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

previous section | next section | back to table of contents

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 Penny Black itself was changed to red soon after it was released, so that more robust black postmarks could be used. Yet the tradition of black stamps persisted.

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 the consequence of cost-cutting ink dilution. See BMA blues for a case study of post-war shade proliferation in the coconut definitive.

Brown has been found to be people's least favourite colour, but it naturally exudes a down-to-earth charm not felt in other colours. Brown was a remarkably consistent colour in the coconut definitive throughout its tenure, with only slight fluctuations. This suggests that the ink was very simple in composition, perhaps containing only a single pigment that was easy to mix. Most brown pigments contain iron (III) oxide as a major component.

Mauveine, an organic dye derived from coal tar, was discovered by 18-year-old William Henry Perkin in London in 1856. It was the world's first synthetic dye. In 1863, William De La Rue developed his own version, Azulin Purple (Young 2007). The stamps above, originally a similar shade, reveal the extent to which mauveine or related dyes can wash out. This class of dye has a well-known tendency to permeate through the back of the stamp.

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. Bicolours were not always appreciated though; the first such stamps in the US in 1869 were widely seen as garish at the time. The author himself has spoken to an individual who finds the bicolours jarring.

Blue and violet-blue. See BMA blues for the huge variety of blue shades.

Colour wheel mapped onto the coconut definitive.
Graphics: Lin Yangchen

The colour pairs are of varying proximities on the colour wheel from near-adjacent (above) to directly opposite ($5 below). The left halves of these composite images show the “volcanic lava” fluorescence of mauveine or a related dye under 365 nm longwave ultraviolet radiation (methodology). Fluorescing in blue are the optical brighteners added to the paper during its production.

The prize, however, must go to the $1 tricolour (left). Inherited from earlier non-coconut definitives, the scheme has an eerie and psychedelic, almost radioactive, disposition unseen in any other denomination. Sadly, the blue paper did not survive the war (far right, BMA). In the middle is a variant with a pale olive vignette which has not been documented even in specialized catalogues. A similar "mutant" vignette exists on some 50-cent values in the same series. In lieu of chemical analysis, the author speculates that the greenish colour may be due to hydrated copper nitrate occuring as an impurity that becomes visible as the black pigment fades. This is known to happen in body tattoos. For a spectroscopic analysis of the red ink, see my case study of mercuric sulphide.

A mysterious copy of the $1 with a missing vignette was reported by Flowerdew (2002); a $5 in similar condition is shown above. The author suspects poor ink and/or bleaching by chemicals such as the benzene, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene and hydrogen peroxide sometimes used by philatelists to remove grease, reverse sulphuretting and treat other damage.


Analyzing the inks of the coconut definitives with a laser Raman microspectrometer.

previous section | next section | back to table of contents
Powered by SmugMug Log In