The first stamp to be introduced in India, and in fact Asia, was the Scinde Dawk, introduced by the British in 1852. The name combined ‘Scinde’ a colonial British spelling of the province of Sindh and ‘Dawk’ after Dak, a local Indian name for postage. So why was the stamp first introduced in Sindh, instead of Calcutta, the capital of the British India? The answer lies in a complex web of geopolitics, economics and the opium trade.
In the 18th century, Sindh was ruled by a collection of Baluchi chiefs known as the Amirs of Sindh. These chiefs had repulsed many attacks by the Sikh armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and were keen on maintaining their independence from the British. However, this was the era of the ‘Great Game’ where the British and the Russians were vying for power in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The British were very keen to control the Indus river so that the Russian threat could be checked. The Russians could have easily entered British India, through Afghanistan and Sindh.
Apart from this strategic reason, there was also a very cynical economic reason. Hardly mentioned in history books covering the period, JY Wong, from the University of Sydney, in his research paper ‘British Annexation of Sind in 1843: An Economic Perspective’ reveals how the roots of the annexation of Sindh, lay in the opium trade. In the 19th century, India’s lucrative opium trade with China was dominated by the Bengal and Malwa opium, which were competing with each other.
Much to British annoyance, the Malwa opium was grown in Indian princely states and shipped to China through Sindh, thereby causing a loss of revenue to the British. A conquest of Sindh would mean that the British could divert the shipping to their port in Bombay, thereby earning themselves hefty customs revenue.
Sir Charles Napier, after invading Sindh in 1843 felt guilty about the conquest
Thus, despite the Amirs of Sindh having being extremely friendly, the British army under Sir Charles Napier invaded Sindh in 1843. Interestingly, even Napier felt guilty about this. As he wrote later in his diary -
‘We have no right to seize Sindh yet we shall do so and a very useful humane piece of rascality it will be. My present position, however, is not to my liking’
After defeating the Sindhi armies at the battles of Miani and Dobo, the British annexed Sindh in 1843. Ironically, the British themselves felt guilty about this blatant land grab. Sir Charles Napier, after the battle, sent a single word telegram to Lord Ellenborough ‘Peccavi’ - which was Latin for ‘I have sinned’, a reference to his act.
Nevertheless, now that the deed was done and Sindh was firmly part of the British dominion, the British got down to the complicated task of administering this newly conquered land. Sindh under the Amirs had been a poor, backward land. To ensure that an efficient administration was in place and to of course fulfil their colonial objectives, a capable administrator Sir Henry Bartle Frere was appointed as the Chief Commissioner of Sindh in 1850. He abolished slavery, built road and canals and also promoted the Sindhi language.
Scinde Dawk, the first stamp of Asia was introduced in Sindh by Sir Bartle Frere
Frere’s biggest contribution however was in revolutionising the postal service with the introduction of a postal stamp. This was a first in Asia and the 10th in the world. Before the introduction of stamps, postage was originally paid by the receiver of the letter. There was no guarantee that the receiver would accept the post. Given this a stamp was critical. It was a marker that a particular post had already been paid for. The first adhesive postage stamp in the world, was the ‘Penny Black’, introduced in Britain in 1840, three years before the conquest of Sindh.
Now Bartle Frere decided to introduce a postage stamp system in Sindh, a first in India as well as in Asia. It was called the ‘Scinde Dawk’ and it was meant to increase administrative efficiency in this newly conquered province. A network of roads was created through the Indus valley linking post offices at Karachi, to Hyderabad (in Sindh) all the way up to Sukkur in the north . This was to ensure that the British administration had complete control over the province.
The shape of the embossed Scinde Dawk was circular. The stamp bore a heart shape in the middle with the letters EIC standing for East India Company and along with it was the value of the stamp, ½ anna. The entire design was within a circular belt, which contained the inscription ‘SCINDE DISTRICT DAWK’.
The Scinde Dawk stamps were issued in three stages with a little improvement each time. The first to be issued was the one in red in 1852. The red Scinde Dawks were found too brittle for postage use so a new type was introduced, which was slightly thicker. However, the new black and white stamp were found unsuitable for postal use. The new and final set, was issued and it was deep blue in colour.
The, Scinde Dawk however was in use only till 1854. From then on, new postage stamps bearing a profile of Queen Victoria were put to use across British India.
The Flora fountain in Mumbai, was constructed in honor of Sir Bartle Frere
Meanwhile, with the British - Baluchi treaties of 1876, the frontiers of the empire moved to Baluchistan and Sindh lost its strategic importance. Sir Bartle Frere went on to have a distinguished career as the Governor of Bombay. It was during his tenure that Bombay grew as a city. He demolished the city walls and improved the civic infrastructure of the city. The Flora fountain, in Mumbai, was constructed in honor of Sir Bartle Frere, then the Governor of Bombay and named after the Greek goddess Flora, a Roman Goddess of spring . It was also he, as the Governor of Bombay, who released funds for the establishment of the Deccan College in Pune.
Today, the Scinde Dawks, are extremely rare and so highly prized by collectors. Recently, in an auction in Mumbai, on 2nd December 2017, one of the blue Scinde Dawk was sold for Rs. 3,20,000.
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