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French West Africa - Background & Organization

A small introduction is in order. Many of you realize that I also write the Asia and the Southeast Asia columns and that this is my third column dealing with "French West Africa" in one way or another. In my other two columns, I write (generally) from personal experiences. This is the first time I’ve ever written about a place I have never been. I’ve been near the area in the Sinai and Negev Deserts and some Syrian and Lebanese deserts that I do not even know their names. Is Palestine, Gaza, the West Bank, The Golan Heights, part of Africa? Maybe, after all, they are all next to Egypt which I think is Africa.

Close enough, there are a lot of types of sand and rock! In 2001 I had a chance to go to North Africa, close to Mali, where Timbuktu is located. Instead I decided to go back to Vietnam. Maybe it was the fact that I spoke no Arabic or French, but I could get along in Vietnamese. My brother had recently told me about being at the airport in Bamako, Mali and having to sit in shelters while some side or the other rocketed the airport. I thought, I’ve been though this before, twenty-nine years earlier. Did I need it again at my age? No! So I went back to ‘Nam and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Now I write about Africa as an armchair adventurer.

French West Africa (FWA) is an interesting area to study from a postal history perspective. FWA is more or less a continually changing group of countries rather than one individual nation. FWA is called "Afrique Occidentale Francaise" or "AOF" in French. FWA or AOF was a federation of eight French territories in western Africa. They were French Guinea (now Guinea), French Sudan or Soudan (now Mali), Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), Niger, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Dahomey (now Benin).

Before becoming French West Africa in 1904, the area was originally created as a union of Senegal, French Sudan, French Guinea, and the Ivory Coast in 1895. The federation became permanent in 1904. Earlier, a governor-general was appointed, based originally in Saint-Louis but from 1902 he was located in Dakar. Both Saint-Louis and Dakar are located in Senegal, the oldest French settlement of French West Africa.

The French West African federation existed until September 1958. A referendum on the future of the French Community was held, and the involved territories all voted to become autonomous republics within the French Community except for Guinea, which voted overwhelmingly for independence. After the 1958 referendum, the Ivory Coast, Niger, Upper Volta and Dahomey formed the short-lived Sahel-Benin Union.

From a stamp collecting point-of-view, FWA did not issue completely distinctive issues totally their own until December 1944. The first issue (Figure 1)  was the French colony common design semi-postal for the Red Cross. Following were a total of 74 or 75 definitive or commemorative stamps plus 29 airmail issues including one souvenir sheet plus 12 official stamps and 10 postage due stamps.

The reason I say "74 or 75" stamps is that the "last" FWA stamp is not inscribed FWA. This last stamp (Figure 2) is a reissue of a March 15, 1958 issue for the Day of the Stamp, only with the original "Afrique Occidental Francaise" replaced by "CF" meaning "Comunaute Francaise" or French Community.

FWA stamps are in general very attractive, especially the later large size airmails. All of the stamps are available in mint or used (Figure 3) condition with little effort. Imperforate stamps (Figure 4) as well as covers (Figure 5) can be found. In other words, it is an area that can be completed without going broke.

Once you, the collector, have all of the FWA issues, the next logical step is to work backwards with the issues of the eight separate territories that made up FWA. As one will see, during various periods of time the stamps of the individual territories were either inscribed with their own name or else their own name plus "Afrique Occidentale Francaise" or in some cases just the initials AOF.

Figure 6 shows a cover mailed in 1934 from Saint-Louis, Senegal to the USA. The stamps are not Senegal issues but rather from Mauritania. An identical set exists for Senegal inscribed Senegal. Both issues are inscribed "Afrique Occidentale Francaise" which meant that the stamps from any of the eight territories could be used anywhere in FWA.

Personally, I prefer the stamps and postal history of French Soudan and Mauritania as opposed to the other six territories. But with Saint-Louis and Dakar being the FWA commercial center, it is difficult to collect postal history without including Senegal.

So let’s talk about Senegal. The first European explorers to arrive were the Portuguese in the 15th century. French colonists followed in the 17th century. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the coast of Senegal was a major landing area for transatlantic and European traders of ivory, gold and slaves.

Senegal was ceded to Great Britain in 1763 as part of the settlement of the Seven Years War (what we call the French & Indian War), but returned to France in 1817. As mentioned above, Senegal was incorporated into FWA in 1895. Senegal then became a French Overseas Territory after World War II. Senegal became independent in 1960 after a failed attempt at a union with Mali. Figure 7 shows the issue of 1961 for the first anniversary of independence.

In 1862, Senegal received the Colonial General issues (Eagle on Crown), the Napoleon III colonial issue in 1871/72, the Ceres designs in 1871/73, the imperf Sage designs in 1876/78 and the perforated Dubois in 1881. Beginning in 1887 until 1892, various Dubois issues were surcharged with new values and also overprinted "SENEGAL". Figure 8 shows a colonial Dubois issue used on a cover to Berlin, Germany.

The "Group Issue" became the first definitive issue regularly issued starting in 1892 with the name of the colony. Figure 9 shows a cover franked with 30 cents (2nd weight step) from Thies, a city 10 miles inland from Dakar postmarked October 17, 1903 and received in Bordeaux ten days later.

There are about 230 stamps issued by Senegal, depending on what catalogue you use. The last issue before FWA stamps came into use was a 100 fr. red and blue airmail inscribed with AOF in addition to Senegal.

Most of the issues of Senegal, as well as the other FWA colonies, are of the common design type. This applies to the issues beginning in 1892 to the very end.

Figure 10 shows an interesting cover. It’s franked with a 25 fr. "Palm Tree" definitive from the 1906 series. It’s inscribed SENEGAL at the bottom and Afrique Occidentale Francaise in an arc at the top. The envelope is from the Governor General of French West Africa/Cabinet of the Governor of Senegal to the U.S. Agriculture Department in Washington DC.

While not my most favorite collecting area of FWA, it is up there right after FWA, French Soudan and Mauritania.

One last thing. I mentioned catalogues above, and I should mention a new catalogue available from France. It is the Dallay 2005-2006 and covers all of the former French colonies of Africa. It has good maps, lists imperfs, special blocks, booklets and booklet panes as well as prices for stamps on cover. It is in French and available from the Dallay website (Google it to find it). Cost is about $60.00 by airmail. It is in color and has 831 pages. The most overall useful catalogue ever. Questions or comments? Send email to:

Contact's: Joe Cartafalsa