The stamps of Basutoland

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04 August 2021
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The stamp story of Basutoland is one of defiance and pride, with the region eventually becoming a British Protectorate in 1868. The mighty crocodile also appears in the tale of the region's stamps… even though the animal was rarely seen in the area…

In southern Africa at the dawn of the 19th century, shortly before Europeans arrived in large numbers, land hungry armies of Zulu ejected their weaker neighbours from traditional grazing lands and replaced them with herds of cattle – the common measure of wealth in the region at that time.

Most of the displaced fled in panic; but one clan, the Basotho, led by a local chief named Moshoeshoe, made a strategic withdrawal into a landlocked mountainous region from which they conducted a successful resistance against the Zulu.


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Even when Europeans carrying guns moved inland from their toeholds on South Africa’s coasts, Moshoeshoe held them at bay from a lofty and steep-sided plateau where he soon afterwards founded a capital, Meresu, which proved easy to defend against invaders.    

An intelligent ruler as well as a brilliant soldier, he demonstrated diplomatic skills in perceiving that the Europeans he encountered, mainly Dutch and British, had their own agendas to pursue; and he became adept at playing one off against the other.

Moshoeshoe soon witnessed his borders abutted by Orange Free State, Natal, East Griqualand and Cape Province, all bristling with European guns.

He judged that the greatest danger threatened from Natal’s Afrikaners. He decided, therefore, to ask the British, who by that time called his inaccessible mountains Basutoland, to grant it protectorate status.

Britain agreed, on condition that Moshoeshoe forfeited a portion of his territory, which the British now regarded as a useful buffer zone against any attempt by the Afrikaners to invade Natal and reach the Indian Ocean coast and access to a seaport.

Basutoland was proclaimed a British Protectorate in 1868, two years before Moshoeshoe died in 1870 aged 94. The protectorate was annexed to Cape Colony in 1871, but as late as 1880 Moshoeshoe’s descendants refused to disarm. They fought the British for a year and only agreed to a ceasefire when the order to disarm was rescinded.


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Basutoland stamps

It may seem ironic that Basutoland, encompassed by three stamp issuing authorities (Cape of Good Hope, Orange Free State, and Natal) for much of the second half of the 19th century, failed to issue its own stamps until 1933.

The reason was, of course, that postal services were quite unnecessary until the British Protectorate began to function in 1868 and police and administrative staff were stationed at Maseru. They generated sufficient mail for Cape of Good Hope stamp supplies to be sent to the Basutoland capital from 1871 to 1910.

Union of South Africa issues were then to be used in Basutoland; but prior to their distribution stamps of the former states of Cape of Good Hope (Natal, Orange River Colony and Transvaal) all served as valid for postage in Basutoland.

Until the Basutoland Post Office began to function officially with its first definitives on sale on 1 December 1933, its counter staff employed cancellers that had been supplied by the Union of South Africa.

Those cancellers, with date stamps inscribed ‘SOUTH AFRICA’, remained in use until too worn for service. Only then were they replaced by cancellers inscribed ‘BASUTOLAND’.

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The first stamp designs

The first issue, engraved for Basutoland and printed by Waterlow & Sons, consisted of ten denominations with a portrait of George V, and a vignette depicting a crocodile on a river bank, with the Drakensberg Mountains as a background.

Values were ½d, 1d, 2d, 3d, 4d, 6d, 1s, 2s 6d, 5s and 10s. 

In 4 May 1934 four denominations (½d, 1d, 2d. and 6d.) overprinted ‘OFFICIAL’ were issued for use by Basutoland Government Departments. Official sources state that only 23 of the ½d; 34 of the 1d; 54 of the 2d, and 26 of the 6d were used, and that mint condition specimens were never released for public use.

Some are known to be in private hands, with the 6d orange-yellow value considered a great rarity.

Other highlights of the region include:

  • The name ‘BASUTOLAND’ appeared on the British Commonwealth 1935 Silver Jubilee omnibus issue; and that of the 1937 Coronation omnibus.
  • In 1938 a new definitive issue, with eleven values, arrived following the accession of George VI. The addition was a 1½d in light blue.
  • Victory in the Second World War was marked with issues of South Africa’s three values overprinted ‘BASUTOLAND’.
  • The Crown colony also participated in issues to mark a Royal Visit in 1947; the Royal Silver Wedding in 1948; and the 75th UPU Anniversary in 1949.

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Why a crocodile?

Now, the explanation for the crocodile on most of Basutoland’s stamps.

Geographically and topographically the country offers nothing to attract such creatures. Research into the ancient history of the Basothos reveals that their ancestors originated in what is now the Congo region of the continent, where numerous rivers, streams and swamps abounded with West African crocodiles which the ancient Basothos must have known.

When the clan migrated southward over a period of several hundred years they carried some of their cultural practices in their language and oral history.

One tradition involved belief in a totemic creature that carried great significance for every clan member, and which became the clan’s emblem. For the Basothos a crocodile served that purpose; indeed they called themselves Koena, which translates as the people of the crocodile. 

The postage stamps issued for Basutoland in 1933 carried an image of our emblematic monarch, George V. The stamp’s designers in London considered it expedient to acknowledge the spiritual leader of the Basothos on the same stamp, hence the crocodile. 

On 4 October 1966 Basutoland became independent and changed its name to Lesotho.