The Mount Currie Express one penny stamp (1874) -
a debate on a classic Griqua rarity

Tom Mullins died at home, peacefully in his sleep, on 11 March 2007. He will be remembered as the gentleman he was, a very special man of integrity, love, caring for his family and those around him and beloved husband to his wife Pat.
Our condolences to his family.

Image right: Tom and Pat Mullins on the occasion of Scott's visit to their home in Port Elizabeth for dinner in September 2006

Orbituary on Tom Mullins - died April 2007

More on Scott's trip at this link

In response to T M Mullins' 36 page paper on "The Mount Currie Express the Stamps of East Griqualand" I wish to firstly applaud the author for his diligence and research which has unveiled some useful background on the extremely rare one penny stamps issued in 1874.

As a student of Griqua history for thirty years (one of my books on this subject "Kence - the Trade Tokens of Strachan and Company" is referred to in Mullin's bibliography) I need to objectively challenge a couple of his observations which are not, as he admits, based on fact but supposition. That is the purpose of this article.

But before doing so one needs to understand the psyche of the region at that time…

Nomansland, renamed East Griqualand by Adam Kok in the 1860s, was a wild and very isolated region lying east of the great Drakensberg and Basutoland, west of the warring Mpondolisi and their coastal strip while being buffeted by the Cape Colony to the south and the Natal Colony to the north. Map at this link.

In all history books this general region is referred to in the mid-1800s as the source of the "kaffir wars" creating tension to the white settlers in the north eastern Cape. The obsession in the local population and those who reported on its times was with the quelling of the violence and upheaval by "kaffirs". This unrest was created by the Mpondolisi, the armies under Moshoeshoe in Basutoland (now Lesotho) as well as a fair number of disgruntled rebel Griquas (like Smit Pommer) who had been used to marauding and stealing to make a livelihood before they travelled from Philippolis (to the south-west of Lesotho) and other parts in 1859.

Like Maslow's law of hierarchy of needs (for human motivation) the important facets of day to day living in East Griqualand in the 1860s - 90s were very different to today - they reflected the most basic ingredients of life - survival. The need to go into the trivial substance of postal issues and money was way down the scale - and largely overlooked.

For example, if one studies the books, documents, Parliamentary papers and letters relating to this time one finds very few references to the shortage of money faced by the Griquas of East Griqualand until the mid-1870s. The Rev W Dower in his book "The Early Annals of Kokstad and East Griqualand" refers to this problem of money shortage being suddenly alleviated - while no explanation is given.

pp 21: Nearly all business was carried on by barter. Of money there was very little in circulation. Wool, sheep, horses, cattle, goats, skins, timber, eggs, grain, fowl were exchanged for clothing and groceries. Under the Ingeli it was a common sight to see a man laboriously carrying wagon timber or yellow-wood planks to the stores in order to exchange for some articles required for the household.

pp 23: The church undertook to pay him 150 pounds per annum in cash. The most extraordinary part of it is that there was not that amount of coin in the country at the time.

pp 33: So it came to pass that the very first building erected in Kokstad was paid for by a Geneva clerical coat... made by a Durban tailor.

all this change in the mid 1870s when Dower notes pp 66,

"the sudden ceaseless flow of (Strachan and Co) money into the country, in which, a few years ago there had been none brought, very soon, facilities for spending it".

If one studies this era with a numismatic slant one will find that in Natal, East Griqualand's geographical trading partner of choice, Indian Rupee coins were passed off in Durban as two shilling pieces because of the scarcity of coinage of the crown at the very time the shortage of coin in East Griqualand had been lifted.

The first set of Strachan and Co trade tokens -
issued in 1874 and used as currency in East Griqualand for nearly sixty years.

A local coinage, the trade tokens of Strachan and Co, had become the region's de-facto circulating currency - a role they played for nearly sixty years. The first bank to open in Kokstad, The Standard Bank, which opened in a tent in 1878 refers to the Strachan and Co trade tokens being accepted across the counter by their staff in those days of shortage. Through research the missing piece of the jigsaw in Dower's incomplete annals is explained. For more see:

It needs to be said that the two men running Strachan and Company, Charles Brisley and Donald Strachan, were arguably the most powerful men in the land. They had the ear of Adam Kok (the Griqua Chief) through Brisley - the Government's Secretary and Strachan - their appointed Magistrate of one of their three regions.

Despite this factual position of South Africa's first widely accepted indigenous currency being a lowly trading token coin produced by a store very few references, if any, are to be found about the Strachan and Co trade tokens.

The date of these tokens first appearance and use as stated by the Standard Bank can be confirmed when one reads Robert Ross' study on the Griquas - where he refers to the Strachan and Co stores being established by Strachan and Brisley in 1872 and, through other sources, the purchase of the Mountain Home estate being purchased by Donald Strachan in 1874 - and later sold in 1887 to the Catholic Trappist Monks in 1887 to save his beloved business. (One of the earlier and rarest Strachan and Co sets carries the initials "MH" for this store). More importantly several generations of Strachan's have written papers and letters referring to the coinage being accepted anywhere in the region as currency - despite their origins.

Were the Mount Currie Express stamps approved and accepted as a postal service by the Griqua Government?

In many ways the Strachan and Co trade tokens have shared the same fate in numismatics as the "Mount Currie Express" one penny stamp in philately as the bastard son on the purists who, apart from historically romantic pieces like the Veld Pond, scorn these fascinating relics of the past. How wrong they are - both in not recognising the value in these stamps as an investment and in historical terms. This fact is now being recognised by numismatists with the value of Strachan and Company trade tokens jumping several hundred percent in the last few years. (Sets of sixteen tokens now sell for over US$3,000 each).

As a student of numismatics and Griqua history but not philately I do not wish to enter into the argument of how the "Mount Currie Express" stamps should be categorized but I do wish to place on record my perspective that Dower's record, transcribed below, is misleading.

Rev W Dower "Early Annals of Kokstad and East Griqualand" (page 40)

It was a private postal service, but practically became public by having its own postage stamp. This was the first attempt at a regular postal service. If the Griqua Government wished to avail itself of the "Mount Currie Express" it required to procure stamps and use these like anyone else.

The statement below is far closer to the truth, and I will explain why very shortly.

Letter 8th August 1889 - by Mr Emil Tamsen, Waterberg, Transvaal

The stamp is called the "Mount Currie Express" and is a small stamp about half an inch square, printed in green, under the authority of Captain Adam Kok, the Griqua chief, during the Griqua occupation of this country.

One has to understand that the Griqua Raad (Government) in Kokstad had absolutely no idea on how to replicate a state based on the Westminster system or how to run a modern western-styled society. Dower clearly reflects this when addressing the manner in which the Raad operated. He says on page 18,

The duration of Parliament depended on the size of the animal slaughtered. When the beef gave out the House rose. No beef, no business, was the unwritten, but standing rule of this Assembly. It was a simpler and more effective extinguisher to Parliamentary oratory than our modern closure. The cooking operations for these "Achtbare Heeren" were carried on close to the House of Parliament, and the big pot was so placed that members while in session could see both the progress of the operations and inhale grateful odours, as an earnest of the coming feast.

Old Piet Draai made frequent visits to the kitchen to light his pipe. He was admitted to be the best judge of the earliest moment when the beef was eatable. When Piet's voice was heard proclaiming the joyful news "Kerls de kos is gaar" (Gentlemen the beef is cooked) the House rose with a stampede. These Griqua Parliamentary dinners were held much after the primitive fashion which obtained in England in the days of good King Alfred. The simplicity of manners saved the little State manifold needless costs in the way of crockery, cutlery and napery. The form of Government was roughly on the lines of the British Constitution. Imitation of the white man was the unacknowledged, although the real rule of procedure. "De Engelsche maken zoo", (The English act so). Beyond that there was no appeal.

Dower goes on to record:

"The Volksraad was a wonderful anachronism. Its sittings were held half yearly, and lasted as long as the commissariat held out. It was very free and easy both as to its composition and conduct of business. Very little real business was done, and very imperfect accounts of its proceedings were kept. After a session was over it was no uncommon occurrence for discussion to arise as to what had been decided."

Clearly, by the records alone one can see that much was discussed but very improper records were kept and the feast at the end of the session was the main attraction for many of the delegates attending. While Dower's records of the time are invaluable it has to be noted that they are far from complete and the accuracy of many claims what he made has been openly challenged, for example, where contrary evidence was obtained and reflected in the lengthy notes attached by the Killie Campbell Library to their 1978 reprint and correction of his 1902 work. Furthermore, the publication of the first (1902) edition book The Early Annals of Kokstad and East Griqualand created a feeding frenzy of letters to the editor disputing his recollections on people and certain events.

Having noted the clear failings of the land's highest power one needs to be aware that traders who fell out with Strachan and Co (because of the power of the company's owners) or the Raad were unceremoniously evicted from the region - such as J P Scott and T O Hall just to mention a well documented couple of examples.

This was, after all, "Griqua Land"…

Nothing happened in Griqualand that did not first get the sanction of Adam Kok and his Raad. Postal services would not have been excluded from this reality - one thing the Raad did do well was collect taxes - especially from traders. It is interesting to note that the "Mount Currie Express" stamps most northerly destination was Harding south of Umzimkulu - the heart of Strachan's empire. The service would have been very handy to Strachan and Co as it would have been to the Griqua Raad in getting letters reliably to those remote areas like Matatiele.

It cannot be disputed that the Griqua Raad, who could not afford to pay for their own purchases in the stores at Kokstad, did not have the means to set up a regular postal service or coinage to alleviate their people's plight thanks to their isolation. The "Mount Currie Express" would have been welcomed, like the Strachan and Co coinage, across a broad spectrum of the country's citizens because of the service it provided - despite Adam Kok's personal views about letters.

What happened to the stamps?

There is no record of this in anything I have come across. If I had a crystal ball and could look back into it I would suggest that the delivery of the letters by Mount Currie Express in more remote areas of East Griqualand such as Matatiele would have seen the receiver more often than not throw the wrapping and the stamp away - there would have been no understanding of their potential future value - just as those who received the first credit cards in the 1970s threw away their old cards at that time not understanding their value today. As a collector of Griqua ephemera for the last thirty years I can only tell you how frustrating it is to get any early documents or letters from this era in East Griqualand - even when using the amazing resource of web sites like eBay. In over 30 years I have not been able to find a single copy of a document signed by Adam Kok - once there were thousands but they have simply been callously destroyed like the rare 1868 Een Pond Griqua Note! The Mount Currie Stamps shared the same fate.

Their period of use - clearly just a few months

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, based on my research into the history of East Griqualand, the "Mount Currie Express" postage stamp had a very short lifespan of a few months at most. I believe that the stamps were issued in the first few months of 1874 - at a time the people in the old settlement at Mount Currie were moving to Kokstad. Correspondence between the two settlements of Mount Currie and the new capital of Kokstad would have been the main market. By Easter 1874 the diminishing population at Mount Currie would have made this service unprofitable.

I agree with Mullins that the minutes of the Raad on 7th May 1874 "Post to Umzimkulu - steps to be taken to establish a weekly post" could well have been taken as a result of the cessation of the "Mount Currie Express" postal service.

Interestingly, in 1885 Strachan and Co successfully tendered for the postal contract to run mail twice a week between Kokstad and Umzimkulu.


In conclusion I would suggest that the "Mount Currie Express" stamps produced for Ballance and Goodliffe by Darby were fully sanctioned and used by the Griqua Raad. They were, in effect, bona fide East Griqualand postage stamps - just like the trade tokens of Strachan and Co were the evolving nation's currency - before and after the Colonial Government annexed the territory.

The stamps being identified as a local issue (ie not valid outside East Griqualand) is at odds with the information supplied by Eric Ballance's father who said that they were accepted by the Natal Government in their postal service. I would suggest that Zietsman like Tamsen is right and that the stamps were also fully sanctioned by the Griqua Raad. In my mind these stamps went beyond just being a private issue - the postal service was utilised by the Griqua Government and recognised beyoond the borders of East Griqualand.

More on the Mount Currie Express postage stamp at this link