Use of postage stamps in Ethiopia can be divided into periods according to the political situation:
- Napier’s Abyssinian Campaign (first part of 1868) with use of overprinted Indian stamps.
- Foreign posts; letters franked with Egyptian or Italian stamps during transit in “Eritrea” (1874-1895).
- Private postal system (1895-1906), expropriated by Emperor Menelik (1906-1908), when French- or British Somalia stamps had to be applied during transit to foreign countries
– depending on port of departure.
- Intermediate period with struggle for power (1909-1930) (Member of UPU in 1908).
Few stamp sets, but lots of overprints.
- Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime before the Italian Occupation (1930-1936).
- Italian occupation (1936-1941).
- British administration of Ethiopia (1941-1944) (Eritrea 1941-1952), with use of British stamps in Ethiopia until 1942.
- Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime after the Italian Occupation (1942-1974).
- (Ethiopian administration of Eritrea (1952-1993) with use of Ethiopian stamps in Eritrea).
- DERG Provisional Military Government (1974-1986).
- Peoples Democratic Republic (1987-1990).
- Transitional Government (1991-1995).
- Democratic Republic (1995 to today).
Special use of stamps:
- In 1908-1935, stamps from Eritrea were used by the Italian Commercial Agencies in Dessie, Gondar, Adua and a couple of other towns, for its mails sent by the agency’s private couriers.
- In the British Enclave of Gambela, stamps from Sudan were used in the 1920’s into the 1950’s.
- Military bases: British stamps were used by the British Military into the 1950’s, and USA stamps in American bases into the 1970’s.
The stamp motifs
- The early stamps pictures royalties (like most other countries)
- In the 1950th-60th the stamp motifs changed from royalties to pictorials, but with a picture of Haile Selassie at least in a corner of the stamp for almost 20 years
- Most of the modern stamps have beautiful pictures of Ethiopian culture, flora, fauna, etc.
- Other modern stamps celebrate anniversaries of the revolution and organizations.
The British Expedition to Abyssinia
The first use of postage stamps within Ethiopia was when the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II held the British consul and some of his team as hostages to force Queen Victoria to reply to a letter. Lord Napier led an expedition from India to free the hostages in 1868. They set up a postal during this half year-long campaign using F.F. overprinted Indian stamps.
Private postal system
In 1894 Alfred Ilg (Swiss) and Leon Chefeneux (French) received a concession by Emperor Menelik II to start private postal service in Ethiopia. There were few foreigners in the country at that time, and few Ethiopians could read and write, so the stamps were mainly used for postage abroad. Since Ethiopia was not a member of the Universal Postal Union, stamps from French Somalia or Indian stamps used in British Somalia had to be added for international letters depending on the port of departure.
A set of 7 stamps was designed, of which more than 2.8 million stamps was ordered from France – a lot more than they actually needed. A small part of these stamps were brought into Ethiopia, the rest were sold through stamp dealers in Europe – especially during the World Exhibition in Paris 1900 where stamps were sold to 1/3 of face value. It is said that some of these cheap stamps were brought into Ethiopia and sold for a profit, which may have caused the sale of stamps from the post offices to decrease. Overprinted stamps were therefore introduced from 1901 as the only valid stamps. The overprint was changed every year until Ethiopia was accepted in the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in November 1908.
Early overprints and forgeries
After the Ethiopian army won over Italy at the battle of Adwa in 1896, the world and philatelists became aware of this country. The demand for Ethiopian stamps was high, and the Swiss postmaster Michel in Harar started to produce stamps for sale to dealers in Europe, in addition to his proper issues. Michel continued to create new overprints until he left the post office, including the “Malkathe” and the “Harrar provisionals” that were not officially issued – even if some of them were actually used on mail. He continued to produce and sell stamps with fake overprints after he returned to Europe.
The demand for the early Ethiopian stamps has been so high that many people have been tempted to produce fake stamps, partly because un-overprinted stamps were so easy to find. Because this, and the limited early correspondence, most of the early overprinted Ethiopian stamps you can find for sale today are forgeries/fakes, and most of them are difficult to identify.
Intermediate period with struggle for power
Ethiopia was accepted by UPU in 1908. 2 new sets of stamps were introduced in 1909 and 1919, but because unstable political situation, World War I, and wrong orders of denominations/values resulted in many overprints, in which there are many varieties and errors.
A set of 7 Italian ‘Etiopia’ stamps were issued soon after the occupation, but mostly stamps from Eritrea, Italian Somalia and Italian ‘Africa Orientale’ (A.O.I) were used during the Ethio-Italian war, but mostly the Etiopia stamps and other AOI issues during the 5-year occupation. Some Italian stamps were also accepted in this period. A mixture of Italian Military postmarks and civilian occupation postmarks were used to cancel the stamps.
Use of varieties and printing errors
In countries like Ethiopia nothing is wasted, and all the stamps were often used – even if the overprinting was wrong and contained printing errors. Ethiopian stamps from before 1936 is therefore a heaven for collectors of varieties. Except for the first issues after restoration of peace in 1941 there are only few varieties after 1944. Errors like shifting of colors in multi-colored stamps are common for some sets in the sixties and early seventies.
Post war forgeries
The most common forgeries of post-war stamps are overprints on an un-issued set of Red Cross stamps that did not reach Ethiopia before the Italian occupation in 1936. However, some of the stamps that did reach Ethiopia and were used by the post office for a few overprinted sets. Since the rest of these stamps were sold in bulk to dealers, they have been attractive items for making interesting creations with lots of varieties and errors – some professional and some really bad.
A few of the overprints on the 1943 Haile Selassie stamps have also been forged – especially the rare hand-stamped Obelisk set.
During the first 10 years after the Italian occupation most of the stamps pictured the emperor and other royalties, but in 1946 the first pictorial commemorative set was introduced with scenes from Ethiopia. Separate Air Mail stamps were issued along with normal stamps for about 20 years. In the same period almost all stamps had some kind of picture of Haile Selassie on the stamp – usually in a corner.
From the beginning of the sixties the motifs on the stamps pictured Ethiopian flora and fauna in between royal and organizational anniversaries. This has continued until today, with exception of some revolution issues. All in all, these beautiful pictorial sets contain lots of history and information about Ethiopia.
Modern stamps – Ethiopian history, culture and environment
In general the Ethiopian Postal Administration has done a good job at presenting their country though beautiful stamps, particularly starting from the nineteen sixties – independent of the political situation in the country. By looking at the stamp sets from the last 50 years you will learn a lot about the country and its people.
The Ethiopian posts has not speculated by mass-producing stamp sets for sale to philatelists, like several countries do – only what has been needed for postage. They have, however, issued First Day Covers and presentation cards/folder for philatelists for about 50 years, but in limited quantities.
For most of these issues they have printed pamphlets (that I have incorrectly referred to in my albums as presentation folders), containing description of the sets. These pamphlets contain a lot of information and history, which I want to preserve by including their texts in my albums.
– Many thanks to the Ethiopian Postal Service for issuing so many interesting and beautiful stamps!