Bonus: Fiscals


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

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

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


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

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

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

Version 2

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Bonus: The Tale of the Prodigal Packet

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

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


Look what floated in on the tide …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BONUS: A Deal too Good to Be True



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


1. The Missing Packet

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Bechuanaland Victoria Five-Pound Fiasco

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Zimbabwe’s Heroes? Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zimbabwe’s Heroes? Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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











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


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

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

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

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

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

A published list of Mugabe goodies includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


Somaliland — Yesterday and Today


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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

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


Muhammad Egal

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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



Version 2


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

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

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



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



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





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

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

Version 2

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


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











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 — 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.)