World Stamps

North Borneo 1894 stamps: Legitimately scorned or real works of art?

Apr 30, 2021, 3 AM

By Kathleen Wunderly

Philatelists always have been deeply critical of any postal issues perceived as existing mainly for profit, sometimes even sold by postal officials directly to dealers in wholesale lots, and/or with cancels that never saw a post office any more than the stamps had.

Although it is likely that no collector has ever been forced to purchase a stamp, these “speculative issues” have been viewed by many as essentially extortion attempts on hapless philatelic customers.

The 1894 pictorial stamps of North Borneo often are cited as prime examples of such efforts to swindle collectors, though they are colorful and interesting engraved stamps that probably have piqued many a young collector’s interest in the hobby over the years.

Connect with Linn’s Stamp News: 

    Sign up for our newsletter
    Like us on Facebook
    Follow us on Twitter

After labeling North Borneo “philatelically abominable,” Ernest A. Kehr (The Romance of Stamp Collecting, 1947) added, “Such tiny places as North Borneo, Liberia, Labuan, and Persia were the first to prostitute their postal paper. And so thoroughly did they do their job that today very few serious collectors will recognize the stamps issued by these countries as legitimate, except when they are found on original letters with the proper postmarks to prove they served a genuine postal purpose.”

Neatly combining scorn and praise, the British writer Stanley C. Johnson (The Stamp Collector: A Guide to the World’s Postage Stamps, 1920) called the 1894 stamps “the exquisite though undesirable issues of North Borneo.”

Market speculation aside, some collectors condemned the new 1894 stamps simply because of the novelty of their designs.

Johnson blamed the 1893 Columbian Exposition issue for being poor role models:  “Soon after the Columbus stamps of the United States set the fashion in pictorial designs, many colonies cast aside their Sovereign’s features and ran riot with local views and customs.”

Most postage stamps up to that time had been portraits or symbols in rigidly structured frames, and there was a collector-audience who felt that all new stamps should continue the classic patterns.

Only a few critics have recognized an important point about the North Borneo stamps, beginning with the first issues in 1883: namely, that these were not produced by a national postal administration, funded by the citizens as an essentially nonprofit function of government.

North Borneo, now a Malaysian state known by its original native name of Sabah, occupies the northernmost part of the tropical island of Borneo in the South China Sea. After early incursions by the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese, the area attracted British interest.  

On Nov. 1, 1881, the British North Borneo Provisional Assoc., Ltd., received a royal charter, and the British North Borneo Co. was formed the following March.

In 1888, the area became a British protectorate called the State of North Borneo, but the BNBC continued to administer and control it. The BNBC existed until July 15, 1946 (when the region became a crown colony), having succeeded as the longest lasting of the 19th-century British chartered companies, and credited by many with bringing general peace and comparative prosperity to North Borneo.

The BNBC’s mandate was to set up a government and enforce law and order through policing and courts, plus encourage agriculture and trade and build railways. The company understood the need for postage stamps as part of the process of building nationhood (it had joined the Universal Postal Union in 1891), but in a poor and illiterate country, massive quantities of stamps certainly had no legitimate purpose.

The BNBC had no compunction about breaking into the growing market of stamp collectors, and benefiting commercially from postage stamps as another commodity of North Borneo.

That said, the BNBC seemed willing to spend some money for quality work on the new 1894 issues. The 1883 North Borneo stamps had been produced by Blades, East & Blades, Ltd., in London, printed by lithography with a traditional style of design showing the BNBC’s coat of arms. Those stamps had been redrawn and surcharged and overprinted over the years, until the BNBC sought a bid in 1893 from De La Rue & Co. for new issues for North Borneo, again using the BNBC coat of arms. De La Rue had been printing stamps for Labuan, a group of islands northwest of North Borneo that came under BNBC administration in 1890.

De La Rue submitted several designs for consideration, but meanwhile the BNBC had noted the re-entry of Waterlow & Sons, Ltd., also of London, into the stamp-printing business.

Waterlow had produced some much admired stamps for Siam in 1883 (Thailand Scott 1-5), for example, showing off the fine results of direct-plate printing (aka line-engraved or recess printing).

The BNBC had second thoughts, and while De La Rue was working on its proposal, the company approached Waterlow in March 1893, and that firm took the ball and ran with it, quickly suggesting a set of nine bicolor pictorial designs.

The new stamps became Scott 59-67, from 1¢ to 24¢ and valid for postage or revenue use (the denominations from 25¢ to $10, and a $25 revenue-only stamp, continued to be printed by lithography by Blades, East & Blades).

Each of the nine Waterlow designs is different from the others, with various styles of framelines and formats for the inscriptions; some stamps are vertical rectangles and others are horizontal.

Waterlow’s proposal of unusual formats and designs (even the Columbians had been consistent in size and basic framing) captured the BNBC’s fancy, and by mid-May 1893 the latter had informed De La Rue that the postage-stamp contract had been awarded elsewhere. BNBC approved Waterlow’s final designs and colors in June 1893.

Renowned British philatelic writer and stamp-printing expert L. Norman Williams, in A Century of Stamp Production, 1852-1952: Waterlow & Sons Ltd., said the 1894 stamps were “a forerunner of the modern pictorial stamps, and originated the idea of placing a vignetted design within the borders of the framework.”

Some necessary changes in wording from the 1886 and subsequent issues included dropping “British” from the country name and using the official name at the time, “State of North Borneo.”

In the excitement, the BNBC and the designers failed to add Malay inscriptions in addition to English ones, as had been combined on previous issues. This omission was remedied on re-engraved stamps of the same designs issued in 1897.

The nine new 1894 stamps were printed on unwatermarked white-wove paper in sheets of 100 and perforated gauge 15.

The Waterlow artists who produced the designs are not recorded, but the sources of a few of the vignettes are known, as are the engravers’ names.

The 1¢ bister-brown and black stamp (Scott 59) pictures a Dyak chief. The Dyak are the indigenous peoples of Borneo, from a Malay word meaning “up-country.” The design was based closely on an illustration in a book by Baroness Anna Brassey (1839-87), world traveler and bestselling author of books based on her adventures, many of them in her family’s yacht, Sunbeam.

The Dyak chief in full war paint was illustrated in Brassey’s The Last Voyage, published in 1889. The Dyak were, among other things, headhunters, and human hair is shown on the scabbard at the chief’s waist and the handle of his parang (sword). 

The 2¢ stamp (Scott 60), rose and black, is filled with an antlers-and-head portrait of a native Sambar deer in an asymmetrical frame that places “Postage & Revenue” in an arc in the lower-left corner.

The 3¢ stamp (Scott 61), in violet and green, has a sago palm in an oval frame and cheerful swirls and curlicues outside the oval to the edges of the stamp. It’s easy to imagine the Waterlow artists having fun with this set of stamps, seemingly having been encouraged to let their imaginations go.

On the 5¢ stamp (Scott 62), orange red and black, a Malaysian Great Argus pheasant is in full display, and in a philatelically unprecedented move, the tail feathers of the vignette cut into the upper frameline. The mating dance of the Great Argus, with fully erect tail feathers, is the bird’s most identifiable element, and the designer did not want to crop the image to fit the frame, so he or she didn’t do so.

The same refusal to conform is evident on the 12¢ ultramarine and black stamp (Scott 65) of a saltwater (estuarine) crocodile, the largest living reptile on earth. Male crocodiles routinely reach 20 feet long, so it’s unsurprising that one would not easily fit on a stamp.

Various stamp writers over the years described the image as “fearsome” and “of peculiarly voracious aspect.” In another break with stamp-design tradition, the crocodile’s tail cuts through the frameline at left. The croc image could have been moved slightly to the right to allow the tail to be fully inside the frame, so the decision to have the tail break the line seems deliberate.

Were the pheasant and the crocodile placements intentional artistic acts? Not until 1998, more than a century later, did the United States “break the line” for artistic effect.

Commenting on the 32¢ Sylvester and Tweety stamp (Scott 3204a), in which Sylvester’s hand and part of the birdhouse break out of the subject area, and the 32¢ Bright Eyes issues later that year (3230-3234) in which the dog’s head and one ear each on the cat and the hamster protrude, U.S. Postal Service art director and head of stamp development Terrence McCaffrey said these were a graphic device “for a three-dimensional effect.”

The Waterlow artists simply may have been trying to make the art fit, certainly not aiming for 3-D, but the fact remains that this was interesting and unprecedented stamp design.

Returning to the order of denominations, the 6¢ stamp (Scott 63) bears the arms of the British North Borneo Co., in brown and black, on the most “normal” looking of the nine stamps. Even so, the arms are drawn more elaborately and with much more shading than on the more subdued 1883 and subsequent versions of the same subject.

A Malay proa or prahu, a boat with sails and numerous oars, is shown on the 8¢ lilac and black stamp (Scott 64). It has the appearance of an illustration from a book, but it is not from the Brassey book and its source is not recorded.

The 18¢ stamp (Scott 66), in green and black, displays a landscape with Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak on Borneo. This image was based on a drawing made by Midshipman Frank S. Marryat while serving on HMS Samarang, surveying the coast of Borneo in 1841. Marryat’s book, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago, was published in 1848, and can be accessed on various Internet e-book websites. The illustration on which the stamp was based follows page 58 in the book and was titled “Keeney Ballu” by Marryat.

Another version of the BNBC arms appears on the 24¢ stamp (Scott 67), in claret and blue. Two Malay figures support the design, which is not inside a frameline. Rays of sunshine blaze out all around the image, and the numerals and “Postage” and “Revenue” are on small diagonal lozenges at the corners.

Waterlow’s records indicate that three engravers worked on the nine stamps: Joseph Rapkin, Sr.; Joseph Rapkin, Jr.; and someone listed only as “Bain.” The latter must have been James Bain, age 50 at the time, listed in the 1871 through 1911 decennial censuses of the United Kingdom as an engraver or art engraver.

Reaction to the new stamps, which reached the post offices in North Borneo by late February 1894, was not just positive but effusive, at least from one quarter. The London Philatelist received advance examples of the stamps from the London office of the British North Borneo Co. in early December 1893, and published its reactions in that month’s journal, as follows: “The Company are to be congratulated upon the issue, as regards the nine lower values, of as beautiful a set of stamps as has ever emanated from any country. In delicacy of design, in engraving, and in colouring they are in our opinion quite unsurpassable, and at once take the highest rank as regards the artistic side of Philately.”

Alas, only a few decades later, they were “abominable” and “undesirable.”

Despite their modern bad press, North Borneo Scott 59-67 are respectably valued in the Scott Classic Specialized catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940. Imperforate examples of some of the denominations command prices of hundreds of dollars each, but a set of mint examples of the basic nine stamps should run about $139; used, about $11. 

Longtime collectors might be able to retrieve a used set from their childhood albums, where they probably were much enjoyed at the time.