V. BRITISH MANDATE ISSUE, 1923-1925

Currency: Indian rupee (16 annas = 1 rupee)
Production: Bradbury Wilkinson & Company, London


First issued: 1st June 1923


First issued: 1925


A very, very complicated period in Iraq's history —  an awful lot happened here and I'm not nearly intelligent enough to do it anything close to justice, so this (even by the standards of the other pages here) should really be taken as a high-level summary, and nothing more.

The concept of the "mandate" was devised by the League of Nations after the First World War, as a way of dealing with former territories of the dissolved Central Powers. Essentially the mandatory system was envisaged a more enlightened sort of colonialism — the mandatory power would, in a very patient, paternalistic sort of way, administer the location in question for the good of its inhabitants, while establishing a civil society and building up local governmental structures. Eventually the place would be sufficiently developed as to be able to stand politically on its own two feet, and the mandatory power would gracefully withdraw. 

 The recitals to the 1922 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. As was undoubtedly the intention, the language used places the British and Iraqi monarchs on basically an equal footing, and offers no suggestion of the great inequality of bargaining power between the two parties. The very non-standard use of "Irak" is unaccountable. (  galeuk.com  )

The recitals to the 1922 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. As was undoubtedly the intention, the language used places the British and Iraqi monarchs on basically an equal footing, and offers no suggestion of the great inequality of bargaining power between the two parties. The very non-standard use of "Irak" is unaccountable. (galeuk.com)

Anyway Britain was awarded a mandate for Iraq in 1920 but, as we saw on the previous page, this went down very poorly with the Iraqis themselves. So the British resolved on a more subtle approach. Faisal ibn Husayn (see previous page and next page) was shuttled over to Iraq, crowned King of Iraq, and was then tasked with getting together a provisional government which would negotiate a treaty with the British, setting out the terms of the relationship between the two countries. This would all look very good — the hated quasi-colonialist mandate would be replaced with an agreement freely entered into by two sovereign parties. Of course Britain held all the cards, and such concessions as were granted to Iraq sprang mostly from Britain's goodwill rather than the skill of the Iraqi negotiators, but it would still all seem comforting to Iraqi nationalists, or so it was hoped.

The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty was duly signed on the 10th October 1922.[1] Naturally, the Treaty reserved a great deal of power to Britain: Faisal agreed to "be guided by the advice of His Britannic Majesty... on all important matters affecting the international and financial obligations and interests of His Britannic Majesty", and to "fully consult [the British High Commissioner] on what is conducive to a sound financial and fiscal policy" — that is, the British were effectively allowed to dictate Iraq's foreign and economic policies. The Treaty also included a military alliance, a promise by Faisal to grant a fairly liberal constitution, and a promise by Britain that they would make sincere efforts to have Iraq admitted into the League of Nations. Duration of the treaty was to be twenty years, but this was shortened to four years shortly afterwards.

Having been signed, the Treaty still required to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, which was at that time still getting itself together. This dragged on into 1924 in a fairly confusing manner I probably don't need to dwell on — after much travail Iraq finally got itself a constitution and an elected parliament, in short, and the treaty was ratified on the 19th December 1924. The constitution granted Faisal the right to veto legislation, to appoint and dismiss ministers (including the prime minister) and to dissolve parliament. The country's politics reflected the pre-existing social fractures in Iraq, and seem to have descended into acrimony fairly immediately: the majority Shia population of the country felt disenfranchised in the face of what they viewed as a Sunni-dominated political class (and for a time a good many of the rural Shia population were persuaded by their religious leaders to boycott the political process entirely); the Kurds felt disenfranchised in the face of what they viewed as an Arab-dominated political class; and Iraqis in general felt like too much power was concentrated in the hands of Faisal's old cronies from Arabia and Syria (Faisal, not unnaturally, tended to lean on men he knew from experience were trustworthy). There was a particular cleavage between the established ruling classes in Iraq (generally large local landowners) and the new men surrounding Faisal, who tended to have come from outside those circles. Added on top of that was the layer of controversies the British had stirred up — the pro-British and anti-British factions were sharply at odds; the fairly extensive powers the constitution had granted to Faisal (at the insistence of the British) outraged those of a more democratic mindset; and the British desire to legally formalise the roles of traditional tribal leaders offended those of a modernising mindset who wished to break up the tribal system and concentrate power in Baghdad. Meanwhile Faisal was caught between his country's financial and political dependence on Britain (and the knowledge that the British could probably replace him if they felt like it) and his nationalist inclinations, which arose both out of personal conviction and his desire to shore up his own position by not seeming like a British puppet. All a very fraught situation, and inevitably this all spilled over into the Iraqi parliament once it opened — the Treaty was, in the end, only ratified by the narrowest of margins, and Faisal frequently had to resort unto his power to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections (which were often rigged in his favour to varying extents) — there were nine changes of prime minister between 1922 and 1932, as an indication of how fractious the political climate was.

 The first type of service overprint (see main text).

The first type of service overprint (see main text).

Meanwhile there was a war scare with Turkey, a separate war scare with Hejaz, controversies over the political position of Kuwait, the organisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company, conscription, Iraq having to pay for the upkeep of British officials in the country, and much else.

But Iraq managed to hold itself together, despite it all. The country's myriad internal divisions (those listed above are just the highlights) prevented an Iraqi national consciousness taking hold on any great scale, with the consequence that anti-British sentiment, while widespread, was never concentrated or coherent enough to pose a real threat to Britain's position. Faisal managed to overcome a good deal of initial scepticism and eventually became respected by his subjects, but he was still regarded by many as a creature of the British, and his position was never quite secure enough to be able to challenge the British or to exert undisputed power over Iraq. The country's Shia population was eventually reconciled to the idea of Iraq as it stood, and persuaded to participate in the political process, but they continued to resent the relative lack of Shias in the country's political and administrative classes. The Kurds were constantly clamouring for more autonomy, but their hostility to Shias drove them somewhat towards co-operation with the Sunni-dominated political establishment. The British were, overall, satisfied with the job Faisal was doing, and didn't regard him as a threat to their interests, so they tolerated a certain amount of nationalist posturing from him. So something like a balance of mistrust was achieved, preventing the country from collapsing in on itself.

And we'll end the story here for the time being — a fairly artificial cut-off point but we still have more stamps to cover so we'll pick things up in a couple of pages.

Anyway to finally get around to the stamps: Bradbury Wilkinson managed to stay on Iraq duty and produced a very handsome set of pictorial designs. I think most would regard these as the most attractive stamps Iraq ever got, an assessment I probably cannot disagree with. Taken as a whole, the set has a slightly chaotic kind of quality: there's very little consistency in the sizes, subjects, frames and lettering, and certainly some of the designs are perhaps a little over-designed (the 3 annas in particular). But overall the designs radiate a very vigorous enthusiasm, which overwhelms any aesthetic quibbles: a new country had just been born, and one can sense the excitement of the designers in going to town on just whatever aspects of Iraq they found pleasing. Happily, we can for once put a name to the designers of these: those signed "EC" came from Edith Cheesman[2]  and those signed "MJM 1921" are the work of M. J . Maynard[3]. Both seem to have been amateur artists based in Iraq at the time. The identity of the engraver is unfortunately unknown. The entire set is engraved except for the 1 rupee which is lithographed.

  The second type of service overprint (see main text).

The second type of service overprint (see main text).

These stamps were apparently introduced as a response to nationalist criticism of the occupation stamps, which had become a little politically incorrect as the post-occupation future of Iraq began to take shape, and especially after the Treaty was signed in late 1922. The stamps seem to have been conceived all the way back in 1921, seeing as the "MJM" stamps are dated thusly: nevertheless they took until mid-1923 to appear, by which point the occupation issue appeared very outdated (although I think, formally, the occupation continued until the Treaty was ratified in 1924). Perhaps as a reflection of how uncertain and unstable Iraq's political situation was was in the early 1920s, the stamps neatly avoided the question of what contemporary things were worthy of commemoration and instead focused on the country's historic art and architecture.[4] On the Islamic side we get one Shia mosque and one Sunni mosque —presumably a deliberate balance. An obvious example of Britain's control over Iraq's fiscal policy was that Iraq's currency remained the Indian rupee, and so the stamps are denominated thusly.

Most of the issue went on sale on the 1st June 1923, and the occupation issue was invalidated on the same date. The 3 annas arrived a little later (date uncertain) in 1923, and the yellow 2 rupees was first issued sometime in 1924.[5] The 1 rupee was invalidated on the 1st June 1927, replaced with a different 1 rupee bearing the portrait of King Faisal (see next page), but the remainder of the issue remained current until the 17th February 1931 when a complete set of Faisal I designs was introduced. I don't believe the 1931 issue caused the remainder of the issue to become invalidated: one sees covers bearing combinations of the 1923 and 1931 issues on sale very occasionally (I don't have one). These stamps did regular postal use and the entire issue is cheaper used than unused, in the conventional manner.

This issue was overprinted for service purposes (see illustrations): the first service overprint (1923) was in English only, and the second (1924-1931) was in both English and Arabic. Stamps were also overprinted for revenue purposes: un-overprinted stamps could not be used as revenues, despite being inscribed "postage & revenue"(!)[6]


[1] This period, philatelically, is invariably referred to as the "Mandate" era, and so that's the term I've used here. Technically, once the Treaty came into force, it governed all Anglo-Iraqi interactions rather than the Mandate, but the Mandate was still entirely active and sort of quietly followed along in the background.

[2] Sister of Major Robert Cheesman, private secretary to the British High Commissioner for Iraq.

[3] Wife of Sir Colin Garbett, who also seems to have been employed under the High Commissioner.

[4] The 4 annas (etc.) design is a curious exception — it depicts a cornet of the Dulaim Camel Corps, a sort of gendarmerie responsible for patrolling the western deserts of the country. I have no idea if the design was meant to read as specifically that or just as a more generic "tribesman on camel with flag" image though.

[5] No idea what prompted the colour change, or if the yellow stamp caused the black one to be invalidated, or anything like that.

[6] Additionally, some of these stamps were printed in different colours for the purpose of receiving the revenue overprint only, not for postage — the 2 rupees appeared in blue, and the 1 anna was printed in red with a value of 12 annas, and in green with a value of 3 rupees. There may well be others.