World Stamps

La Reunion: A brief history of its first postage stamps

May 2, 2021, 3 PM

By Sergio Sismondo

The island of La Reunion is a volcanic outcropping in the Indian Ocean, almost a twin of the island of Mauritius. A phenomenon similar to that which created the islands of Hawaii was involved in this other, distant part of the world.

La Reunion is located six degrees of longitude due east of Madagascar. It is roughly circular and a bit more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) across. With jagged and jutting peaks, imposing and dramatic remains of ancient volcanic activity, pristine beaches, lush dense rain forests, beautiful waterfalls, fertile valleys, verdant throughout, with ideal climate for work and play, it has been quite often referred to as the island paradise of the French empire.

La Reunion became a French possession in 1638, following the landing of Goubert de Dieppe. It was first named Ile Bourbon, in honor of the famed royal family. A true colonization had to wait until the arrival of an expedition in 1642-43, as can be seen in the set of stamps (Scott 177B-177G) issued in 1943 to celebrate the third centenary of the colony. Still, however, it was only a tentative “foot on the ground.”

Settlement of this and other islands was encouraged by the motherland as part of a defense strategy for the empire. The prominence of British military and civilian establishments on the Indian subcontinent called for a vigorous expansion of French presence in the Indian Ocean. Particularly, the defense of French establishments in India led to a strategy that called for a periphery of defensive points, beginning in Madagascar, which could, in case of necessity, become bases for, and lend support to, eventual naval deployments.

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A systematic and well-capitalized expansion of French colonialists in Ile Bourbon began in earnest in 1664. In the early 1700s, Mauritius was taken from the Dutch, and the Seychelles Islands were colonized beginning in 1756. The periphery strategy seemed to be fully operational.

While Great Britain poured all of its efforts on the mainland, France continued to build a necklace of island posts, useful from both military and commercial points of view. The island’s main product was sugar cane, which proved to be a secure and steady source of income for the islanders. Then, in 1721, coffee was brought to Ile Bourbon, and was an immediate commercial success.

Business and population grew steadily, and the decades passed relatively uneventfully. In 1793, the name of the island was changed to Reunion, as a direct consequence of the fall of the French monarchy. Louis XVI was deposed in 1792.

France and England were at war again in 1803. A British naval blockade of the island took place in 1809, leading to the landing on the island of 4,000 British soldiers. The local population capitulated less than two days after the landing, and a relatively peaceful changing of the guard took place.

Some local inhabitants, notably in the town of Saint-Andre, had even sided with the British — apparently, not everyone had been a fan of the revolution. L’Isle de France was also taken by British forces in 1810, and was renamed “Mauritius.” The Seychelles were taken by the British in 1811.

While Mauritius and Seychelles remained under British dominion, the island of Reunion was ceded back to France at the signing of the Treaty of Paris of April 2, 1815. It remained in the status of a French colony until 1947, at which time it became an integral part of France.

The principal city is Saint-Denis, which grew in connection with the harbor of the same name on the northern shore of the island. Twenty-five other population centers of greater or lesser economic importance emerged through time.

By the mid-19th century, the island of Reunion had become a true maritime center of activity. French steamers regularly anchored, as did British ships, calling on their way to and from India, Ceylon, Mauritius, Seychelles, Aden, and other points in Asia and in Africa.

Along with growing commerce and traffic, of course, grew the need for an efficient postal service. The postal system went through several stages of reform. At first letters, both internal and external, traveled unpaid, with all postage being charged to the addressee.

In a second stage, letters to Europe paid various different rates depending on the carrier. Letters carried by French commercial ships paid a basic rate of 35 centimes. British paquebots were more frequent and regular, and charged 1 franc for basic letter postage, a rate negotiated with French authorities.

In 1851, a shipment of French stamps arrived on the island. Naturally, the stamps sent were of the Ceres design, because there were no other French stamps at the time. The stamps were intended for the prepayment of postage for letters to Europe, and the shipment consisted of the following:

— 10c bistre, 3,000 stamps
— 25c blue, 4,250 stamps
— 1fr brown-carmine, 7,500 stamps

As can be seen at a glance, the denominations sent corresponded to the basic letter rates established for French and British ships. The stamps were used between November 1851 and December 1853. What happened to all those stamps is not clear.

What is known is that the vast majority, or 99.90 percent, were lost, because fewer than 10 letters are known bearing the lower denominations, and only four letters are known bearing the 1fr stamp. These letters are considered to be among the great rarities of the early postal history of the French colonial system.

On Jan. 1, 1852, a local decree established the possibility of prepayment of internal letters according to the following schedule:

— Letters sent from St. Denis to the port, delivered to the ships: 15c
— Letters sent from one post office to another, within the island: 30c
— Letters sent from other post offices, delivered to the ships: 45c

For example, a letter weighing 7½ grams or less, sent from Saint-Andre to Europe by British paquet, would have paid 30c for the transit to Saint-Denis, 15c to travel between Saint-Denis and the harbor, and 1fr for the maritime transfer by British paquet. Prepayment, however, remained optional.

In fact, covers from the island directed to France without prepayment are not particularly scarce and can be found from the 1850s and 1860s. As a general rule, the earliest covers are scarcer and more valuable than the later “stragglers.”

The same local decree provided for the printing of two postage stamps with which this prepayment could be effected. The denominations would obviously be 15c and 30c.

Shown nearby are the two issued stamps, both in unused condition. The contract for producing the stamps was given to the firm Lahuppe, the local printing company. With this clear logic and instructions, the first stamps of Reunion were born. They have fairly elaborate geometrical designs, made with standard typographical decorations, and are inscribed in small letters “Ile de la Reunion. / Timb,-Poste, 15 c.” or “Ile de la Reunion. / Timb,-Poste, 30 c.”.

Each denomination was printed in a quantity of 7,500, but things did not go well for these stamps. They remained in circulation from Jan. 1, 1852, to Jan. 1, 1860. In spite of this long period of validity — eight years — only about 200 stamps were sold.

In 1860, the balance of about 14,800 stamps was incinerated. It was an ignoble end for such a worthwhile experiment. It is said that the absence of glue on the stamps was the cause of their lack of popular appeal.

More likely it is that the population did not wish to embrace prepayment of postage. In fact, in other countries, when the prepayment option was introduced, it also failed and did not take hold until governments legislated compulsory prepayment.

Also pictured is an internal cover with the 15c stamp paying the rate from Sainte-Suzanne to Saint-Denis. It is the only cover known sent from the post office of Sainte-Suzanne bearing a stamp of the 1852 issue. This letter demonstrates that a reduced letter rate for mail delivered within a postal district existed.

Just as mail to the harbor paid only 15c, mail within Saint-Denis also qualified for the reduced rate. The case becomes clear when we consider that Sainte-Suzanne was a suburb of Saint-Denis, immediately to the east of the city.

Also shown is an internal cover paying 30c sent from St. Andre to Saint-Denis.

One of the very famous covers paying 45c postage, bearing the two stamps of the 1852 issue, is pictured nearby. It was sent from Saint-Andre to Nantes, in France, and paid the combined rate for an internal cover from one town to another, which was 30c, and 15c for delivery to the harbor.

It also bears the “35” (centimes) rate mark, indicating that it was destined to travel by a French ship, the Zaide, paying the lesser rate for transit to Europe.

Starting in 1866, demand for the stamps for the philatelic trade in Europe began to surface. Because the stocks were incinerated in 1860, there were no stamps at post offices to be sold to the trade.

The Reunion authorities responded with a series of reprints, made from the original plates, but necessarily modified, giving rise to many thousands of stamps now commonly found in the marketplace, which emanate from reprints of 1866, 1880, 1885, 1886, and 1889. These can be distinguished from the originals by students of the issue.

In addition, there is also a veritable plethora of forgeries in the market, imitating both original stamps and reprints. Needless to say, if the reader has an example he or she believes to be genuine, certification by an expert is highly recommended.

The original stamps are incredibly rare. Only five letters are known, for instance, bearing the two stamps for prepayment of the 45c rate indicating delivery to the port of Saint-Denis.

The largest accumulation of these two stamps ever assembled, unused, used, and on letters, was offered for sale at public auction by H.R. Harmer Inc. of New York in conjunction with Boule Philatelie of Monaco, on Dec. 4, 2004, on the occasion of the Monaco International Exhibition, MonacoPhil 2004. The sale was one of the principal events of the exhibition.

The collection had been the property of the legendary philatelist John R. Boker Jr. The Reunion collection was one of his personal prides and had been put together by him during the last few years of his life.

It consisted of eight unused examples, five used examples on or off fragments, and the unbelievable number of 12 letters, which is the majority of all the letters known bearing stamps of the first issue of Reunion.

Most of the greatest rarities and unique pieces were in the Boker collection. Of the five frankings known with both stamps, for instance, four were present in this collection.

This amazing collection included covers used from five different towns: Saint-Andre, Saint-Benoit, Saint-Denis, Saint-Paul, and Sainte-Suzanne. Several, including the last mentioned, are believed to be unique letters originating in those towns.

The provenance of these 25 items includes the most famous names in philately: Count Ferrari de la Renotiere, Maurice Burrus, Alfred Caspary, Louise Boyd-Dale, and more.