The Emergence of the European Postal System

Whilst in 1875 some twenty million telegrams were sent within the UK, over a thousand million letters were sent, by a hugely diverse, sometimes illiterate, social body. The importance of the postal service was apparent to contemporaries. The British government’s huge subsidizing of the Penny Post, and its imperial successor, showed a government taking the non-economic, communicational functions seriously.

This paper looks to the networks, connections and communities that the nineteenth century imperial postal services developed and sustained over intercontinental distances, and with particular emphasis on the French case. Nineteenth century empires fostered their own diasporas – huge communities maintaining ethno-political identities associated with the nation-state, spread across vast distances. Colonialists, marooned in isolated strategic fortress towns exhibited an impressive retention of a sense of belonging in these vast, intercontinental ‘imagined communities.’ Conversely, as communicational infrastructure developed within a colonial territory, so too were local communities capable of challenging the imperial superstructure. The paper will focus on the difficulties of identities, and the ways nineteenth century colonialists were capable of doing so, by way of examining the postal correspondence of colonialists, and by reference to familial, professional and religious networks. The paper also calls in to question boundaries (how does communication facilitate the erection and destruction of geographical, political and social barriers?), and the pluralised nature of them, by examining political movements in larger colonies, and their development based on internal communication.