Malaya postage stamp colours and inks - Lin Yangchen
  • Malaya postage stamp colours and inks

©Lin Yangchen

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The coconut definitive observes a tradition as old as the postage stamp itself: that of issuing the unit denomination in black. Many other definitive issues have followed the example of the Penny Black of 1840 (left), such as the 1934 Hindenburg definitive issued by the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler, on swastika-watermarked paper (right). The tradition persisted despite the Penny Black itself being changed to red soon after it was released, so that more robust black postmarks could be used.

The black look is given a mutagenic transformation by printing it on green paper in the enthralling 50 cents, perhaps as a way to make it look expensive without having to use different colours for key and duty plates. But this made it prone to forgery.

Shades of a given denomination were prone to variation over the long production run of the coconut definitive, especially after the war. Pale shades (e.g. right) are thought to be casualties of cost-cutting ink dilution.

Both non-fluorescent (left) and fluorescent (right) inks were used for the post-war 10 cents, seen here under 365 nm longwave ultraviolet radiation (methodology). Exhibiting a characteristic “volcanic lava” fluorescence is mauveine, an aniline dye derived from coal tar. Discovered by 18-year-old William Henry Perkin in London in 1856, it was the world's first synthetic dye. Fluorescing in blue are the optical brighteners added to the paper during its production.

By the time of the post-war Malay state issues, monochrome values were generally printed using single plates. The 20 cents blue was an exception, having been printed in black and green previously. Occasionally the inks used for the key and duty plates were of slightly different shades (above). More examples can be seen in the BMA Malaya 1 cent black and 2 cents orange.

The true bicolours—high denominations—of the coconut definitive exhibit a kaleidoscope of colour combinations, some inherited from pre-war stamps of the Malay states. Like the tonal nuances and contrasts of orchestral instruments in a Beethoven symphony, they range from sombre to exuberant, feminine to masculine, subtle to brazen.

Blue-black and violet-blue-black.

The colour pairs are of varying proximities on the colour wheel from near-adjacent (above) to directly opposite (below). The left halves of the composite images show the “volcanic lava” ultraviolet fluorescence of mauveine.

The Christmas colours of the $2, an example of colours from opposite sides of the colour wheel, would be the only bicolour to remain unchanged throughout the reign of the coconut definitive.

The same colours are used for the $5, but the green paper makes it instantly recognizable as the top value. Faded vignette on the right (see below).

The prize, however, must go to the $1 tricolour. Inherited from earlier non-coconut definitives, the scheme has an eerie and psychedelic, almost radioactive, disposition unseen in any other denomination. On the right is an undocumented variant with a pale olive vignette. It is unlikely that the vignette has faded from the usual black ink, since black inks do not usually discolour in this way.

A mysterious copy of the $1 with a missing vignette was reported by Flowerdew (2002). The author has attempted to reproduce this by subjecting two separate copies of the olive vignette to several days' immersion in tap water and several hours' exposure to direct sunlight but to no visible effect. Perhaps chemical bleaching was responsible, such as with the benzene, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene and hydrogen peroxide sometimes used by philatelists to remove grease, reverse sulphuretting and treat other damage.


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