There’s an adage that is so well known to have become a cliché: “The sun never sets on the British empire.” The phrase refers to the vastness of Great Britain’s colonialist reach, such that even today, with the British empire largely disintegrated, it is still always daylight somewhere in the British empire. At the empire’s peak in the 1920s, it encompassed nearly a third of the world’s population.
For our purposes, that means that few collectors are untouched by the influence of the British empire. Even if you collect modern issues of what is today an independent, sovereign nation that has separated from the British Crown and Commonwealth, you may still find lingering remnants of Britain’s cultural and social impact – such as currency, language, or stamp topic choices.
In this issue, we show a wide range of articles that are related to the British empire to varying degrees. They span nearly every continent, with a mix of postal history, revenues, and stamp studies, classic and modern issues. Before I describe the contents of this issue, however, I will do my best to sum up the complicated legal and political system that was/is the British empire.
What is the British empire?
The British empire involves possessions, dominions and dependencies under the control of the British government and monarchy. This includes territories formally under British sovereignty, foreign territories controlled as protectorates, territories administered by Britain by authority of the United Nations and its predecessor the League of Nations, and miscellaneous others. During the period of British expansionism, over three centuries (beginning for our purposes with the Jamestown settlement in 1607, although British trading ships were active in Asia prior to that point), Britain’s levels of governance over any given territory shifted, meaning that there is no “one size fits all” definition to neatly explain a territory’s relationship with the Crown.
There are a few current and historic terms to keep in mind.
Crown Colony: a territory whose legislature and administration were controlled by the Crown, with varying degrees of autonomy and self-governance, and without direct representation in the British government. Includes Bermuda, the 13 American colonies, colonies acquired through wars, such as Trinidad and Tobago, and for a while was applied to every British territory other than British India. The term is not used today.
Charter company: a trade or exploration company that was legitimized by the Crown via a royal charter, which set limits and rules of trade and responsibilities. Includes the East India Company, which among others had a swath of possessions in India.
Protectorate: a territory over which the Crown has jurisdiction via treaty or grant. Included Sultanate of Zanzibar from 1890 to 1963; Ionian islands from 1815-1864; and most recently Solomon Islands until 1978.
Protected state: a territory which has Crown protection and jurisdiction over foreign matters, not internal ones. Included, for example, the Kingdom of Egypt from 1922 to 1936; Sarawak from 1888 to 1946; and, most recently, Brunei, which gained full independence in 1984.
Dominions: previous Crown colonies that gained independence but recognized the Crown as head of state. Included (for a period) New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and others. The term is no longer in use, and some former dominions are currently republics and are not linked to the British monarch.
Mandates: territories governed on behalf of the League of Nations after WWI, converted to U.N. Trust Territories in 1946. Palestine is one well-known example.
Crown Dependencies: territories for which the U.K. is responsible, but still are self-governing. Today includes just Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man.
British Overseas Territories: self-governing territories, where the U.K. is responsible for defense and foreign relations. Today includes Cayman Islands, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, Pitcairn Island and nine others.
United Kingdom: today refers to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with many islands within the British Isles.
Commonwealth of Nations: an association of 56 independent countries. Formerly known as the British Commonwealth, the association was formed by former Crown colonies (Australia, Sri Lanka, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and Pakistan) and is headed by Queen Elizabeth II. However, today, a few members of the Commonwealth were not former British colonies; some former colonies have left and rejoined; and recognition of the Queen as formal head-of-state is not a requirement.
There is far, far too much to say about the British empire to sum up here. These terms – dry, near-meaningless legal definitions – don’t speak to the actual events that led to the relationships that the U.K. and the former British empire have today. Historians, economists, sociologists and many others have dedicated their whole lives to recording and understanding the events of the three-plus centuries where the British crown held sovereignty over much of the world. Any encyclopedia or timeline that seeks to summarize these relationships and events is bound to over-simplify. (As I am also bound to do in this brief introduction.)
Meanwhile, over the last decades, scholars of British imperialist history are doing very important work studying how native populations were exploited and subject to violence under colonialism, using oral histories and archives to uncover lost (or hidden) stories, and analyzing the ongoing effects of Britain’s colonial presence, even years after a country’s independence. (For example, 4 million Bengalis died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 while Winston Churchill diverted food supplies from Indian civilians to European stockpiles. Today, studies show that a famine can negatively affect multiple generations.) In some cases, the things you learned about a country’s colonial history in school or college may no longer be accurate, or may simply be more complicated than we knew before.
So, all of this is to say that you will never be sorry if you supplement your philatelic research with additional research outside of our field. Much has been discovered in recent years that may add even more fascinating and insightful context to your stamp and postal history collection. The massive influx over the last decade of digitized records may turn up new information about a previously unknown addressee or location. And if you are interested in how a piece of philatelic material fits into our world’s wider history, there’s never been a better time than the present to learn.
What’s in this issue
This issue begins with a contribution from David Robinson of the Bermuda Collectors Society. Bermuda is a self-governing overseas territory with a very modest stamp-issuing policy. Robinson offers a variety of examples of Bermuda stamps and introduces some of the major eras of postal history that new collectors might look for.
A caravel graces an early stamp from Bermuda.
Robert Gray offers a brief glimpse into British India during World War I – specifically, nearly a dozen internment camps which held German and Austrian civilians living in India. Gray shows covers addressed to and from the camps, many with censor markings.
Ivo Steijn brings us to Guyana, formerly British Guiana of the famous 1-cent Magenta, with a story about Guyana’s modern issue policy after independence – the Flower definitive with an excess of overprints.
Carol Bommarito comes back to the pages of The AP with the earliest known cover from Australia to the United States franked with stamps, from the colony of New South Wales in May 1850. The special focus however is the lengthy letter, which Bommarito has transcribed for the first time.
Matthew Healey takes us around British Africa – Basutoland, Northern Rhodesia, Sierra Leone and more – with postage stamps used for revenue purposes. As Healey says, “It is a rich and rewarding field, with endless opportunities to discover beautiful stamps used in fascinating ways.”
Adrian Bethray’s collecting passion comes from a family connection to Sarawak, today part of Malaysia, but formerly under British administration. Bethray explores various well known issues and designs from different eras of Sarawak’s history until it became part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
Finally, Stephen Pendleton explains the four philatelic eras of Pitcairn Island, an overseas territory in the Pacific with a population today of fewer than 100. Via his friendship and correspondence with a few current islanders, Pendleton has discovered material that is quite unique. Interestingly, the sun never sets on today’s British empire solely thanks to the Pitcairn Island’s location – for a short hour or two, the sun only shines on the island and is set on every other territory that still remains part of the British empire.
A few words of acknowledgment
Thank you to Gary Wayne Loew, who reviewed three Stanley Gibbons catalogs of interest to Great Britain collectors. For many collectors of the British empire, Stanley Gibbons are the catalogs of choice, and Gary explains why with these examples.
I want to thank everyone who stepped up to contribute to this issue, many of whom were introduced to me through the British Empire Study Group. Meanwhile it’s clear to me that we could publish a British empire-themed issue every month for the next year and never repeat a topic, or feature the same author twice. Such is the immense variety and vast scope of this topic.
I encourage you to take a special look at the advertisers featured in this issue. Many are experts in different areas of Great Britain, the Commonwealth and British overseas territories, and can help you as you start a new collection, or add to an ongoing one, in a topic relating to this issue. Whether you check out their website, inquire about an item, or make a purchase, please let them know that you saw their ad in The American Philatelist.