The Revenue Stamps of Mauritius

by John Wilson

Postal Orders

The Imperial postal order system was adopted in the British Empire in circa 1905. In those days very few people, apart from the wealthy and businesses, had bank accounts. Wages were generally paid entirely in cash. Prior to the introduction of the postal order, it was difficult for most people to settle their debts otherwise than by passing on some of their earnings - in other words by cash and in person. Sending cash through the post had its risks, even when registered.

So the introduction of the postal order was a solution to many obstacles. However, it could be expensive to use in certain circumstances, because of the ad valorem duty levied on the instrument; but in some instances it was much cheaper than using a cheque. In a recent letter I have seen from the Mauritius High Commission in Canberra, Australia, requests to Port Louis for official copies of birth, death, marriage or divorce certificates have to be accompanied by fees. For a single document, a £7 postal order was sufficient, but a cheque would have to be drawn for £19 due to bank charges being levied.

The postal order would have to be bought from a post office, and would cost rather more than £7 because of the duty mentioned in the previous paragraph, but this would be small when compared with the cheque for £19. However, in most cases it would be cheaper to send a cheque.

The illustration at the top of Plate 96 shows a copy of a British postal order for six pence. The revenue stamp is printed on the order at top left, but it is overprinted "Poundage payable in Mauritius - 15 cents". The stamp bears the head of King George VI. Bottom left is the round handstamp of the Port Louis Mauritius post office from where the order was purchased. At this time and, indeed later into the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, many of the colonial orders were printed in Great Britain, and headed across the top centre with the words "British Postal Order", below which was overprinted the name of the colony and the poundage charged locally.

Plate 96

Plate 96 (click to enlarge)

"Poundage" is an interesting word to examine. It is used in Great Britain to describe the duty charges on postal orders. It was originally used as long ago as 1347 to describe customs duty on both imports and exports at a rate of one shilling for every pound of goods imported or exported. It is unclear as to whether the word "pound" related to weight or Sterling: also as to why "Poundage" was specifically subsequently attributed to postal orders, but no other form of contemporary duty.

At the extreme top left of the order, the words "not negotiable" appear as part of the original printing. This is not always strictly correct. It only applies if the order is made out to a specific payee, as it is in the first example on Plate 96. In this instance, the postal order cannot benefit anyone else, and has to be paid into the payee's bank account, or encashed at a post office on producing evidence if title.

The second example on Plate 96 shows an unused postal order for two Rupees, with counterfoil attached. This entirely negotiable, as the payee is not shown, and can be encashed at any post office by the holder - or indeed paid into his or her bank account. This order was franked and issued by the Port Louis post office on 6 June 1990. It will be seen that this is a Mauritius document rather than a British one overprinted "Mauritius". It was issued after the island's independence, and the Queen's image has been replaced by the Mauritian coat of arms. The description "Poundage" has been replaced by "Commission". Printed by Harrison's the British security printers, it is locally overprinted on the 45 cents commission tablet by a purple handstamp "50 cents".

Doubt has been expressed in some quarters as to whether the levy on a postal order, by whatever name it is called, is a legitimate revenue item. I have to agree that it does not conform to the common description of a stamp, although even this tends to change as technology moves onwards. However, there can be no doubt that the levy is a revenue charge. In my opinion postal orders should be included.

Because postal orders were printed only for a set of specific sums, one may wonder how flexible they are in practise. If one refers to the two Rupee example, if one wanted to send a remittance of (say) two Rupees 40 cents, one could merely add up to two postage and revenue stamps for a total of 40 cents affixed to the boxes provided below the centre of the order. The value of the stamps would be restricted to no more than the value of the next higher value postal order, in order to prevent escaping additional levy.

Postal orders are now declining in use, in the move towards cheques, and onwards to the predicted cashless society.