Friday 28 May 2010

New Tonga Surcharges

The main highlight for me when I recently visited the rather quiet, diminutive and expensive-to-travel-to "London 2010 Festival Of Stamps" (why do all these affairs in Britain have to be held in London?) was my visit to the stand of the dealer Steven Zirinsky from New York where I was able to see and purchase some of the latest Tongan surcharges which he had written about in a recent edition of Gibbons Stamp Monthly and which are of more importance to stamp collectors than most other modern philatelic emissions since the Tonga Post Office really does produce them to be used on mail rather than to bleed collectors of money. Unfortunately these items are not sold to collectors so that they are so rare that they are difficult to find and shockingly expensive to buy. But they are REAL postage stamps. In his article, Mr Zirinsky described how Tongan postal rates were increased from 20s to 30s in 2008 and to deal with this three surcharges were produced by hand stamping previous issues. They are exceedingly rare. Two of the items were Niuafo'ou issues of 1998 and although he had one on cover he was not able to put a price to it for the present and the item was not yet for sale. The third handstamp, the 2000 Commonwealth Membership 55s surcharged 30s, was being sold for $700 on cover and I believe he had three different covers for sale. After the handstamps, three machine-printed surcharges have been produced - the first on 21 November 2008 being the 55s depicting Vava'u Port Of Refuge. The illustrations here depict the three machine printed stamps and the Commonwealth 2000 hand-stamped item. Exciting, if expensive, Commonwealth stamp collecting.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

British New Issue Nonsense (1); Selective Memory

No-one can doubt that most countries now produce new stamps not because of any postal need nor even to honour someone worthwhile  or commemorate a particularly important national event, but simply to make as much as money as they can get away with without putting off collectors from buying their stamps. The British post office, Royal Mail, long in serious financial difficulties, has for some years now given up any pretense at considering the wishes of their stamp collecting public and issues more and more stamps every year, some of which are not even available at ordinary post offices for the public to buy to use on their mail. In 2008 Royal Mail began a series of issues which on the face of it at least had some historical interest although the issues were only tentatively related to any specific historical anniversaries or commemorations - that of featuring British monarchs although the series started off at an arbitrary date - 1399 - which is when the House Of Lancaster came to power under King Henry IV who had had his predecessor, King Richard II, starved  to death - not a very promising personality to be featured on the first stamp of a long series. 
  The latest series features the first monarchs of the united Great Britain  - the Stuarts - and an accompanying miniature sheet deals with important subjects of the Stuart era - the physician William Harvey who was the first man to describe the circulation of blood, the civil war which was waged throughout the British Isles, the stamp itself featuring Sir Thomas Fairfax who was a leader of the Parliamentary forces, the poet John Milton, and a design related to John Vanbrugh, a dramatist. What the miniature sheet does not depict, however, is rather significant - it does not feature the two rulers of England after the deposition of Charles I after the Civil War - Oliver and Richard Cromwell, who headed the republic that replaced the monarchy for ten years or so. Of this father and son pair, the omission of Oliver Cromwell is the most significant - he is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in British history who had a profound effect on the course of British government but he has never been depicted on a British stamp. Cromwell is notorious in Ireland for the aggressive campaign he waged there during the Civil War and even today he remains a loathsome figure in that part of The British Isles. It is almost certainly for that reason that he has not been featured on a British stamp but his importance to English history means that for the sake of not causing offense to one part of the country, his role in another part can never be commemorated - political correctness taken too far? The omission of this giant of British history makes a nonsense of the British monarchs series particularly when it has featured a collection of murderous monsters already - Richard III, who even his numerous apologists can not deny killed his own nephews to clear his way to the throne as well as probably murdering his brother, his wife and the former feeble-minded King Henry VI. Henry VIII who saw his way to arranging for two of his wives to be beheaded as well as numerous other people - great and humble - who fell victim to his paranoid bloodthirstiness and Mary I who delighted in burning frail, elderly priests at the stake although she never brought herself to go and watch such a horrific event herself. These are just the sort of people who manage to find their way on to stamp designs when a post office is issuing stamps just to make money rather than to commemorate people of national worth.
  And then even if you ignore the monsters, Cromwell's achievements are much more worthy of commemoration than those of poor Queen Jane, a young girl who ruled for just nine days before being deposed and executed by Mary Tudor or Edward V who ruled for a couple of months and then disappeared as the victim of Richard III. The depiction of poor, pious Henry VI, mentioned above, is also questionable since whilst being a founder of admittedly important educational establishments he did manage to lose the crown of France which his father had won for him. In the presence of monsters and nonentities it is disgraceful that Cromwell has not received a philatelic commemoration in his own country - Royal Mail has air-brushed him from history. Perhaps a stamp or stamps could be released but perhaps not in post offices in Northern Ireland to avoid offense there.

Monday 17 May 2010

African Problems 1 continued

On 1 September 1991 the new Eritrean Postal Administration opened a number of post offices - at Asmara, Assab, Adiquala, Adikeih, Akordat, Barentu, Decemhare, Ghindae, Mendefera, Masawa, Keren, Tessenai and Senafe. and the first postage stamps were issued on the same date. A set of three issued in a quantity of 20000 of each value was released in three colours printed by Adulis Printing Press in Asmara, the Eritrean capital city. The stamps are featured in a catalogue of Eritrean stamps of the period 1991 to 2004 produced by The Philatelic Bureau in Asmara and the illustration (immediately above this text) depicts three very crudely produced stamps with rough irregular perforations. Two other values were also produced later (not mentioned in the Philatelic Bureau catalogue) which included a 5 birr value. These are listed in Stanley Gibbons Catalogue but are unpriced and again very crudely produced on very thin paper, very much resembling the original three values in the quality of the finished product. I have two examples of the 5 birr which while both being alike in design, are printed on different sizes of paper ( see illustration above) so that one of them has much wider borders to the stamp. Last year I obtained a set of the original three stamps from Herrick Stamps in New York (third illustration) but was surprised to find that they vary very considerably from the items depicted in the Eritrean Bureau Catalogue - they are not only redrawn but also much more professionally produced. Early commemorative stamps of Eritrea from 1993 to 1995 were produced by BDT, Enschede and also in Rome and one wonders if the redrawn set originate from any of those printers. I have yet to see a set of those first stamps as illustrated in the Eritrean Philatelic Bureau catalogue but presumably the more primitive versions are those arising from the Asmara printer. It seems to me that there are many questions yet to be answered about this particular stamp issue.
  News of new issues from Eritrea is slow to arrive and only in the last few days have I obtained a stamp I have not previously seen (4th illustration above text) despite having visited Eritrea (including several post offices and the Philatelic Bureau in Asmara) in November 2008. The stamp is valued 70c and depicts Eritrean resistance soldiers with the flag of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and has a "2008" imprint in the lower border along with the name of the designer, "graphic design by Laine Biala", at the lower right and that of the printer, Joh Enschede, at the lower left. This single value is probably part of a bigger set and I wonder if it commemorates the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the town of Nafka in 1977, a significant event in the Eritrean struggle for freedom. No doubt all will become clear eventually. Although the stamp has a 2008 imprint it may have been issued later than that since, as I say, I did not see it being sold in any outlet as late as November of that year. This particular example looks as though it was postmarked at Keren, one of the post offices I visited, and it was certainly not on sale there when I went.
  Finally I turn my attention to one of the African countries which has come quite latterly to be a member of The Commonwealth - Cameroun (see posting no 1). Information on new issues from there is hard to track down and new issues are extremely infrequent. To the best of my knowledge the most recent issue has been the pair of stamps which commemorated the papal visit to Cameroun which was released on the 17 March 2009. The stamps feature the Pope and President Biya and are tastefully designed and nicely printed by Cartor. The illustration (top of the page) depicts the first day cover from Yaounde.

African Problems 1

The problem with the new African members of The Commonwealth mentioned in my previous posting is that it is really quite difficult to find information about new stamp issues. I make my life even more difficult by including one or two countries in my collection which are not Commonwealth members but do feature in the "Part 1" catalogue in a former life - they may have been occupied or ruled by Britain at some stage in their history and on or since independence have not joined The Commonwealth which their former constitutional links with Britain entitle them to do if they so wished. One of these countries is Eritrea which had originally been annexed by the Italians in 1892 and which became a full Italian colony in 1890, forming part of Italian East Africa from 1936 to 1941 when it was occupied by Great Britain during World War 2. The British administered Eritrea until it was federated with Ethiopia on 15 September 1952. The Ethiopian regime gradually became more oppressive and fully integrated Eritrea in Ethiopia on 14 November 1962. Rebel groups began to resist the Ethiopian government and after years of conflict and the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Miriam, the Ethiopian dictator, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front took full possession of Eritrea in 1991, held a referendum on independence in 1992 and proclaimed the independence of Eritrea on 24 May 1993.

Friday 14 May 2010

New Commonwealth Countries: Rwanda

  Since the mid-1990's, collectors of Commonwealth stamps have had three new countries to deal with - one of them a territory only a fraction of which had been under British rule until the beginning of the 1960's (Cameroun) and the other two which never had constitutional links with Britain or any other Commonwealth country at all (Mozambique and Rwanda). 
  Rwanda had been part of German East Africa from 1894 and was taken over by Belgium in 1916 during the First World War. Prior to German occupation the country's history was one of settlement by the Hutus from the tenth century but they had become dominated by the Tutsis from the fourteenth century. In 1919 the territory became part of The Mandated Territory of Ruanda-Urundi under Belgian administration. Whilst still under Belgian rule the Hutus rebelled against the Tutsis and on 2 October 1961 King Mwami Kigeri was deposed by the dominant PARMEHUTU party which formed a government on 1 January 1962. The Belgians granted independence to Rwanda on 1 July 1962 as a republic but in 1990 a civil war broke out between the Hutu and Tutsi populations which culminated in appalling massacres of the Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. The country gradually recovered and elections were held in 1999 which brought a unifying government to power. The new president largely blamed the French for meddling in the country and causing the disaster which had befallen it and consequentially led the country away from the Francophone sphere of influence towards the English-speaking group of nations and, particularly as he received support from Uganda during the civil war, he saw advantages for Rwanda in joining The Commonwealth. After years of working to receive approval for its admission to The Commonwealth, Rwanda finally became a member of the organisation on 28 November 2009 at the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting in Trinidad. Completist collectors of the stamps of The Commonwealth were therefore faced with a new country to collect.
  Very reasonably the editor of Gibbons Stamp Catalogues begins listing of newly joining countries at the first issues after the date of admission of the country to The Commonwealth. This is a relief since the Commonwealth collector is not then faced with decades of previous stamp issues to track down and buy although it means that any collection of these countries begun in such a manner falls a long way short from telling the postal history of the territory. Rwanda has pleasingly had an ultra-conservative stamp-issuing policy in recent years and apparently has not issued any new stamps since 2003, issues before that date additionally being quite infrequent. But in some ways that is a little disappointing since the pleasure of knowing that we have an interesting new philatelic entity to collect is rather thwarted by the fact that there is not actually anything to collect at present. What to do? I thought it might be reasonable to make a small collection of the stamps that are currently available at Rwandan post offices for use on ordinary mail. Sadly I live a long way from Rwanda and have no opportunity to visit the country to see what is actually being sold. So I suppose that looking at recent mail coming from Rwanda is another approach but unfortunately I have not yet been able to track down a source of such items. So for the present I have contented myself with buying some covers from the early 1990's and early 2000's (presumably mail during the mid and late 1990's was severely disrupted by the civil war) and that has provided me with a philatelic introduction to this new Commonwealth member. The stamps on the covers all seem to have subjects of local relevance and the circular postmarks, most in blue ink while I also have one in violet and another in black, are an introduction to the country's towns from where the mail originates. Perhaps, after years of trying to gain admission to The Commonwealth, Rwanda will make a stamp issue to commemorate its successful application but if it does I do not know how long it will be before stamps collectors discover that such an issue has been made. At least at the moment we are not faced by a tsunami of agency-produced stamp issues which have no relevance to Rwanda and which have little chance of ever getting used on the mail in the country.
   The illustrations depict cancellations from the town of Nyabisimdu, the town of Butare in southern Rwanda and the capital city of Kigali. The former is in black ink and dated 22 August 1991, the second is in violet ink and probably dated 2002 and that from Kigali is in blue ink with a date of 30 January 1991.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Commonwealth Stamps

When I was a boy 40 years ago it was quite normal not only for large numbers of children to collect stamps but also for those of us who lived in Britain to take a particular interest in those issued by Britain, its Commonwealth and Empire. Now stamp collecting holds little interest for most children and most current collectors have grown old with their collections. Children live in ignorance of little pieces of paper bearing exotic names such as Mauritius or Tristan Da Cunha or of islands with romantic histories such as Pitcairn or Malta or St. Helena. There's no thrill for them if they receive an envelope with a stamp on it which depicts a creature from a Barbados or an inhabitant of Sri Lanka or a bird of paradise from Papua New Guinea or a sailing ship from Saint Lucia. Instead those thrills are now more likely to be experienced by someone over 50 who recalls his or her childhood when soaking a colourful piece of paper from an envelope seemed to be a highly rewarding exercise. In latter years these older people have even probably visited some of these countries whose names they first learned from their childhood postage stamp collection with the spread of easy international travel. 
  I have collected new and old Commonwealth stamps since my childhood and I often wonder exactly how many of these old-fashioned style general "Commonwealth collectors" there still are - certainly it is challenging trying to obtain all the new issues that are pouring out from various Commonwealth postal administrations and I long ago became more selective about the new issues that I buy if only because it would be financially crippling to obtain them all. I refuse to buy stamps featuring Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson issued in large expensive sets by tiny Commonwealth islands which the celebrities had not only never visited but had probably not even heard of. If only catalogue editors would recognise the ridiculousness of continuing to catalogue such items which have little chance of being genuinely used on real mail from these territories and how hard it is for the typically obsessionally completist collector to resist buying items which the major catalogues have included in their listing. While the editors continue to list this massive flood of new issues they hand the postal agencies a licence to print money and provide collectors with frequent dilemmas as to whether they should buy the stamps which are, after all, "fully catalogued" and therefore a vital and necessary part of their collection if they to be able to consider it to be a complete collection. 
  By ignoring such issues and only collecting stamps which clearly are relevant in subject matter to and are for genuine use in these territories, and it really is not hard to work out which of those issue are meant for genuine postal usage rather than as a "collectable", a very satisfying collection of Commonwealth stamps can still be built up - one which tells you about the fascinating history, culture, wildlife and so on - of a marvellously diverse range of countries which have a common link. There are challenges a plenty in trying to obtain the stamps meant for postal use from many of the territories - a number, such as Cameroun and Kenya, are now quite secretive about their infrequent new issues so even discovering that the stamps exist is a real problem let alone getting hold of them when you do discover their existence. And then there is the problem of provisional surcharges which a number of postal administrations guard against philatelists so that these items issued in frighteningly small amounts can actually be used on mail sent by the local populations rather than finding their way into collectors' albums. Chasing up some of these stamps is immensely challenging (and great fun as a result) but also potentially extremely expensive (not good fun) and sometimes, ultimately ending in failure. Recent surcharged issues from St. Vincent, Tonga and Fiji are examples of this interesting aspect of modern Commonwealth philately and who knows what else is lurking out there. 
  My Commonwealth collection therefore provides me with never a dull moment. If you do get momentarily tired of the new, you can always delve into some of the magnificent older issues - the beautiful intaglio-printed stamps of the reign of George VI or visit some of the more unusual territories often unheard of by most of the population and whose places in The Commonwealth Catalogue are ephemeral - Transjordan, Batum, Wei Hai Wei (British Post Offices in China), Heligoland and so on. Never a dull moment.