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The Early Sarawak Postal Service

SARAWAK’S FIRST POST OFFICE WAS ESTABLISHED was established shortly after Sir James Brooke was proclaimed and installed as the First Rajah, but he never got to see his face on her stamps.

Fig. 1: The first stamp of Sarawak issued on 1st March 1869


Fig. 2: Double –circle handstamp reading POST OFFICE SARAWAK (Providence S M Redman)

By the time Sarawak had her first stamp issued 1 March 1869, James had already passed away in England and his nephew Sir Charles Brooke was the current Rajah.

But nearly 150 years ago and already 29 years behind England’s first stamp, Sarawak Proper needed her own stamps more than it needed them reissued in the memory of the First Rajah.

This is because the stamps were used for dual purposes. Firstly, to pay for postage, and secondly, to pay for stamp duty for the purposes of legalising agreement, bills of sales and acknowledgement of receipts.

The previous mail delivery arrangement without bearing any stamps meant that the Sarawak Government was losing valuable revenue. It was equally undesirable to use stamps issued by the East India Company based in India between the 1850s to the 1860s, or the Straits Settlements stamps in later part of 1867.

Fig. 3 and Fig. 2: Double –circle handstamp reading OFFICE OF REGISTRY SARAWAK

On 12 January 1869, Charles met with senior staff and local merchants. The outcome was Sarawak’s first stamp, issued on 1 March 1869.

The first stamp was printed by Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor in England using lithographic press. A full sheet would consist of 200 stamps, comprising two panes of 100 separated by a gutter. Today, only one full sheet of 200 stamps survived.

Most of the stamps exist in single pieces, but there are still blocks of tens or more available (Figure 1). These stamps were used only for two years before it was invalidated in 1871 by the second stamp of Sarawak.

Upon the ascendance of Charles as the Second Rajah of Sarawak, the second stamp of Sarawak bearing his bust portrait was issued on January 1871 (Figure 4).

Fig. 4: Charles as the Second Rajah on the second stamp of Sarawak

The same printer was appointed to produce them using the same method and same layout. Several complete sheets of 200 still survive today.

Both the first and second stamps of Sarawak were only valid only within Sarawak and as far as Singapore. By the time the second stamp was issued, Sarawak had extended from the southern end of Tanjung Datu to the Kidurong region adjacent to the Bintulu. Anything meant for beyond Singapore, went on the mileage of additional stamps from Strait Settlements.

In 1874, Sarawak published its first newspaper – the Sarawak Gazette.

According to the Postal Convention between Sarawak and Straits Settlements in 1874, the postage for newspaper was fixed at two cents. Sarawak’s only stamp cost three cents, and in that era, the difference of one cent meant much more than the present day value.

There is evidence that the Sarawak government took an ingenious way to solve this by overprinting existing three cents stamp with the words “TWO CENTS”. This became the first provisional issue of Sarawak.

There is also evidence that a few genuine copies of this provisional issue survived, although initial doubt arose thanks to stamp forgers in England who were caught red-handed with fake copies.

On 1 January 1875, Sarawak issued her third series of stamps – five stamps bearing denominations of two cents, four cents, six cents, eight cents, and 12 cents (figure 5). Again they were valid for destination up to Singapore and within Sarawak’s own territory.

Fig. 5: The third stamp of Sarawak in a series of 5 values

Of further interest was the issuance of the first Sarawak stamp solely for fiscal purposes, the first receipt stamp of Sarawak (figure 6).

Fig. 6: The first receipt stamp of Sarawak issued in 1875

The period 1869 to 1875 was considered the pioneering period of Sarawak stamps as all the stamps were printed by lithographic press and by the same printer – Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor – using lithographic press. After 1875, a new printer, Messrs. De La Rue was appointed who adopted a revised method of producing stamps using the standard key-plate design in-line with the practices of the post office authorities throughout the then British Empire.

Dr Ong Liap Teck is the President of Philatelic Society of Kuching Sarawak (PSKs)

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