Stamp collecting is an adventure and like any adventure it is fun. This story of my collection is based on historic family data that developed a passing interest in Sarawak stamps into a journey of discovery and exciting accounts of the era in the region before and then after the first stamps were issued.
Sarawak, now part of Malaysia, is on the western half of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. It is located almost on the equator in the South China Sea and is tropical with jungle and mountains. In early the 1800s the area was ruled by a sultan who had to deal with pirates and other problems in his vast lands. The British were somewhat active with commerce in the area, but not very interested in pirates who posed little danger to naval vessels.
The adventure begins in 1839 with a young Englishman, James Brooke, whose father left him money, which he used to equip a sailing vessel and head for unexplored lands. Eventually, he met up with the sultan and helped quell the pirates. As an inducement for him to stay, and hopefully keep law and order, he was given control of land in the area of Kuching and the freedom to administer it as he wished. Brooke was named the rajah. His administration and development were successful and he was well received and honored locally and in England.
Okay, but where are the stamps? None were issued yet. Mail was sent by ship to Singapore and then probably on to India, and eventually to its final destinations. In 1860, Brooke hired a young sea captain – John Hewat, from Leith, Scotland – to sail out to Kuching with his new vessel. Hewat then commanded the ship to support other vessels of the rajah’s in fighting pirates, assisting local people, developing commerce and, of course, taking mail to Singapore. Hewat and his family left Kuching in 1866 and eventually settled in Cape Town, South Africa. A few years later, the first Sarawak stamps were issued and used.
My wife is Hewat’s great-granddaughter and told me the adventure stories of Sarawak as part of her family history. Eventually, the stories interested me to the extent that I looked into reviving my stamp collecting interest, which had been a youthful collecting of British Commonwealth that included Sarawak. Now, it was a small step to philately and all the adventures of family who had been there just before the introduction of adhesive stamps.
The first Sarawak stamps were issued in 1869. This article covers the time from the first issue until the final stamp was released in 1963, when Sarawak became a province of Malaysia. That covers approximately 203 stamps. While this may not appear to be a large number to collect, there are numerous excursions of philatelic interest and history that make fascinating and interesting study.
Here, I will review the issues and some of the relevant information on their printings and the background to the release of the stamps. Prior to 1869, postage and mail was arranged to travel through Singapore and later, the Straits Settlements, using East Indian postage stamps. Then it was decided by the government to produce Sarawak stamps.
First Sarawak stamp – three cents, 1869
This issue was printed and released after the rajah and council approved a postal service out of the capital Kuching to mail stations in Sarawak (Figure 1). The postage rate was one stamp for letters up to half an ounce and additional stamps for various weights and types of mail.
The first stamp was a bust portrait of Sir James Brooke, the first rajah (1842-1868), printed by Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor of London using a lithographic process. The arrangement of the stamps was two panes with 100 stamps in each with a gutter between them. Interestingly, there are sufficient flaws on the panes to enable a collector to identify each stamp and recreate complete panes.
Figure 1. Scott 1.
Figure 2. Scott 2.
A new stamp (Figure 2) was soon required and this was of a similar design but with the head of Sir Charles Brooke, the second rajah (1868-1917) and similarly produced by Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor. A total of 250,000 were printed using three stones instead of just one as in the first printing.
Two-cent provisionals, 1874
Sarawak and the Straits Settlements arranged for rates between their countries, 6 cents per half ounce. The newspaper rate was 2 cents, so the current stamps were overprinted with “TWO CENTS” until the new stamps arrived from England. As the newspaper circulation at that time was quite small it seems not many overprint TWO CENTS were needed and issued. One or two genuine examples may exist today. However, in 1883, bogus overprint stamps were produced, possibly to satisfy collectors. It appears that today only a few dozen of these bogus stamps exist.
Five denominations, 1875
Figure 3. Scott 7.
The same printers were engaged to print 2-, 4-, 6-, 8- and 12-cent stamps in different colors but with the same design, the bust of Sir Charles Brooke (Figure 3). The stones used to print the stamps produced flaws just as the previous printings did, and, to varying degrees, panes of all the denominations can be assembled and can form a satisfying collecting goal.
All of the stamps have perforations of 11½ and watermark “L.N.L.”
De La Rue issues – 1888 to 1897
In 1877, the Straits Settlements joined the Universal Postal Union, which resulted in an increase in rates to 8 cents per half ounce for letters from the previous 6-cent rate. After 10 years the Sarawak internal mail had significantly increased and new rates for the mail going into other parts of Borneo were established. The rates throughout Sarawak were 2 cents for letters, newspapers and printed material. This resulted in an increased demand for 2-cent stamps.
De La Rue & Co. Ltd. in London was commissioned to produce denominations with a slightly changed design of the previous stamps featuring Brooke (Figure 4). The printings were done with steel plates with 60 impressions (six columns; 10 rows) per plate. Stamps were printed and issued in five phases:
Figure 4. New stamps and new overprints caused by shortages were printed from 1888 to 1897, which the author divides into five phases. Examples are, from left to right phase 1 and 2, Scott 9 and 22; phase 3 and 4 Scott 23 and 26; phase 5 (bottom) Scott 21.
Phase 1: First issued – 2-, 3-, 4-, 8-, 12- and 25-cent stamps.
Phase 2: Late 1889, when a shortage of 2-cent stamps resulted in provisional stamps being issued.
Phase 3: Similarly, provisional stamps were issued due to a shortage of 5- and 10-cent stamps.
Phase 4: A reduction in the postage rate for printed matter from 2 cents to 1 cent required the issuance of provisionals.
Phase 5: In 1897, Sarawak entered the UPU and the combined use of Straits Settlements and Sarawak stamps ended, thus requiring an order for higher value stamps.
This period has many interesting issues that make collecting and studying a fascinating enterprise with much to enjoy.
Perkins, Bacon issue, 1895
Perkins, Bacon & Co. Ltd. was commissioned to print 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-cent stamps (Figure 5). This change in printing companies apparently was a bureaucratic mistake. The result for collectors studying this issue is yet another philatelic area of interest covering the full production range of ordering, designing, color trials, approving and issuing stamps for Sarawak.
Figure 5. The first stamps from Perkins, Bacon were issued in 1895, Scott 30.
Provisional issues, 1899
The British empire introduced a rate of 1 penny per half ounce, which was adapted in Sarawak as well. In all, four overprint denominations were made. The first were 2 cents overprinted on the 12-cent stamps (Figure 6) and 6 cents overprinted on the 8-cent stamp, both from the 1875 issue. There are a variety of overprints. For example, a small “s” on “Cents” appears to be from the use of a smaller font.
Later in 1899, a second 2-cent overprint on the 1871 3-cent stamp was issued. Another overprint of 4 cents on the 6-cent stamp of 1875 was printed in red. There are a number of minor variations in these overprints; panes can be constructed from collecting stamps where the known printing glitches are found.
Figure 6. A rate change prompted surcharges in 1899, Scott 33.
De La Rue issue, 1899 to 1908
Figure 7. The high value of an 1899 set depicting Sir Charles J. Brooke, Scott 47.
As commerce grew in the region it was decided to produce stamps for postage use and not, as previously, for both postage and revenue use. The design was the same as the previous de La Rue stamps, but the circle wording was changed from “Postage & Revenue” to “Postage & Postage.”
The first stamps issued in 1899 were the 4- and 10-cent. It appears that up to six printings of the 4-cent were made over the years; color variations and shades are seen through these printings. In all, these stamps were issued with a dozen denominations from 1 cent to $1 (Figure 7). A 5-cent stamp was prepared but not issued.
De La Rue issues, 1918 to 1928
Sir Charles Brooke, the second rajah, died in 1917 and a new series was designed by De La Rue showing the head and shoulders of Sir Charles Vyner Brooke (Figure 8). The look of the stamp was very similar to the British Colonial issues around the world at that time. Production was in panes of 60 stamps – 10 columns by six rows. All values had “specimen” overprints in black, which makes for another interesting collecting subset. The 1918 series was issued with 12 values up to $1. Some color changes were made to comply with UPU regulations.
Figure 8. A new set of stamps featuring Sir Charles Vyner Brooke was issued in 1918, Scott 50. When some values ran low, there were overprints, such as Scott 78.
In 1923, 1- and 2-cent stamps were running low so provisionals were overprinted as follows: 1 cent on 10 cents and 2 cents on 12 cents. Printing variations on these provisionals and reprints make another intriguing area for a specialized collection.
The 1928 issue was printed in panes of 100 with values in 15 denominations. All values except the 5-cent (released in 1929 with perforated “specimen”) were overprinted with “specimen” and can form a nice collecting subset.
Waterlow issue, 1932
Figure 9. The high value in the 1932 set, Scott 108.
A new series was printed by Waterlow and Sons, Ltd., of London with an image of Brooke in uniform (Figure 9). Fifteen denominations up to $1 were printed and all denominations have perforated “specimen” examples. As usual, there are interesting minor flaws to seek and collect.
Bradbury Wilkinson issues, 1934, 1941, 1946
A new series of postage and revenue stamps were issued in 1934 in 20 denominations produced by Bradbury Wilkinson & Co., Ltd., of New Malden, Surrey, England. The design has an upright rectangular shape with a portrait of the rajah. Recess printing was made in sheets of 100 stamps. Perforated “specimen” stamps can be collected for all values.
Color changes were made in 1941 on the 2-cent to 15-cent denominations (six in total) to satisfy UPU regulations (Figure 10).
Figure 10. Some values in the 1934 set were reprinted in different colors in 1941, Scott 112, 113.
The occupying Japanese forces during World War II produced stamps for Sarawak and surrounding colonies. These are overprints and assorted Japanese issues, which are not covered here but make another area for study and collecting.
After liberation in September 1945, a re-issue of the 1934-1941 series was made with the overprint of “BMA” (British Military Administration). Australian stamps were used immediately after liberation until the BMA issue began in December.
In 1946, a much-delayed centennial issue was produced to commemorate the declaration of James Brooke as the rajah in 1841 (Figure 11). The stamp design shows the three rajahs and was issued in four denominations in sheets of 100 stamps. All denominations have perforated “specimen” examples.
Figure 11. The high value of the four-stamp Rajah Centennial set, Scott 158.
Royal Cypher issue, 1947
Sarawak was ceded to the British Crown the same year as the centennial issue was distributed; there was some rancor over this action, but to mark the event, 8-, 15- and 50-cent, along with $1 denominations of the 1934-1946 issues were printed by Bradbury Wilkinson. These new stamps (Figure 12) were then overprinted in black or red with a crown above the Royal Cypher, “G. VI R.” The printing was well executed with no notable errors. Perforated “specimen” examples were made for all denominations.
Two empire-wide topics followed (Figure 13). In 1948, the Silver Wedding issue of 8-cent and $5 stamps was made to commemorate the Royal Silver Wedding of King George VI and Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother. In 1949, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union was marked by an issue of four stamps valued at 8, 15, 25 and 50 cents.
Figure 12. The Royal Cypher was overprinted onto a set of 15 stamps in 1947, Scott 171.
Figure 13. The high-value stamp commemorating the Royal Silver Wedding Anniversary, Scott 175 (shown right), and the 1949 celebration of the UPU, Scott 177 (shown above).
First pictorial issue, 1950
The Crown Colony issued its first set of pictorial stamps with the head of King George VI (Figure 14). Various Sarawak scenes and depictions were presented to a committee of local people and the governor of which 15 were selected for the denominations from 1 cent to $5.
Figure 14. A set of pictorials, which includes a stamp showing an image of the native tarsius, Scott 181, was issued in 1950.
Interestingly, in 1952, the 10-cent Malayan Pangolin was changed to a map of Sarawak as scientists believed the depiction could not possibly show the realistic pose of the animal. Shortly after the new map issue was made experts decided the posture of the animal was quite possible. Some things never change!
Coronation issue, 1953
Special issues of coronation stamps to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne were made for the British Colonies, 61 colonies in total. Sarawak issued a 10-cent stamp printed by De La Rue.
First definitive & pictorial Queen Elizabeth issues, 1955, 1957
This 30-cent stamp is similar to the design for the last 30-cent stamp with the head of the rajah, now replaced with that of the queen (Figure 15). Printing was by Bradbury Wilkinson in sheets of 100. The stamp is considered by some to be part of the 1957 pictorials with 14 other denominations, from 1 cent to $5 with the royal portrait and interesting scenes related to Sarawak. Printing was undertaken by Bradbury Wilkinson in sheets of 100.
Figure 15. A stamp with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, Scott 207, preceded a set of pictorials with her portrait, Scott 204.
Final Crown colony issue, 1963
A single value 12-cent stamp was issued as the Freedom from Hunger stamp (Figure 16). It was printed by Harrison & Sons in sheets of 50. This was the last stamp issued by Sarawak, as it became part of the Federation of Malaysia later in 1963.
Figure 16. Sarawak’s final postage stamp, Scott 212.
The short excursion into my collection and the history that encouraged it illustrates how philatelic interest can come from any direction. That’s well known, of course, but for new interests, and in this case the British empire which encompasses a huge area, finding a way to focus is very helpful.
These Sarawak stamps are readily available to keep one interested but not so common that collecting offers no challenge. In fact, there are a few specimens that are extremely rare and thus expensive and difficult to find. My potential collection of 202 stamps, or double that for mint and used examples, is not complete and may never be. In the meanwhile, the search continues and there are also a good number of side roads to explore that are part of the Sarawak rajah saga to keep up my interest.
As with so many areas of philately, various specialty groups and clubs exist. The Sarawak Specialty Society in England is one, as is the British Empire Study Group, which meets as part of the Collectors Club New York. The references shown are a helpful way of following, developing and mapping a collection of Sarawak and its many philatelic interests.
Adrian Bethray has collected stamps from Great Britain and Empire as well as South Africa from his youth. He specializes now particularly in the issues from Sarawak. He is a member of Collectors Club New York and its British Empire Study Group, The Sarawak Specialty Society, England and the Royal Philatelic Society, London. Recent philatelic trips undertaken included an extensive tour of Sarawak and its Borneo neighbors organized and run by the Sarawak Specialty Society. His two grandsons have interests in collecting and are encouraged and helped with their membership and meetings in the Collectors Club Youth program.
2019 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (Sidney, OH: Amos Press).
Batty-Smith, W. de B.P. and W.N. Waterson. Sarawak, the Issues of 1871 and 1875. Plating Studies and Postal History (Waterson, 1990).
Forrester-Wood, W.R. The Stamps and Postal History of Sarawak (Sarawak Specialists’ Society, 1957).
Melville, Fred J. The Postage Stamps of Sarawak (J&H Books, 1907).
Shipman, L.H. Supplement to The Stamps and Postal History of Sarawak (The Sarawak Specialists’ Society, 1970).
The Sarawak Journal, Sarawak Specialists’ Society (issued several times a year).
Stamp images courtesy of the American Philatelic Society Reference Collection.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
A Study of the Stamps of Sarawak by Major R.H.D. Lockhart. (London: Offices of Stamp Collecting journal, 1920). [G8033 .S35 L816s 1920]
Sarawak and Her Stamps: An Analytical Survey of all Issues from 1869 to 1934 by G.E. Hansford & L.A. Noble. (Isle of Wight: The Times Press, 1935). [G8033 .S35 H249s]
Sarawak, A Complete History of its Postage Stamps by Bertram W.H. Poole. (London: D. Field, 1906). [G8033 .S35 P822s]
Sarawak, the De La Rue Story by Neville Watterson. (Great Britain: Brock Publications, 2000). [G8033 .S35 W346sd]
Sarawak, the Issues of 1871 and 1875 by W. de B.P. Batty-Smith & W.N. Watterson. (Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire, England: W. de B.P. Batty-Smith, W.N. Watterson, 1990). [G8033 .S35 B336s]
The Postage Stamps of Sarawak with a History of the Post Office from 1869-1906 by Fred. J. Melville. (London: Nissen, 1907). [G8033 .S35 M531p CLOSED STACKS 1]
The Stamps and Postal History of Sarawak by W.R. Forrester-Wood. (Brighton, England: The Sarawak Specialists’ Society, 1957). [G8033 .S35 F731s]