World Stamps

You might not have heard of Eritrea, but you might like its stamps

Apr 29, 2021, 7 AM

Classic Stamps of the World — By Kathleen Wunderly 

Eritrea, located in what is known as the Horn of Africa — a jutting peninsula in the northeast part of the continent — takes its name from the bordering Red Sea. Eritrea is an ancient name, from erythros, the Greek word for “red.”

In 1869, Italy purchased the town of Assab in Eritrea, and then made it the first Italian overseas territory in 1882: Italy’s initial step toward empire-building in Africa.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Eritrea became Italy’s first formal colony, and in 1892 it began using stamps of Italy overprinted “Colonia Eritrea.”

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The first stamps specifically inscribed with Eritrea’s name were issued in 1910. Stamps of Somalia also were overprinted “ERITREA” for use in the colony in 1922.

Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party took control of Italy’s leadership in 1922, at which time the overseas holdings included Eritrea; a protectorate in Somalia; some authority in the former Turkish Libya; a small concession in Tientsin, China; and the Dodecanese Islands off the Turkish coast.

Mussolini was determined to expand Italy’s world presence, recalling the glory days of the Roman Empire and intending to prove greatness through conquest.

By the 1930s, Mussolini’s government needed to encourage the people’s enthusiasm for the colonial empire, which was expensive and not altogether popular domestically.

As propaganda to inspire nationalistic pride among Italians and to promote the idea that colonies “spread Italian civilization,” the state began sponsoring elaborate exhibitions that displayed cultural and other aspects of the colonies.

The fairs had some scholarly elements, but also employed Disneyland-esque mock villages and flashy entertainments for visitors’ pleasure.

The Prima Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Coloniale — First Colonial Arts Exhibition — was staged in Rome in 1931. The second took place in Naples from Oct. 1, 1934, to Jan. 31, 1935.

Though Italy itself did not issue stamps for the Second Colonial Arts Exhibition, several of its colonies did: Cyrenaica, a province resulting from the 1923 subdivision of Libya on the Mediterranean in North Africa; Tripolitania, also a Libyan subdivision; Italian Somalia, an Italian colony in East Africa; and Eritrea, also in East Africa.

As did the other colonies, Eritrea issued both definitive (regular-issue) and airmail stamps for the 1934 Naples exhibition. The regular stamps (Scott 175-180) had a single design of a Grant’s gazelle, and the airmail stamps (C1-C6) used two designs.

The three lower airmail denominations (25 centesimi, 50c, and 75c) have a desert scene with a camel and an airplane overhead, and the higher denominations (80c, 1 lira and 2 lira) show a sort of science-fiction scene depicting a propeller plane in outer space, in a starry sky above a perfectly round Earth displaying the outline image of the continent of Africa.

Unlike the exhibition stamp designs Giuseppe Rondini (1885-1955) produced for the other colonies, Eritrea’s do not include symbols of Italian fascism such as the fasces — the bundle of birch rods used in ancient Rome as signs of authority that gave its name to Mussolini’s political party. The frame design on the Eritrea issues are left-and-right mirror images of a native spear and possibly an arrow, with a very stylized shield resembling a truck tire.

Rondini was a painter, printmaker, illustrator, and graphic designer who worked frequently in the 1930s for the Italian Institute for Africa and the East, producing book covers and illustrations for schoolbooks for colonial children, as well as posters for the colonial museum in Rome. Despite developing a specialty in colonial art, Rondini allegedly never visited any of the outlying Italian possessions.

Rondini designed all the Italian Colonies stamps for the Seconda Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Coloniale in 1934: for Tripolitania (Scott 73-76 and C43-C48), for Cyrenaica (59-64 and C24-C29), and for Italian Somalia (164-169 and C1-C6).

Eritrea’s bicolor airmail stamps were printed by photogravure on white wove paper with crown watermarks, then perforated gauge 14. The stamps measure 40 millimeters by 47 mm, but the new-issues column in the November 1934 Stamp Lover described them as “massive,” and stamp dealer/writer Nicolas Sanabria called them “of heroic size” in Stamps of Nov. 10, 1934.

The denominations on the stamps appear in both European and Arabic words and numerals. At the foot of each stamp, beneath the vignette, tiny printing reads, “Ist. Pol. Stato.-Off. Carte Valori” and “Rondini.”

The first abbreviation refers to the printer of the stamps, Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Officina Carte Valori: the Italian government printing office, in Rome.

The 2017 Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 values a set of the six Eritrea Second Colonial Arts Exhibition airmail stamps at $33 unused or $160 used, and at $81 if never hinged.