West Africa Study Circle

Collecting The Gambia

In addition to the stamps The Gambia offers all the related fields of collecting. The postal history is by no means all known or documented; discoveries are still to be made in the dating of postal rate changes to various destinations, even the U.K. (for example in the 1970s and 80s), or in the various types of airletter. All aspects, indeed, of the airmails are exceptionally interesting as The Gambia was the jumping-off place for the Lufthansa service to South America in the 1930s. An ingenious raft in mid-Atlantic allowed sea-planes to “land”safely next to the refuelling vessel, even in bad weather. On three occasions Zeppelins were used instead of the planes. Bathurst was also a staging-post on the American wartime service FAM 22 from Miami to Leopoldville. Mail, almost all philatelic, can be found flown between the other staging-posts and Bathurst. And there are examples of letters that used this route from the Far East to the USA because of the war still raging in the Pacific. A few even came this way to the UK despite the expense of a double Atlantic crossing. After the war, a series of other airlines carried mail between The Gambia and the UK - such letters can make an interesting collection.

The wars produced other philatelic material: there is a single example known of a World War I censor label; but the geographical importance of the country in WW II made it an Army P.O., using FPO 109 date-stamps and numerous censor-codes on military and civil mail. For details of these, see “West African Censorship” by J.J.Martin and F.L.Walton, published by the W.A.S.C.

A cover posted at the river-steamer Travelling Post Office.

Two particularly attractive aspects of The Gambia's postal history are the Travelling Post Offices and the “village”postmarks. The TPO in the river steamer was inaugurated in 1922 to improve the letter-carrying arrangements, and to provide postal services for the numerous villages without POs. Conditions on board the ships were extraordinary: passengers and merchandise, some of it live, occupied all the deck space. The ships moved through inaccurately-charted waters even at night - no wonder two of them sank! Under these conditions the TPO worked wonders; but don't be surprised to find oddities; cancellations in the 1920s often have strange times : 15.4 PM, and 4.1PM, for example.

The cancellations of the main Bathurst PO are worth a study of their own, but those of the “village”offices and agencies are deservedly sought-after. A detailed account of these (up to 1984) is given in “The Stamps and Postal History of The Gambia”. But there is still plenty to be discovered about which POs were open when, whether they were all issued with cancellers (it's possible they merely sent the mail to Bathurst to be cancelled there), and whether they are still operative and in what conditions. Keep an eye open for BASSE and MACARTHY ISLAND (both not uncommon), and real rarities KARANTABA (of which only three partial strikes are known), FATTOTO, and JAWARRA.