ABOVE: North Borneo 1894 5c black and vermilion, depicting the great argus pheasant

Mention British North Borneo to a Commonwealth collector and a number of responses are possible.

He may be beguiled by some of the most attractive and innovative issues to emerge at the end of the 19th century. Equally, he may be confused by the seemingly endless array of cancelled-to-order remainders, printer’s waste, improbable perforations, spurious overprints and downright forgeries that exist.

Such pitfalls result from the distinctive, yet slightly eccentric, administration of the British North Borneo Company at the time. The territory was a British Protectorate, but in a very hands-off way, and the Company had almost absolute power.

It certainly reduced both piracy and slavery in the region, and its shrewd commercial strategies boosted the local economy. But it didn’t pull any punches when it came to marketing postage stamps!

Prior to 1883 there was no regular postal service in North Borneo. Mail was transported the 8km north to the island of Labuan, where the stamps of that colony were utilised.

North Borneo’s own first stamps were no classics. Showing the formally ornate arms of the territory, they were designed and engraved by Thomas Macdonald and printed in lithography by the unorthodox Blades, East & Blades of Abchurch Lane in London.

 


ABOVE: Cancelled-to-order 12c blue featuring the estuarine crocodile

By 1894, however, when the Company approached Waterlow & Sons to commission a new series of low values, it knew just what it wanted.

A recess-printed series of nine values would replace the rather monotonous armorial low values, employing central vignettes in black surrounded by frames of various colours.

The result was a huge success. Although the 6c and 24c designs were rather formal, the remaining seven created maximum impact, giving a romantic insight into island life.

And the images bear the closest of scrutiny under the magnifying glass. Here were a resplendent Dyak chief, a Malay dhow, a sambar stag, a great argus pheasant, a sago palm tree, an estuarine crocodile and Mount Kinabalu, all portrayed in the splendour of intaglio. Waterlow had delivered a design classic.

But the interest did not end there. The erratic behaviour of its perforating machinery created more than 50 catalogued varieties in the series, and to this was added a commercial element ratcheted up by the North Borneo Company.

The practice of selling excess material to the stamp trade, by way of officially encouraged varieties, seems to have taken place almost from the outset, and collectors had to become familiar with the notorious ‘third column’ which the stamp catalogues introduced for items of this nature.

Imperforate printings, imperfect sheets, frame proofs, cancelled-to-order material (postmarked meticulously using a nine-bar oval cancellation at the junction of blocks of four) and overproduced mint items were all regarded by the Company as commercially exploitable.

Most were sold indirectly to a shady handling agent named Mr Parker, who then farmed them out to the trade.

The 1894 series was given a new twist in 1897. Redesigned frames now incorporated Arabic and Chinese lettering, and new pictorial additions included an orang-utan, a sun bear and a railway train.

What didn’t change is that the third column remained necessary in the catalogues, right through to World War I.