Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Lahad Datu cover

In a recent auction of a good collection of Lahad Datu covers and stamps, this 1928 cover was the only item I was successful in obtaining. It arrived in a more intact condition than I expected and surprise, surprise, there was an enclosed letter as well but in Dutch.
The front is graced by a 1925 12c stamp which was the correct foreign non imperial rate to Netherlands. It was cancelled by D8 which was one of the two largest LD postmarks in common with D10 measuring 31mm across. The back has the transit marking of Sandakan D22 and a small rectangle with "A.6", presumably applied in the Netherlands. I would have expected a transit postmark from Singapore as well.
The cover has the logo of the LD Cultural Society/Company. The Dutch word "Maatschappij" can also be interpreted as "company" as well as "society" depending upon the context it is being used. There was likely to be quite a few trading companies and plantations of Dutch origin in this area. Nearby Silam first came to prominence as an agricultural research garden experimenting with the growing of tobacco.
By 1928, probably the last prominent tobacco company left in North Borneo was the Dutch ran New Darvel Bay Tobacco Plantation based at Lahad Datu. Presumably, this cultural society/company had close links with this company either as an agent for its products or running plantations themselves.
The New Darvel Bay Tobacco Plantation was eventually wound up in 1930 with some of its lands taken over by the Imperial Tobacco Company but this also finally closed in 1960. The cavernous building where the tobacco leaf was processed still stands proud and intact as it was built of tough Belian hardwood.
I manage to get the letter translated by a friend. It was a letter from father to his young son comprising largely of small talk. He was due to travel to Shanghai soon and would send more letters.
Interestingly, there was a mention of Easter holidays. The father wrote that there were no such holidays where he was. He was only given two days free every month. This gives some idea as to the working conditions which would have been applied to the plantation workers as well in those days. They also had to get up very early to tend to their charges. Mortality and illness rates were very high bearing in mind that they were working in clearings out of virgin forest. A good account is found in the book by L W W Gudgeon.
Tobacco was the life blood of the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, being its first cash crop. It accounted for the majority of foreign exports and earnings at that stage. A change in the tariffs imposed by the USA on imports of tobacco eventually killed off the industry. Moreover, the tobacco grown was only suitable as the wrapper leaf for cigars. Production  and quality was also variable from year to year depending on local and climatic factors.

Update This LD cultural society/company was still in existence in 1950 having seen a similar cover dated Jan 1950. It was probably an entirely separate entity from the above said tobacco company. In 1926, it was dealing with rubber and coconut products. The above account has been amended accordingly.

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