To a philatelist, the early postal history of a country is more important than its political history. Most specialised collections have a volume or two showing this important period – comprising early covers, hand-struck stamps, postal notices, material from the pre-stamp era, etc.

India is very rich in material of this kind and provides an immense scope for research to an ardent student of early Indian postal history. As early as 1296AD, the historian Ziauddin Barani recorded a postal service in India, describing the horse and foot postal organisation of the Pathan ruler, Alauddin Khilji.

Later, in 1341, Ibn Battuta, an oriental traveller, also commented on the existence of a postal service under Mohammed Bin Tughlak. In The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians Sir Henry Miers Elliot recorded a similar establishment under Sikandar Lodi from 1488 to 1518. Further improvement to postal services in India was seen under Emperor Sher Shah (1540–45) and during the reign of Akbar (1566–1605) when Camels were employed along with the horses.

European influences Vasco de Gama was the first Portuguese explorer to land at Calicut in 1498 and by 1559 the Portuguese had established a strong foothold in India. By 1600, the French also began to arrive in India and the Danes settled in around 1620. The British formed the East India Company under Royal Charter in 1600 for trading purposes. British supremacy in the region prevailed, reducing the other nations’ interests to smaller pockets scattered around India.

It is believed that a priest, Father Thomas Stevens, was the first Englishman to arrive at Goa in 1579. His letter to his father (which brought the Merchant Adventurers in 1582) is the first recorded outgoing mail from India to England, while a letter from King James I to Emperor Jahangir at Agra in 1608 is reputed to be the first inward mail to the country.

In 1688, a full-fledged post office was set up in Bombay for the receipt and despatch of letters. In 1766 the British Colonial Administrator, Lord Clive, organised a regular postal service restricted to use by the Government and its employees. Later, in 1774, Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British India, reorganised the whole system and extended the facility to private citizens.

For the facility of paying the postage on letters, small copper tickets of 1a. and 2a. (2a. being the single rate for every 100 miles and 1a. for every additional 100 miles) were introduced exclusively for postal purposes under the Post Office Regulations Act 1774. A specimen of this copper ticket is also with the British Museum. These rare copper tickets thus became one of the first recorded instruments for the pre-payment of postage, even before the Penny Black of 1840.

One of the requirements of the re-organised postal service was that: ‘all letters shall be stamped with the day of the month on which they are delivered into any chief office’. As Britain played a predominant role in the development of the Indian postal system, it was only natural that the first postal marking, introduced in India in 1775, should follow that of the first British Bishop Mark. There are just four such letters which have survived with these marks, all of which passed through the Calcutta region.

Expanding postal routes

Mail between England and India were generally carried by ships owned by the East India Company, known as East Indiamen. These ships travelled by a circuitous route via the Cape of Good Hope, which consumed lot of time.

From 1826 onwards, the postal pioneer Thomas Waghorn started to form plans for a new overland mail route to England. The route from India ran via the Red Sea to Suez, overland through Egypt to the port of Alexandria and then onwards to England via Marseille and later Trieste, reducing the carriage time of mail by half.

Waghorn was appointed Deputy Agent of the East India Company on 14 June, 1837, and was responsible for the carriage of mails between Alexendria and Suez. He used special cachets for both Suez and Alexendria.