British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Eric Cunningham
(Gold Coast/Ghana 1952-62)
Philatelic Imperialism
Empire Day
The Legacy of Empire Conference (May 2013) produced from the floor laments that the Commonwealth, which had been identified as perhaps the most significant of imperial legacies, was not generally understood or widely appreciated in Britain today. Following this, there were pleas for initiatives to remedy this.

Reflecting on this, I wondered what had helped to make the Empire so meaningful for me and my generation, and perhaps inspired us to seek a career in the Colonial Service. Childhood saw several formative influences. One, as for many people, was the predominantly red-coloured world map displayed on the classroom wall, its Mercator projection splendidly enlarging the area of British sovereignty well beyond proper proportion. Learning of Rhodes' ambition to make Africa red from the Cape to Cairo reinforced the effect of this visual aid.

Commonwealth & Empire Stamps
There was Empire Day - 24 May, if I remember correctly - which somehow never achieved anything like the importance of Armistice Day, and was in due course discreetly dropped. There were books and films of places that could and perhaps should have been within the imperial embrace, not merely so in imagination. In his essay The Lost Childhood Graham Greene tells how his childhood love of King Solomon's Mines may have Influenced him to work in Africa, as I think it did me, and Alexander Korda's memorable film The Four Feathers [Blu-ray] can still arouse strong patriotic sentiment from watching displays of fortitude and bravery in the Empire's cause.

Philatelic Imperialism
1935 Falkland Islands Stamps
And there was stamp-collecting. A hobby encouraged at home and at school because geography, history and general knowledge could all be learned from it, its pursuit was greatly aided by the Stanley Gibbons' British Empire stamp catalogue. This authoritative work promoted among the masses of juvenile stampcollectors the concept of an imperial entity deriving from disparate parts scattered world-wide. The British Empire exhibition at Wembley in 1924 was the subject of Britain's first commemorative stamps, a second issue marking the following year's exhibition as well. Thus the postage stamp became a widely disseminated publicity agent for British imperialism.

Philatelic Imperialism
1937 Swaziland Stamp
The entity of the Empire was reinforced by omnibus issues of stamps for all Crown Colonies, territorial differentiation made simply by displaying the colony's name in clear block capitals. The first issue was in celebration of King George V's Silver Jubilee (1935); there was another for the coronation of King George VI (1937). The Jubilee stamps were grandiose, much larger than any previous stamp: a crowned head in profile, elaborately encircled, looks towards Windsor Castle, Round Tower predominant, and orb, sceptre and sword of state make the border. The Coronation stamps were more modest, but still twice the size of the standard British stamp: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, heads uncrowned, look directly at us but are surrounded by crown, orb, sceptre and sword of state, the symbols of sovereignty.

Philatelic Imperialism
1948 Hong Kong Stamp
For all Crown Colonies omnibus issues marked two other important state celebrations; the Victory Parade after the Second World War (1946), entirely appropriately because many colonies had made very positive contributions to prosecution of the war and were rightly well represented in the Parade, and the Silver Wedding of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (1948). The design of the latter showed marked simplicity appropriate for the time; the couple in profile, the Queen overlapping the King and wearing a modest tiara. A simple crown is placed above them. All these issues - four in thirteen years - promoted the concept of a cohesive empire ruled royally but benevolently.

Philatelic Imperialism
1928 Gold Coast Stamp
Looking again at my far from complete Gold Coast stamp collection, nostalgically retained long after all the others went to Oxfam, I see imperial connections as never before. Stamps in the territory were first issued in 1875, when only the coastal strip was the Gold Coast Colony. Territorial enlargement came in 1902, when Ashanti was annexed after four bloody wars and the exile of its King, and the Northern Territories were declared a Protectorate to safeguard against French and German encroachment.

The first stamps and those that followed displayed simply the regal profile beneath a plain Gold Coast legend, Victoria succeeded by Edward VII and then by George V. The model for these was the standard British stamp which the famous Penny Black exemplifies. Then in 1928 came a change. The regal profile of George V continued, and Christiansborg Castle, the Governor's residence, was pictured below. Why? Gne can only speculate. Curiously, the Indian Durbar of 1911, when George V was proclaimed King and Emperor, as previously Victoria and Edward VII had been appropriately proclaimed, had produced no change in colonial stamp design. Perhaps the time had come to show where the seat of power in the colony lay. It was HE The Governor who governed.

Philatelic Imperialism
1938 Gold Coast Stamp
The first issue of George VI stamps (1938) continued to depict Christiansborg Castle, but the stamps were half as big again, and the Governor's residence was proportionately larger and more dominant. The second George VI issue (1948) was pictorial, and clearly intended to publicise the Gold Coast. Stamps showed the position of the Gold Coast on the map of West Africa, and something of the colony's topography, economy, culture, and social, political and government concerns. There is no documented explanation of this change but it is consonant with greater openness in many official spheres and concurrent with the operation of Colonial Development and Welfare Acts. Inter alia these brought many of the colonies' peoples to Britain for study and training, so postage-stamp publicity for their homelands was appropriate.

Philatelic Imperialism
1952 Gold Coast Stamp
Similar pictorial presentation of the Gold Coast continued with the stamps of Queen Elizabeth, but when these were first issued (December 1952) the colony was already into several months of internal self-government, leading to independence in 1957. That date ended eighty-two years of colonial postage stamps in the Gold Coast.

Postage stamps are for postal services. Colonial postal services were instruments of internal communication and control and agencies of development; they also put colonies in touch with the outside world, providing links for government and commerce, and they made an important contribution to expatriate morale through personal mail. It may be noted that notwithstanding these functions, in the social hierarchy of Colonial Civil Servants postal officials were of lowly status. That the organisations they oversaw moved seamlessly to new governments as Independence arrived is a tribute to their efficiency. New governments were quick to publicise their independent status with appropriate postage stamps, and subsequently have capitalised on both the propaganda potential of the postage stamp and its capacity to generate revenue when the demands and interests of stamp collectors are met.

At the Legacy of Empire Conference the railways were noted as an infra-structural legacy, but there was no mention of postal services, which largely pre-date the railways. I suggest that in any balance sheet of imperial legacies that may be drawn the postal services, as continuing mechanisms for communication, control and development, merit proper recognition.

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Originally Published
OSPA Journal 107: April 2014


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