Josna Rege

516. Stamped by the Empire

In Britain, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, postcolonial, Stories on September 20, 2022 at 2:24 am

As a child, first in Greece and then in India, I maintained a stamp collection. I ought to add that I maintained it only after a fashion, since I have never been a particularly well-organized or patient person, so I frequently cut corners on the finer details of systematization, such as putting stamps from different countries on different pages. From 1960 to 1963 I had a steady supply of them thanks to my father’s international set of colleagues at Doxiadis Associates in Athens and our other expatriate friends from all around the world. After we returned to India in 1964 my parents bought me a new album and I continued to build my collection for a few years, waiting almost as avidly for letters from overseas as my mother did for news from her family in England. My zeal waned as I entered my teens and eventually petered out altogether in the 1970s, after we had been in the United States for a couple of years. I still kept the collection, carrying it around with me wherever we moved, but mislaid it for a decade or two and almost gave it up for lost until just recently, when it resurfaced in a box of old papers. Looking at it today, when the body of Queen Elizabeth II has just been laid to rest, I realize what a time capsule it is, since many of the countries represented in it were still colonized by Britain or other European countries or had only recently won their independence. It also reminds me how recently large swaths of the world were under British colonial rule, and brings home to me yet again the historical significance of this moment.

It is indeed the end of an era, as the pundits have been proclaiming ever since the Queen passed away just ten days ago. For her reign coincided with decolonization and she identified herself with that process through her particular interest in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, over which she presided as the British Head of State. (“British” was removed from its name in the aftermath of India’s independence in 1949, as a gesture toward the idea of free and equal membership.) Those 15 member-states who, as Commonwealth realms, still recognize the British monarch as their head of state will have to replace Queen Elizabeth’s silhouette on their stamps with that of King Charles III, who is already the head of the Commonwealth following a 2018 vote to that effect. Additionally, there are five member-states ruled by other monarchs and 36 more that are republics for whom King Charles’ leadership, like that of his late mother, is merely symbolic. Going forward, it seems likely that other Commonwealth realms will follow the example of Barbados, which became a republic in November, 2021, thereby removing the Queen as their head of state.

Unsurprisingly, the death of the Queen has become an occasion for debate over the function and future of the Commonwealth, and as a scholar of postcolonial literature  I have plenty of opinions on this issue. Though billed as a voluntary association of free and equal nations, the Commonwealth has always been led by Britain. As its direct political control of country after country was lost, the Commonwealth became an instrument of soft power for Britain, uniting former colonies under its cultural mantle to uphold shared humane and democratic principles. English itself has been an important element of that benign leadership, much as, back in the 19th century,  English language and literature were employed in the colonies as Masks of Conquest (discussed brilliantly in Gauri Viswanathan’s 1989 book of the same name). But I will defer further postcolonial critique for the time being, in favor of a selection from my stamp collection of the early 1960s, to commemorate the end of the second Elizabethan era and also to remind us that the colonial era and everything associated with it is still very much in living memory, and in many cases still very raw.

The island of Mauritius, colonized by France in 1715, was taken over by Britain in 1810 and became a plantation-based Crown Colony. Unlike the dodo, which went extinct in 1690, its colonial past ended only recently, in 1968, when independent Mauritius joined the Commonwealth as a republic. 

New Zealand is a Commonwealth realm and a founding member of the Commonwealth. It became a British colony in 1840, gained Dominion status like many of the predominantly white settler colonies in 1907, and remains a constitutional monarchy to this day.

The British took over Hong Kong in 1842 after the first Opium War and gained further ground in 1860, after the second. In 1898 Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for control of the highly lucrative port and surrounding islands, a term that ended in 1997 as Britain relinquished its last economically significant colony. You might be interested in watching these two short videos in which writer Amitav Ghosh talks about about the Opium Wars, waged to force so-called “free trade” on China, and offers some historical background to his gripping Ibis Trilogy.

Australia, a British penal colony that became a federation of British settler colonies, gained independence in 1901 and, further, in the Australia Act of 1986, “formally severed all legal ties with the United Kingdom except for the monarchy”. In 1999 a republic referendum was defeated, maintaining Australia as a Commonwealth realm, at least for the time being.

This page, labelled “Africa,” is not a shining example of my grasp of geography, since the four triangular stamps glued firmly into the bottom row are from Croatia. Furthermore, there is no system of organization of stamps from the various African countries, several of which were not colonized by Britain, and, in the case of Ethiopia, not colonized at all. I see stamps from Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a short-lived British colonial federation of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi).  Zambia and Nyasaland joined the British Commonwealth in 1964. Southern Rhodesia had a rocky road. Originally controlled by the Matabele tribe under Chief Lobengula, it was fought over by the Boers and the British, especially with the discovery of gold in the 1880s, and named Southern Rhodesia after the British imperial adventurer Cecil Rhodes. By 1899 it was governed by the British South Africa Company and was to be incorporated into the Republic of South Africa, but the white settlers of Rhodesia rejected that move and broke off from Britain in 1923. In 1965, Ian Smith’s white racist government issued its Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI), but was not recognized by the Commonwealth. Amidst international disapproval, black Rhodesians organized to fight for independence and won majority rule in 1980 with the formation of Zimbabwe. The country was a Commonwealth member until 2002, when it was first suspended and, a year later, withdrew. A 2018 application to rejoin is currently under review. 

Other former British colonies on my Africa page are Nigeria (independent since October 1, 1960), Uganda (independent since October 9, 1962), and Kenya (independent since December 12, 1963). All three are still members of the Commonwealth, despite the widespread detentions, torture, and killings perpetrated by Britain in Kenya from 1952-1960 during the state of emergency imposed to crush the Mau Mau rebellion. However, in 2013 a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 survivors managed to wrest some monetary compensation and an expression of regret from the British government.

South Africa also had a long and bloody struggle for independence from colonial rule, starting with Dutch (Boer) settlers and British colonizers fighting each other for control, the Afrikaner government gaining first independence from the Britain and establishing a white-ruled apartheid state violently segregated by race, and then in 1994, a long and hard popular struggle winning independence for the new Republic of South Africa in a free, democratic election participated in by all its citizens. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 after its membership was opposed by several member states due to its policy of apartheid and rejoined by invitation in 1994, after apartheid had been dismantled.

While most of my stamps feature the image of Queen Elizabeth II, I have a handful from the reign of King George VI and even one from that of King George V. Here’s my messy half-page from Canada, which was officially declared a Dominion in 1926 and remains one of the Commonwealth realms. I’m not sure, but I think that the image on the second row, second from left, is George V. The three to its right feature George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father.

George VI also appears on my only stamp from Aden, which became a British Protectorate in 1839 and was a Crown Colony from 1937-1963. South Yemen was under British rule until 1967, when the British finally withdrew after a bloody struggle. Aden was the only Arab territory to have been a British colony. I remember docking there as a child when traveling by ship to and from India. It was the location of the port on this important shipping route that gave it such strategic importance for Britain.

My last stamp featuring King George VI is a rare one from the Indian princely state of Gwalior during the British colonial period. Since India was a republic, the 16 princely states were abolished in 1947, with the holdouts removed  by the Indian army. (But the erstwhile rajas and ranis were provided with princely pensions that put quite a strain on the newly independent nation.)

By now you will have recognized the outsize power and presence of the British Empire as recently as the 1960s. I will leave you with stamps from four countries that are dear to my heart, all of which are members of the Commonwealth but only one of which features a British monarch’s image: India, Ghana, Jamaica, and Britain itself.

India (an independent dominion since August 15th, 1947 and a republic since January 26, 1950):

Ghana (independent since March 6th, 1957):

Jamaica (independent since August 6th, 1962 and one of the 15 Commonwealth realms):

The United Kingdom (itself a Commonwealth realm and not yet free of its colonial complex):



In closing, here is Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of Independent India (from 1947 until his death in 1964), and founder of the non-aligned nations which refused to be stamped by either superpower in the Cold War.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. Because my father was a chief engineer on cargo ships operating out of Hong Kong when I was growing up I collected loads of stamps from all around the western Pacific, from Australia through to Japan, all dutifully stuck into my Stanley Gibbons albums. Sadly I never kept them, nor the matchbox labels I similarly collected, nor the few cigarette cards from the packets my parents virtually chainsmoked their way through.

    Nevertheless I loved your guided tour through your keepsakes and the historical asides you’ve included. My sisters – whom I’m estranged from (a long story, culminating in a divisive will) – will have received all the British commemorative stamps issued that she subscribed to, I suppose as a form of investment.

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    • I can imagine those stamps. They must have been such fun to organize and pore over. I only included stamps associated with the British Empire in this piece (although I realize I neglected to include my few stamps from Pakistan and Malaya–as it was called then–and one from Gibraltar) but I did have a sprinkling of stamps from Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Papua & New Guinea. And then there were all the stamps from Europe, the USSR, and South America…)

      I had to look up Stanley Gibbons stamp albums–wow. They look extremely professional. My collecting was a very scattershot affair, and I ruined the value of most of them by gluing them into the album. Still, it was a lot of fun. Did your father bring stamps back for you from work or did the letters come to the house? The cargo trade in and out of Hong Kong sounds like the the stuff of a novel as exciting as any of the ones you review. Sorry you don’t have them any more, but I’m sure you remember them. And where would be the space for all your books if you had all your childhood collections as well?!

      Were the British commemorative stamps that same as what we called first-day covers? My dad would buy them for me from time to time and I feel sure I saved them but have no idea where. Most notably he bought beautiful ones from Bhutan, a country whose foreign exchange at that time came from its gorgeous and highly collectable stamps.

      Sorry about your estrangement from your sister. Family rifts can be so terribly painful.

      I had a matchbox collection too! But wasn’t clever enough to remove the labels (by steaming?). I think I eventually threw mine away because it was taking up too much space. But I loved those old wooden matchboxes. At one point I made miniature doll’s furniture out of some of them. They were such fun to nest into each other.

      Thanks as always,for your fascinating comments, Chris. Are you considering a memoir? All best, J

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      • I am indeed writing a memoir for our kids and grandkids, and have got as far as 1953 and the Coronation, ready for a return to Hong Kong! My stamps mostly came from letters sent by my father when in places like Papua New Guinea to me in Hong Kong or back in Britain when he continued working out in there.

        My sisters? Yes, not a nice experience that break, but it was a long time coming, I fear.

        My mother did indeed go for first-day covers which were mostly commemorating anniversaries in the arts, sports and history or special events like games or festivals.

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  2. I really liked the stamps theme and images from your collection!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I had been wrestling with how to approach talking about the death of the Queen and the role of the Commonwealth until I happened upon the old stamp collection.

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  3. Hari Om
    Fabulous post, Josna!!! I, too, have such a collection (somewhere… you prompt me to wonder which drawer, which box…) I concur with your ‘take’ on Commonwealth (where wealth is not common). I could say so much but shall refrain. Sufficient to note that I managed to get through almost all the 10 days by avoiding news outlets and particularly the overweening Disneyfest of the BBC…Now to move on to whatever stew develops from here. YAM xx

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    • Thanks, Yam! When you find your stamp collection you will probably find that it similarly evokes a whole era. Well done for making it through the wall-to-wall coverage (like “overweening Disneyfest!)–and yes, what’s around and ahead of us is decidedly less of a fairytale. x J

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