Stamp Domain Logo - Stamps and Postal History
Article originally published in Gibbons' Stamp Monthly in April 1931

British Somaliland its Posts and Postage Stamps - Retrospect

by Douglas Armstrong
The philatelic history of the territory successively known as the Somali Coast, British Somaliland and the Somaliland Protectorate opens nearly twenty years before the introduction of postage stamps of a distinctive character.

   In those days Northern Somaliland formed part of the dominions of the Khedive of Egypt. Egyptian garrisons held the only towns of importance, viz. Berbera and Zeila, where postal agencies were also maintained. These were in charge of agents of the Khedival Steamship Company, who acted as both collectors and distributors of mails which were transmitted by the firm's own steamers, under Government contract.

   For the most part the correspondence handled was of an official character, passing under "frank " of the large circular interpostal seals or wafers commonly used in the Egyptian postal service at that time: with the name of the office of origin inscribed in the lower half of the circumference. Berbera was supplied with a single variety, printed in pale red and lettered "BARBARA," whilst Zeila boasts two distinct types; the one black on pale yellow, inscribed "ZEJLA," and the other pale red like the Berbera emission, and reading "ZEYLA."

   Regular Egyptian postage stamps of the period also exist with the postmarks of these Somaliland agencies, but owing to the limited amount of ordinary postal business transacted are infrequently met with and accordingly of some rarity. The Mahdist rising of 1884 compelled the Khedive to withdraw his outlying garrisons in order to meet the threatened Dervish invasion from the Sudan. At this juncture the British Government stepped in by declaring a protectorate over a region embracing roughly 75,000 square miles. For administrative purposes this was attached to the Government of India under the official designation of the "Somali Coast Protectorate."

   Close upon three years elapsed, however, before sub-agencies of the Bombay Post Office were established at Berbera and Zeila, on January 1st, 1887. They were supplied with contemporary postage stamps of British India distinguishable only by the local postmarks, consisting of the town and date of posting enclosed within a small single-line circle, in conjunction with a bar cancellation having the initial letter "B" (for "Bombay") in its midst. Examples of Indian stamps used in the Somali Coast should properly preface a specialised collection of this somewhat neglected British protectorate. Albeit hard to come by they are well worth the seeking. The values chiefly employed were those of 3 pies, ½ and 1 annas.

    By the "Somaliland Order in Council of 1898" the control of the Protectorate passed from the Indian Government to that of H .M. Foreign Office, when it was renamed "British Somaliland". Not until the opening years of the twentieth century, however, were steps taken to establish the postal service upon a proper footing. Meanwhile the two Indian postal agencies carried on. Some time in the year 1901 the Government of India was approached with a request for accommodation in the form of an emergency stamp issue to be employed by the Protectorate Post Office, then in process of formation, until such time as a more permanent series could be obtained through the Crown Agents for the Colonies. To this end, accordingly, a supply of Indian postage stamps bearing the head of the late Queen Victoria (series 1882-1900) was expressly overprinted with the name of the Protectorate, and forwarded to Berbera in December of that year.

   But, although "Specimen" copies of the provisional stamps had been distributed through the Central Bureau of the Universal Postal Union at Bern as early as May 26th, 1902, military operations against the "Mad Mullah" and his followers, who were spreading death and destruction amongst the peaceful tribes of the hinterland, necessitated postponement of the scheme for the Protectorate postal service until a more propitious occasion. And so the Indian post offices continued to function.

   The arrival on the scene of contingents of Indian troops to take part in the campaign of 1903-1904 was responsible for the introduction of a new element into the postal and philatelic situation. Their letters were dealt with by military post offices, one of which actually accompanied the forces in the field. All of this correspondence passed ultimately through the Army Base Post Office, permanently located at Berbera, where it received the impression of a large concentric postmark lettered "BASE OFFICE " at the top and "BERBERA " at the foot, with the date in a rectangular frame inset across the centre. It may be found upon various Indian postage stamps of that epoch, but mainly on the denominations ½ anna and 1 anna. The Indian Army post offices operated from January 1903 to November 25th, 1904.

Somaliland 1903 overprint on India 5 rupee stamp


   At length, on June 1st, 1903, the Protectorate Post Office took over the Indian civil postal agencies at Berbera and Zeila by authority of an Order by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, dated March 9th, 1903. Simultaneously the "Indian Post Office Act, 1898" was made applicable to British Somaliland, and the Protectorate was included within the sphere of the Universal Postal Union.