French Territory of the Afars and Issas (1967-1977)
LOCATION: East Africa
AREA: 8,958 sq. mi. (23,200 sq. km)
Population: 367,210 (est. 1971)
GOVERNMENT: French Overseas Territory
FIRST STAMPS: French Colonies (1883); Obock (1892); Djibouti (1894); French Somali Coast (1902)
FIRST STAMPS ISSUED: 21 August 1967
LAST STAMPS ISSUED: 5 May 1977 (Replaced by stamps of Republic of Djibouti on 27 June 1977)
CURRENCY: 100 Centimes = 1 Franc
The French overseas territory of Afars and Issas existed as a stamp-issuing entity for just under ten years but had evolved out of the original Territory of Obock and then French Somaliland before finally gaining its independence in 1977 as the Republic of Djibouti, the name under which it exists to the present day. It is located in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Eritrea to the north, Ethiopia to the west and south, and Somalia to the southeast. The remainder of the border is formed by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The French first arrived in the region during an expedition led by Captains de la Merveille of Le Curieux and Champloret le Brun of Le Diligent which sailed along the Somali coast in December 1708. They were poorly received and five sailors were killed during an ambush when they attempted to land at Berbera. Le Curieux and Le Diligent entered the Gulf of Tadjoura soon afterwards during which an envoy arrived in the name of the King of Adel and Zaylah, offering safe entry at the port of Zayla. The French declined the offer and sailed on to Yemen in search of coffee plants. The next visit by a Frenchman wouldn’t occur until 1838.
In January 1839, Great Britain established a protectorate over Aden which caused French explorers to scour the entrance to the Red Sea seeking a means to counterbalance the British presence before the opening of the Suez Canal. In October 1855 the French Consul at Aden, Henri Lambert, visited Tadjoura and then Obock the following April where he was informed that he was the first European to land there as far the natives could remember. Later in the year, Abou Baker Ibrahim, the Sultan of Tadjoura offered the French trading rights at Ras Ali and Obock. Not long after, Henri Lambert made the mistake of involving himself in a rivalry between the Sultan of Tadjoura and Pasha Chermarké of Zayla. He was thrown into the sea and drowned shortly after his ship docked at Moucha on 4 June 1859.
Dini Ahmed Abou Baker, Sultan of the Afars, signed a treaty of alliance and friendship with France on 11 March 1862, ceding the lands surrounding Obock in exchange for 10,000 Maria Theresa Thalers. For the next twenty years, the French presence was confined to the tricolor flag guarded by an elderly Danakil who received an occasional visit from a ship of the French Navy.
From 1862 until 1894, the land to the north of the Gulf of Tadjoura was known as the Obock territory and ruled by Somali and Afar Sultans, local authorities with whom France signed various treaties between 1883 and 1887 to gain a foothold in the region. French Colonial general issues were used in the territory from 1883 with the first Obock overprinted stamps issued on 1 February 1892.
Obock lost all importance after the settlement at Djibouti was founded in 1888 when the Côte Française des Somalis (French Somali Coast) protectorate was established. The boundaries of the Côte Française were established between 1888 and 1901; the administration was moved to Djibouti in 1894 at which time the post office in Obock was closed. Obock stamp issues were used in Djibouti starting in 1893 until supplies were exhausted. Djibouti stamps were used from 1894 until they were replaced in August 1902 by issues bearing the title of the Côte Française des Somalis following the change in status from protectorate to colony.
The construction of the Imperial Ethiopian Railway west into Ethiopia turned the port of Djibouti into a boomtown of 15,000 at a time when Harar was the only city in Ethiopia to exceed that. Although the population fell after the completion of the line to Dire Dawa and the original company failed and required a government bail-out, the rail link allowed the territory to quickly supersede the caravan-based trade carried on at Zayla (then in the British area of Somaliland) and become the premier port for coffee and other goods leaving southern Ethiopia and the Ogaden through Harar. The railroad continued to operate following the Italian conquest of Ethiopia but, following the tumult of the Second World War, the area became an overseas territory of France in 1946.
In 1958, on the eve of neighboring Somalia’s independence in 1960, a referendum was held in the territory to decide whether or not to join the Somali Republic or to remain with France. The referendum turned out in favor of a continued association with France, but on 19 March 1967 a second plebiscite was held to determine the fate of the territory. Announcement of the plebiscite results sparked civil unrest, including several deaths. France also increased its military force along the frontier.
On 5 July 1967, shortly after the referendum was held, the former Côte Française des Somalis was renamed to Territoire Français des Afars et des Issas. This was to recognize the two primary clans of people that live in the area. The Afars are an historically nomadic people comprising about 35% of the population, and the Issas are a Somali-based clan with about 60% of the population. In the past, the two people-groups have been hostile to one another, politically, although tensions has eased in recent years.
The first stamps bearing the inscription of the newly-named territory were released on 21 August 1967 – two general issues and one airmail depicting birds. The numbering in the Scott catalogue follow those of the Côte Française des Somalis (under “Somali Coast”, starting on page 29 of Volume 6 in my 2009 edition) and, thus, begins at Scott #310 for these 1967 issues. The final Afars and Issas general issues were a pair (Scott #437 and 438) picturing fish and were released on 15 April 1977. On 5 May 1977, the final airmail stamps (Scott #C104 and C105) were issued honoring the inventors Thomas Edison and Alexander Volta.
On 27 June 1977, a third vote took place. A landslide 98.8% of the electorate supported independence from France and the territory became the République de Djibouti. Hassan Gouled Aptidon, a Somali politician who had campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum of 1958, eventually wound up as the nation’s first president, remaining in office until 1999.
In all, Scott lists a total of 176 stamps bearing the Afars and Issas territorial name. Of these, 116 are general issues, 56 for airmail and four stamps were intended for postage due. Bearing the wonderful designs so typical of French stamps of the era, the majority range in value between US $2 and $10 in my 2009 edition of the Scott catalogue. There are only six stamps priced at more than $20 in mint condition: Scott #314 ($24.00), #C50 ($21.50), #C53 ($25.00), #C56 ($25.00), #C65 ($34.00), and #C102 ($24.00). There are also imperforate varieties of many of the stamps which are unlisted in Scott.
I currently have four Afars and Issas stamps in my collection, Scott #318-321 – a set released on 17 May 1968 portraying various fortresses established in the territory by the French. The Scott catalogue lists these as “administration buildings”. The 20 franc value – printed in slate, brown and emerald – shows the fortress at Damerdjog while that of Ali Adde is on the 25fr in bright green, blue and brown. Dorra Fortress – brown olive, brown orange and slate – appears on the 30 franc stamp and the 40fr value colored with brown-olive, slate and bright green shows the Assamo fortress. These stamps are all engraved and perforated 13. Current catalogue value for the unused set is US $7.00.