Niger Coast Protectorate and the Old Calabar Provisionals

3/10/2014     Niger

We are privileged to offer a significant group of Niger Coast Protectorate stamps that include a collection of "Old Calabar Provisionals". It is no exaggeration to say that they are quintessential examples of postage stamps from the Victorian West African Colonial period, demonstrating as they do, the inventiveness and practical responses to the adverse conditions frequently encountered in the development of postal services throughout the far-flung British Empire.

An exciting array of stamps between 1892 and 1898 combine to provide a mixture of overprinted & surcharged Great Britain 1887 "Jubilee" stamps, surcharged & bisected GB Penny Lilacs and the QV portrait stamps produced and printed in London by Waterlow and Sons including even more surcharges, bisects and other local reactions to rate changes and shortages.

The territory had officially been recognised in June 1885, following a British claim to what is to-day the entire southern coast of Nigeria. A Post Office had been established at Old Calabar in November 1891, together with five sub-offices. The first stamps issued on 20th July 1892 were from the Great Britain "Jubilee" issue overprinted "BRITISH PROTECTORATE OIL RIVERS" (SG 1/6).

Against a background of continuous jostling for position amongst the dominant European Colonial powers, each seeking to assert their claim to the rich resources of the territories, it must be remembered that apart from the coastal regions, Africa still remained largely undiscovered. Consequently, local postal services were without an established infrastructure and struggled to deal with the large volume of mail that the commercial realities of the hotly contested emerging continent presented. These shortcomings required an urgent response, not only from Great Britain but also local Post Offices. At first this was largely piecemeal, but they were innovative and coincidentally created some truly wonderful philatelic opportunities that Collectors recognised at the time and continue to do so today.

Situated at the confluence of a number of rivers, the Old City of Calabar had been a trading port since the 15th century and was effectively Nigeria's first capital city until 1906 when Lagos was incorporated into Southern Nigeria. The Treaty of Brussels 1892 confirmed the claims of individual countries to Colonial territories. One of which had been the establishment of the British protectorate of 'Oil Rivers Protectorate' in 1891. This was so named due to the rapidly growing demand for the Palm Oil indigenous to the region. Using a network of rivers, supplies were carried by canoe to the port of Calabar to be shipped to England for use in manufacturing industries. It is interesting to note that many of the covers sent from the region, bearing "Old Calabar River" cancellations, are sent to merchant's addresses at the Port of Liverpool or to financial institutions in the City of London.

The catalyst for the postal turmoil that followed was the reduction in the basic postage rate for mail sent from British Colonies to 2½d per ½ ounce. It was also common for shipments of stamps from England to be delayed, an additional reason for urgent action to be taken to try and ensure that supplies were not disrupted. This haemorrhaging in the supply of stamps caused a serious problem that had the potential to disrupt the free flow of trade. The immediate solution was to bisect and overprint current issues. One particular example (there are many others) used by the Old Calabar Post Office to deal with a shortage of halfpenny stamps was to surcharge four half sheets of 120 stamps of the GB 1d Lilac with a slanting "1/2d" printed on each side of a diagonal bar with the result that by bisecting one stamp, two half-penny stamps were created (SG 7/8). This procedure, whilst providing a short term solution also allowed for huge variations that are all part of the fascinating history of these stamps. The situation did not improve and by December 1893 the Post Office had exhausted its stock of these halfpenny stamps. This time the GB “Jubilee” 2d grey-green and carmine and the 2½d purple/blue were used and eight different types of "HALF PENNY" in two lines were applied (SG 9/36). Another, also using the 2d grey-green and carmine, was the more valuable "One Shilling" surcharge (SG 37/39), 5s, 10s & 20s surcharges on 2d, 5d & 1s stamps are notable rarities (SG 40/44). All these were surcharged in a multitude of coloured inks. Because no proper printing press was available, the surcharges were applied individually by hand.

As traders penetrated the inhospitable mangrove swamps the enlarged territory was renamed the Niger Coast Protectorate - and new plates which had been prepared by Waterlow had the words "OIL RIVERS" obscured and "NIGER COAST" added and were issued in the Protectorate on 1 January 1894 (SG 45/50). These were subsequently replaced in May 1894 with a new Waterlow issue (SG 51/56) depicting a portrait of Queen Victoria dressed in her mourning clothes. The next few years saw further local provisional surcharges and a further Waterlow issue with different designs issued in May 1897.

Many examples of these interesting stamps are being offered by us during September and October and as we shall see they provide an explanation of what was occurring in the world at the time and marvel at the practical "thinking on one's feet" responses that local Post Masters used to address some of the myriad problems of working at the edge of the Empire. We are the lucky beneficiaries of their inventiveness! This brief introduction to what is a fascinating period in British Colonial philatelic history is one that hopefully might encourage further reading and research.


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