At the time the Leeward Islands were federated in 1871, by combining the colonial administration of six separate Caribbean islands (Antigua, Dominica, Montserrat, St Christopher, Nevis and the Virgin Islands), each entity issued its own postage stamps.
In 1890, however, the Leeward Islands General Stamp Act was passed, providing for the introduction of uniform stamps throughout the federation. De La Rue was selected to print these, using its colonial keyplate, and eight values were produced, from ½-penny to 5-shillings, bearing the profile head of Queen Victoria. This measure cut costs at the Colonial Office, but it also led to a loss of revenue for the individual islands. Before the decade was out, a reversal of policy would become expedient.
The U-turn may well have been inspired by hard evidence of how financially useful the growing hobby of philately could be to small colonies. In 1892, Crown Agents offered the remainder of the discontinued stamps from each member of the federation for sale by tender, after arranging to destroy the printing plates.
The successful bidder was an English dealer, T H Thompson, who produced a price list that quoted the numbers of each value that had been remaindered. Some of these quantities were very small, so collectors clamoured to buy copies. Thompson rapidly increased his prices, and soon doubled them again!
This may not have gone unnoticed in the Virgin Islands, where the Post Office’s receipts in 1898 totalled only about £35. Things had gotten so bad that in the House of Commons in June of that year, the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, was asked if the islands were insolvent.
Having been obliged to write off their debts, the British Government agreed to assist their financial position by allowing them to introduce their own stamps once again.
Recess-printed by De La Rue and issued in January 1899, the new Virgin Islands stamps comprised the same eight values as the federal set. But they had a different and very distinctive design, showing the Virgin Mary holding a bouquet of lilies. At first they were generally welcomed by philatelists. Then an official announcement explained that they were for use concurrently with the stamps of the Leeward Islands, and this caused a major protest.
All the stamp journals of the day condemned the new issues, claiming they were not needed for postal purposes and existed simply to bolster the islands’ revenue at the expense of collectors.
Despite the grumblings, the ploy proved a success. Figures released for the 1899 fiscal year showed that Post Office receipts, budgeted at £255, had leapt up to £1,509. Although collectors had complained bitterly, they still bought the stamps!