World Stamps

Flurry of airmail issues came to Netherlands Indies in 1928: Classic Stamps of the World

Apr 29, 2021, 6 PM

By Kathleen Wunderly

Events were moving faster than stamps could keep up with them in the Netherlands Indies in 1928.

The Netherlands Indies comprise more than 13,000 tropical islands, located between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in the late 1400s, but the quest for spices drew Dutch expeditions a century later. 

One of the Dutch empire’s most valuable possessions since its first ships landed in 1595, the archipelago on the equator that is now known as Indonesia was an immediate source of spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, and later of cash crops including tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, rubber, sugar and opium. 

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Profits were huge and the Dutch presence in the islands was consolidated in the form of the Dutch East India Co. A capital and seat of general administration was established in Batavia (now Jakarta) on Java, the largest and most populous island. 

The company went bankrupt by the end of the 18th century, thanks to mismanagement and corruption, and the territory was formally nationalized by the Dutch government. 

The first stamp of the Netherlands Indies was issued on April 1, 1864, picturing King William III of the Netherlands. It was followed by decades of issues depicting simple numerals or dignified portraits of the subsequent monarch, Queen Wilhelmina.

Then, the 20th century and the excitement of manned flight came to the Netherlands. KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines, was founded in 1919, and in May 1921 the Netherlands issued its first airmail stamps, Scott C1-C3 (an interesting set produced by woodcut and letterpress printing), to pay fees on mail carried by KLM.

Regular air service between Amsterdam and Batavia became an urgent goal of the Dutch government. KNILM, the Royal Dutch Air Navigation Co., was founded in Batavia in July 1928, to establish a domestic air-service network plus air links to neighboring countries.

KNILM acquired four Fokker VII airplanes and, in cooperation with KLM, planned major happenings for fall 1928: flights between Amsterdam and Batavia in September and October, and regular internal service between Batavia and Bandung, about 100 miles to the southeast, at the end of October.

The Netherlands had two new airmail stamps (Scott C4-C5) with denominations for the current airmail rates in place by Aug. 20, 1928, ready for use on the flight between the two capitals on Sept. 13. The stamps pictured the pilots who made that flight and several others between Amsterdam and Batavia in fall 1928: Lt. George Koppen and Capt. Jan van der Hoop.

So, the Netherlands had airmail stamps ready for the Sept. 13 flight from Amsterdam (which was made in stages, and took 12 days), but the Netherlands Indies had none for the return trip. The answer was the same one that has rescued many postal authorities over the years: overprints and surcharges, which were applied by the Topographical Service in Batavia.

Regular definitive issues from 1913-23 depicting Queen Wilhelmina were overprinted with new denominations to help to meet the airmail rate for letters within the Dutch East Indies and to foreign destinations. The surcharged stamps would be used in company with regular issues to meet the airmail rates.

These overprinted issues became Netherlands Indies Scott C1-C5, issued Sept. 20, 1928, and available at post offices in both the Netherlands Indies and the Netherlands. 

Meanwhile, the distinguished banknote and stamp printing company Joh. Enschede in Haarlem, the Netherlands (which to this day prints stamps for about 60 countries), was preparing “proper” airmail stamps for the Netherlands Indies.

Word was circulating in the philatelic press in late June 1928 regarding the production of new airmail stamps, so it is possible that the postal authorities in the colony thought they would have the Enschede stamps well in hand for use in September. As it happened, the five new issues, Scott C6-C10, were not available in the Netherlands Indies until December. 

The five new stamps, in denominations of 10¢ (printed in red violet), 20¢ (brown), 40¢ (rose), 75¢ (green) and 1.50 guilders (orange) share the same design, by the artist, illustrator, woodcut carver and engraver Fokko Alting Mees (1887-1968). Mees was born in Batavia but studied and worked in Amsterdam, The Hague and various places in France and Italy. 

The Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 describes the design as “Planes over Temple,” but other catalogs call it the “Native Motif Issue” or an “Allegorical Image.” 

The British weekly magazine Stamp Collecting, Dec. 15, 1928, mockingly called the vignette a “crude design (the ‘work’ of Fokko Mees); in the centre a Minangkabau house, flanked by a Bali temple door, with what is meant to be a volcanic mountain in the background, and on the right of it a Javanese tower. Three monoplanes in flight above — and the beholder in fright no doubt!”

The design is not “crude” to the eye of anyone familiar with woodcuts (a specialty of Mees’) and Indonesian motifs (such as batik patterns). Mees — or any other artist — faced a stamp-design challenge in trying to depict multiple elements of the various indigenous peoples of the Netherlands Indies. These include, but are not limited to, Balinese, Javanese and Malay. Minangkabau refers to an ethnic group living in the highlands of West Sumatra.

The British critic in the Stamp Collecting article did have a point regarding the rather menacing aspect of the formation of airplanes over the landscape, but perhaps Mees felt three planes balanced the design better than only one would have done. 

The stamps were printed by lithography in sheets of 100 (10 rows of 10) on unwatermarked paper and perforated gauge 12½ by 11½. The set was surcharged between 1930-32 and again in 1934 to meet changes in the airmail postal rates.

The 2016 Scott Classic specialized catalog prices a set of Netherlands Indies Scott C6-C10 at $8.40 mint and $2.10 used, a very modest outlay for examples of exotic issues from the early days of airmail. 

Keep reading about airmail stamps:

Airmail stamps of Sweden are few but interesting: Nordic Stamp Scene

Messages on airmail covers promote the use of special delivery service: U.S. Stamp Notes

Airmail collecting can take you anywhere