The following is an excerpted version of the article from the second quarter 2022 Philatelic Literature Review, to subscribe to the PLR click here.
In the Western world, philately took a pivotal turn in the early 1860s when it moved from being the pastime of school boys and eccentric adults to a hobby of a more serious nature. The equivalent inflationary period for Indian philately came about some three decades later, in the 1890s. In a short matter of time, the tribe of collectors saw a rapid increase and some of the pioneering philatelists came together to form the earliest philatelic societies. Dealers proliferated and showcased their wares in the philatelic press; the more enterprising ones reached out to collectors directly through their regular price lists. The publishing and journalistic scene became vibrant and the earliest philatelic books and magazines were issued.
In its earliest decades, Indian philately was pretty much centered around the great cities of Bombay and Calcutta. While Calcutta was the capital of British India, Bombay was fast progressing to become its economic hub (a title it holds to this day). Located on the western and eastern coasts respectively and separated by 1,200 miles of land, the two cities jostled on a lot of issues; those philatelic would not be left behind!
The accolade of being the first journal falls on the Bombay-based Indian Philatelist (IP).1 Given that Indian philately was dominated by the Britishers, it is a matter of surprise that IP was conceived, managed, and edited by a Catholic of Indo-Portuguese descent, Julio Ribeiro. Starting off in a small way, the journal peaked in its first year; unfortunately, it closed down before it could reach the age of two. This was in keeping with philatelic magazines the world over; hundreds of journals sprouted only to die within a year or two, or after an issue or two. However, before it fizzled, enough paper had been set to type to give future historians more than a glimpse of the prevailing Indian philatelic scene.
Figure 1. Julio Ribeiro (1867-1897)
Spat with Philatelic World
Depending on one’s perspective, Ribeiro comes across as either principled or rebellious. To a philatelic historian though, the fact that the pages of the country’s first magazine can be so interesting and entertaining is a matter of delight.
The first evidence that Ribeiro wielded a sharp pen comes from a column that he publishes under the pseudonym “Wenzel” in the fourth issue, August 1894. We do not know who Wenzel was; perhaps the nom de plume of Ribeiro himself.
Wenzel made his first appearance in the second issue of June 1894 wherein he congratulated the editor (!) for having the courage and fortitude in venturing upon such an undertaking. He went on to bemoan the state of Indian philately while pouring scorn on local dealers. In the fifth issue of September 1894, he cast a favorable light on the Bombay Philatelic Society (BPS) and its workings. He wrote a few more columns but none as scathing as the August one.
Figure 5: Wentzel's first column in the second issue of IP
What ruffled Wenzel’s feathers was a not-so-flattering review of IP in the July 1894 issue of India’s second journal The Philatelic World (PW). While the first 13 issues of PW were published by the young Calcutta dealer, B. Gordon Jones , he edited the first two only. Jones may seem harsh on a fledging contemporary but his comments on its language and grammar are spot on.
Figure 6. Review of IP in the first issue of Jones' The Philatelic World
Figure 7. B. Gordon Jones (1872-1857).
Obviously, the rebel was not going to take this affront lying down. Wenzel charged Jones of being upset that a Bombay upstart had beaten his endeavor by two months. He inquired:
“Surely there is room in the country for two such publications and if such be the case, it is but right to inquire why should the new born infant be gifted with such a short temper? What fairy god-mother presided at its birth?”
Raising the Bombay-Calcutta rivalry card, he railed against what he felt was Jones’ rabidity towards his city’s philatelic scene:
“There is no doubt that the Bengalee2 Philatelic Philosopher will find that he cannot enlist either the indulgence of an enlightened public or their support, if his publication is to be devoted to attacks on persons who are considerably known in philatelic circles on this side of India.”
He then personally attacked Jones, the dealer, saying:
“It does not require a very strong sight or a powerful magnifying glass to discern what this pretender is aiming at. Compare his offers for July, 1894, as given in the inside of the back cover and note the great rarities of India this well-stocked “Know-all, has for disposal.” (sic; the quotes are placed incorrectly). With one exception, there is hardly any rare stamp of India catalogued therein.”
Reacting to criticism about its language, Wenzel defended the editor and criticized Jones:
“Is he possessed of a certain amount of courtesy as due from one editor to another, when both elect to espouse the same cause and work for it. Is he so perfect in everything apportioning to philately and the English language thrown in, so as to pose as an infallible grammarian? Is he aware of the existence of such a person as represented by a printer’s devil?"
(Unfortunately, the printer’s devil continued to plague IP in the future.)
Finally, against the insinuation that Bombay was the hub of forgers, Wenzel retorted:
“By the by, does it not strike you that the shoe has pinched? Let the world-wise authority take a ramble through Lall and Bow Bazaar, and the labyrinths of lanes off Bentinck Street and go and satisfy himself of the respectability, scrupulousness and knowledge of stamps of the many so called dealers and then speak of Bombay as the lurking place of such. Alas! that a man should live in a glass house and attempt to throw stones!”
(Ribeiro/Wenzel obviously took one review too much to heart. We see this trait in him, again and again, that when he is pushed, he reacts with great hostility and does not mind making it personal.)
The editorial of PW passed to C.F. Larmour from the September 1894 issue. This seems to have placated Ribeiro/Wenzel. In IP’s November 1894 issue, Wenzel praised Larmour as a person with “intimate knowledge of stamps” and waved the white flag:
Figure 8: Charles F. Larmour (1853?-1914).
“We are very pleased to note the change effected in the editorial chair of our Calcutta contemporary and regret that inadvertently we have been lead [sic] to do an injustice to a gentleman for whom we entertain a great respect and high esteem. Also that owing to circumstances, over which we have no control, the short comings of one person should have been visited upon another.”
N.H. Mama, dealer and forger
Ribeiro’s adversary was the Parsee3 dealer, N. H. Mama who, Ribeiro consistently claimed in IP, was a forger. There may have been other reasons for the unpleasantness between them.
BPS (Figure 9) was formed when seven gentleman (and one visitor) met at the Presidency Surgeon’s office at Bombay on August 29, 1892. One of the founding seven was Julio Ribeiro. He was appointed the vice president at this meeting. However, he objected to the office bearers being appointed permanently, and said that it would be better to have the office bearers as they now stood only as a temporary measure till the next ordinary meeting. His objections, very likely, came from Mr. N.H. Mama being appointed the treasurer.
Figure 9. Council of the Bombay Philatelic Society from 1895. (Photo courtesy of The Royal Philatelic Society's Philatelic Collections.)
In its first ordinary meeting on October 3, 1892, voting for office bearers for the ensuing year took place; neither Ribeiro nor Mama were elected for a post, though Ribeiro made it onto the committee. In retrospect, Ribeiro sacrificed the post of vice president but managed to keep Mama away from the important post of treasurer. Unfortunately, as he would soon learn, Ribeiro could not keep a check on Mama’s influence on the society.
In a special meeting of the committee of BPS held a few days later on October 10, 1892, Ribeiro drew the committee’s attention to an article in The Philatelic Journal of America dated September 1892 about Afghan forgeries and Mama. Another meeting was quickly called nine days later and Mama given a chance to respond. The sub-committee was convinced by Mama’s explanations that the forgeries were top grade and that he should not be blamed if he could not detect them before offering them for sale.
This must have surely disappointed Ribeiro.
Two years later, however, Ribeiro had the power of the pen. In the second issue of IP, in the column on forged Scinde Dawks,4 he said, “The primary source of these forgeries is one and one only…”
In his third issue, in a column aptly named “Black List,” Ribeiro came out in the open:
“It may be to the interest of uor (sic) readers to learn that Mr. N. H. Mama, who flooded the market with a special issue of Cabul stamps,5 has entered his schedule in the Insolvency Court. During the transition period, he is trading under the name and style of the Great Philatelic Co. Those who were promised a refund for the Cabul forgeries and other bogus stamps will probably get nothing, as the stock of stamps which he represented as his assets realized only about ten rupees at Auction.”
Stanley Gibbons Monthly Journal of August 31, 1894, reproduced this and confirmed Ribeiro’s assertion:
“We can fully bear out the statement that this man has been selling forgeries, as we quite recently examined a collection of nearly 9000 stamps, formed by a gentleman residing in Persia; we picked out several score of Afghan, Jhind, Gwalior, and other stamps as bad, all of which had come from Mama.”
September 1894 saw the start of a new magazine from Bombay called Indian Postage Stamp News (IPSN). While the publisher/editor was shown to be one P. A. Sakloth, Ribeiro claimed in the November issue of IP that Mama was behind it. Apparently, Mama got into publishing to defend himself against attacks from the likes of Ribeiro and to promote himself.6 Ribeiro warned his readers,
“We would like to know the genuiness [sic] of the advertisements and interviews, before advising intending subscribers to place their subscriptions.”
Over the years, Ribeiro seemed to get the impression that the BPS would not do anything to curb Mama, his activities, and his influence on the society and its members. Things came to a head in the first few months of 1895.
Notes and References
1 Indian Philatelist became The Indian Philatelist from Vol. II No. 1 issue of May 25, 1895.
2 Bengalee or Bengali i.e. someone of or from Bengal, the state in which Calcutta is located.
3 Parsee or Parsi is a member of a group of followers in India of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). The Parsis, whose name means “Persians,” are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India in possibly the 8th century, to avoid religious persecution by Muslims. There are less than 60,000 Parsis in India today and most of them live in and around Bombay. Notwithstanding their small numbers, the community has always wielded a disproportionate economic influence.
4 Issued in 1852, the white, blue, and white Scinde Dawks (SG nos. S1, S2, and S3) were used only in the Scinde province of India.
5 That is, the stamps of Afghanistan.
6 Sample the editorial from the third issue of IPSN dated 25 November 1894. It lauds Mr. N.H. Mama “towards enlarging philately in India” and that “his disinterested devotion is sufficiently well known to call for any further eulogy and comment.” The previous issue cheekily asks who ‘Wenzel’ is. A few months later, during the Ribeiro-BPS spat, IPSN sides with the latter. Unfortunately for Indian philately, the magazine closes down with Vol. II No. 1 of September 25, 1895, being its last issue.