Heavenly Philately

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“Mauritius was made first and then heaven, heaven being copied after Mauritius.” The words of Mark Twain. The country known for blue lagoons and golden sands is also one of the more divine regions for stamp collectors due to a plethora of elegant – and erroneous – stamps during the Victorian period.

The first of these stamps were issued in 1847 and actually printed on the island at the bequest of the Colonial Postmaster. Joseph Barnard had arrived on Mauritius years before as a stowaway and had a reputation as a  miniaturist and engraver – he would have the honour of making Mauritius’s first stamps: the One Penny Orange and Two Pence Blue. It is believed that the printing of these first stamps was rushed, in order to festoon the envelopes that accompanied invitations to Lady Gomm's ball at the Government House. 500 of each stamp were issued and of these 1000 stamps only 27 are known to have survived. The finest unused Two Pence Blue is in the Royal Collection, having been previously purchased by King George V who paid £1,400 for the privilege – the highest price ever paid for a stamp at the time.

Barnard used the well-known image of the young Queen produced by William Wyon for the City of London Medallion – and oddly, the inscription ‘Post Office’ appeared on the first stamps. A year later, in 1848, a new design engraved by Barnard featured ‘Post Paid’ instead. Due to Barnard’s peculiar and somewhat limited printing methods, over the next twelve-years until 1859, Mauritius produced some of the most interesting and recognisable stamps of the British Empire with collectors later identifying hallmarks of Barnard’s rapidly declining plates, such as sharp engraving lines to indiscernible inscriptions.

Jules Lapriot, described as a thespian and part-time engraver, was parachuted in to produce a new plate. The resulting stamps were so bad, however, that one Mauritius resident described it as 'the greatest libel on Queen Victoria ever perpetrated on a postage stamp'. These stamps became known as ‘Libel Labels’. The next year, a new, more sophisticated issue arrived from the printers De La Rue of England, ending a unique period known as ‘primitive philately.’

With the arrival of more professional plates the 20th century saw professional designs paying homage to the colonial past; and from the 1950s onwards pictorials took up the mantel as the island started its forays into the tourism state it is heralded as today.