Georgetown.

My diary entry for Oct. 16, 1961 notes: … Went to P.O. and sent M.O. to Ascension.
My diary entry for Jan. 1, 1962 notes receipt of a letter from Ascension, as follows: No stamps in the Ascension thing. They said that maybe I could send the money order inside the letter.

fullsizeoutput_1e82The envelope and letter from Ascension, preserved in my Worldwide Covers album (see right) and dated Dec. 4, 1961, reads:  “Dear Sir, Thank you for your letter of the 15th October.

I regret to inform you that you did not enclose the money order mentioned in your letter, and until I receive it I cannot fulfill your order.

There is no airmail service from here to Germany. Yours faithfully, APDunne (sp?) p.p.Postmistress”

My diary entry for Thursday, Jan. 4 notes: … M. sleep till 8:30. Got up early so that I could have breakfast and not have to clear the table. In late morning got off shopping. Sent a correct M.O. (NOT a Postanweisung) to Ascension at the American Express. Aft. stayed around and worked on my album from Pa. …

I presume this means I absorbed the cost of the first money order, which would have been quite a blow, given my limited resources. The next diary entry I can find involving this matter is Tuesday, April 3: M.S.A.U. (diary code for “morning school at usual”). Home about 1:30. Letter from Br. Guiana for Ascension. All messed up. Night bed 9:30-45.

This is the thick letter I described earlier. As to its contents: I presume there was a cover letter, but maybe not. How to explain the bizarre  circumstances of this mailing in terms suitable to an “obedient servant”? The heavy bond envelope went via London, whose circular date stamp of March 29 is on the back. It  contains three items:

fullsizeoutput_1e7e** My envelope mailed Jan. 4, 1962 to “Postmisstress (sic), General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” On the back is a circular postmark inscribed,  “Jan. 7, 1962 — G.P.O., British Guiana.”

fullsizeoutput_1e7f** An envelope “On Her Majesty’s Service,” inscribed, “Jan. 12, 1962, G.P.O. Georgetown, British Guiana,” addressed to “The Postmaster General, General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” This envelope presumably included the envelope I had intended to send to Georgetown,  Ascension, but which ended up in Georgetown, British Guiana — just like my earlier letter to George Town, Cayman Islands. On the back of this second envelope was another circular date stamp, inscribed “22 Ene (Jan.) Aeropostal – Paraguay,”  indicating that my letter had been misdelivered once again, this time thousands of miles south of British Guiana — to Paraguay!

fullsizeoutput_1e80** The third envelope was a larger size, white and flimsy, certainly large enough to contain both my original letter to Ascension and the follow-up envelope from British Guiana. It carried a circular date stamp, inscribed, “Aeropostal, Paraguay, 10 Feb. 1962.” This envelope, like the second one, was addressed to “Postmaster General, General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” Interestingly, “Georgetown” was crossed out — apparently some official decided there were just too many Georgetowns involved! A registration sticker identified the sender’s location as “Asuncion, Republica del fullsizeoutput_1e81Paraguay.” And here comes a real shocker: A rubber stamp in the lower right corner declared: “Missent to British Guiana.” (see enlargement, right;  apparently this happened often enough that it warranted a rubber stamp!) Sure enough, on the back of the envelope from Paraguay was another circular date stamp confirming arrival in British Guiana, inscribed, “Registered Airmail, 21 Feb. 1962.”

“All messed up” is right! Here’s a quick recap: It seems my first letter to Ascension, mailed way back on Oct. 16, 1961, arrived at its intended destination without the accompanying money order. My second letter, sent


The torturous path my letter and money order might have traveled from Heidelberg, Germany to Georgetown, Ascension — via Georgetown, British Guiana, and Asuncion, Paraguay! The final leg of the journey to the tiny island in the South Atlantic is only wishful thinking on my part, since the forwarding envelope from Asuncion ended up — back in British Guiana! To get my stamps, I finally put my case before the Heidelberg postal authorities. Somehow, it worked!

Jan. 4,  1962, with a new money order, went to Georgetown, British Guiana instead of Georgetown, Ascension. (There was no way British Guiana in South America could be a way-station for mail to Ascension Island, well over 2,000 miles away in the South Atlantic Ocean.) Then the letter that was supposed to be forwarded from British Guiana to Ascension ended up in Asuncion, the capital city of Paraguay! (Ascension/Asuncion, get it?) Penultimately, the same letter, forwarded from Paraguay to Ascension Island ended up — back in British Guiana! Finally, postal authorities there disposed of the matter by packing all three letters in that heavy-bond  envelope and sending it back to me, in Heidelberg.

This might have been enough to discourage a less intrepid philatelist. But not FMF! The day after receiving this confusing correspondence,  Wednesday, April 4, 1962, my diary notes matter-of-factly: M.S.A.U. … Out 1. Home 1:30 on streetcar.  … Smoked a cigarette, but it didn’t hurt, cause I didn’t inhale. Bed 9:30, after learning  Deutsch  poem. … Letter to Ascension.

I must have settled in for a patient wait, since the postmistress of Ascension Island already had forewarned me that there was no airmail service to Germany. Happily, the envelope from Ascension — with stamps — finally arrived June 6, 1962. It was worth the wait: In addition to containing a complete Elizabeth II set of 1953 (which has increased 20-fold in value since then), the envelope carried the set complete to the one shilling, with crisp circular date cancels inscribed “Ascension, 21 MY 62” —   perhaps applied by a very accommodating Postmistress Dunne herself?Notice the “By Air Mail” sticker. You may recall that six months earlier, the postmistress wrote there was no air mail service between Ascension and Germany. Notice, too, that I apparently requested the letter be sent via the diplomatic APO address through New York City, which obviously did enjoy mail service from Ascension. My diary entry noted, rapturously: “… LETTER FROM ASCENSION! WONDERFUL. 10 stamps on the cover! Bed 9:30.”


Above is the cover from Ascension, bearing 10 stamps from the beautiful 1953 series., perhaps assembled and applied by Postmistress Dunne. Below is the complete set I paid about $3 for, which currently is selling online for upwards of $75 mint/never hinged, like these examples. In short, I made a philatelic killing. I ask you: Was it worth the trouble? You bet! What a thrill! It’s part of the fun of stamp-collecting.

Version 3





Cinderellas part four: Illegal stamps 3. Cinderellas in the Balkans

The stamps from the Balkans discussed here, many of them illegal, reflect the violent disruptions during the 1990s involving Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. These  emblems of national aspiration began appearing after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Today, Serbs and Croats enjoy influence within a strangely fractured, multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina. So far, so good: Most everyone is  behaving, and like in Northern Ireland, peace seems to build its own self-reinforcing constituency. Back in 1992-93, however, the Muslim Bosniaks, Croa
ts and Serbs (and later the Kosovars) took up arms. It was awful: Thousands died. The Dayton agreement that ended the bloodshed in 1995 is a high point of the administration of President Bill Clinton, who brought the antagonists to Ohio and kept them there until they had a deal. The attached is a stamp commentary that meanders through this perilous time, profusely illustrated with philatelic artifacts from the harrowing scene. I hope you enjoy it!
Best, FMF
p.s. As you may note, this is only “part 3” of my commentaries on illegal stamps. The 

fullsizeoutput_1a84next two should come together rather quickly, then maybe we can get back to … Bechuanaland Protectorate?








Three postal authorities claim the same bridge! Here are three views of Stari Most (The Old Bridge) in Mostar, a small city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The scenic bridge dates to the 1500s, and was the work of Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of renowned Islamic architect Mimar Sinan. A remarkable feat of engineering for its day with its delicate, soaring arch, the old bridge spans the Neretva river in the middle of the multi-ethnic city. Also remarkable is the way it is celebrated on recent stamps from three different postal authorities — one representing Croats (left), another Serbs (right), and a third (center) the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How can three separate national entities lay claim to the same bridge? To find out, or at least grope for some answers, read on!

fullsizeoutput_1acdThe envelope postmarked “Mostar 10.2.93” arrived in my mailbox, in response to my international postal coupon, without a legal postage stamp, an illegal stamp or even a Cinderella. Instead, it carried an ink stamp that read: “Postarina Placena / Port Paye” — postage paid.

Inside was a handwritten note — in so- so English, with several cross-outs — fullsizeoutput_1ac3signed “Trajaneski Dragi,” that was as poignant as it was informative. “Dear Fred Fiske,” the note read. “We haven’t eny stamps. If we have it be late. I am sorry.”

I had sent my international postal coupon the previous June (1992), when I embarked on a philatelic adventure. I mailed out letters to 23 newly authorized postal authorities in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Enclosed in each letter was a postal coupon — I recall it cost 75 cents — which provided for a return letter, using stamps to cover postage from the recipient country. Why did I do this? Because I was interested to see what stamps these new nations and postal officials would use at the dawn of their sovereign journeys. The General Post Office in Mostar was just one of the many GPOs I mailed coupons and envelopes to, from Kiev to Riga to Tashkent. (I expect to report on this in a future blog post, profusely illustrated of course.)

fullsizeoutput_1a9bMostar lies in the southwest of the
confusing nation of
I say confusing,
because part of the
1994 accords that
led to peace in the
Balkans was
establishing three
areas of influence in Bosnia-Herzogovina
— Croatian, Serbian
and the rest of the
multi-ethnic state,
including Muslims.
Serbia staked territorial claims with its sprawling “Republika Srpska.” Croatia apparently didn’t set formal borders, but asserted its sphere of influence in
traditionally Croat areas (including Mostar?), and shared authority in the federation. Each of these three groups has issued its own stamps, through private agencies. BH Posta serves the Bosnia-Herzegovina federation; Srpske Poste makes stamps for the Serbs, while Hrvatska Posta Mostar supplies stamps to the Croatian postal authority. (Note the reference back to Mostar — a Croatian lodestar … ) Some would consider such quasi-commercial enterprises suspect, and place an asterisk against their stamps as potentially illegal, or Cinderellas — even though they have been accepted on letters mailed inside Bosnia-Herzegovina and beyond.

Are all three types of stamps valid throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina? I’ll try and find out … Meanwhile, Croat postal officials seek to have it all ways in their publicity: “Bosnia-Herzegovina-Croatian post Mostar’s postage stamps are guardians of spiritual, cultural, historical and natural wealth … not only of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. These small works of art travel throughout the world and carry our messages, beauty and also are a source of knowledge and evidence of history.”

fullsizeoutput_1a85The Serbian postal authority — or rather, its private contractor — launched a campaign to have its Europa 2017 stamp (right) chosen as the most beautiful in Europe. In 2017, the multi-nation Europa issue settled on a theme of castles that are still standing. In its pitch, the Serb promoters sounded a theme of peaceful coexistence you don’t hear often enough these days. “Once seen as symbols of power, defence, war and supremacy over other kingdoms, it is extremely positive to see these monuments survive the sociological and political evolutions to have a much more peaceful and beautiful connotation at present times.” The uplift continued: “Today these castles are preserved as monuments that do not only teach us about our own past history, but they can also demonstrate how we no longer need fortified walls in Europe, in order to live in safety.” Then came the hook: “Poste Srpske through this topic are proud to present the fortress Kastel, and we urge you to vote for it via an online competition organized by the Post Europ, the association that represents European public postal operators …” (The deadline for votes was Sept. 9; 2017; for the contest results, go to http://www.posteurop.org/europa2017)


fullsizeoutput_1a86In the interests of intra-national good will and fair play, it behooves me to point out that the other two stamp-producing entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina also put out Europa 1017 castle stamps. I don’t know whether they were entered in the contest for Europe’s most-beautiful stamp, but they are pretty nice, don’t you think? Which one of the three do you prefer?fullsizeoutput_1a87

A few more words about these three issues from the separate and distinct postal authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, all issued as part of the 2017 Europa series. Featuring old castles, they include the Serb stamp already shown (Srpske Poste); at right above, the Croat stamp (HP Mostar); and below it the stamp of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH Posta). It is tempting to impute some national characteristics to each of these stamps. Look at the Serbian image, all angular and spikey and showy, with titles proclaimed from the ramparts. The Croatian entry is in softer focus, with a rustic feel; the castle ruins are rounded and accessible, against pastel greenery and blue sky. The Muslim federation stamp has more of an Islamic feel, with delicate twin arches in an intricately detailed close-up of an ancient castle’s stone alcove. Each stamp is striking in its way. I like all of them, though I remain intrigued and a bit puzzled how this tripartite stamp-issuing phenomenon has managed to continue through the years …

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s stubborn demonstrations of philatelic tribalism pose challenges: Collecting all three sets of stamps is expensive! Doesn’t the whole thing perpetuate unwelcome chauvinism? Weren’t these supposed to be more assimilated, cosmopolitan times for the Balkans? Then again, one might ask: Is one set more “authentic” than the other? My vote goes to the stamps of the multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina federation, over those of the Croatian and

Serbian pretenders. (By the way, Mostar is located in the heart of the federation — which seems to entitle both Croats and Serbs to claim it as their own as well.)

A final thought on this subject: I must admit I’m a bit charmed by all three ethnic groups celebrating a common heritage in their side-by-side-by-side stamp issues. I kind of love the idea that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all publicly revere the fabled Stari Most in Mostar — which may lead to acknowledging a shared heritage after all. If you insist on being tribal, I’d much prefer you demonstrate it proudly, through beautiful stamps, rather than by inciting each other with hateful speech, or hitting each other over the head with cudgels, or machetes.

The history of stamps in Mostar is just as confusing as its present status. I have not delved deeply into that history, though I feel I already know much more on the subject that the average reader would be interested to learn. Through the centuries, Mostar was ruled by the Ottomans, then Austro-Hungarians, then Yugoslavs; there was a spasm of fascism under the Nazis, and after World War II, Tito. During the breakup of the Balkans in 1992-3, Mostar was a flashpoint for conflict. First there was fighting between Croat and Yugoslav forces, then Serb and Bosnia-Herzegovina troops.

By February, 1993, when Trajaneski Dragi in Mostar sent me that poignant response to my international postal coupon, I can readily believe there were no stamps available. Many buildings, including historic landmarks, had been wrecked or damaged in the fighting. Postal service was disrupted. Besides, how to decide which stamps to use?! The Yugoslavs had been routed, and were fading into history in any case; the Croats had driven out the Serbs, and were occupying the west side of Mostar; Bosnia-Herzegovina forces were concentrated in the east. Three months later, in May, active fighting would break out again. Quickly, though, the troops settled in for a standoff. By the time the conflict ended, as many as 2,000 people had lost their lives in and around Mostar. In November, 1993, shells from the Croat side destroyed the fabled Stari Most bridge. (The Croats declared the bridge was a strategic target, but scholars and experts scoff at the claim, calling it an example of “killing memory.” The bridge was rebuilt with international aid and reopened in 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.)

During the unsettled times of 1992 into 1993 in the Balkans, Mostar and other cities and regions were disrupted by the pitched battles, sieges and other confrontations involving Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. Just as Croats contested for influence in the Bosnian region around Mostar, so they challenged Serbia in its northeast province of Vojvodina. Stamps appeared in 1992 with overprints claiming to represent Croat interests in both regions.

fullsizeoutput_1a8fBecause of my
fascination with the
very first philatelic
yowls of national
aspiration (even if
they do not last
long), I acquired
some of these sets
— including a
remarkable cover,
illustrated here,
that I must
describe in more detail. The cover contains a set of Yugoslav definitives, overprinted alternately “Souverena Bosna i Herzegovina” and “Souverana Herzeg-Bosna.” The postmark: Mostar. The date: 06.07.92. — July 6, a month after I sent my letter to Mostar in June, and eight months before the stampless return letter to me from Trajaneski Dragi the following February. Just days before this cover was cancelled June 7, the Croats had consolidated their positions in western Mostar. This set from “sovereign” Bosnia- Herzegovina” (the eastern sector?) may appear legitimate. Indeed, it carries what looks like the same cancellation as the envelope I received from Trajaneski Dragi the next February. Yet this set is considered spurious by the philatelic community.

fullsizeoutput_1a8dAlso considered spurious is another set (right), which is listed by a dealer as “Bosnia-Herze-govina/Croatian overprints,” and consists of eight stamps from the Yugoslav definitives, this time with “Jugoslavija” blacked out and replaced by the checkerboard Croatian coat-of-arms.

fullsizeoutput_1a96Another set,
“Vojvodina /
autonomy for the
northern Serbian province which neighbors Croatia,
and includes a sizable Croat population. This set — 10 overprints of Yugoslav definitives — is also dismissed as Cinderellas.

Yet anotherfullsizeoutput_1a8c
Cinderella set of
five Yugoslav
carries the
overprint, “Hrvatska Republika Vojvodina” (Croatian Republic Vojvodina). Nice try, Croatia — and I’ll admit I paid $25 for my set. Today, Croatia survives as a peaceful, modestly prosperous Balkan nation stretched along the sparkling Adriatic Sea— but without Mostar, which is firmly within Bosnia-Herzegovina; and without Vojvodina, which is part of modern Serbia.

I could go on and on about the Cinderella overprints for other Balkan splinter- states of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s — Kosovo, Istra, Sandjak, Krajina … but I sense your patience is wearing thin, dear reader. So let’s quickly review a few more images from the philatelically phractured Balkans, acknowledging that it remains a fertile field of study for Cinderella collectors and others, then move on. I hope that if you delve into this morass and collect stamps from the region, you don’t pay the prices I did!

A small gallery of (a few) legal and (mostly) illegal or Cinderella stamps from the Balkans


fullsizeoutput_1a92Bosnia-Herzegovina has had stamps since the 1870s, when it was part of Austro-Hungary. These stamps depicting a charming Bosniak girl were issued in 1918, at the very end of the empire. They are not “real” stamps, but rather newspaper revenue labels. You’ll notice there isn’t even a country name on them. After Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia, the “anonymous” stamps were reissued, also surcharged (example above), and used for postage. Thus we have an example of a Cinderella stamp fullsizeoutput_1a93that was repurposed as a legitimate postage stamp.



And get a load of this stamp, a delicate  engraving also from 1918. It depicts our old friend, Stari Most — the bridge in Mostar claimed by all three ethnic groups in the stamps illustrated at the top of this commentary.

Version 2Here are more examples of Yugoslav definitives overprinted for “local” use by the territories of fullsizeoutput_1ab8Istra (above right), Sandza (right) and Zapadna (below right). I could spend time trying to fullsizeoutput_1ab6figure out if these are cities, or regions, or states of mind in the Balkan universe — but I won’t. I am intrigued by the longhorn in the Istra coat of arms, the Islamic star and crescent moon for Sandzak, and the fleur de lis and banner for Zapadna — they all suggest multi-ethnic aspirations in contention. I appreciate the struggle, and am glad that everyone seems to have worked things out sufficiently to be living in peace. I like to think of these stamps — all illegal, as far as I know — as emblems of a process that has led to tolerance, coexistence and self-expression.


fullsizeoutput_1ab7The breakaway Balkan province of Kosovo is a whole story of its own, which I won’t try to retell here. Instead, I display two philatelic artifacts from its modern history. The first set, above, is a Cinderella issue representing Kosovo’s national aspirations. fullsizeoutput_1a81The stamps at right  were issued on behalf of the NATO peacekeeping force that did so much to keep things from going from bad to worse in Kosovo. Emerging from U.N. supervision, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Its autonomy remains in dispute — Kosovo is not a member of the U.N. or the Universal Postal Union, so its stamps may or may not be legal …


fullsizeoutput_1abbHere are early stamps from the Serbian side in Bosnia-Herzigovina. In the top row, the stamps are inscribed “Republica Srpskpa,” which corresponds to the name for territory within national borders, but somehow distinct from the federation itself (see map, above). The lower row of stamps add the word Krajina. This refers to Serbia’s claim to territory extending into Croatia, essentially redefining the borders (krajina means “frontier.”) NIce try, Serbia. Eventually the krajina was reaffirmed as the pre-existing border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Krajina label was never recognized internationally, so these stamps are illegals, or Cinderellas — though as you see below, there are postally used examples of these stamps on covers.

fullsizeoutput_1a89Here are a couple of covers I purchased on eBay for a few bucks each. The one on the left features stamps from Republica Srpska which are supposed to be illegal, but were postally accepted just the same on this letter to Italy. The stamps fullsizeoutput_1a88on the the right-hand cover were used internally. As the postmarks indicate, the covers originated in Banja Luka, a city in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina that today lies within the boundaries of the Serbian-claimed territory.


fullsizeoutput_1abdThis oddment at right was listed on eBay as “Travnik probe 1992.” I believe it was issued during the Croat-Muslim conflict around Travnik in the central region of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. (The fleu-de-lis design echoes the Zapadna Cinderellas, above.) The price on eBay is just a few bucks, but I’d pay more than that for an example of this stamp postally used on an envelope.


fullsizeoutput_1a8aI include these two covers I bought for my collection, both mailed in Mostar, to illustrate how illegal stamps can be used on legitimately posted letters. Both letters were mailed internally — the one below right didn’t even leave Mostar. Something about the postmarks struck me. The envelope above left is dated 30.2.92 — Feb. 30, fullsizeoutput_1a8b1992. The one below it  was postmarked 02.08.92 — Aug. 2, 1992. You may recall that I mailed my international postal coupon to Mostar in June, 1992 — four months after the first cover was postmarked, two months before the second cover was processed. My letter should have arrived in Mostar in plenty of time for a return cover to be embellished with those same stamps, legal or not. OK, I understand postal officials may have been distracted by a few things, including civil war. What may be most surprising is that old Trajaneski Dragi got around to responding to my inquiry at all. By February 1993, it seems there were no more stamps available — legal or illegal. Where did the stamps go? Did they just run out? Were they confiscated by one side or the other?


fullsizeoutput_1abaFinally, here is an image I captured from the internet. The overprint is intriguing: It sets a date — 11.05.1994 — that’s May 11, 1994, more than a year before the Dayton Accords would end the Balkan conflict. The stamps bear the inscription “BiH Konfederacija” — Confederation of Bosnia- Herzegovina — and alternating cities, Vienna and Geneva. What role did these cities full of diplomats and international civil servants play, along the road to Dayton? And what about that word, confederacija? The Dayton agreement established Bosnia-Herzegovina as a formal “federation,” not a loose “confederation” of sovereign states. Thus, these stamps not only are Cinderellas, but they rapidly were superseded by history.