Ruanda-Urundi was a territory in the African Great Lakes region, once part of German East Africa, which was ruled by Belgium between 1916 and 1962. Occupied by the Belgians during the East African Campaign during World War I, the territory was under Belgian military occupation from 1916 to 1922 and later became a Belgian-controlled Class B Mandate under the League of Nations from 1922 to 1945. After the disestablishment of the League and World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a Trust Territory of the United Nations, still under Belgian control. In 1962, the mandate became independent as the two separate countries of Rwanda and Burundi.
Before the Scramble for Africa, the region of Ruanda-Urundi was dominated by two independent kingdoms, Rwanda and Burundi, which were annexed by the German Empire in 1894. The Ruanda-Urundi region formed the westernmost part of the colony of German East Africa, which included modern-day mainland Tanzania.
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Ruanda-Urundi was the scene of fighting between German and Belgian forces from the Belgian Congo which bordered the region to the west. In April 1916, as part of the East African Campaign, Belgian-Congolese forces invaded Ruanda-Urundi and by September most of the west of German East Africa was under Belgian occupation while forces from the British Empire fought elsewhere in the colony.
The Treaty of Versailles divided the German colonial empire among the Allied nations. German East Africa was divided, with the vast majority of the territory, known as Tanganyika, going to the British and a small portion to Portugal. The western part of the colony, formally referred to as the Belgian Occupied East African Territories, was allocated to Belgium. In 1924, when the League of Nations issued a formal mandate granting Belgium full control over the area, the area officially became Ruanda-Urundi.
The Belgians were far more involved in the territory than the Germans, especially in Ruanda. Despite the mandate rules that the Belgians had to develop the territories and prepare them for independence, the economical policy practiced in the Belgian Congo was exported eastwards: the Belgians demanded that the territories earn profits for the motherland and any development must come out of funds gathered in the territory. These funds mostly came from the extensive cultivation of coffee in the region’s rich volcanic soils.
To implement their vision, the Belgians used the existing indigenous power structure. This consisted of a largely Tutsi ruling class controlling a mostly Hutu population. The Belgian administrators believed that the Tutsi were superior and deserved power. While before colonization the Hutu had played some role in governance, the Belgians simplified matters by further stratifying the society on racial lines. Hutu anger at the Tutsi domination was largely focused on the Tutsi elite rather than the distant colonial power.
Although promising the League it would promote education, Belgium left the task to subsidised Catholic missions and mostly unsubsidized Protestant missions. As late as 1961, shortly before independence arrived, fewer than 100 natives had been educated beyond secondary level. The policy was one of low-cost paternalism, as explained by Belgium’s special representative to the Trusteeship Council: “The real work is to change the African in his essence, to transform his soul, [and] to do that one must love him and enjoy having daily contact with him. He must be cured of his thoughtlessness, he must accustom himself to living in society, he must overcome his inertia.”
After the League of Nations was dissolved, the region became a United Nations trust territory in 1946. This included the promise that the Belgians would prepare the areas for independence, but the Belgians felt the area would take many decades to ready for self-rule and wanted the process to take enough time before happening.
Independence came largely as a result of actions elsewhere. In the late 1950s, an independence movement arose in the Belgian Congo, and the Belgians became convinced they could no longer control the territory. Unrest also broke out in Ruanda where the king was deposed. In 1960, Ruanda-Urundi’s larger neighbor gained its independence. After two more years of hurried preparations, the trust territory became independent on July 1, 1962, broken up along traditional lines as the independent nations of Rwanda and Burundi. It took two more years before the government of the two became wholly separate.
The first stamps used in the territory were the stamps of German East Africa with first post office in Usumbura in 1902. Belgium occupied territories in German East Africa between 1916 and 1922 and overprinted stamps of Belgian Congo with the inscription Est Africain Allemande Occupation Belge/Duitsch Oost Afrika Belgische Bezetting. In 1918, a set of Belgian Congo stamps was overprinted A.O. for “Afrique Orientale.” There were also locally-handstamped overprints in 1916 reading either RUANDA or URUNDI in black or blue ink. All of these 1916-1922 occupation issues are listed in the Scott catalogue following the German East Africa general issue stamps.
The first stamps listed in the catalogue for Ruanda-Urundi are a set of 18 Belgian Congo stamps overprinted RUANDA / URUNDI released between 1924 and 1926 (Scott #6-23). The first non-overprinted stamps for the territory were a set of 18 pictorials released between 1931 and 1937 (Scott #37-54). The last stamps inscribed Ruanda-Urundi were a set of semi-postals released on December 18, 1961, to raise funds for the completion of the Cathedral of Usumbra (Scott #B31-36).
Scott #38 — 10 centimes gray, engraved, perforated 11½ — was released in 1931, one of Ruanda-Urundi’s first pictorial stamps. It pictures a mountain scene and two male tribesmen.