Early History of North Borneo
Borneo was first mentioned in writing by Ludovico di Barthema, an Italian writer who visited Borneo and Java around 1505-06 in his book Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema Bolognese, which was published in Rome in 1510.
In 1763, a flag of the British East India Company had been erected formally on the island of Balambangan by Mr. Alexander Dalrymple, a Scottish geographer. Despite this, it was not until 1773 that a small settlement was established in the island.
When James Brooke was appointed as the confidential agent in Borneo to Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1845, he turned his attention to the suppression of piracy in the region. In 1846, together with Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane and Captain Mundy, Rajah Brooke managed to quell an uprising by the Sultan of Brunei and his followers and restored law and order. On December 24th 1846, a British flag was hoisted in Labuan by Captain Mundy with the Sultan of Brunei concluded a treaty by which the island was ceded to Great Britain forever.
In 1865, an American consul to Brunei, Charles Lee Moses bought a 10-year concession with sovereign rights over the west coast of Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei.
North Borneo issued its first stamp in 1883 which was also reported in the very first issue of The North Borneo Herald on the 1st of March 1883.
However, it is clear that some form of communication must have existed long before the establishment of any post office in North Borneo.
It is likely that early missionary or trading letters from this region without any identifying local markings may have been sent through Singapore, Penang or even Batavia, a regional capital of the Dutch East indies.
From 1882-1883, prior to the issuance of any postage stamps, mail was taken to Labuan whose stamps were used for franking mail to the intended destination.
British Protectorate (1888-1940)
Between 1883-1890, postage stamps of North Borneo were valid to nearby countries only if sent by direct steamer at 8¢ rate, otherwise additional adhesives of either Hong Kong, Labuan or Strait Settlements had to be affixed.
An arrangement with the Straits Settlement P.O. was made whereby ½ oz. letters required 8¢ paid in Borneo stamps plus sufficient extra postage paid in Straits Settlements stamps to carry them from Singapore to their intended destinations.
Stocks of the Straits Settlements stamps were on sale in Sandakan G.P.O.
On the 12th of May 1888, while continued to be administered by the British North Borneo Company, the territory became a British Protectorate with the title of the “State of North Borneo” being given. Consequently, stamps issued from 1894-1939 prior to the Japanese occupation were inscribed with “The State of North Borneo” to reflect this.
From 1 January 1890 until January 1907, while remaining a Crown Colony, Labuan was administered by the British North Borneo Company. North Borneo stamps were valid in Labuan from 27 July 1891 as were Labuan stamps in North Borneo.
North Borneo joined the Universal Postal Union (UPU) on the 1st January 1891.
Japanese Occupation (1942-1945)
The Japanese landed in Miri and Seria on the 15th December 1941 and Kuching on the 24th of December. The Japanese landed unopposed in Labuan on 1 January 1942, Jesselton 8 January 1942 and Sandakan on 17 January 1942.
The North Borneo postage stamps are famed for their eye-catching and innovative pictorial designs ahead of their times in the 19th century. The Company from very early on had set its eye in marketing and exploiting the stamps for commercial purposes.
In a court in June 1909 against J.S. Lowden and H.R. Harmer for allegedly selling forged stamps, the Secretary of the Chartered Company, Harrington G. Forbes, testified that it was a customary practice for the Company to sell its stamps to dealers especially to Mr. Parker.
“I should think the second order was undoubtedly given for the purpose of selling to Parker…They were printed from the original plates solely for the purpose of sale to dealers. They are precisely identical with what had been shipped to Borneo. Some stamps are printed and cancelled purely for sale to dealers and the cancellation mark is as nearly as possible exactly similar to that which would be put upon the stamps if they had in fact come through the post” – Harrington G. Forbes, Secretary of the British North Borneo Company, 1909.
The first stamp
The first stamp of North Borneo was issued to the public in 1883. The main feature of the stamp consists of the Arms of the British North Borneo Chartered Company without the supporters – which is a shield showing a dhow with 6 oars with a lion in passant guardant stance.
The left panel on the frame is inscribed with Jawi manuscript (Arabic writing in Malay language) which reads “dua sen” (2 cents). On the right panel is inscribed with Chinese characters, similarly denoting the value.
The stamp was produced by Messrs. Blades, east and Blades Limited and the die was engraved by Thomas MacDonald. The stamp remain valid for use in North Borneo postal service for the next 52 years after being issued when all stamps prior to 1909 were demonetised at the end of 1935.
Postmarks & Post Offices of North Borneo
Major towns in North Borneo include Jesselton, Sandakan and Kudat. With a few exceptions, the postmarks from these towns are very common especially the post-1900s postmarks. Other common postmarks include Tawau/Tawao, Lahad Datu, Tenom, and Beaufort. Less common postmarks include the post-war cancellations from Papar, Sipitang, Keningau, Semporna and postmarks from newer post offices such as Lamag, Bandau, etc. Rare postmarks of North Borneo include Gaya/Gayah, Gantian, Silam and Elopura. Very rare postmarks include Labuk & Sugut, early Sipitang (1910-1917), Mempakul, Tangkulap and Ambong.
[Rough grading: Very common, common, less common, rare, very rare]
1. Owen Rutter (Reprinted 2008). British North Borneo – An Account of its History, Resources and Native Tribes. Opus Publication.
2. Captain Henry Keppel (1846). The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy.
3. Robson Lowe (First Edition, June 1951). The Encyclopaedia of British Empire Postage Stamps Volume III – The Empire in Asia.
4. Edward B. Proud (2nd Edition, 2003). The Postal History of British Borneo.
5. L.H. Shipman, FRSL. (1977-79). The Stamps and Postal History of North Borneo Part 1-3. Sarawak Specialists Society.