I received an email the other day from a friend saying she’d received some real post for the first time in ages and what a wonderful feeling it caused. It might help to note that she’s in South Africa where the postal system doesn’t have a very good reputation and with travel and other restrictions the postal and courier services had been completely suspended for over a month.
Although the quantity of postal deliveries has reduced phenomenally over the years since email and smartphones have taken over our lives, there is still a need for the good old fashioned delivery system and, if I’m honest, I still tend to pop a handwritten letter or card into the post box rather than send an email (especially if the recipient doesn’t connect electronically). Writing a letter is so much quicker than typing one out and printing it… the challenge is keeping it legible.
So, I was quite taken when reading Gann and Duigan’s Colonialism in Africa vol 1, p443 to learn that Ethiopia had joined the International Postal Union in 1908. The surprise was not that it was Ethiopia but rather that there has been an international postal society, association, union for that length of time. So, it got me investigating.
The Universal Postal Union as it is known today is the second oldest such association still in existence. It came into existence in 1874 based in Berne, Switzerland and its purpose is to provide a ‘forum for cooperation between postal sector players’. It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but this little excursion raised awareness of the logistical infrastructure that goes into delivering a letter or parcel, not just locally, but internationally, and it’s been going for nearly 150 years. Britannica has some more information for anyone interested and this archive is rather impressive, including stamps and other items from Africa during the First World War.
For anyone interested in the British post office’s involvement in World War One, the Postal Museum has some information. Although it doesn’t cover the colonies and dominions in the discussion, we know letters were sent to and from the UK to the front lines. Memoirs concerning the war in East Africa often lament the fact that no letters were forthcoming for some time, and WW Campbell in his East Africa by Motor Lorry talks of sorting out piles of post which had gathered in a base camp. Francis Brett Young’s sense of hopelessness and loss on hearing that his manuscript Marching on Tanga had been sunk on route to his publisher.
The army postal service arrived in East Africa with the Indian Expeditionary Forces in November 1914. Under Lieutenant Colonel Appleby, the post office was set up in the base depot at Kilindini serving all troops operating in East Africa. In January 1916, the unit was supplemented with a draft from South Africa and was assisted by the South African Postmaster General, Mr J Wilson. It is recorded that the roads were so bad, motor transport could only move at 9mph. In 1917, the postal service consisted of 5 British officers, 5 inspectors, 85 postmasters and clerks, and a contingent of the South African Postal Corps and Royal Engineers (4 British officers, 25 rank and file). On 1 June 1917 a base was opened in Dar es Salaam, while 6 Field Post Offices and 3 postal agencies were opened in Port Amelia. A base depot was opened in June 1918 in South Africa to deal with UK post. While KA Appleby, Director of Postal Services in East Africa for the duration of the war, does not give statistics for mail in East Africa, he notes that between June 1918 and the end of the war, the Durban office had processed 4,516 mail and 2,070 parcel bags going to the East Africa theatre. (The Post Office of India in the Great War, p264)
And somewhere in my photo collection, I have a photo of the oldest known post office in the Kilimanjaro region, in Himo on the route from Taveta to Himo to Moshi. Built by the Germans before the 1914-18 war, when I last saw it, it was a small convenience store in disrepair. One or two locals knowing its significance were starting to explore how it could be rescued and its history made more widely known. Unfortunately I’ve not been back and don’t know its current status.
Then as now, getting a letter creates a sense of eager anticipation, unlike the image of the person standing on the doorstep holding a pink telegram sheet…