British Guiana postage stamps: Part 1 - 1850 - 1875

Stabroek News
February 20, 2007

Related Links: Articles in Guyana Review

The First Issues Collectors Club (2006) website lists British Guiana as the nineteenth country in the world to begin issuing its own postage stamps, just ten years after Great Britain issued the world's first adhesive postage stamp in May 1840. The list shows British Guiana as being the fourth British colony to issue postage stamps, the earlier ones being Mauritius (1847) New South Wales (1850) and Victoria (1850). Guyana, therefore, was the first British West Indian colony to issue postage stamps - followed by Trinidad in 1851, Barbados in 1852, Bahamas in 1859, and Jamaica in 1860, although private postage stamps were actually issued in Trinidad and Bermuda in 1847 and 1848 respectively. Guyana's 1850 stamp was an official government approved issue, hence its position on the First Issues Collectors Club list.

Unlike the other British West Indian colonies and most other British colonies of the day, British Guiana's early stamps do not carry a portrait of the then reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. In fact, it was not until the 1913-16 issues, - on which the portrait of King George V appeared - that British Guiana stamps bore the image of the reigning British monarch. This change, according to the book The Postage Stamps and Postal History of British Guiana (1970) was as a result of instructions to all British colonies and protectorates in 1911, from the then Secretary of State in Britain (L Harcourt) that … "each stamp shall bear the head of His Majesty the King." The absence of Queen Victoria's image on British Guiana stamps from 1850 - 1901 and of King George V's from 1901-1913 is a unique aspect of our early postage stamp history. Most of the stamps of the period depict the seal of the colony, comprising a sailing ship and the colony's motto - Damus Petimusque Vicissim.

Guyana (British Guiana) has the distinction of being among the very few countries that have the world's rare stamps among its issues. Two of our early stamps are listed among the top ten rare stamps of the world. Among these is the two cent issue of 1850, a stamp that was unknown to European stamp collectors until 1877 and of which there are only ten known copies, some on their original envelope (on cover). Detailed and interesting biographies of these stamps can be found in the book Stamps of Fame (1949). Guyana's most celebrated stamp, however, is the one cent black on magenta of 1856 known to philatelists as the Black Magenta. It is listed among the few unique stamps of the world and is the most famous of these. (A fuller story of this stamp's history can be read in the Sunday Stabroek April 2, 2006 article "The British Guiana 1856 Black on Magenta postage stamp celebrates 150 years.")

A notice published in the Royal Gazette of British Guiana on June 15, 1850, advertised the start of the use of local postage stamps in British Guiana. The notice gave a list of places, receiving offices and the rates of postage. The service was for areas out of Georgetown and the postage varied according to distance from the city, with a minimum rate of 4 cents an ounce. This service started on July 1, 1850, and the first denominations of postage stamps were 4 cents, 8 cents and 12 cents. Eight months later, on March 1, 1851, a new service with a new denomination of stamp was introduced. The new service was a house-to-house delivery of letters through the main streets of the city for which a new stamp, the now scarce and valuable 2 cents denomination, was issued. These first postage stamps of British Guiana are known to stamp collectors as "Cottonreels" because of their circular shape. They were a completely local effort, printed by typeset, a simple method of printing, by the office of the Royal Gazette of British Guiana. The stamps have been described as being of "the utmost simplicity" consisting of the denomination in the centre, around which was 'British Guiana' in Roman capitals, all enclosed in a rough circle of about an inch in diameter, and printed on different colour paper. Being so simple in design, these early stamps had to be initialed by an official of the Post Office in Georgetown, before being issued, so as to prevent forgery.

According to The Postage Stamps and Postal History of British Guiana both the quality of the 1850 issues and the system of charging postage according to distance and weight were deemed unsatisfactory. Accordingly, a new supply of stamps was ordered from London and changes in postage rates to four cents for letters and one cent for newspapers - thus the introduction of the lithographed issues of January 1, 1852 - were instituted. The new issue was a disaster. Apart from the fact that the stamps were of a poor quality, there was also an error in the motto of the colony. According to The Guinness Book of Stamps (1988) "errors in design have been perpetrated since 1852 when the British Guiana 1 cent and 4 cents got the colony's motto wrong" that is, "Damus Patimusque Vicissim" instead of "Damus Petimusque Vicissim". This error, the Book says changed the meaning to "We give and we suffer in return" instead of the colony's motto of "We give and ask in return".

The flawed stamps were not kept in circulation for long. From that year, however, British Guiana postage stamps were of the "ship and motto" design in various modified forms. Essentially, the stamps depict a three-masted sailing ship in full sail with wavy lines below, indicating rough seas, surrounded by the colony's motto in an oval (later round) frame.

The year 1860 was a significant one in the postal history of British Guiana. Up to then the colony's postage stamps were for local use only with Great Britain issues being used for overseas postage. The year 1860 saw local stamps put in use for overseas postage for the first time following postal reforms in the West Indies initiated by the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope (1815-82).

Trollope visited the country in 1859, while on assignment from the British Post Office to advise on postal reforms in the West Indies. 1860 also saw the printing of local postage stamps with perforations for the first time. Of particular interest to stamp collectors are the bisected stamps (half the cost) and trisected stamps (one-third the cost) of the 1860 issue found on covers. According to The Postage Stamps and Postal History of British Guiana, "… these were never officially authorized but were in fact accepted by the postal authorities." In 1863 a new design was ordered. The new stamp was larger and the motto was set in a circular frame.

British Guiana has a number of temporary postage stamp issues called "provisional" issues, for various reasons. In fact, our first stamps of 1850, the "Cotton-reels," can themselves be considered "provisionals." The printing of provisional issues occurred primarily in cases where demand exceeded supply. There were, however, other reasons. For example, the provisional issue of 1862 - one cent and two cents - came into being because the entire stock of regular stamps became stuck together "in an inseparable mass."

The provisional issue of 1856 produced the stamp that is now the most famous and was once the most expensive stamp in the world - the one-cent black on magenta paper, nicknamed the Black Magenta. Notwithstanding its poor beginnings, the Black Magenta is unique and much sought after, passing from one famous (and rich) stamp collector to another, while eluding the collections of others, the British Royal Family. It is said that this is the only British Commonwealth stamp that is not in the Royal Collection.

The last of our early stamps are the 1875 re-issues of some of the 1860-61 stamp with different sized perforations with the one cent now in black and a new four cent in blue and the re-issue of the larger 1863 6 cents and 24 cents stamps.

The second and final part of this series will examine stamps from 1876 to 1966.