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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.