As indicated by its name, this country is located in the northern part of Borneo in the China Sea, bordering Brunei and Sarawak to the south-west and Indonesian Borneo in the south-east. This former British Protectorate, including the offshore island of Labuan, was administered by the British North Borneo (chartered) Company (BNBC) from 1881 until 1946 when Crown colony status was proclaimed.
The territory was renamed Sabah in 1963 when it became a state in the Malaysian Federation.
The first postage stamp issued in March 1883, was a 2c. brown printed in London by Blades, East & Blades.
This and subsequent issues featured the Company’s coat of arms. In June 1883 the need for additional values led to ‘eight cents’ surcharges in words on 2c. stamps from two different type fonts (2/3). Later in the year, they were supplemented with matching 4c., 8c. and larger-format 50c. and $1 denominations.
New printings of 2c., 4c. and 8c. values, plus additional ½c., 1c. and 10c. stamps were placed on sale in 1886. Soon after their release, ½c. and 10c. stamps were overprinted ‘and Revenue’. A requirement for more denominations was met with distinctly different 3c. on 4c. and 5c. on 8c. surcharges.
Many collectors were deterred from North Borneo due to a series of unethical schemes devised by the BNBC. Amongst them were surplus sheets, sometimes imperf (remainders), either mint or cancelled with barred ‘postmarks’, sold directly to dealers.
Large numbers of cancelled-to-order stamps, frequently found in auction sales of old collections, were prepared in the company’s London office using a hand-held device. They are listed by most catalogues (but not Stamps of the World) in a third column at much-reduced prices. Another dubious practise was the prolific release of surcharged stamps with little or no relevance to postal requirements.
Some were applied in London, whereas others produced locally in Sandakan were the source of frequent type font ‘errors’.
From 1886–87, existing stamps, plus additional 25c. and $2 denominations, were modified by adding ‘BRITISH’ to the country’s name. From 1888–92, ‘POSTAGE & REVENUE’ captions were introduced to lower values, including new 3c., 5c. and 6c. stamps.
Higher denominations redrawn to include the changed wording were supplemented with larger format $5 and $10 stamps.
Several questionable surcharges in different settings and various type fonts were applied to 4c., 5c., 8c., 10c. and 25c. stamps (51/65) from 1890–92.
Significant changes occurred in 1894 with a set of stunning engraved pictorials from 1c. to 24c. inscribed ‘State of North Borneo’. Images in two colours closely resemble ‘collector-oriented’ stamps from Mozambique and Nyassa which were administered by a Portuguese chartered company. These and the North Borneo stamps were printed by Waterlow & Sons. The revised name also appeared on the last $5–10 stamps to be printed by Blades, East & Blades.
Large numbers of $1 stamps (83) were overprinted in 1895 with 4c., 10c., 20c., 30c. and 40c. surcharges to meet postal needs. Whereas many provisional 4c. and 10c. stamps were legitimately used, it seems that philatelic sales were a major factor for most of the others. Frames were modified in 1897 to incorporate panels to show Chinese and Malay lettering. Additional 4c., 10c. and 16c. denominations were also printed. Colours on 2c. and 4c. stamps were initially reversed and then corrected in 1900. Whereas both 2c. colours (94/95) were placed on sale, full sheets of the original 4c. green (98) were only sold directly to dealers.
Design mistakes on stamps printed by Waterlow were unusual. However, incorrect ‘postal revenue’ (18c.) and missing ‘postage & revenue’ (24c.) inscriptions were this time, possibly the result of requests by BNBC to ‘hurry up’ the delivery date. This theory is reinforced by the astonishingly fast appearance of corrected replacement stamps (110/11).
In 1899 the Company authorised 4c. surcharges for surplus sheets of 12 denominations from 5c. to $10. The exercise, repeated in 1904 with another series of 4c. surcharges, this time applied locally with an alternative typeface, was unlikely to have met legitimate postal requirements, implying the scandalous scheme was clearly, yet again, aimed at the philatelic market.