Obock #J8 (1892)

Obock #J8 (1892)
Obock #J8 (1892)

The Territory of Obock (Territoire du Obock) was a French territory located in the eastern portion of the northern coast of the Gulf of Tadjoura where it opens out into the Gulf of Aden in eastern Africa. It was ruled by Somali and Afar Sultans, local authorities with whom France signed various treaties between 1883 and 1887 to first gain a foothold in the region. It lies at the entrance of the Bab el Mandeb Strait in the north-east of the present-day Republic of Djibouti. Obock lost all importance to Djibouti after the community there was founded in 1888 and Léonce Lagarde established a permanent French administration there in 1894. Today, the town of Obock is home to an airstrip and has ferries to Djibouti City, while mangroves lie nearby. It is expected to be the site of the recently-announced Chinese naval base in Djibouti. I previously wrote about the region in articles on this blog about the French overseas territory of Afars and Issas (Territoire Français des Afars et des Issas) and the independent Republic of Djibouti  (République de Djibouti in French, جمهورية جيبوتي in Arabic, Gabuutih Ummuuno in Afar, or Jamhuuriyadda Jabuuti in Somali).

Obock has a dry climate. It is classified as hot and semi-arid (Köppen climate classification BSh). The region is 13 meters above sea level on the plateau of Gazelles (Dala-h Húgub in Afar) in desert terrain. The sky is always clear and bright throughout the year.

The French form Obock derives from Arabic Oboh, deformation of Oboki, a name given to the Wadi Dar’i in its middle part, upstream of its coastal delta.

During the Middle Ages, Obock was ruled by the Ifat Sultanate and the Adal Sultanate. The Ottoman Empire had control over the area from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. It later was part of the French Somaliland (Côte Française des Somalis) protectorate in the first half of the 20th century. Obock was originally significant as the site of the first French colony in the region, established by treaty with the local Afar rulers on March 11, 1862. The French were interested in having a coaling station for steamships, which would become especially important upon the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Up to that time French ships had to buy coal at the British port of Aden across the gulf, an unwise dependency in case of war.

The site was not the subject of any occupation, just visited by the ships of the naval divisions assigned to the Indian Ocean, until the installation of trader Pierre Arnoux in 1881, followed by Paul Soleillet. Obock became a true colony in 1884 with the arrival in August of Léonce Lagarde, who established an administration and extended French possession in the Gulf of Tadjoura, forming the Territory of Obock and outbuildings, with the town of Obock as its capital.

The first stamps used in the region were French colonial general issues from 1883 with French Colonies stamps overprinted OBOCK first issued on February 1, 1892 (Scott #1-20 and #J1-18). Later in the year, some of these were also surcharged with values from 1 centime to 5 francs (Scott #21-31). By the end of the year, a supply of the omnibus Navigation and Commerce issues became available, inscribed OBOCK in red or blue (Scott #32-44).

In 1893 and 1894, the stamps for which Obock is most famous among philatelists were released: a series of imperforate stamps with simulated perforations, a scalloped line resembling the outline of a perforated stamp, printed all around the design. In addition, the 2-franc and higher denomination stamps are in the shape of a large equilateral triangle (Scott #44A-64). While the low values are relatively common, the triangular stamps are more scarce.

By 1885, Obock had 800 inhabitants and a school. However, the anchorage was more exposed than the site of Djibouti on the south side of the Gulf of Tadjoura, and the colonial administration moved there in 1894. The population of Obock subsequently declined. Obock stamps were used in Djibouti until supplies were exhausted. The first Djibouti stamp issues appeared later in 1894. Some of the first issues for Djibouti were overprints on stamps of Obock. The region was named French Somaliland which lasted from 1896 until 1967. In 1902, stamps of Djibouti were replaced with stamps for the French Somali Coast inscribed Cote Francaise des Somalis. The protectorate developed slowly and in 1915 still had only one post office.

Until the occupation of Tadjoura in 1927, Obock remained the only place on the northern coast of the Gulf of Tadjoura with a colonial administration. It became the capital of the District Dankali in 1914, then an administrative position from 1927 which was subsumed into the Circle of Adaels in 1929. In 1931, Obock became the capital of a circle responsible for resupplying the colony during the Allied blockade from 1941 to 1943, then again a simple administrative position. It adhered strongly to Vichy France in World War II and was blockaded by British imperial forces until it surrendered in December 1942. It later became a capital of the circle from 1963 until Djiboutian independence in 1977.

Scott #J18 is a postage due stamp released on February 1, 1892 — a 4-centimes black French Colonies stamp overprinted OBOCK in black ink, imperforate on unwatermarked paper. On the 18 postage due stamps issued that day, the handstamped overprints can be found doubled or inverted on some of the values (the Scott catalogue doesn’t mention which ones). There are also counterfeits of all of these stamps.

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