Puerto Rico: Spanish Definitives

Puerto Rico is today recognised officially as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and an unincorporated territory of the United States of America. As such, it adopts the US federal stamps for postal services. However, between 1873 and 1900, Puerto Rico issued distinctive stamps unique to the island.

Puerto Rico is the most easterly of the islands in the Greater Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean. The island was discovered by Columbus in 1493 but was not settled and explored until 1508 when Ponce de Leon was appointed Governor by the Spanish. He gave the island its name, meaning ‘Rich Port’ and the island remained part of the Spanish empire for nearly 400 years.

Interestingly, the first postal agencies to exist in Puerto Rico were British and an office was established in the capital, San Juan, in 1844. The first adhesive stamps were introduced at the British agencies in 1865 and can be identified by specific numeral obliterators. The British agencies were closed in 1877 when the Spanish authorities assumed control of all the island’s postal services. The Spanish postal services had been established in Puerto Rico a few years after the British agencies and adhesive stamps portraying Queen Isabella were introduced in 1855. Until 1871, the same stamps were issued in both Cuba and Puerto Rico, inscribed ‘CORREOS’ (post) or ‘ULTRAMAR’ (overseas).

1875 25c ‘ULTRAMAR’ stamp overprinted with paraph
1875 25c ‘ULTRAMAR’ overprinted with paraph

The first distinctive stamps were issued in 1873 and featured the portrait of King Amadeo. The stamps were overprinted with a paraph (a unique signature) to distinguish them from Cuban stamps. The paraph was used until 1877 when a series bearing the portrait of King Alfonso XII was released bearing the inscription ‘PTO RICO’. Three years later the stamps were re-issued with the full name, ‘PUERTO RICO’. These stamps were re-issued annually, bearing the year and introducing new colours, until 1881.

1882 1c Alfonso XII stamp
1882 1c Alfonso XII
1890 ½m Alfonso XIII stamp
1890 ½m Alfonso XIII

The last definitive series was the 1898 ‘Curly Head’ design featuring the young King Alfonso XIII. Following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898, the series was overprinted ‘HABILITADO PARA 1898 Y 1899’ (valid between 1898 and 1899). Others were overprinted ‘IMPUESTO DE GUERRA’ (war tax) and in some cases, additionally surcharged to raise funds for the war effort.

1898 2m Alfonso XIII stamp overprinted with validity
1898 2m Alfonso XIII overprinted with validity dates
1898 2m Alfonso XIII stamp overprinted ‘war tax’
1898 1m Alfonso XIII overprinted ‘war tax’

Spain officially ceded Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam, to the US under the Treaty of Paris on 11 April 1899. The first stamp to be issued under the US occupation appeared in August 1898 with a crudely typeset inscription. This issue was closely followed by contemporary US stamps overprinted ‘PORTO RICO’. Ordinary US stamps with no distinctive overprinting were introduced in 1900 when a civil government was instituted to replace military administration.

To view postal issues of the Puerto Rico, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by nigelmandsphilatelycom

Nigel Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 30 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the Caribbean including associated British Commonwealth countries (incl. Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Monserrat, St Lucia, St Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos) as well as Cuba, Danish West Indies, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles and Puerto Rico.

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