Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Specialized Catalogue Review for PAKISTAN, BANGLADESH, BURMA & SRI LANKA

Region : South Asia (ex-modern India)
Catalogue Title : Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth Stamp Catalogue : Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan & Sri Lanka, 3th ed
Publisher : Stanley Gibbons LTD, Ringwood, UK (2015)
Format : Soft Cover, 234 pages, 170mmx240mm, color illustrations
Breakdown of Page Length By Nation
  • Bangladesh – 44 pages
  • Burma – 7 pages
  • Pakistan – 76 pages
  • Sri Lanka/Ceylon – 99 pages
Language of Text : English

For collectors of South Asia, Gibbons remains the authority of record for most. This extends not only to the issues of the colonial era, but also to the post-colonial states that came into being after the withdrawal of British hegemony in the region in 1947-1948. This catalog represent the philatelic issues of those regions of South Asia that were either neither part of the British Raj (Ceylon, colonial Burma after 1937) or the successor states to the Raj other than India that remained in the Commonwealth of Nations (Pakistan, Bangladesh and post-colonial Ceylon/Sri Lanka, which was NEVER part of the Raj administration during the philatelic era). I will deal with the volume covering Raj and post-Raj India in a future post.

As good as the SG catalogue is for this region, the catalogue does have a couple weakenesses, part of which are due to editorial decisions made by Gibbons, others due more to the interest of Western
philatelists as a whole.

Review Of The Catalogue and Comparison with Scott

While not the largest of catalogues, as with all other volumes in the Commonwealth series the amount of information crammed into this catalogue is immense. For purposes of this review, I am going to split the discussion along national lines


Created in wake of the Pakistani civil war of 1971, the philatelic issues of Bangladesh are fairly straight-forward and presented as such in the Gibbons catalogue. Not a huge amount of difference with the coverage in the Scott general stamp catalogue, just a few additional varieties here and there.

One issue that neither Gibbons nor Scott deal with are the numerous provisional overprints that were produced in liberated areas of Bangladesh during the course of and immediate aftermath of the civil war and Indian military intervention. I find this area fascinating as a record of the dramatic political upheaval of the time and had hoped that Gibbons at least would provide a bit of information as to what was produced, but alas the only mention in Gibbons, as in Scott, is an introductory note.

Note in Gibbons regarding Bangladesh provisionals

One can argue that given the provisional nature of these overprints it would be very challenging for a catalogue like Gibbons to sort out legitimate versus philatelic-inspired productions. In the end though, I think this really represents a degree of myopia among collectors overall, who tend to focus more towards the issues of the classical era at the expense of further study of varieties and special issues of the post-1945 era. This is an issue I will return to shortly, but I think it bears keeping in mind that especially for non-Western nations, coverage of varieties within modern (post-1945) issues tends to be somewhat less thorough that the coverage of pre-1945 issues. And this, in large part, is due to what has been a lack of research on these issues by dedicated philatelists outside a small number within the nation concerned. Hopefully as philately becomes more popular in non-Western societies as economic conditions create a new class that has the resources to engage in hobbies, this dearth of information can be rectified.


Gibbons coverage of Burma in this catalogue illustrates one of my issues with how Gibbons organizes its catalogues. I understand very well that the catalogues are dedicated to the issues of the Commonwealth and their imperial colonial predecessors. However, I really do not like the fact that for those nations, such as Burma, which decided NOT to remain in the Commonwealth after independence was granted, coverage in the Commonwealth catalogues is halted and the post-independence issues are placed in a separate catalogue. Thus, for collectors of Burma, one will need to purchase TWO catalogues in the Gibbons line rather than one to have complete coverage (**or at least that is my belief, it may be that the colonial era issues are covered in Gibbons Southeast Asia volume to the same degree they are in the Commonwealth series of catalogues.)

Having said that, one has to say that when it comes to the colonial era, no catalogue holds a catalogue to the degree of listings that Gibbons has for Burma. Even the Scott Specialized 1840-1940 catalogue is less than thorough.

Gibbons listings for Burma at end of colonial era

And this thoroughness extends to the issues of the Japanese occupation of Burma during the Second World War, where the listings in the Scott Speciailized catalogue seem very basic in comparison.


Gibbons vs Scott Specialized listings for Burma under Japanese occupation

If you restrict your interest to the colonial era, then the coverage of Burma in this catalogue is EXCELLENT. However, those who want information on the post-colonial era will need to source the Gibbons Southeast Asia catalogue.


Much like its coverage of Bangladesh, Gibbons coverage of the issues of Pakistan tend to be, to a degree, uneven. Much like what would happen in Bangladesh in 1971, at the time of Partition in 1947 postal official in those areas which would become Pakistan produced numerous provisional overprints, many of which were on an ad-hoc basis as supplies of the centrally-produced Pakistan overprints either ran out or were delayed in transit or lost in the social upheaval that would tear much of the Pakistan-India border apart. Again though, Gibbons (as well as Scott) only provide a note, with Gibbons noting that while the issues are “of philatelic interest,” they “lay beyond the scope of the catalogue”.

With the establishment of a more stable situation in Pakistan, the early years would see the production of some gorgeous issues, including definitive issues with a good number of varieties of perforations and shades. Gibbons does a great job listing these, providing yet again more depth than what Scott provides in its general catalogue.

Gibbons vs Scott listings of the early issues of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, this deeper coverage of varieties that starts off well in Gibbons with the issues of the 1950s and 1960s is not maintained in terms of coverage for later definitive issues. This is really not a fault of Gibbons per-se. Western collectors have in general not focused much philatelic research on printing varieties of series, especially definitive series, produced by developing nations after the late 1960s. In part this is due to a lack of information from the Post Offices themselves, which were trying to gain the ability to produce their own postage stamps locally and learning to master the new technolgies that Western postal administrations spent much of the 1960s trying to master.

Another factor that has limited our understanding of printing varieties in modern issues from developing nations has been the reality that the philatelic communities in these nations post-independence have tended to be small, and to a degree more interested in the philately of the colonial era rather than the present day. This trend has been changing since the early 1990s, however. Increased wealth in some nations has created new middle classes with an income to spare on hobbies and an interest in the philatelic history of their nations post-colonial era.

Gibbons listing of the 1980s fort definitives vs Siddiqui's specialized online listing

One can see the difference when one compares Gibbons to the listings in a catalogue from the nation in question. For example, the Pakistan Fort definitives in the late 1980s in Gibbons and from the online philatelic catalgoue pakistanphilately.com (an online version of a catalogue produced by AI Siddiqui and previously published in hard copy in Pakistan). Siddiqui also provides information regarding print runs, value of First Day Cover (in Pakistani Rupees) and more. 

My hope is that with the greater interconnection of collectors around the world possible via the internet, more research into the printing varieties of series produced by developing nations will become available and, in the course of time, receive listings in the main Western catalogues such as the Gibbons Commonwealth Specialized.

Ceylon-Sri Lanka

Of the four nations covered in this catalogue, the best coverage is provided for Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972). Having remained a member of the Commonwealth, all of its issues to the present are listed, and the coverage of colonial era Ceylon is very, very in-depth. Comparing the listings in Gibbons for the later George V definitives with Scott's coverage of the same issues in the Classic Specialized is to a degree akin to comparing apples and oranges. Scott clearly has some catching-up to do in regards to Ceylon if it wants its Classic Specialized to be a true rival to Gibbons.

Gibbons vs Scott Specialized coverage of Ceylon George V issues, advantage Gibbons

Gibbons and Scott are to a degree more comparable when it comes to the the post-independence issues of Ceylon and, later Sri Lanka. Gibbons does list some varieties in the 1950s definitives that Scott does not, but overall the two catalogues compare well. Sri Lanka after 1972 seems not to have produced as much in the way of varieties on different series, in particular definitive series, that can be seen in Pakistan. In part this may be due to most of Sri Lanka's stamps being produced in other nations, but I do have a bit of a suspicion that again there may not have been a lot of research done on these definitive issues to create a full picture of the printing changes many of the longer-running definitive series quite likely had.

Ceylon and Sri Lanka back of the book stamps in Gibbons, nowhere to be seen in Scott (as of 2015).

And to serve as the exclamation point in terms of the depth of coverage Gibbons does provide for Ceylon/Sri Lanka, it includes back of the book material for both eras that are not included in either the 2012 Scott General catalogue or the 2015 Scott Specialized. From colonial Ceylon telegraph stamps to Sri Lanka postal-fiscals from the 1980s and 1990s, the Gibbons catalogue listings provide an additional element for the collector to add to their collections of this fascinating island that collectors dependent on the Scott catalogues would not really know existed.


For many collectors, interest in South Asian philately has for a long time been focused on the colonial era, with independence in 1947-1948 usually seen as the end point and the issues post-1948 as more the realm of topical collectors and the packet trade. Yet over the past couple decades that view has changed as South Asia has gone through an economic growth spurt. Most are familiar with India's transformation, and already this is having an impact on the value of post-colonial issues, especially those of the immediate post-independence years. Similar economic transformations have been ocurring in the other areas of South Asia, from Islamabad to Dacca and down to Colombo. To me, South Asia represents a very interesting philatelic frontier, with much philatelic research still possible in understanding some of the longer-running definitive issues and the challenges of adapting new printing technologies to keep up with demand for postage stamps from consumers.

To a degree then the Gibbons catalogue represents a good introduction point to these issues. But it must be kept in mind that in some respects, Gibbons is still not the complete authority all eras of philately in this region, the post-colonial era in particular. Pakistan and India both have locally produced specialized catalogues, and as the research of AI Siddiqui and others on the pakistanphilately.com website illustrates, there is a growing body of philatelic research coming from the region regarding not just contemporary postal issues, but new interpretations regarding colonial-era postal issues.