We offer this content as an introduction to the stamps and postal history of the German Colonies, courtesy of our member Gannon Sugimura.
Welcome to the world of German colonial philately! Our particular corner of the philatelic world deals with the postage stamps of the ten colonies and three overseas postal networks operated by the German Empire beginning in 1870 and ending with the First World War in 1919. This information is designed to introduce anyone with an interest in this area with some of the background of its postal history, key vocabulary and unique variations. Enjoy!
In the case of the majority of the colonies and offices abroad, Vorläufer are typically stamps of the German Empire that were placed in use before distinctive colonial stamps were issued. A few exceptions do exist. The colonies in the Mariana and Caroline Islands, as well as the post offices in Morocco, had distinctive issues from the first day of postal operations, so there are no Vorläufer known for these areas. Kiautschou Vorläufer are usually stamps of the German Offices in China, but can also be stamps of Germany proper. An example of a Vorläufer from German Southwest Africa (see right) shows an otherwise ordinary German 2 Mark stamp from the 1890s with a cancel applied at the GSWA post office at Keetmanshoop.
The term “Mitläufer” has no direct translation in English, but means approximately “concurrent use” or “tolerated franking.” In the German colonial context, it refers to a stamp of Germany proper accepted as valid at a colonial post office or an office abroad, despite the availability of a local issue. The colonies accepted any stamp valid in Germany as a proper franking, in small quantities, for as long as Berlin remained in control of that colony. Some were created when someone happened to bring German stamps with them to a colony, particularly in the case when a German military vessel happened to call on a port in a German colony. Most were likely to have been created when German stamps purchased before distinctive issues appeared were used up in the course of ordinary postal business. Whatever their origin, Mitläufer are typically encountered in smaller quantities than Vorläufer.
Collecting both Vorläufer and Mitläufer requires obtaining used stamps and knowledge of dates of use. A stamp may have been purchased at a colonial office or a post office abroad, but unless it was also used there, there is no way to absolutely determine this fact. Additionally, determining whether a stamp is a Vorläufer or a Mitläufer requires a clear postmark date to determine whether it was used before or after a colonial replacement was issued. The scan of a Mitläufer (middle image below) shows a clear cancel from Swakopmund, GSWA, applied on 30 July 1898. This stamp was used in GSWA nearly a year after a distinctive stamp with overprint (see bottom right image) was issued in July 1897, making the 1898 usage a Mitläufer.
This can be somewhat complicated for colonies that issued different stamps issued at different times. In the case of Kiautschou, for instance, the first issue produced for that colony was a 5-pfennig stamp created as a local surcharge on a German Offices in China (GOC) 10 pfennig stamp. This surcharged issue was placed on sale on 9 May 1900. To specialists, any GOC or German Empire 5 pfennig stamp used in Kiautschou after that date is a Mitläufer—but any example of the other six denominations available in Kiautschou on that same date continues to be considered a Vorläufer if used prior to the issue of the first “Yacht” stamps in Kiautschou in January 1901.
Many of the colonial and offices abroad stamps were created by overprinting contemporary German stamps. This was done by running sheets of stamps through a printing press which changed a stamp’s denomination, added an additional inscription, or both.
In the case of colonial issues, there was typically one overprinted issue where the name of the colony was overprinted diagonally over the face of the stamp. All of the stamps to which this overprint were applied are examples of the 1889 “Number / Eagle” definitive series. For those colonies with a second such issue, the only difference is the angle at which the overprint was placed. Issues for the Mariana islands, for instance, were placed either at 48 degrees or 52 degrees. All of these overprints are in black (as seen at right).
In the case of issues for the offices abroad, three major types of overprint occur. For China and Morocco, diagonal overprints on the 1889 issue were created. On issues for Turkey, horizontal overprints were issued at the same time, but which were slightly different in ways which will be discussed in a description of that area. All of these overprints were in black.
Once the 1900 “Germania” series appeared, new overprints appeared for all offices, all of which were horizontal and were also in black. An exception to this was the overprint applied to the 3 Mark stamp, which was vertical, on both sides of the stamp, and in red ink. Stamps issued prior to 1905 had overprints in “Lateinschrift” (see middle image below). Issues for 1905 and after were overprinted in “Frakturschrift” (see bottom right image), an ornate Gothic font associated with German printing until the 1940s.
Additionally, the Frakturschrift overprints for China included small additional ornaments, called “rosettes” which were placed so as to cover up the stamp’s original denomination.
Handstamp overprints are encountered, but only as provisional or emergency issues. Stamps with handstamped overprints were issued in the Carolines, China, and Kiautschou.