In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Morocco used a well-organized system of internal “Sharifien” mail, and all international mail was carried out by foreign postal systems under contract. This led to a large number of competing offices in the main towns (especially the ports) run by Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The British Post Offices in Morocco, also known as the “Morocco Agencies”, were a system of post offices operated by Gibraltar and later the United Kingdom in Morocco.
The presence of foreign post offices in Morocco was not purely about a benevolent desire to give overseas postage facilities to residents, it was also about military control, trading imperatives and even domination. A history of Morocco states that “Attacks on foreigners were frequent and the tribes took power into their own hands.” Even the delineations between the “French Zone”, “British Zone”, “Spanish Zone” were fiercely protected by the respective national armed forces, sometimes with the Moroccans as bemused and innocent bystanders; this situation lasted until the middle of the twentieth century.
As Europe industrialized, North Africa was increasingly prized for its potential for colonization. France showed a strong interest in Morocco as early as 1830, not only to protect the border of its Algerian territory, but also because of the strategic position of Morocco on two oceans. In 1860, a dispute over Spain’s Ceuta enclave led Spain to declare war. Victorious Spain won a further enclave and an enlarged Ceuta in the settlement. In 1884, Spain created a protectorate in the coastal areas of Morocco.
In 1904, France and Spain carved out zones of influence in Morocco. Recognition by the United Kingdom of France’s sphere of influence provoked a strong reaction from the German Empire; and a crisis loomed in 1905. The matter was resolved at the Algeciras Conference in 1906. The Agadir Crisis of 1911 increased tensions between European powers. The 1912 Treaty of Fez made Morocco a protectorate of France, and triggered the 1912 Fez riots. Spain continued to operate its coastal protectorate. By the same treaty, Spain assumed the role of protecting power over the northern and southern Saharan zones.
The first office was established in Tangier in 1857. Tangier is a major city in northwestern Morocco, located on the Maghreb coast at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Spartel. Mail was simply bagged there and forwarded to Gibraltar just across the water, where it received the standard A26 postmark. From 1872, Tangier had its own postmark but this was applied alongside the stamps (allowing for the Gibraltar cancellation to mark them), so usages of British stamps from Morocco are best determined on cover. Several examples of loose Queen Victoria stamps of Great Britain canceled at Tangier do exist including at least one horizontal strip of six 1 penny reds from plate 123.
Since the offices were under the control of Gibraltar, they switched to the use of Gibraltar stamps when they came into use on January 1, 1886. Additional offices opened in various Moroccan seaports during the 1880s, and inland at Fez (1892), and Meknes (1907).
In 1898, the Spanish currency partially collapsed as a result of the Spanish American War, and it was decided that Gibraltar should revert to British sterling. As the Spanish currency was used by all the foreign agencies in Morocco, it was not possible to make the same change at the British agency. The Gibraltar post office decided to overprint their stamps, which were still in Spanish currency, with the words Morocco / Agencies. These stamps would only be valid across the straits for just a few months, as later that year Gibraltar (and her stamps) reverted to sterling.
The first overprints were applied at the offices of the Gibraltar Chronicle in black ink and are listed as Scott #1-8. Due to the rather old worn print, a wide range of chiefly non-constant varieties exist, alongside the well known inverted ‘V’ for ‘A’ (Scott #1a-8a) and long tail to ‘S’ flaws. Overprints of of the 40 centimos, 50 centimos and 1 peseta denominations in dark blue are listed as Scott #9-11. A further overprinting was undertaken by De La Rue & Company Ltd. in London, and was put on sale sometime in early 1899. These overprints were of a much higher quality and are listed as Scott #12-19. A number of varieties are also known on this issue, including the ‘M’ with a long serif (Scott #12a-19a).
The overprinting continued on Gibraltar’s Edward VII stamps, but with one important change. Instead of surcharging in Spanish currency (as Gibraltar’s stamps were now in sterling), the centimos and peseta duty plates as used for the Gibraltar 1889-95, were inserted into the design, creating beneath the ‘Morocco Agencies’ overprints, a totally different Gibraltar stamp to that available in Gibraltar itself,
On January 1, 1907, the British Post Office took direct control of the post offices, operating them until Moroccan independence in 1956. From this point on, all stamps were overprints on British issues, in no less than three different currencies.
British currency stamps were available at any office, introduced for transactions in which the postal staff applied the stamps direct to the items (primarily parcels and later airmail) without passing them to the customer; there was therefore no need to indicate the local currency. Both regular and some commemorative issues were overprinted, all with MOROCCO / AGENCIES, through the Edward VIII issue of 1936. Subsequently, unoverprinted stamps were used, until 1949, when they were again overprinted for use at Tetuan (at that point the sole remaining office, except for Tangier, which had its own overprints).
In 1950, the GPO permitted the use in the U.K. of any overprinted stamps (of any vintage) which did not alter the face value. Morocco Agencies and Tangier stamps can easily be found with British postmarks, and are fully legitimate items, but sell for much less than those with postmarks from the relevant area.
Spanish currency stamps were also available at all offices until the establishment of the French Zone, after which they were limited to the Spanish Zone. The overprint was basically the same as for the British currency stamps, with the added complication of needing to fit in the denomination in centimos and pesetas. All types of British stamps were overprinted, the last being the issues of Elizabeth II in the summer of 1956; all were withdrawn from sale December 31 of that year.
French currency stamps, intended for use in the French Zone, date from 1917, and continued in use until January 8, 1938, when they were withdrawn from sale. These were mostly used in the huge area of southwest Morocco. The overprints are just as for the Spanish currency, but fewer types were produced.
The Tangier International Zone received its own overprints beginning in 1927. As British currency was in use in that office, the overprint simply reads TANGIER. This continued through 1956. On April 1, 1957, a commemorative overprint added 1857-1957 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the post office, but this had a very short shelf life; the office at Tangier was closed and the stamps withdrawn from sale on April 30, 1957.
Scott #80 was released in 1936, overprinting Great Britain Scott #232, 1½ penny red brown King George VI, with MOROCCO / AGENCIES applied vertically (“MOROCCO” measuring 14mm) and surcharged 15 centimos in Spanish currency.