The Philately of Belgian Exploration - A Conversation with Patrick Maselis

Internationally known collector and member of the museum’s Council of Philatelists, Patrick Maselis, talks with Chief Curator Daniel A. Piazza about stamps and postal history related to Belgian exploration in Africa and America between 1700 and 1900.

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DANIEL A. PIAZZA: Well, hello Patrick. Thank you for joining me. It's a real pleasure to, to discuss these short films that you made for our audience at the National Postal Museum.

PATRICK MASELIS: Good morning, Dan, and thank you for calling me for, for this purpose.

PIAZZA: I'm really fascinated by the short video you did about the Congo Free State stamp showing the elephant hunt. And it really, as I viewed it, it puts me in mind of a similar stamp from the United States that was issued in 1898. It's a 4-cent stamp in the Trans-Mississippi series, and it shows American Indians hunting buffalo. So we've got two stamps at roughly the same time period depicting roughly the same activity and in similar contexts of expansion and colonization. So, I mean, you showed all of that beautiful archival material and discussed the artistic quality of the engraving. The, but the content of the stamp really stands out to me as well. In terms of, I know that for the United States stamp, for example, it shows a lone American Indian hunting a lone buffalo, just as your stamp shows a lone elephant and a lone hunter. But these were really, in the native societies - these were - the hunt was really a communal activity with social dimensions.

MASELIS: So, that shows exactly what the Congo stamp shows. The person who made the design never saw an elephant hunt or the person who drew the stamp of the U.S. never saw a real buffalo hunt either. So these are romantic views of how they thought the hunt would look like. And this was also on purpose because by showing it the way they thought it was, and by showing it in a better way than in real life, because elephant hunting was not such a nice view as you can see on the stamp. Elephant hunting was really dangerous, and you had to track the elephant and the elephant suffered. So all this is not shown at all. They just wanted to show a nice picture of how Congo looked like to, actually, as a kind of a promotion tool for the country.

PIAZZA: Yeah, I mean, I think undoubtedly some of these choices were probably for the composition of the stamp, you know, to make it work artistically. But then also I think there's a, I think there is a political and a social dimension to some of the choices that were made in these stamp designs. By, as you say, romanticizing the view of the native peoples and the wildlife that they depended on, you know, for their sustenance and, and presenting them as lone and solitary activities rather than communal and social activities with an almost spiritual dimension, at least for the native peoples in North America. This view, sort of, I think, reinforces the idea of - these are these are ancient monuments in a sense. The American and the Belgian version of say, the Acropolis or the pyramids at Giza, it gives the sense that this is something that belongs to a past age or a past era. And that message I think then is used at the time to really propagandize colonization and expansion and these sorts of activities.

MASELIS: Definitely. The whole set was issued as a propaganda tool for the King of the Belgians who, as you probably know has a very bad reputation on human rights. So actually, nothing of the real Africa is shown, only these images. And the elephant hunt was definitely a choice of the King because ivory was his only source of income at the beginning of the colonization. So, showing an elephant hunt was really in, in his opinion, probably was essential. But the whole set, all the stamps are very beautiful. He spent a fortune of his own money because it was not the Belgian colony, it was his own property. He spent a fortune on these stamps because he wanted to, well, as a propaganda tool he wanted to show a romantic and more or less an ideal image of the place he just acquired. And so the stamps did not serve the purpose of showing the reality. I would even say on the contrary.

PIAZZA: Yeah, and that's a fascinating insight because the Trans-Mississippi series was very much the same thing in the United States. So that was issued for a world's fair in St. Louis, Missouri in 1898. And the whole purpose of that series of stamps was to show the opportunities of the American West to encourage businesses and immigrants to move West, you know, across the Mississippi River and into the American West. And so, it was, I mean it's the same time period. It's all of these same themes that are emerging over and over again.

MASELIS: You know, these stamps were also designed after a diorama shown on the Antwerp World Exhibition the year before in 1894. So, even there, there is a link.

PIAZZA: Right.

MASELIS: The - All these beautiful paintings that were made to show Congo on the World Exhibition where then, some of them were used for the design of the stamps.

PIAZZA: And, you know, you mentioned that the elephant hunt stamp was a personal choice of the King. And in the case of the Trans-Mississippi series, the inclusion of a stamp featuring bison was very publicly and strongly advocated by Theodore Roosevelt, who was, who would later be president of the United States. And he was adamant that there should be a stamp featuring a bison in the series. So, it's all just - I think it all just goes to prove all the multiple layers. I mean, in your video, you look at the stamp from the artistic layer and the production process and how a stamp comes to be. You can look at the social and cultural dimensions of the design itself, and then other people will look at the afterlife of the stamp, if you will. How it gets used, what rates it pays, how it enables, facilitates communication. One set of stamps, or even one single stamp, you can just analyze it on so many levels, it's endless. And the more you read and then the more you start doing this kind of comparative and cross-country studies and see the similarities in what's going on in totally different countries at the same time. It's just, it's just a whole fascinating world that I know I never get bored with it. I know you're not bored with it. You're still at it after all these years, and multiple generations of your family have been at this, have been at this hobby, and it's just endlessly fascinating. There's, there's, there's no bottom to it.

MASELIS: It is, and as you say, you can look at this set of stamps from an artistic point of view. I also have the original drawing, which is a magnificent piece of art. I think it was made with magnifying glasses because all the details are there. And actually, the size of the painting is the size of the actual stamp. So, I don't know how the artists did it, but he was - his skills were far better than mine. I would not even be able to draw, to make a drawing of an elephant on a one square foot canvas.

PIAZZA: Stick figures. My stamps would all be...the stamps of Piazzaland would all be stick figures. I have no artistic ability whatsoever. Well, let's take a look at the clip that you created for our audience.


MASELIS: Here in traditional philately, we collect everything about one stamp or about one set of stamps. We try to find the original drawings. We tried to find the inspiration of the artists. We try to find the engravings, the stamp itself, of course in all its shades and varieties and the use of the stamp. So, the canceled stamps and the stamps on cover. To illustrate this, I will show you one of the most beautiful stamps ever. The 1-franc elephant hunt stamp from the Congo. The artist who was - or, the artists who were asked to design the stamp had to paint the stamp on the actual size of a stamp. And these artworks were then shown to the person who ordered the stamps, King Leopold II of Belgium, because he wanted to have a real idea how the stamp would really look like. And if they showed him a big drawing, he could not figure out how the stamp would actually look on the cover. So, a very beautiful stamp was drawn by Waterlow & Sons, by an artist with - showing an elephant hunt. The inspiration for this stamp was a diorama that the artist saw in Antwerp at the World Exhibition in 1894. Of course, there were also other artists who were asked to design the stamp. And in my collection, I have another original drawing of an elephant, but this drawing is not so beautiful as the one that was finally chosen. So, from the chosen artwork an engraver was asked to make an engraving and I have a die print in color of this engraving. Once the engraving was finished, the stamp was then - or the engraving - was multiplied 50 times because the stamps were printed in sheets of 50. And there were some proofs of the plates, proofs of the sheet. These proofs of the sheet had different colors and also had punch holes in them because later on if the stamp was printed in, if the trial was done in the real color, later on the stamps could have been used as real stamps. And to avoid this, there was a punch hole in the stamps. After the trials of the sheets the final color was chosen and the stamp was printed, and if a stamp was printed for a long time, of course, we know of different shades, different varieties, all kinds of differences between individual stamps and these ones we collect as well. And real collectors also try to find a full sheet of the stamp because that's always nice in a collection. And finally, we look at the use of the stamp. So, then we collect the stamps that are canceled. We try to identify all the different cancellations and we look for the stamps on cover, the stamp itself or the stamp combined with other stamps on covers which looks sometimes very attractive.

PIAZZA: So, Patrick, as we're speaking this morning I'm speaking to you from the city of New York, from the borough of Staten Island, which was settled largely in the 17th century by French and Belgian Huguenots. And that's one of the, one of the topics that you covered in a short video for us with, on the Huguenot-Walloon Tercentenary stamps of 1924. A great example, I think of the sort of hidden histories - everybody associates the early history of New York with the Dutch and then the English conquering the city in the 1660s and again in the 1670s, but the Belgians and French were a very prominent early presence here along with the Dutch.

MASELIS: The first settlement on the mainland or, not really on the mainland, on Manhattan, was a settlement of a few dozen Walloon Huguenot families. They of course, for the people booking a trip, they knew it was a no-return ticket so that you would leave forever Europe and probably never come back, not very appealing for the Dutch themselves because they had their families and their friends and everyone, but the refugees in Holland, and especially the refugees who came from places where where the native tongue was not Dutch, like the Belgian French-speaking parts of the country, which is called, Wallonia, these Walloons, they arrived in Holland and they couldn't speak the language. They didn't feel at home. So they said, “Well, we don't feel at home here. Why we can't - there is no risk in going further.” And they volunteered for the first sailing of a Dutch ship to North America, with the idea of creating a settlement. And of course, when they knew about the trip of Hudson and they knew about the possibilities that Manhattan offered with a beautiful and a very convenient natural harbor, which was the reason they went there. And so they settled, these 24 families were dropped on South Manhattan, the area of Battery Park today. And there they founded a settlement, which they called Neuf Avesnes because their - the leader of these Walloon people was from Avesnes, which is a small village in Belgium. And one year later, when the next ship passed by, they had already built a small settlement, which they called - and they told the captain that the name was Neuf Avesnes. But because the Dutch captain said, “Look, I don't speak French. And we will have to rebaptize it because I don't want to come home and say, this place has a French name. This is a Dutch settlement.” So very originally, they came up with the idea of calling it New Amsterdam. So that was then a very easy to pronounce name for the Dutch. You're on Staten Island.

PIAZZA: Right.

MASELIS: It's called after the Staten-Generaal, which was the highest authority in Holland, which was kind of their parliament.

PIAZZA: Right. So all of those names, all of those names, and that legacy, it survived.

MASELIS: Flushing Meadows is Vlissengen, the Dutch town on the coast.


MASELIS: Brooklyn is Breukelen. Is named after Breukelen.

PIAZZA: Yes. And so, a lot of places to this day, actually, they have multiple names. So, they have two names, because they have - in some places the old Dutch names survived. And then in other places, you know, the English name came and supplanted it. And sometimes they're known by both names. So, where I grew up and where I'm sitting right now here on Staten Island is also known as Richmond County, which is what the Dutch - or the English, rather - renamed it. But it has both of those names, Richmond and Staten Island. So, two names for the same place. So that's - it’s - and these are these lovely little, I call them hidden histories. That stamps, when you really delve into the stories behind the anniversaries and the events that they're issued to commemorate, they really bring out these little hidden gems of history.

MASELIS: Well, to be honest I probably wouldn't have known the story myself if the U.S. had not issued in 1924 a set of stamps for the Walloon-Huguenot Tercentenary. Why did they celebrate a Walloon Tercentenary? We Belgians, we didn't know either. So, then you look it up and then you discover the story. So, the stamps are... thanks to the stamps. I discovered historical facts which I would never have known if I wouldn't be a stamp collector

PIAZZA: Let's watch your video.

MASELIS: Small histories that were forgotten or sometimes rediscovered. One of these forgotten histories is that New York was actually founded by Belgians. It was founded by Walloon Huguenots who fled Europe because they were persecuted. If you don't believe me, that Walloons founded New York, then just have a look at the stamps issued by the U.S. in 1924 to commemorate the tercentenary of their arrival in 1624. It's clearly written on the stamps. Of course, after the foundation of New York, very quickly the Dutch arrived, and the Dutch were actually the people who sent the Walloons there, and the city was ruled by Dutch governors. The most famous of them is Peter Stuyvesant, but even Peter Stuyvesant in his time, many Belgians still did all the work and the colony. And a nice proof of this is this letter from Stuyvesant, where you can see that it has been signed by Stuyvesant here. But if you look at the autograph of Stuyvesant and that all the rest - you can see that all the rest has been written by this person. This person was Carl van Brugge, the secretary of Peter Stuyvesant. And he was, of course, a Flemish Belgian.

PIAZZA: So, Patrick. The last video that you created for us is all centered around a really tremendous piece from your collection. A piece of stunning both philatelic I think, and historical importance. The letter from Stanley, do you want to talk a little bit more about the context of that letter and what happened after the letter was written?

MASELIS: Right, so Stanley actually went to Africa to look for the sources of the Nile. So, he left from East Africa, from Zanzibar. He would cross what is today, Tanzania up to Lake Tanganyika and Livingstone, when he met Livingstone in 1871, Livingstone told him there is a big river across Lake Tanganyika, which is flowing to the North. And Livingstone was absolutely convinced that this river was the Nile, or one of the sources of the Nile. So Stanley wanted to be the hero who would discover the sources of the Nile - actually every African explorer, or central African explorer, in the 19th century wanted to discover these famous, or these sources of the Nile, which no one knew at that moment. So, he left with the idea of crossing Lake Tanganyika, going into the Congo, following a river, and ending, ending up in the Sudan and in Egypt. So, ending up in desert. So, he was prepared for a trip through the desert, but to his surprise, the river did not flow north all the time. All of a sudden it took a sharp turn west and he was going back to the coast, and then he realized he was on the Congo. But instead of being in the Sahara, all of a sudden he was in the middle of the jungle and it took him three years to cross the African continent through the jungle, through totally unknown territory, to reach the coast. But as long as he was in the real jungle there was enough food to hunt, let's say, or the jungle is full of food. And if you can barter with the local people you never are out of food. But at the end of his trip, he reached the coast and that part of the Congo is much less fertile. And there is, in those days, the population was very, very low. So, he ran out of supplies. He had no food anymore, and he was actually desperate. And he knew that he was only a few days away walking from the first Portuguese settlement, which was Boma. So instead of sitting down and starving, he asked one of his people just to run as fast as he could to Boma, and he gave that person a letter which said. “To any gentlemen who speaks English at Emboma.” Then he explained he was staying at two days from Boma with 150 people. And he asked food for 150 people, which was of course an incredible amount of food. But this shows one aspect also besides the historical and the emotional and whatever value of letter. It also shows a different Stanley than the one we know. Stanley, most people have - he has a bad reputation. Most people say or consider Livingstone as a good man. And, and Stanley has a more mixed reputation. But one thing is sure and certain, Stanley always cared enormously about his people. So, all the people who came from Zanzibar all the way through the Congo, he would never leave them alone. He would never have left them and let them starve and go on his own to Boma, which he could have done easily. No, no. He just stayed with them. And if there would be no food, he would have died with them. That's how he was. And then another example is when they got the food and when they finally reached Boma, he stayed in Boma. He did not go back to England. No, he stayed in Boma, until a ship passed that went to South Africa. So, he went with this 150 people to South Africa and in South Africa, he looked for a ship that took him to Zanzibar to bring all these people back home. And only from Zanzibar, Stanley went back to Europe. So he really didn't want to leave these poor people in Boma because he was absolutely, he was right though, because if he would have left them there they would no one where they looked after them and they would have had to stay forever in the Congo. So, Stanley - that's a less-known aspect of Stanley, but he took care of his people.

PIAZZA: So that relief that he was asking for in that letter finally arrived. And he and his party were able to return by a ship. Yeah, no, I think you're right. It does show a - it shows a very human element. You can kind of sense the desperation in the letter. And, you know, very often in the history books, these - whether they have good reputations or bad reputations - they are presented as sort of heroic figures either way, larger than life. And this, the letters really show these emotional aspects. You could see the desperation. You can feel that he's trying to save these people.

MASELIS: And another thing of course, you don't have the letter in your hands, but when you have the letter in your hands you can see the dirt, the dust, everything is in the papers. So, the paper is actually, has actually, traveled through the jungle. And all the elements have somewhere managed to get into his luggages. And you can see that this paper has suffered and traveled for years to the jungle. You can actually see that.

PIAZZA: Right. Right. And the other, I mean, the other great thing about letters is that no matter who they're from, whether it's somebody famous or a family letter, something like this, it's one of the one of the few artifacts that you, you can know the person touched it, handled it, signed, it, wrote it, that their - their hands, their DNA is all over it. You know, their DNA, the DNA of the jungle is in is in the, you know, the fibers of this letter. Letters are just so - such powerful historical artifacts.

MASELIS: Yes and another point is, if you are a collector if you're interested in history and you collect historical items, these are about the cheapest items you can collect of which you are absolutely sure they have belonged to the person you were interested in. Imagine if you, if you would be interested in collecting everything about Napoleon, what else can you collect than letters at an affordable price? And I think that's also something to promote our hobby. These letters from Napoleon are sold for a few thousand dollars, which is affordable. If you would like to buy a hat of Napoleon, I think the price level will be different. Or another example, if you buy a letter written by a very famous painter, let's say Renoir. He signs it and he makes a small drawing on it. You will also pay a few thousand dollars for it while you have a real Renoir in your hands.

PIAZZA: Right. That's right.

MASELIS: So that's, that's another way to promote our hobby and to, yeah.

PIAZZA: And a much more - you have a much more personal, sort of intimate, Renoir than the one that's, you know, meant to be on a grand scale for public, public viewing at a very private and intimate experience with a historical figure by reading their letters. And there is a little bit of that thrill sometimes to reading somebody else's mail, reading somebody else's letters.

MASELIS: Of course, by now discussing this we might raise the prices of historical documents and if everybody starts collecting them. So maybe we should not touch the topic too much.

PIAZZA: Right. Well, let's watch your clip about Stanley's letter.


MASELIS: Another very famous explorer was Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was the man who discovered Livingstone in Tanzania in 1871. But Stanley was also the man who crossed Africa from east to west, so the opposite way from Livingstone, but not from east to west, more to the south but really almost on the equator, so through the impenetrable rainforest. It was an incredible achievement that he could do that. And Stanley, at the beginning, he also tried to organize his mail. At the beginning it was quite easy because between the coast of Tanzania and Lake Tanganyika and the Congo all the time, he met traders, Arab traders, who are selling ivory or slaves. So, these slave traders or these ivory traders took the mail with them. And so, and they do get to Zanzibar, and from Zanzibar, the mail was sent to wherever Stanley wanted it to be sent. But at the end of his trip, Stanley had been in the Congo. And from when he was quite deep in the Congo there was no possibility anymore to send any mail. There were no traders passing by anymore. And in the very end of his trip he was at a few days from Boma, Boma which is still an important town in the Congo today. But which was in those days of Portuguese settlement one of the most important ones on the west coast of Africa. And so, he knew that he was not far away from there. He was with 250 people in the neighborhood, and they had no supplies anymore. So, they were almost starving. So, the only thing Stanley could think of was to send one of his boys who was still in a good condition, with a letter, an open letter, which said, “To any gentleman who speaks English at Emboma.” And with this letter, the boy went to Boma. He found a Portuguese who spoke English, Mr. Mata Vega. And Mr. Mata Vega believed the letter because the letter Stanley said. “P.S. I'm Henry Morton Stanley. If you don't know me by name, I am the person who discovered Livingstone in 1871.” And of course, Mr. Mata Vega knew Stanley because Stanley was famous worldwide because he had discovered Livingstone. The letter was received. Supplies were sent to Stanley and his 250 followers. And so, Stanley survived. And because of this letter, because Stanley survived, Congo exists. If Stanley would have died there, the borders of the African countries would have been drawn completely differently and Congo as a country, as it is today, would never have existed if this letter hadn't reached Boma.

MASELIS: Thank you so much and see you soon, I hope, after all this is over.

PIAZZA: Yeah, I hope it's over soon.

MASELIS: Me, too. All the best.


MASELIS: Bye, bye.

PIAZZA: Take care, bye now.

Recorded Thursday, August 13, 2020.