June 2021

British Guiana & The 1ct Black on Magenta



This is an ex-British colony with an amazing philatelic history.  It’s now Guyana, independent since 1966, whose name translates as ‘land of many waters’; about the same size as England and rich in natural resources.  It’s the only country in South America whose official language is English, is multi-racial, and despite being on the South American mainland, is very much part of the Caribbean in cultural terms.  As so often with European colonies, there was a struggle between the colonial powers for control, with the Dutch making way for the British in the late 1700s. 

The economy was mainly based on plantations of sugar cane (the industry, and much of the country’s economy, coming to be dominated by the Booker Group) until the twentieth century, when British Guiana suddenly achieved importance as a major supplier of bauxite, the major source of aluminium.  This was vitally important during the Second World War.  The country hit world-wide headlines in 1978 with the mass murder/suicide of 909 ‘Jonestown’ cult followers, mainly US citizens.  It is extremely bio-diverse with areas ranging from cultivated land to untamed jungle, with fantastic wildlife and scenery.  90% of the population live on the narrow fertile coastal strip of land which represents just 10% of the country’s area, so much of the interior is unspoiled.  Despite radical political policies there are still vestiges of the colonial legacy – the occasional intrepid British visitor will be pleased to know that the Guyanese still drive on the left-hand side of the road! 

In 1856 there was a second local issue, including the famous (or infamous) 1ct black on magenta, a unique stamp about which there have been many theories and stories.

The philatelic history commences with the ‘Cotton-reels’ of 1850-1, the subject of a separate article.  The second issue was printed by Waterlow in 1852, who followed up with a more conventional issue in 1853, also featuring the ‘Ship’ design, which continued (at least as a motif) on almost every issue until 1931.  In 1856 there was a second local issue, including the famous (or infamous) 1ct black on magenta, a unique stamp about which there have been many theories and stories.  One concerns a previous owner, Arthur Hind, who is reported to have purchased a second example and burned it to preserve the stamp’s unique status.  Most recently it was purchased by a New York shoe designer, Stuart Weitzman, for $9.48 million in 2014.  The issue came about because of shortages caused by a failure of stamps printed in London to arrive as expected. 


 The Waterlow issues continued in 1860 with a series running to 24ct, with the higher values rather charmingly having the denominations expressed in Roman numerals!  As with other early issues, the stamps are very hard to find in fine condition.  Various papers and perforations were employed.  1862 saw another locally-produced provisional issue, printed at the Royal Gazette’s office and replete with errors.  In 1876 De La Rue took over the printing and produced an issue on their ‘key-type’ principle, with each value having an outer frame in common.  Various provisional overprints appeared from 1878-1881.  In 1882 there was another local set, still depicting the sailing ship, this time with each stamp intended to be perforated with the word SPECIMEN (as a precaution against forgery). 

In 1898 there was an issue for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, ranking among the earlier British Commonwealth Pictorial issues, depicting the stunning scenery of Mount Roraima and the Kaieteur Falls (the latter being the highest single-drop waterfall in the world).  Standard colour and watermark changes were the order of the day until 1913, when the King George V definitive series appeared.  1931 saw another small Pictorial set for the Centenary of County Union, and then in 1934 a full-blown Pictorial set, advertising the character and charms of the colony to the world.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II issues duly followed with their own complications and attractions, until the fascinating Independence overprints of 1966 (later issues for Guyana are another matter altogether!) 

Throughout its philatelic history, British Guiana has produced issues of great interest as well as significant rarities.  The village postmarks are a fascinating field in their own right and there are other side alleys to visit, such as the Officials and booklets. In short, there should be something of potential interest for every collector looking for a new field. 

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