A History of African Stamps & Collections

Africa is a large continent, inhabited by scores of different ethnicities, speaking hundreds of different languages and dialects. By about 1850, partly through the interference of European powers, partly because of the ebb and flow of history (several large and successful African Empires had broken up between 800 and 1600 AD), and partly because climate and language made large scale political unification difficult, Africa had few indigenous political institutions or the military capabilities that would have allowed it to resist European powers bent on colonization. Early European contacts with Africa had been disastrous for Africans. Rapacious slave traders plied African coasts destroying lives and political power centers. And African tribes were encouraged to fight wars to supply European traders with human POWs for export as slaves. By 1850, the period of extensive capture of new slaves in Africa was largely over (worldwide disgust over the evils of slavery had made international slave trading illegal) and the European scramble for political influence and control in Africa began to reach its height. As the post 1850 period coincides with the beginnings of postage stamps, every political action in Africa after 1850 had stamp issuing consequences and so African political history can be viewed through a philatelic lens.

African Colonial Period

Seven of the nine major European powers of the nineteenth century competed for political influence in Africa.  Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium and to a lesser extent Germany all attempted military and political occupations of Africa (Russia, land locked in Eastern Europe, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, barely maintaining its cohesion against its many internal divisive elements,  did not). Each of these occupying colonial powers established Post Offices in the African nations they controlled and through the stamps that were issued we can gain a window on the times and effects of European influence in Africa.

The largest and most significant of the colonial African powers was Great Britain. Britain issued stamps for scores of its colonies through its postal agents-the Crown Agents. There are two types of British influenced stamp issues –those that were produced in Britain by the Crown Agents and those that were produced indigenously in Africa. The Crown Agent stamps are very popular with collectors but unfortunately tell us little besides the political entities for which they were issued. Throughout the period 1850-1950 these British Crown Agent issues changed little. Usually, they had the picture of the reigning British monarch (Queen Victoria through George VI) along with the name of the country from which the stamp was issued. This was the Crown Agents policy for all the postage stamps they issued for all the British Colonies, so that the early stamps of Sierra Leone look very similar to the early stamps of Malaysia.

Some ten or more of the stamps in the British African areas of influence were not issued or administered by the Crown Agents. These stamps were issued by the Afrikaans who occupied Southern Africa. The Afrikaans were Dutch settlers who came to southern Africa. The Dutch migrated to Africa beginning in the mid seventeenth century and by 1850 they had no other home but the countries in which they lived. There were several geopolitical entities that were controlled by the Afrikaners and the English settlers with which they shared their colonies. The stamps of Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Stellaland, Orange River Colony, Transvaal, and other South African States are unlike any other stamps of the world for interest and local printing flavor. They are very popular with collectors.

The next largest colonial power in nineteenth century Africa was France. France was late to the world wide colonial competition that marked nineteenth century Europe. Britain already had its North American Colonies and Asian colonies and Spain had settled and had interests in large portions of Latin America.  Africa, from a colonialist’s point of view, was virgin territory. The French created scores of African colonies, mainly centered in sub-Sahara Africa. Some colonies, like Chad and Central African Republic were broad administrative areas. Others, like Diego Suarez and Mayotte, were little more than post offices in significant African cities. The colonial stamps that France issued for its African colonies are very different than any of the other European colonial administrators. After the first few issues (which are largely just French stamps overprinted for use in the colony to which they were sent), the French African colonial issues began to be long colorful pictorial sets, illustrating native African life. None of the other European stamp issuers for Africa did this, and we are indebted to the French colonial post office for many of the earliest and most indigenous illustrations of African flora, fauna and people. Early stamp collectors enjoyed these French issues. Remember, in 1890, there was no Internet, not even The National Geographic magazine. Inexpensive, full color illustrations of African life did not exist outside of these French colonial postage stamps. Collectors bought them eagerly and, as the price of the earlier issues rose with demand, created a large market for later pictorial issues. These stamps continue to be among the most popular of all philatelic issues.

The Portuguese maintained two large colonies in Southern Africa-Angola and Mozambique, as well as several other stamp issuing entities that were more post offices than administrative states such as Horta and Kionga. The two main colonies of Portugal followed a issuing policy that seems to have been a hybrid of Britain and France. The earliest issues were boring and bland denomination only issues.  But, noticing the French success with collectors, the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century issues are colorful and interesting depictions of African life. Spain, in its few and insignificant African colonies, followed a similar issuing policy to Portugal. Germany maintained a small interest in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and issued the same stamps for South West Africa that it did for all its far flung colonies-there is nothing African about the stamps at all. And Italy, very late to the colonial game, never had sub-Saharan African colonies.

The final European country that was involved in pre 1950 philatelic Africa was Belgium. The history of Belgium’s involvement in the Congo is one of history’s most gruesome and inhumane stories. In many ways, the way the Belgians treated the Congolese was a precursor for the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi Holocaust.  Belgium was the last European player to begin colonial expansion and seems to have learned all the wrong lessons.  Certainly, Colonialism is at its core exploitive. Nations never colonize other nations for altruistic reasons. They do so to exploit land, resources and labor. Along the way, the more enlighten colonizers, like the British and French, create local infrastructure, education and a functioning local political class. This is done in part to rationalize colonial exploitation. But it is also good long term investment for the Colonial power, as the local population begins to do most of their administrative work for them. And when Independence finally came, it was these European trained teachers, police, and bureaucrats that provided the early government and structure.

Belgium was drawn to the Congo out of naked greed-a desire for power and money. The Belgian occupation of the Congo was one of the most brutal tragedies in world history. Millions of Congolese were murdered and maimed in an attempt to funnel resources out of the country, with as little internal investment as possible. The Belgians even monetized the Congo post office issuing hundreds of colorful stamps were sold to collectors.

African Stamps after Independence

Between 1950 and 1965 nearly all the African colonies gained their independence. Surely, Colonialism had gotten rickety and was nearing its historic end, but the reason that Colonialism’s demise occurred when it did was because of WW II. The war caused Britain and France, the two largest administrators of colonies, to suffer enormous economic losses. From 1939-1945, the African colonies were essentially on their own as Britain and France fought for their very existence. The African colonies had done well being on their own and they were little interested in reestablishing the status quo of older colonial rule. But most colonizers won’t give up their colonies without a fight (see-the American Revolution). England and France were so devastated after WW II that they lacked the resources to regain their foothold in their colonies. When the African countries demanded their independence, there was nothing the Europeans could do but accede. African independence created thousands of stamp issues by over twenty completely independent sovereign nations that continue today.

The Stamps of Independent Africa after 1950

What we call Africa is no more of a united entity than is Asia. Scores of different countries exist across Africa, utilizing hundreds of languages and containing many very different cultures. One of the problems encountered by some African countries is that their borders were not drawn rationally based on the interests and political allegiance of the indigenous inhabitants. Rather, one of the legacies of the colonialism is borders that were drawn on maps in European conference rooms with little attention paid to who lived where. For decades after independence, many countries suffered civil insurrection and other difficulties because the populations of many countries were more traditional enemies that they were peoples who wished to cooperate to create a thriving country. Some of these problems have faded with time and especially with the newer economic opportunity that many African nations have experienced as manufacturers, trade partners, and exporters of valuable industrial minerals.

African postage stamps have evolved in two basic directions over the last fifty years – some countries subcontract out their postal issues and some have maintained internal control of their stamp issuance. It is not well known that several large corporations exist which essentially contract with smaller poorer nations to gain control of their postal emissions. For a large upfront fee and perhaps commissions based on sales performance, these companies design, print and control the issues of the country involved. Often the contract stipulates a certain (usually large) number of issues per year.

The stamps are often never on sale or issued within the issuing country and only are sold to American and European collectors. Collectors who wish to collect postally used stamp or stamps on covers (that is used stamps on envelopes) have to import the stamps into the countries of their supposed origin themselves. Collectors usually have a good idea which countries have subcontracted out their postal issues by simply looking at the issues themselves. Modern stamp issues are often issued with collectors in mind. After all, even a country such as the United States with billions of pieces of mail annually only really needs very few stamp issues for postal needs. Most issued stamps serve political and propagandistic purposes and are mainly issued for sale to collectors (the revenue being used to subsidize the postal service). When a country issues hundreds of stamps, many of which have nothing at all to do with the country’s heritage (think Elvis stamps) then you can be pretty sure that that country has sold their post office to a promoter.

Many of the larger and more economically significant African nations have retained control of their post offices and issue stamps from which we can learn about that country’s history and culture. Nations like Nigeria and Kenya now produce beautiful stamps which, though made for collectors retain their distinctiveness and cultural validity.

The Future for African Stamp Collecting

Popularity in stamp collecting is defined by three factors-economics, education and demographics. Poor nations lack enough people with the financial resources to collect stamps-witness the relative unpopularity of the stamps of Bangladesh. Poorly educated people lack the interest in philately and the ability to appreciate stamps, as philately tends to attract better educated people-witness the stamps of Haiti. And countries with small populations lack the numbers of people needed to increase the prices of stamps of that country-witness the stamps of Iceland. Traditionally, the stamps of modern African nations were rarely collected because of lower education levels and comparative poverty. But this is all changing.

Over the last decade many African nations have enjoyed the fastest growing economies in the world. Part of this was that growth of any sort looks impressive when compared with the very low levels that had existed in much of Africa. But much of the GDP growth has been very significant and many African nations are leaving the realm of Least Developed Nations. Foreign investment has been significant. American and Chinese investors have spent millions on textile plants in Africa, resulting in higher wage jobs for African citizens. Mining, oil, education, health services and resource exploration has helped create a new African middle class. Wealthier, well educated people often collect stamps and this is as true of the emerging African middle class as it was with the Chinese, Indian, and American middle classes before them. Further, many European and Asian mangers have come and lived in Africa helping to build businesses and plants and to help manage them. When these foreign men and women go back to their home countries, many of them collect the stamps of the nations that they have lived in. Such expatriate collecting has always been a significant aspect of the interest in philately.

But perhaps the most important reason for the increasing interest that stamp collectors have in the stamps of Africa is that the stamps themselves have become more focused on individual African interests. There are still occasional African Elvis stamps or man on the moon stamps. But, increasingly, and importantly, African stamps are related to African interests. African statesmen are honored and commemorated. African culture is depicted and exhibited. African artists are designing their own stamps and African values and sensibilities are making these stamps appealing to the people who live in these countries. Now, African nations are proudly designing and producing postage stamps to honor their own heritage. This has created a new generation of young African collectors and, accordingly, increased the appeal of African stamps to Americans and Europeans who prefer their stamps to display the real culture of the nation that issued them.

The future of any hobby is always hard to predict. Stamps used to have a very important function in facilitating communications. Proof of the prepayment of postage allowed letters and packages to move easily throughout the world. It allowed anyone who had purchased postage stamps to mail a letter anywhere in the country. Certainly, phone communications diminished the importance of mail and letters. Email and instantaneous internet communication have further reduced the importance of postal communication. But stamps still are issued and still exist. Indeed, in our increasingly homogenous world as a way for a country to project its art, culture, and values beyond its borders, postal art remains one of the most important ways for a country to get out the message of who they are and how they are different from their neighbors. In this regard, modern African stamps increasing emphasis on indigenous values and culture has ensured an increasing market for their stamps. Finally, the way any country’s stamps become popular and valued as a scarce collectible commodity is for the stamps to have a wide philatelic audience in the three main areas where most of the world’s collectors live-the United States, Europe and China. Americans and Europeans and Chinese are increasingly traveling to Africa for vacations and for work, for the culture and for the history.  Many come back with a handful of modern stamps that they purchased at an African post office. From there, perhaps, they get a subscription the new issues of that country. And after that they can become serious collectors of African stamps.

Share on:
Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top