When General Sir Herbert Kitchener was leading the campaign that would eventually reconquer Sudan from the brutal Mahdist regime, at the battle of Omdurman on 2 September 1898, one might think that providing new postage stamps would not have been a top priority. But that is to underestimate the thoroughness of that great soldier and administrator.
The previous year, with victory still far off, he became aware of a young officer who was a talented and artistic map-maker, named Capt. E.A. Stanton, and on an inspection visit to his base, he sought him out and instructed him to come up with a design for stamps, announcing that he would be back in five day’s time.
Stanton was rather alarmed by this commission, and the days began to tick by.
Then one morning the regimental post arrived, not by the usual riverboat, but by camel, and he had his inspiration. Using a friendly local tribesman as a model, he produced a watercolour sketch of the ‘postman’ riding by, complete with dummy mail bags, against a backdrop of desert and mountains, and so was born one of the most famous of all stamp designs. By way of aspiration, the mail bags were labelled ‘Berber’ and ‘Khartoum’, even though both towns were actually still in enemy hands.
Kitchener liked it, and on 6 June 1897, the sketch was despatched to De La Rue, the leading stamp printers of the time, with instructions to commence work on a set of eight values, and leaving most of the detail to them. Clearly De La Rue liked the design too, and one of their top engravers, W. Turner, produced a remarkably exact reduction as the master die, even including the ‘Berber’ and ‘Khartoum’ inscriptions in tiny letters, to Stanton’s later delight.
In fact, De La Rue are on record as regarding the ‘Camel Postman’ design as the most satisfactory in all their long history of stamp production.
The first set was issued on 1 March 1898, by which time Berber had been captured, with Khartoum falling six months later. But the design simply went on and on and came to symbolise the country.
Sudan did not issue anything but ‘Camel postmen’ until 1931 when supplementary airmail stamps were issued, and the design did not finally lose its preeminence until a new pictorial set appeared in 1951. Even then Stanton’s original concept was retained for the top value, which remained current until long after Sudan became independent in 1956.
Meanwhile, in 1948 there had been two commemorative issues, one marking the Camel Postman golden jubilee, and the other for the opening of the Legislative Assembly. Both featured the same, by now inevitable, image.