The first Commonwealth stamps: Mauritius


04 August 2021
Some are famous – others are relatively unknown. In this Commonwealth stamps guide, David Bailey looks at the first stamps issued by the British Empire, starting with the first stamp of Maurutius

21 September 1847, Mauritius

The first commonwealth country (and the fourth in the world) to issue postage stamps did so as part of an overhaul of its internal postal service. This had been started by the French, abandoned by the British and partially revived in 1834. An official Ordinance of December 1846 states that postage was to be prepaid by adhesive stamps.

Fortunately, the remote colony had the talent to produce them, but only by chance. Joseph Osmond Barnard was a stowaway on a ship bound for Australia. But he was discovered and put ashore at Port Louis, where he set up in business as a miniature painter, engraver and teacher of drawing.

Having won the contract to produce the stamps, he engraved two values, 1d and 2d, on the same copper plate, with just one engraving of each. This made printing a laborious business, nevertheless, he produced 500 copies of each stamp in two print runs of 700 and 300 stamps.

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A second design

They quickly sold out, so when it came to produce more, he made some changes. Now, there were two plates, each with a block of twelve engravings; the inscription read ‘Post Paid’ and from 1848 to 1859, they printed stamps until the engravings had almost worn away.

These later stamps appeared in the catalogues and price lists of the day. But the earlier stamps were not so much forgotten as completely unknown. Until they began to turn up.

The first emerged in November 1864, when a Mme Borchard found a 1d and 2d in her husband’s papers. He was a merchant based in Bordeaux. She collected using a Lallier printed album and was puzzled to see that there were no spaces for her new stamps, so she swapped them with another collector for a pair of Montevideo ‘Suns’.

Initially considered to be errors

Initially, the philatelic world wrote off the Post Office stamps as errors in the later series.

Many leading philatelists clung to this position, even as the evidence against piled up. By the 1860s, the Post Paid issue had been fully plated, with no sign of a ‘Post Office’ error. But it was not until 1870 that French philatelist Dr Jaques Legrand was able to examine all the extant Post Office stamps in detail, establishing beyond doubt they were an issue in their own right, printed from one engraving of each value – pre-dating the Post Paid stamps.