Guyana, the only (official) English-speaking country in South America, has always been of oversized interest to philatelists for such a small country. As British Guiana it issued what’s known as the world’s rarest stamp, the 1-Cent Magenta, in 1856; even before that, the “Cottonreels” of 1850-51 attracted great interest among collectors and are now regarded as “classics” of the British empire.
The other issues of these early decades also offer a lot to the specialist collector. British Guiana’s issues eventually became those of a run-of-the-mill Crown Colony with no more fireworks. Self-government was granted in 1961 and full independence as Guyana in 1966.
The first 15 years of independence were uneventful enough, but after that, Guyana pursued an issue policy that lifted eyebrows to stratospheric heights around the globe. During the 1990s, the policy was mostly one of excess, with miniature sheets and thematic issues on the wildest variety of subjects galore. Often these issues were distressingly gimmicky: cut-to-shape sheets, gold and silver embossing, etc.
During the second half of the 1980s, it was orchids: Guyana issued hundreds of stamps (more than 300) illustrating orchids (taken from a famous illustrated book on Reichenbachia), including surcharges, overprints and others. Again, mercenary motives were probably at work here.
But it was before that, during the first half of the 1980s, that Guyana first gained a reputation for philatelic eccentricity.
Starting in May 1981, Guyana almost ceased issuing new stamps altogether and simply overprinted the apparently vast stocks of older issues again and again, with new face values, new purposes or both. While it is tempting to think of this as aimed at collectors only, the truth was a little more complicated than that.
Since its independence in 1970, Guyana had been under the enlightened leadership of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. Guyana was declared to be a “Cooperative Republic” and various more or less eccentric economic policies were pursued, including nationalization of several large industries.
Sadly, the oil crises of the 1970s had their effect on Guyana’s economy as well. Briefly put, the country ran out of money, crippled by a huge foreign debt and further handicapped by admirable, but expensive, government policies such as self-sufficiency. Under those circumstances it was quite understandable that no more hard currency reserves could be spent on having stamps printed abroad. Instead, existing stocks of stamps were simply overprinted locally whenever the need for a new stamp issue arose.
More than half of these overprinted/surcharged stamps used the Flower definitives of 1971-1976 (Scott 133-147) as raw material.
These were charming stamps, issued in sheets of 25 that made them very suitable for overprinting. Four values exist in two different perforations and the 25-cent stamp exists in two different designs, but other than that it’s an uncomplicated set of stamps. During the 1970s, three stamps were given a new face value by overprinting them – hardly excessive – and most of the set had been overprinted “Revenue Only” to serve as revenue stamps in 1975.
But starting in 1981 with commemorative surcharges to celebrate the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, Guyana authorities went overprint-happy and issued more than 300 different overprints or combinations of overprints on the Flower definitives, mostly during the first half of the 1980s. These issues fall roughly into three groups:
Revaluations. Guyana was no stranger to inflation and postal rates increased during this period, creating demand for stamps of higher face values and for “make-up” values.
Commemorations. Anything from Boy Scout centenaries to religious festivals were honored with a commemorative overprint.
“Repurposing” (if you’ll forgive me this ugly word). Postage stamps were turned into official stamps, or parcel post stamps, or official parcel post stamps and then back into postage stamps again. And the revenue overprints of 1975 joined in the fun as well.
You might be forgiven if you think this was all exploitative rubbish, designed to separate collectors from their hard-earned cash, but the truth is that most of these issues were widely available throughout Guyana, were used to frank mail and often filled a need, as some of the illustrated examples show.
What makes these issues so challenging to collect is that identifying a given stamp correctly can take quite a slog through the catalogs, and some catalogs are more helpful than others.
I’ve found the Michel catalog very useful since it not only notes which stamp was overprinted, but also which subsequent overprints appeared on that stamp. The Scott catalog collects overprints of similar appearance into groups, which is not always helpful, and neither the Scott nor Stanley Gibbons catalogs are very good at noting which subsequent overprints appeared on a given stamp. In the end I produced my own catalog of these issues, including a three-catalog cross-reference and found it time well spent.
A sample of the author’s self-made catalog of Guyana overprints.
To illustrate the scale of the problem, the 60-cent stamp (Scott 144) is a good introduction. It exists with four different overprints, including the “Revenue Only” overprint (Figure 1). In addition, various further overprints were later placed on two of these, creating seven different stamps with two overprints (e.g. Figures 2 and 3). For example, the “Revenue Only” overprint exists with no fewer than five different “second generation” overprints.
Figure 1. The 60-cent Flowers definitive, overprinted for use as revenue stamp in 1975. Not listed in Scott.
Figure 2. The same revenue stamp as Figure 1, overprinted for the 1982 soccer World Cup in Spain and given a new face value of $1.80. Prepared for use but not issued, see note after Scott 500.
Figure 3. Essay with a red overprint for the same “prepared for use but not issued” stamp.
Finally, on three occasions a third overprint was added to two previous overprints (e.g. Figure 4), so even without trying hard there are 16 collectible stamps based on that 60-cent stamp alone. I’ll also point out that “prepared for use but not issued” overprints also exist, adding further complications. Varieties also exist but they are surprisingly scarce. A stamp with four overprints also exists (Figure 5). And while you may think this was all produced for the philatelic market, these stamps were all used for non-philatelic mail (Figure 6).
Figure 4. The “prepared for use but not issued” stamp, further overprinted to celebrate Italy’s victory and surcharged $2.35, Scott 499.
Figure 5. Scott 499, surcharged $2.30 in 1984, Scott 777.
Figure 6. A1984 use of Scott 777, slightly overpaying the $2.25 registered letter rate, from Lethem.
In all, I’ve found these stamps a pleasure to collect, and finding them used on cover is a nice challenge (Figures 7 and 8). Gold-embossed Mickey Mouse stamps, no thanks; but these overprinted Flower definitives are a lot of serious philatelic fun.
Figure 7. Two doubly overprinted stamps making up the $2.25 rate, from MacKenzie (Scott 729 and 787)
Figure 8. $17.75 registered postage on this 1987 letter from the ministry of Agriculture in Bourda, to Germany. (Seven copies of Scott 1384, 14 copies of an unlisted “1986” surcharge on Scott 394 and a single Scott 669r).
Dr. Ivo Steijn keeps himself entertained by collecting various aspects of Russian philately, as well as Guyana 1981-1985.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
“1980 Guyana Overprint” by anon. Bulletin of Rotary on Stamps society, December 1982.
“Overprinted Orchid First Day” by Denise Hatton. Linn's Stamp News, June 10, 1996.
“Stamp Collecting Basics – Making New Stamps from Old with Overprints and Surcharges” by Janet Klug. Linn's Stamp News, February 23, 2015.