British South Africa Company & Rhodesia – A Brief History

It is acknowledged that the history of Rhodesia is problematic for the British and that Cecil Rhodes is viewed quite differently today to how he would have been during his lifetime. This short guide is chiefly intended to be a brief introduction to the stamp issues and philatelic history of the B.S.A.C. and Rhodesia. The wider history of the pre-independent period of the countries that we know today as Malawi, Zambia & Zimbabwe would have to include greater detail about how British colonialism was exported to this part of the world.

The earliest stamps of Rhodesia are inscribed “British South Africa Company” (BSAC for short) and were first issued on 2nd January 1892. Indeed the name “Rhodesia” did not appear on any stamps until the overprinted Arms issue of 1909-12 (SG.100/113e).

The British South Africa Company was formed by Cecil John Rhodes, a wealthy diamond mining magnate who had set up the famous De Beers Mining Company in 1880. Mining concessions for the lands north of the Cape Colony were obtained in 1888 when Chief Lobengula, King of the Matabele people signed a treaty with Britain. The BSAC received its Royal charter in 1889.

Rhodes was a very shrewd man, both politically and in business. He hoped to enable colonisation and economic exploitation and wanted to be free to control the area without what he saw as interference from the Colonial Office in London. Rhodes got his own way because he would pay to administer the territories north of South Africa against future mining profits. The Colonial Office did not have the funds to do it. Rhodes promoted his business in the strategic interest of Britain and prevented the Portuguese (coming from Mozambique), the Germans and the Boers from moving in.

The British South Africa Company was free to set up its own police force, army, railways, postal services etc. In 1890, Rhodes sent a group of settlers, known as the Pioneer Column, into Mashonaland where they founded Fort Salisbury (now Harare, capital of Zimbabwe). In 1891 an Order-in-Council declared Matabeleland and Mashonaland British Protectorates. Consequently, the British South Africa Company had carved out an enormous chunk of Africa for its own ends. The area controlled by the BSAC was first known as “Zambesia,” after the Zambezi River that ran through it. It was officially named Rhodesia in 1895.

The first stamps inscribed “British South Africa Company” were first used for postal purposes on 2nd January 1892, for use in the territory controlled by the company. Rhodesia joined the South African Postal Union in August 1892, so its stamps became valid for international mail. Between 1892 and 1910 various different issues and designs of stamps depicted the arms of the company. There were only two exceptions during this period – in 1896 stamps of the Cape were overprinted “British South Africa Company” to make a set of seven different values (SG.58/64) and in July 1905, a beautiful commemorative set of stamps depicting the Victoria Falls was issued to commemorate the Visit of the British Association and the Opening of Victoria Falls Bridge (SG.94/99). They make for an eye-catching album page in any stamp collection.

Double Heads – issued on 11th November 1910, these iconic stamps are amongst the favourites of all British Commonwealth collectors. Featuring King George V and his wife Queen Mary, they have EIGHTEEN different face values from ½d to £1. There are many shade variations as well as different perforations, plus all the fly-speck marks that allow the stamps to be plated and meaning that you can get lost in this issue for a lifetime.

Admirals – another widely collected and popular issue, so called because they feature King George V in his Navy Admiral uniform, they were issued on 1st September 1913 and were in use until the end of the BSAC and the beginning of Southern Rhodesia period until their stamps were issued in April 1924. Similar to the Double Heads, there are eighteen face values, many shade variations, different perforations AND different dies used to print the King’s portrait. In 2020-21 Stanley Gibbons’s “Commonwealth & British Empire” catalogue revised and expanded its listing of this issue.

In October 1964, Southern Rhodesia was renamed Rhodesia and forty-one years later, the single, simple country name returned to the stamps on the 1965 I.T.U. Centenary issue (SG.351/3). The country declared independence on 11th November 1965 which was not recognised by the British Government. This period is often referred to as the “U.D.I. Period,” which stands for Unilateral Declaration of Independence. In terms of stamp issues, it means the country name of Rhodesia remained in use on the stamps until the Powered Flight issue of October 1978 (SG.570/5).

The stamps were not recognised on the mail to the UK, so covers of this period should be taxed. There was confusion, often on philatelic mail, when a larger, philatelic over-franking would be taxed at the incorrect rate. This means there are a range of different taxed covers to collect and it is a popular collecting area for postal historians.

Rhodesia became independent on 18th April 1980 and was renamed Zimbabwe.