Civil Censorship of the Mails During the Boer War and WWI

Censorship is the suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet or other controlling body.

Postal Censorship

Postal censorship is the inspection or examination of mail, most often by government, that can include the opening, reading or marking of covers, postcards, parcels and other posted packets. The objective of postal censorship is economic warfare, security and intelligence.

Three Types of Postal Censorship
  • Postal Censorship of Military Mail
  • Postal Censorship of POW and Internee Mail
  • Postal Censorship of Civil Mail

The Boer War – A Brief Outline

Also called the South African War as well as the Anglo-Boer War and the Second Boer War (the first occurred in the Transvaal 1880 to 1881). The one with which we are dealing lasted from 1889 to 1902. Primary combatants were the two Boer Republics, Transvaal and Orange River Colony, versus Great Britain, which occupied the South African colonies of Cape of Good Hope (Cape Colony) and Natal.

The primary causes of this were firstly the Boers policy towards foreigners (uitlanders), mostly British miners and prospectors who had settled in Transvaal. Also, the discovery of vast quantities of gold and diamonds in the two Boer republics, gave the British reason to wish to acquire these two areas. This led to discussions and eventually dissension between the two sides who could not come to any agreement over mutual problems and culminated in the Boers declaring war on October 12,1899, against the British, and an invasion of the British colonies.

Despite early victories by the Boers over the totally unprepared British, the Boers were finally forced to face defeat, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, on May 31, 1902.

Civil Censorship During The Boer War

Because of the invasion of Natal and Cape Colony by the Boers in October, 1899, the British found it necessary to institute censorship, initially military and extending to civil censorship and a combination of both in certain circumstances. Censorship followed the introduction of martial (military) law, which was proclaimed during October of 1899. This appears to be the first war wherein censor devices were introduced, including such things as censor resealing labels and censor handstamps. These labels are to be found in different formats as well as in different colours; the handstamps in different shapes, colours and formats.

The initial utilization of civil censorship was in November, 1899 to censor messages to and from war correspondents, to suppress news that may have been detrimental to the war effort, This, of course was referred to as “press censorship”, and also covered telegrams, private as well as press ones. During March, 1900, this press censorship was subsequently extended to cover other forms of censorship, including private correspondence.

Anglo – Boer War Censorship

Press censorship, being the earliest type of civil censorship, beginning November, 1899.

Cape Of Good Hope (Cape Colony)

This shows the use of a press censor handstamp, as well as a a civil censor resealing label. This appears to be private correspondence, with censoring done in Cape Town, on or about 5 November, 1901. This is an early example of Cape Town censorship, as civil censorship was not applied to Cape Town, as well as other Cape Colony ports until 9 October, 1901, when it was found that munitions, as well as other supplies for the Boers, was being smuggled through these routes. Civil censorship had been extended to Cape Colony in December, 1900, with the exception of the port cities.

Returned To Sender

Two coloured civil censor resealing labels, both black on pink. The one at the side of the cover was applied in South African Republic (Transvaal), probably at Johannesburg. The one at the top was applied at Durban, Natal. The cover originated at Lourenco Marques, in Portuguese East Africa, which was neutral. It is addressed to a Miss Smuts, in the Western Province of Cape Colony. Whatever was in this cover was unacceptable to the censors, and it was returned to the original sender.

South African Republic (Transvaal)

Civil censor resealing label mailed from Johannesburg, as well as censored there on 20 April, 1900. Addressed to Lourenco Marques; arrival date there on 22 April, 1900. Z.A.R. Resealing Label.

British Occupation Of Transvaal

Mailed from Pretoria, Transvaal, 24 May, 1901 to Cape Town. Received Cape Town, 28 May, 1901. In Transvaal, martial law had been proclaimed by the British occupiers during September 1900, followed shortly after by civil censorship. The black on pink resealing label is British, as is the rectangular “Passed By Censor” handstamp. The civil censor’s name in manuscript in the lower left corner “J.S. Power”.

Civil Censor Cachet

In addition to civil censor resealing labels and press censor handstamps, many towns had their own civil censor cacheted handstamps. This cover has an example of one of these. Used in the town of Ladybrand, Orange River Colony, which by this time, May 1901, had been occupied by the British. Also note the censor’s personal handstamp, “H.H.Y”, as well as manuscript initials, as an addition to the censoring device. Transited Bloemfontein, 9 May, 1901; arrival Cape Town 13 May, 1901.

Passed By Censor

Oval civil censor device used in Krugersdorp, Transvaal This is one of the civil censor handstamps including the name of the town where it was used. Addressed to Germany. Mailed from Krugersdorf, 14 August, 1901, during the period of British occupation.

Press Censor and Chief Censor

Winburg, Orange River Colony to Kincardine, Ontario. Triangular press censor handstamp, also straightline handstamp, “N.P.R”. These are the initials of Major N.P. Rogers, the Chief Censor of the Orange River Colony, which by this time, December, 1901, was under British occupation. Arrival Kincardine, 31 January, 1902.

Regulations enforcing the censor ship of mails in Cape Colony were suspended on 30 June 1902, and the exchange of direct mails to all points in the Colony resumed. The censoring of mail in Natal, Orange River Colony and Transvaal also ceased at about this time. Martial law ceased in Cape Colony on 16 September 1902; in Natal on 4 October 1902, and in Transvaal and Orange River Colony on 19 November 1902.

World War I – Canada

Postal censorship of civil mail was authorized by the Canadian War Measures Act of 1914. It was carried out under the control of the Postmaster General. It can be divided into three periods. Exact numbers and locations of censor stations are unavailable.

The 1916 Neutral Censorship

From the 8th to the 20th of April, 1916, Canada imposed censorship on most mail to and from the USA, who was neutral at this time. It is not known if the government was testing the system or reacting to a threat.

The 1917 Neutral Censorship

From the 1st to 6th of April, 1917 Canada again imposed censorship on most mail to and from the United States. It was supposed to come to an abrupt end on 6th of April when the USA declared war on Germany, but it didn’t.

The Neutral Terminal Censorship

This was established in Ottawa on 03 July, 1917 to check mail to and from Canada to neutral nations that have free communications with enemy countries and occupied territories. This was discontinued on 07 May, 1919.

World War I – France

From August, 1914, postal censorship of civil mail was under the control of the French military but carried out by the Department of Posts & Telegraphs. In January, 1916 the military took full control of the 20 + censor stations including those in France as well as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and London.

In April, 1916, Britain & France agreed to divide transit mail. France would handle all mail to and from Switzerland, Spain, Portugal & Greece and they set up a censor station in London just to handle “from” mail from those countries.

Some internal censorship was carried out, especially from points near the borders.

World War I – Germany

Postal censorship of civil mail certainly existed in Germany during WW1. It is not clear however, just who was in charge. Customs and Excise examined most in and out mail at the borders early in the war and some internal censorship was carried out especially in provinces of Alsace & Lorraine and in occupied areas such as Poland and Belgium. By 1916 the military ran the country but standardization of hand stamps and closer labels doesn’t seem to have happened.

World War I – Great Britain

Great Britain started planning for censorship as early as 1904. They learned from the Boer War. International law stated that mail found on neutral ships is inviolable and had to be sent on ASAP. It didn’t mean that it couldn’t be looked at.

War commenced on 04 August, 1914, postal censorship was in operation by 08 August, by the Post Office but under the control of military intelligence. Most censor stations were in London but a sub-office operated in Folkestone from January to November, 1915. It was closed and moved to Liverpool in December, 1915 to examine the transatlantic mails. Some censorship continued to July, 1919.

World War I – South Africa

South Africa was able to profit from their experience during the Boer war. At the outbreak of war in August, 1914, censor stations were quickly set up around the country and into German South West Africa after its capture by South African Forces during July, 1915. Some internal censorship was also carried out, especially in its occupied territories.

World War I – U.S.A.

USA declared war on Germany on 06 April, 1917. The Censorship Board first met on 19 October, 1917. It was decided to censor the mails of Spain, Latin America and the Orient.

Thirteen censor stations were set up in seven American cities, four American territories, Shanghai, China and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. New York opened in December, 1917, San Francisco, San Antonio, Honolulu and San Juan in February, 1918.

Seattle and Manila were the last to open, in June, 1918. Blocks of censor numbers were assigned to each censor station with Key West being assigned numbers 1701 to 1800 and Manila 1801 to 1900. For reasons unknown, censor stations continued to operate into the summer of 1919, long after 11 November.

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