A fascinating insight into Colombia’s 19th Century history, politics, geography and individual lives has appeared from an unusual and compelling vantage point, a collection of postal stamps.

In May 2010, the UK’s Postal History Society published the retired British stamp collector Malcolm Bentley’s labour of love, entitled ‘The British Post Office in Colombia, 1821 – 1881.’ Handsomely printed, the book reveals with beautiful prints and a carefully-researched text the extraordinary richness and variety of the British Post Office’s stamps produced during the 19th Century from their important operations in Colombia.

In a recent event to launch the book at the Colombian Embassy in London, to a packed crowd of English and Colombian aficionados, Colombia’s Ambassador to London, Mauricio Rodríguez, interviewed Malcolm Bentley with enthusiasm about the work.

Bentley, who had lived in Colombia for seven years, had only discovered the stamps fully on retirement in Woking. There, buried in the archives of the Philatelic Society, he came across the notes of John Swales, a fellow philatelist who had lived and worked in Colombia in the 19th century.

Swales’ notes give vivid insights into the Colombia of the time, whether through allusions to the commercial role of Panama, Colombia’s relationships with neighbouring countries (a letter from Ecuador to London had to cross through Colombia, taking four months to arrive), or by the letters pertaining to trade between Latin America and Britain.

Of particular interest in Swales’ voluminous diaries, and eloquently recounted in Bentley’s book, are the allusions to the Victorians’ interest in trade, and how they sought to increase their influence through the expansion of the British Post Office through strategic towns in Colombia and Panama. The notes also give valuable insights into the nature of the mass migration taking place at the time from Europe to North America, California’s acquisition of statehood and the Gold Rush of 1849.

In developments of particular interest given their renewed discussion some 160 years later, Bentley also captures Swales’ accounts of the attempted construction of a railway linking ports of the Caribbean to the Pacific and the surveying of a canal across the Isthmus.

Swales collected stamps reflecting these events with great care, and the book contains – among multiple other gems – colour prints of stamps commemorating Bolívar, Sucre and other political leaders of the first half of the century, scenes from Colombia, and other evocative images which capture the confluence of the two very different worlds of Britain and Colombia at the time.

Fascinatingly, as the celebrated historian Malcolm Deas sets out in the introduction to the book, even Anthony Trollope passed through Colombia, visiting the Post Office in Santa Marta and Cartagena in 1851. It is delightful to think of the arch chronicler of rural English life grappling with the sensual, vibrant life of the Colombian Caribbean Coast of the time.

Eduardo Posada Carbo, the Colombian historian based at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, attended the launch and shared his delight at the book and what it reveals, hoping that “other British philatelists would perhaps follow in the footsteps of Trollope, inspired by the stamps contained in this valuable work.”
In a meeting with Colombia’s Vice President Angelino Garzón, former British Ambassador John Dew reflected on the long-standing relationship between Britain and Colombia: “cooperation between our two countries goes back over 200 years,” Dew stated with a twinkle in his eye. This addition to the literature sheds new light on this relationship through the humble postage stamp, and will be a collector’s item for many with interest in the period and its finer details.