The Straits Settlements (نݢري٢ سلت — Negeri-negeri Selat in Malay or 叻嶼呷/海峽殖民地in Chinese) were a group of British territories located in Southeast Asia. Originally established in 1826 as part of the territories controlled by the British East India Company, the Straits Settlements came under direct British control as a Crown colony on April 1, 1867. The colony was dissolved in 1946 as part of the British reorganization of its Southeast Asian dependencies following the end of the Second World War.
The Straits Settlements originally consisted of the four individual settlements of Malacca, Dinding, Penang and Singapore.* The Penang territory included Penang Island, formerly known as Prince of Wales Island, and Seberang Perai on the mainland, formerly known as Province Wellesley. Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands were also included. The island of Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, was also incorporated into the colony with effect from January 1, 1907, becoming a separate settlement within it in 1912. Most of the territories now form part of Malaysia, from which Singapore separated in 1965. The Cocos (or Keeling) Islands were transferred to Australian control in 1955. Christmas Island was transferred in 1958. Their administration was combined in 1996 to form the Australian Indian Ocean Territories.
The establishment of the Straits Settlements followed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, by which the Malay archipelago was divided into a British zone in the north and a Dutch zone in the south. This resulted in the exchange of the British settlement of Bencoolen (on Sumatra) for the Dutch colony of Malacca and undisputed control of Singapore. The Settlements were largely Chinese in population, with a tiny but important European minority. Their capital was moved from Penang to Singapore in 1832. Their scattered nature proved to be difficult and, after the company lost its monopoly in the china trade in 1833, expensive to administer.
In the early nineteenth century, the most common currency used in the East Indies was the Spanish dollar, including issues both from Spain and from the new world Spanish colonies, most significantly Mexico. Locally issued coinages included the Kelantan and Trengganu keping, and the Penang dollar. In 1837, the Indian rupee was made the sole official currency in the Straits Settlements, as it was administered as part of India.
Spanish dollars continued to circulate and 1845 saw the introduction of coinage for the Straits Settlements using a system of 100 cents = 1 Straits dollar, with the dollar equal to the Spanish dollar or Mexican peso.
Mail was originally handled privately by passing ships; the earliest known postal markings date from around 1806, used by a post office on Prince of Wales Island (now Penang). Service was regularized by the Indian Post Office Act of 1837, by which the East India Company was granted a monopoly of the mail services. All private vessels were required to carry letters at prescribed rates for postage. Handstamps were applied to preadhesive ship letters. Postage stamps of India were used from 1854, the Settlements being considered part of the “Bengal circle”, then from 1861 they became part of the “Burma circle”. The cancellations used were B109 at Malacca, B147 at Penang, and B172 at Singapore.
During their control by the East India Company, the Settlements were used as penal settlements for Indian civilian and military prisoners, earning them the title of the “Botany Bays of India”. The years 1852 and 1853 saw minor uprisings by convicts in Singapore and Penang. Upset with East India Company rule, in 1857 the European population of the Settlements sent a petition to the British Parliament asking for direct rule; but the idea was overtaken by events — the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
When a “Gagging Act” was imposed to prevent the uprising in India spreading, the Settlements’ press reacted with anger, classing it as something that subverted “every principle of liberty and free discussion”. As there was little or no vernacular press in the Settlements, such an act seemed irrelevant: it was rarely enforced and ended in less than a year.
On April 1, 1867, the Settlements became a British Crown colony, making the Settlements answerable directly to the Colonial Office in London instead of the government of British India based in Calcutta, British India. Earlier, on February 4, 1867, Letters Patent had granted the Settlements a colonial constitution. This allocated much power to the Settlements’ Governor, who administered the colony of the Straits Settlements with the aid of an Executive Council, composed wholly of official (i.e., ex-officio) members, and a Legislative Council, composed partly of official and partly of nominated members, of which the former had a narrow permanent majority. The work of administration, both in the colony and in the Federated Malay States, was carried on by means of a civil service whose members were recruited by competitive examination held annually in London.
The dollar was made the standard currency based on 96 cents to a silver dollar. Penang and Malacca were administered, directly under the governor, by resident councilors.
Beginning on September 1, 1867, nine types in the existing stocks of Indian stamps were overprinted with a crown and a new value in cents. Stamps printed by Thomas de la Rue & Company Ltd. for the Settlements began arriving in December; they are notable for a prominent white frame around the profile of Victoria, inscribed STRAITS SETTLEMENTS POSTAGE. The set of nine values, 2 cents to 96 cents, appeared gradually, with the 30 cent value not being issued until 1872.
Shortages from 1879 through 1882 forced the production of various surcharged stamp, until new 5 cent and 10 cent stamps arrived in January 1882. This was not the end of difficulties, and additional surcharges appeared regularly until the end of the century. In 1892, key plate stamps went on sale, a number of them printed in two colors. A notable feature of this issue is the $5 stamp issued in 1898. The accession of King Edward VII necessitated new stamps in 1902, still in a key plate design, supplemented in 1903 with a design using oval vignette.
The Dindings (now known as Manjung), which included Pangkor Island as well as the towns of Lumut, and Sitiawan on the mainland, were ceded by Perak to the British government under the Pangkor Treaty of 1874. Hopes that its excellent natural harbor would prove to be valuable were doomed to disappointment, and the territory sparsely inhabited and altogether unimportant both politically and financially, was returned to and administered by the government of Perak in February 1935.
Province Wellesley, on the mainland opposite the island of Penang, was ceded to Great Britain in 1800 by the Sultan of Kedah, on its northern and eastern border; Perak lies to the south. The boundary with Kedah was rectified by treaty with Siam (now Thailand) in 1867. It was administered by a district officer, with some assistants, answering to the resident councilor of Penang. Province Wellesley consisted, for the most part, of fertile plain, thickly populated by Malays, and occupied in some parts by sugar-planters and others engaged in similar agricultural industries and employing Chinese and Tamil labor. About a tenth of the whole area was covered by low hills with thick jungle. Large quantities of rice were grown by the Malay inhabitants, and between October and February there was snipe-shooting in the paddy fields. A railway from Butterworth, opposite Penang, runs into Perak, and thence via Selangor and Negri Sembilan to Malacca, with an extension via Muar under the rule of the sultan of Johor, and through the last-named state to Johor Bharu, opposite the island of Singapore.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands (which were settled and once owned by a Scottish family named Clunies-Ross) and Christmas Island, formerly attached to Ceylon, were in 1886 transferred to the care of the government of the Straits Settlements in Singapore along with the addition of Labuan in 1907.
In 1907, the remainder of the stamps of Labuan were overprinted STRAITS SETTLEMENTS, some with new denominations, and in 1910 new large-format stamps appeared with values of $25 and $500 (although available for postage, their more usual use was fiscal). George V replaced his father on stamps beginning in 1912, reusing the frames and replacing only the vignettes. These stamps were overprinted in 1922 to mark the Malaya-Borneo Exhibition. The Straits Settlements also joined in the Silver Jubilee for George V in 1935. The last issue of the Straits Settlements was for George VI beginning in 1937. The first cancelling machine was supplied in 1914, probably a Robertson machine from New Zealand.
The governor of the Straits Settlements was also High Commissioner for the Federated Malay States on the peninsula, for British North Borneo, the sultanate of Brunei and Sarawak in Borneo. Since the administration of the colony of Labuan, which for a period was vested in the British North Borneo Company, was resumed by the British government he was also governor of Labuan. British residents controlled the native states of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang, but on July 1, 1896, when the federation of these states was effected, a resident-general, responsible to the (governor as) high commissioner, was placed in supreme charge of all the British protectorates in the peninsula.
During World War II, the Japanese invaded Malaya and the Straits Settlements by landing on Kelantan on December 8, 1941. On December 16, Penang became the first Straits Settlement to fall into Japanese hands. Malacca fell on January 15 and Singapore fell on February 15, following the Battle of Singapore. The Straits Settlements, along with the rest of the Malay Peninsula, remained under Japanese occupation until the August 1945.
In March 1942, Japan issued stamps for their occupation, made by overprinting existing stamps with Japanese inscriptions. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the British military administration issued provisionals by overprinting Straits Settlements stamps with BMA / MALAYA. These were available throughout Malaya, and used till regular postage stamps were produced for each state, the last being Kelantan in 1951.
After the war, the colony was dissolved with effect from April 1, 1946, with Singapore becoming a separate Crown colony (and ultimately an independent republic), while Penang and Malacca joined the new Malayan Union (a predecessor of modern-day Malaysia). Labuan was briefly annexed to Singapore, before being attached to the new colony of British North Borneo.
Scott #15, 24 cents green (or blue green in the Stanley Gibbons catalogue) was printed by Thomas de la Rue & Co. using typography on paper watermarked with a Crown CC. perforated 14. and first sold starting in December 1867.
*Please see the individual colonies’ blog articles for more details on their general and postal histories.