Post Dated

Written By: The Lowdown - Oct• 30•12

In today’s world with an estimated 294 billion emails being sent and received daily it is hard to imagine that only one hundred and twenty years ago, in today’s Zambia, mail was carried by ‘runners’ who set off from one place to the next carrying a bag of mail over their shoulder.  With 9 October being World Postal Day and commemorating the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1874, we decided to look back at how the post got around at the turn of the last century.


Administrators of the British South Africa Company also had, as part of their duties, the functions of a Postmaster. The administrator at each BOMA had responsibility of the postage stamps and the cancellation or defacing stamp or what we know as the post mark. They also had responsibility for receiving the post when it arrived and sending the mail that was waiting to go. This was no easy feat as in the earliest days when the mail was carried by runners. Tales abound of lions, crocodiles, rhinos, robberies and rebellions interfering with the delivery of the all important mail. The runners themselves must have been incredibly fit and one would have thought that this job would be reserved for youngsters. Yet, atFortRoseberry(now Mansa) one of the runners was still active after thirty years of service and it was estimated that he had run 120,000 miles and carried 60,000 lbs of mail! When the railway line was built, some runners were still kept on to service the post offices which were not along the line of rail. Some post offices were merely roadside huts which were built to service travelers and prospectors who were moving around the country looking for minerals. Some post offices were built to deal with emergencies such as an outbreak of sleeping sickness or, in the northern part of the country, to check on slave-raiders.


A well-known story is the one where the mail destined forFortJameson(now Chipata) was ‘eaten’ by lions.  The official notification of this mishap, as published in ‘The Romance of the Posts of Rhodesia’ by H C Dann, is quoted below:


No. 340/07.


11th September, 1907.

I regret to report that the carriers conveying the European and Colonial mails due to arrive here on the 8th inst. were attacked by lions at about 8 o’clock in the evening of the 2nd – near Mlilo’s village some ten miles from Petauke.

The men abandoned their loads and set fire to the grass in order to escape, making their way to the village during the night. They were, as usual, armed with a snider rifle and cartridges, which they used, and appear to have set fire to the grass in a state of abject fear. The following morning on searching for the bags, four were found to be missing — some letters and papers, partly burnt, were, however, found, on which teeth marks were plainly visible.


Upon reporting the matter to the Native Commissioner at Petauke, police and messengers were immediately despatched in search for the missing bags, one of which, from Southampton, was found at a spot more than two miles from Mlilo’s village. It was very much torn and gnawed. and had evidently been carried away by the lions. Some of the contents, I fear, must have been destroyed. The Police also found some burnt remains of letters and papers. With the exception of theSouthamptonbag all the English mail was received correctly, and in no way damaged. Up to the present I have received no further news of the missing bags, l am afraid there is small hope of their recovery.


The following are missing:-Bulawayobag of the 23rd August (withSalisburyof the 21st enclosed), one of the Livingstone bags of the 24th August, and Broken Hill of the 26th (with Kalomo of the 24th enclosed).


(signed) H. A. BALDOCK, Comptroller of Posts and Telegraphs.


But not all mail runners were as brave and as reliable as the runners involved in the lion incident. A group of runners working on a stretch south of theZambeziRiverfailed in their duties. Again we quote from ‘The Romance of the Posts of Rhodesia’

“A bunch of runners let us down badly once; why, we never found out. They were on a stretch south of the River Zambesi. They took over the bags from the runners coming south, so that the letters we sent reached their destinations regularly but they had nothing in the way of mails for us in the north. This was in 1898. We had gathered from the last mail received, which was sometime in September – mails took three months to come fromEnglandin those days – that there was trouble with the French over Fashoda. For three months, that is until December, we received no more mails. We concluded thatEnglandwas at war withFranceand that we – in the excitement of it all – had been forgotten; evenBulawayoseemed to have forgotten us! We in theBarotseValleyvery nearly declared war on the French Protestant missionaries who had been established in the valley for some years. However, as you know,there was no war withFrance. A transport rider coming up the Old Hunters’ Road to the Kazungula Drift on the Zambesi with our wet season’s supply of stores, found our accumulated mails stuck up in some trees by the wayside. So we eventually received three months’mails in one day, and were quite surprised to find no reference to the war withFrance.


The responsibility for the mails usually fell to the District Officer who would delegate some of his responsibilities to one of his African clerks. Bearing in mind that many of the Africans were unable to read or write at the time, this made for some curiosities in the defacing of stamps. The old defacing stamps had removable type and often errors or inverted letters were seen. It was also well known that sometimes the proper stamp would be mislaid so whoever had responsibility that day would use whatever was available and this was often the office rubber stamp. The colour of ink was also of no concern in the outlying areas and if the correct colour ink pad had dried up, whatever was available would be used. To give reinforcement to the notion that here in Zambia we always ‘make a plan’ one administrator reported that he had even seen brown inks which, to him, looked suspiciously like blood!


Such were things inZambiain those days and as life becomes faster and more hectic, I for one would be quite happy to return to those slower languid days because I am convinced that I receive in my inbox every day a significant proportion of those 294 billion emails that are sent.



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