Dr Sohail Ansar iPublished January 30, 2022 –
Even back in the 13th century, there was some form of postal deliveries in India. The earliest reference to an official postal system in India was made in the 14th century by the famed Arab traveller and historian Ibn Baah, who noted the organised official service of mounted couriers and runners.
There were ‘horse runners’ for speedy deliveries and there were foot runners called ‘Harkara’ who were the mainstay of the postal service. As one can imagine, the task of laying out a communication network was difficult as well as dangerous, travelling through the forests amidst the wild animals. Thus, postal services were not accessible to the common people and were expensive in the early centuries.
The network of post relays with changing horses at caravan sarais (inns) was established by the emperor Sher Shah Suri in the early 16th century. The Mughals, particularly Akbar, organised the system to improve the postal service, through horse couriers between Agra and Kabul, and camels for the deserts, thus setting up regular routes for mail delivery and improved access between areas.
In 1688, the East India Company introduced the system of postal hubs in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, such that all the mail would be brought to those hubs, where it was sorted out in different bags according to the destination. These bags were secured with company seals, which only the postal chiefs at different places were allowed to open.
In 1766, an official post was re-established by Major-General Lord Robert Clive to serve a new ruling power. The British colonial administrator, Warren Hastings, made it available for use for the general public in 1774.
Karachi has a unique place in the postal history of the Subcontinent. In many ways, it led the way forward for the mail system in the region
Further reforms in 1774 meant the postal rates were determined by the weight and distance of the post. The fee charged was two aanas per 100 miles. Copper tokens were minted as a way of payment.
The Indian Post Office was established in 1837. The Post Office Act of 1837 provided the Governor-General of India exclusive rights of conveying letters by post within the territories of the East India Company, thereby granting Imperial post a monopoly. In 1850, four post offices were set up in Sindh — in Sukkur, Shikarpur, Hyderabad and Karachi.
One of the tasks for Sir Henry Bartle Frere, on taking over as the Chief Commissioner of Sindh in 1850, was to modernise and reform the postal system. The very first Indian stamps were introduced in Karachi under the auspices of the Scinde Dawk. The efficiency improved when, in 1851, runners were replaced by horses and camels that followed the planned and established routes. Mail was now carried quickly and efficiently, connecting government offices and post offices between Karachi, Hyderabad, Shikarpur and Sukkur. The common person could use the facility now, which included doorstep delivery of letters.
In 1688, the East India Company introduced the system of postal hubs in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, such that all the mail would be brought to those hubs, where it was sorted out in different bags according to the destination.
Asia’s first-ever stamp issued from Karachi
The Postmaster of Karachi, Edward Lees Coffey, helped design the first postage stamps of India. These prepaid stamps were issued on July 1, 1852. Before the introduction of the stamps, postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, who could decline to accept the post.
The post stamp introduced standard rates, and served as a marker of pre-payment. It bore the Merchant’s Mark of the East India Company, embossed on wafers of circular red sealing wax impressed on paper, valued at one-half anna. The design on the stamps depicted a heart-shaped device divided into three segments, each containing one of the letters E.I.C. of the East India Company. Below this was the value: ½ anna. The whole design was further enclosed in a circular belt with the the inscription “Scinde district dawk”, in capital letters.
India, thus, became the 10th country in the world, and the first in Asia, to issue postage stamps. These were the world’s first circular stamps. They came cheap and had a uniform rate. Thus, a hallmark in the history of postage was initiated from Karachi.
Not satisfied with the local printing, Sir Bartle Frere sent the design to England and asked for the stamps to be printed in blue. In 1852, the Postmaster General of Karachi received 10,000 stamps. These orders were repeated till almost 50,000 of them were in circulation. Thereafter, a fresh order was placed in England for blue-embossed stamps.
By the time these stamps arrived, another order was issued in September 1854 that the Scinde Dawk stamps should be withdrawn because stamps were being introduced on an all-India basis. However, the withdrawal order was not fully implemented, as the Scinde Dawk stamps, which remained in use for almost two years from July 1, 1852 to September 30, 1854, were still being used in 1856.
In June 1856, the then Director-General of the Posts, India, received a letter addressed to him which had the Scinde Dawk stamps affixed on it. He immediately took notice of the situation, and the collector of Karachi destroyed the balance stock.
A new post office for Karachi
The first All India Stamp was issued in October 1854 by Captain H.L. Thuillier, deputy surveyor-general of the survey office, Calcutta. It had a denomination value of ½ anna and had Queen Victoria’s head on it. Railway mail service was brought in, and sea mail service was introduced from India to Great Britain and China in the same year. The Telegraph and Post Office of Karachi was designed by Captain P. Phelps and built on McLeod Road in 1866, at the cost of 20,500 rupees.
As the postal service evolved, faster routes were explored and airmail started. On January 23, 1920, the Royal Air Force commenced a weekly Karachi-Bombay airmail service. That was the first airmail service in India. It was reported 102 years ago:
“Karachi, January 23 — Punctually, at 2 o’clock today, two aeroplanes carrying the first postal mail from Karachi to Bombay started from Mugger Pir aerodrome, a mild south-western wind blowing. But the planes, after manoeuvring, appeared to enter a calm zone at about 10,000 feet. Great interest was taken in the event in the locality and the citizens, representing all races and classes, drove out in vehicles. The flight, according to the planned air route, covers 700 miles. Before the start, the Hon’ble H.M. Commissioner in Sind, who accompanied by his Private Secretary, wished the airmen bon voyage, and among the passengers was Mr. Lupton, C.B.E., Editor of the “Daily Gazette” Karachi, who on the invitation of His Excellency the Governor of Bombay was making the flight. The mail was carried in twelve cases and took the place of bombs carried on war service. The machines, as they moved across the ground, were ‘farewelled’ by visitors from Karachi and by the detachment of the 97th R.A.F. Squadron.”
Those operations, however, were terminated in six weeks because of heavy losses. It only resumed years later, in March 1929, when Imperial Airways commenced operations in Karachi for services to India.
Communications, since, have advanced far with electronic media. But, still, Karachi is credited with these revolutionary events in history.
The writer is a consultant physician at Southend University Hospital, Essex, UK
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 30th, 2022