Why Collect French Colonies?
There can be no finer sight than a French Colony collection beautifully arranged on album leaves. In general, the sets of these colonies from the turn of the last century are wonderfully produced engraved issues. The designs and detail are quite spell-binding, and, when complete, can produce an album to treasure and in which to take pride. There is great variety in each colony's designs and they can usually be put together for a fraction of the cost of say the average British Colony for the same period.
Omnibus and long sets
Running through the 100 or so French colonies are a number of fine "Omnibus sets". These include the exquisite 1906-08 Palms and Balay sets as well as the collectable 1930's Exhibition sets. Most French Colony collectors' favourites are the "long" sets of the 1910's to 1940's together with their surcharges and colour changes. Also the large airmail engraved issues of the 1950's. To complete these on the album page can be most rewarding. Mint collectors can pore over these wonderful designs with much pleasure although perhaps even more so, to see these sets with fine circular date stamps is a sight to behold.
Mint or Used?
Generally speaking, collecting used issues is a little more adventurous and costly, however, there can be much pleasure in finding a rare postmark of Ivory Coast or Mauritania. The post offices in inland Africa were very often not much more than a corrugated iron Trading Store with mud huts surrounded by deep jungle or vast deserts and it can be interesting to contemplate the usage of the stamps during the first half of the last century.
"Kid's Stuff" no longer
Many collectors who are old enough to remember the 1950's as youngsters, began their collections with packets that contained, usually, the first few values of these mid-war sets. Perhaps, for too long, French Colony stamps have been thought of as "kid's stuff" however, trying to complete those sets can involve quite a search considering their relatively low catalogue valuations. Most of the French Colonies achieved independence around 1960 and are therefore an attractive proposition as a collecting area having a beginning and an end and quite completable within most collectors' budgets. One advantage over Commonwealth colonies is that there are not so many extreme high value and unattainable issues. (And for those that detest spending hours checking watermarks, there are virtually none at all in the French Colonies).
One issue that the earlier French Colonies have in common, is the "Tablet" types of the 1890's, often referred to as Peace and Commerce although differing in design to the original French Peace & Commerce issue. Collectors have to be a little wary of forgeries of these, particularly by the notorious Fournier, however, once a few have been seen, they are very easy to detect.
While the African Colonies and Islands may be the first Colonies that spring to mind, there are the American areas of Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Inini and the very popular St. Pierre & Miquelon. The latter colony is situated very close to Newfoundland and generally their most attractive stamps depict the fishing industry.
The Asian areas of Indo-China and its many Post Offices with evocative names such as Mong-Tzeu, Yunnanfu, Hoihow etc interest many collectors particularly those with a penchant for the Far East. The French also had much influence in the Middle East with Syria, Lebanon, Alouites, Latakia and the Levantine Post Offices such as Vathy and Cavalla.
Probably the most attractive area to modern collectors is the Pacific and Indian Ocean Colonies such as New Caledonia, Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna Islands and the French Southern & Antarctic Islands, the latter also known as T.A.A.F. Most of these areas are still under French control and one can collect their amazing issues right up to the present time.
While prices are still relatively low for the French Colonies, particularly if compared to Spanish and Portuguese Colonies, which are most difficult to find, their popularity has increased gradually over the last decade or so. There are active French Colony study circles in the UK as well as, of course, in France. The postal history side of these areas is most intriguing and there is still much to be discovered. The North African military campaigns alone yield many interesting covers and cachets of the many battalions and regiments. Picture postcards of the 1900's to 1920's abound which often portray the primitive villages from whence they came.
The second world war issues of the Vichy government have an interest of their own and many collectors just collect this period which includes the wonderful designs by Dulac printed in London in the 1940's.
Give it a go!
So why not put a toe in the French Colony waters with one or two colonies and go from there. The large issues of Obock and Djibouti on the French Somali Coast include some of the finest early triangular issues with colours that equal those of the Rhodesian double heads. The French and Middle Congo stamps have beautifully quaint but detailed designs. Madagascar has a myriad of postmarks many of which have around 15 or more letters in each unpronounceable place-name. The island colonies of the Comoros, Reunion, Zanzibar, Rouad and Tahiti evoke the fantastic romance of history. I promise that once you get hooked, you will be a French Colony collector for life.
- Terry Garcia