The volcanic island of Mauritius located in the south-west Indian Ocean is quite close to the French territory of Reunion, which is approximately 550 miles east of Madagascar; the dependent island of Rodrigues lies a further 350 miles east. The first Europeans to discover Mauritius were the Portuguese in around 1507; as their purpose was mainly to trade rather than to settle, there was little activity until a group of Dutch sailors claimed the island as a convenient supply base for Batavia (Java) in 1598.
Although there was minimal permanent settlement, widespread hunting of the indigenous flightless Dodo bird contributed to its extinction in the 1660s. Despite introducing a vital sugarcane industry, failure to expand the economy prompted the Dutch to abandon the island in 1710.
Mauritius was claimed by the French in 1715 who named it Isle de France. After years of decline, the appointment of Mahé de La Bourdonnais as governor in 1735 led to the rebuilding of the capital, Port Louis, into a vibrant city, the establishment of a sugar mill and the construction of a road network across the island. French settlement also gave rise to the naming of towns, such as Quatre Bornes, Richelieu and Mahebourg.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain gained control of Mauritius in 1810 but allowed the French settlers to remain and maintain the crucial sugar industry on which the economy relied. Crown colony status was granted in 1814. The abolition of slavery in 1835 led to an influx of Indian labourers to work in the sugar fields. In the mid1960s, the entire population from the Mauritius-administered Chagos archipelago was forcibly evicted by Britain to enable the main island, Diego Garcia, to be controversially leased for a US military base. This and the surrounding islands are now the British Indian Ocean Territory. Following a brief period of self-government in 1967, independence within the Commonwealth was granted in 1968.
In September 1847, Mauritius was the first British colony to issue postage stamps, commencing with the famed ‘million-pound’ 1d. and 2d. ‘POST OFFICE’ pair, engraved on copper and printed in Port Louis by watchmaker Joseph O Barnard. These philatelic gems have generated many myths and several fictional novels.
Soon after their release, most ‘one penny’ denominations were allegedly acquired by the Governor’s wife, Lady Gomm, for invitations to her charity ball. Whereas most of the colony’s stamps and postal history are displayed in the Government-owned Postal Museum in Port Louis, the 1847 iconic ‘POST OFFICE’ stamps are not; they are housed nearby in the curiously named ‘Blue Penny Museum’ (penny stamps are red!) where many non-philatelic treasures are held.
The iconic stamps may be viewed for just ten minutes each hour to minimise damage by excessive light. In 1848, the wrongly inscribed 1d. and 2d. stamps were replaced by new engravings by Barnard with the wording corrected to ‘POST PAID’.
Subsequent reprintings by Barnard between 1849 and 1859 were followed with a request from the postal authorities for a supply of the Perkins Bacon non-denominated seated Britannia stamps, a design also used by Barbados and Trinidad. In 1858, a shipment of green stamps surcharged ‘FOUR - PENCE’ was followed with a consignment of similar ‘no value’ (4d.) green, (6d.) vermilion and (9d.) magenta Britannia stamps (27/29).
Two incorrectly coloured ‘no value’ stamps in red-brown and blue (30/31) were delivered but not released. The non-denominated stamps were replaced in 1859 with new 6d. and 1s. denominations. However, the colours were transposed by mistake at the printers, with the 6d. printed in blue and the 1s. in vermilion. The stamps were reissued in their proper colours, dull purple-slate (6d.) and blue (1s.), in 1861.
Six examples of each of the errors were hand-stamped with unsanctioned ‘CANCELLED’ overprints (32, 34). In combination with similar malpractices, this led to the dismissal of Perkins Bacon by the Crown Agents. Several primitive, locally-printed Victoria portraits (36/44), mainly 2d. denominations, were issued during 1859.
The particularly unflattering image of the Queen was engraved by J Lapirot. The only 1d. stamp was lithographed by L A Dardenne. A much more refined portrait was introduced for the first perforated stamps introduced in 1860 with 1d., 2d., 4d., 6d., 9d. and 1s. value, which were produced by De La Rue. In 1862, a final printing of the Perkins Bacon 6d. and 1s. ‘Britannia’ issues, now perforated (54/55), preceded colour changes in 1863 for the current 6d. and 1s. portrait stamps (50 and 53). De La Rue’s portrait stamps were reprinted from 1863–72 with Crown CC watermarks and included several colour changes and additional 10d. and 5s. values.