Ready for a history lesson about North Borneo stamps? Buckle up, this one gets confusing at times.
Updated: Jan 1, 2021
Some of the world’s beautiful stamps came from the State of North Borneo. The little parcel of land (abt 31,106 sq.m) was given as a gift, leased, abandoned, flipped, invaded, and conquered at a dizzying rate in the span of about 200 odd years. It belonged to the Sultan of Brunei but was leased to Great Britain as a reward for aiding the Sultan in a civil war. For a few years, the British tried to settle the land, built a port, imported labour etc. By 1805 it was viewed as a white elephant – too expensive to administer and too difficult to fend off pirate attacks so the British abandoned the lease and left.
60 years later, the Americans took out a lease on the land but quickly sold the lease off. Post-Civil War United States government had no appetite for Asian territories and auctioned off the lease to the American Trading Company of Borneo. Their efforts were equally short lived. Disease, expenses, deaths, and difficulty keeping labour on the land forced the company to abandon the territory within a year.
They hung onto the lease for 10 years and flipped it to the Consul of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Hong Kong. Baron Gustav von Overbeck negotiated a 10-year lease with the Sultan of Brunei. Despite his best efforts, von Overbeck couldn’t interest the Austro-Hungarian government in investing time, men and money on the land. He was saddled with a costly lease no one wanted. Overbeck tried to sell the lease off to the Italians as an Italian version of Devil’s Island, but the Italian government didn’t see a need for a penal colony so far away.
North Borneo history – now I get lost in the maze
Right about now, I get a little lost in the negotiations. Von Overbeck exits the story shortly after getting British colonial merchants, Alfred and Edward Dent, involved as financial backers. When Overbeck bailed, the Dent brothers took over the little speck of land no outsiders seemed to know how to manage. In July 1881, the Dents formed the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd, complete with Royal Charter and backing from powerful friends in Great Britain.
Within a year, the North Borneo Chartered Company was born and took over all administration of the area. This ruffled a number of feathers, including the Dutch, Sarawak, and Spanish governments, not to mention the indigenous population, but the colonial barons of the Victorian era never let matters like territorial disputes get in the way of turning a profit. By 1888, the company managed to have North Borneo declared a British protectorate, which was vital if the Dents were going to pull large profits out of the land.
The Dent brothers expand their mini empire and inflict horrific damage on native population
The small territory expanded through further treaties with the Sultan. Aided by the British government, the Dents managed to put down rampant pirating, brought in thousands of Chinese labourers and established permanent settlements. Timber, tobacco, and rubber plantations formed the backbone of the new economy.
By the 1890s it was a successful and lucrative company. So successful, the British government placed Labuan under its protection. I’ve read a few history bits about the era and they all seem to gloss over issues, stating it was quite peaceful, with the British administration ushering in an era of stability and prosperity. Reading minutes from Parliamentary proceedings shows a darker side to this.
As late as 1929, the British government was still defending the use of forced labour because it wasn’t “DeFacto slavery”. There were accusations the local population were forced to surrender a child to work as forced labour on the plantations. The mass influx of foreign labour and onerous taxes added further stresses. There were several uprisings, including a 6-year fight between 1894 -1900 and later another in 1915. So, it may have been peaceful as far as the colonial rulers were concerned, but not for the native population.
Hansard’s website (the record of British Parliament proceedings) is a rich source of information on North Borneo. Questions ran the gamut of mundane inquiries about day-to-day operations to accusations of forced labour, opium taxation, treatment of the local population and more. The most illuminating was an interesting exchange about the Royal Charter and issues arising from granting so much power to a private enterprise ( Hansards: BRITISH NORTH BORNEO COMPANY (CHARTER). —OBSERVATIONS. HL Deb 13 March 1882 vol 267 cc708-24) The discussion is a show case of British Imperialism at its height.
The company continued to control the area until the Japanese invasion in 1941. The end of WW2 saw the beginning of the end of chartered companies acting as governments agents. Their time was over. The Borneo Company couldn’t afford to rebuild North Borneo after the devastating occupation and sold its rights to the British government and the land became an official British colony and later absorbed into Malaysia.
Nice history lesson but what about the stamps
North Borneo State issued some of the most striking stamps of the 1890s. Both topic matter and engravings are exquisite. Waterlow & Sons excelled with this series. According to the venerable Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth & Empire Stamps 1840-1952, this series (issued between 1892-1920) saw a few perf variations to watch for, caused by “irregularities of the pins, rather than different perforators”. For a collector, this offers a variations bonanza.
The first pictorial series of 1894
This set of 9 stamps are a bargain for used collectors. Lots of variations and cancels to hunt for. The set includes:
- 1c Dyak Chief,
- 2c Sambar stag (also listed in some catalogues as the Malay stag)
- 3c Sago Palm
- 5c Great Argus Pheasant
- 6c Arms of the Company
- 8c Malay Dhow
- 12c Estuarine Crocodile
- 18c Mount Kinabalu
- 24c Arms of the Company with Supporters
With the numerous perf variations, this collection alone is enough to keep you busy for quite a while. Beware of canceled to order (CTO) stamps. There was a cottage industry in North Borneo selling them off in bulk by the government. But if you simply want to add them to your collection, it’s a good way to get some inexpensive and beautiful stamps.
The Great Argus Pheasant is, arguably the most distinctive in the set:
The stamp was based on a drawing by Victorian adventuress Baroness Brassey (7 October 1839 – 14 September 1887). I tried to find a copy of her illustration but haven’t managed to. If I find it, I’ll update the article.
Proof of Argus pheasant stamp
This proof for an Argus pheasant stamp caught my eye a while back:
Note the different colour. This is up for sale over at Stanley Gibbons Market Place for a cool $1,690.58 (Cdn) so, no, it’s not part of my collection.
More North Borneo stamps
Mint, used, variations – all worth pursuing. I’ve met collectors who dismiss the used because of the CTOs, but don’t let that discourage you. Get what you can afford, what you love and then enjoy them. The history is rich to explore as well. If you want decent information on these stamps Stanley Gibbons offers the best info on variations. I use the Commonwealth & Empire Stamps 184-1952 extensively when researching colonial stamps.
NOTE: Minor editing and addition of proper alt tags and headers + major addition of new details about Brassey and images added Jan 20, 221