India's first newspaper
HICKY'S BENGAL GAZETTE
Tranquebar, Westland, Rs 899
This book takes a plunge into the story of the making of India’s first newspaper, writes GAUTAM MUKHERJEE
Does history repeat itself in the media, just as it does in politics and governance? What are the origins of India’s particularly vibrant freedom of the press? This delightful book from an American PhD scholar, Andrew Otis, at the University of Maryland Philip Merril College of Journalism, suggests it all began in the 1780s.
Otis researched this book in Delhi, Kolkata, Germany and England over a period of six years. He gained a unique perspective on the establishment of “Company Raj”, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and their imperial times. And 90 years after the establishment of the British in Calcutta, came India’s first newspaper. James Augustus Hicky was a “subaltern”, a poor Irishman out to make his mark in India. He could only afford to live in the “Black Town” of Calcutta, and not amongst the bungalows and gardens of the privileged. He was sent to common jail for being in debt, first for a failed trade, and the latter incarceration was for libel.
But throughout, once started in 1780, Hicky gave voice to the underdog with his newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or The Original Calcutta General Advertiser, which became an instant sensation. So much so, that Governor General Warren Hastings, moved quickly to try and limit its rapidly growing influence. The story of this short-lived but highly influential newspaper, and the dramatis personae of the time, is fascinatingly laid out in this book.
Hicky’s Gazette was priced at Re 1, expensive for the 1780s, but equivalent to newspapers in England then. It was printed weekly, four or five pages long- two or three of them containing news and opinion letters, and the other two featuring advertisements. The printing press was located at 67, Radha Bazar, Calcutta.
Competition from the establishment that Hicky targeted, came later in the same year. Backed by Hastings, the rival paper was circulated free and without postage via the Indian postal system.
The India Gazette, founded by Bernard Messink and Peter Reed, propounded British superiority, the viewpoint of the East India Company, and the upper-class. Its advertisements were from private boat rental companies, for hunting dogs, garden houses and dinner clubs. A popular and repeated advertisement was for the buying and shipping of diamonds “home to England”, presumably for corrupt Companymen, and some of their many contractors.
Hicky, convinced that the powers-that-be were out to ruin him, undertook a series of exposes. This earned him even more repression. Warren Hastings banned even the paid circulation of Hicky’s newspaper via the postal system, and ordered that mail that enclosed cuttings from it be stopped too.
This hurt Hicky’s profits and wider circulation, but made his paper more popular in Calcutta itself, where it was now distributed via runners or hircarrahs, and the number of his subscriptions there increased markedly.
Hicky’s Gazette was the anti-tyranny, anti-corruption, and pro-free speech campaigner of its time. People depended on it to spot and expose “malfeasance, fraud, abuse of power”. Hicky adapted and : “embraced notions of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that were coursing through Western Europe and America”. This tonality and content annoyed most high government functionaries, particularly because of Hicky’s relentless exposure of abuses of power in the government and judiciary, patronage as bribery, and rampant corruption in government contracts.
Hicky’s newspaper often also gave voice to the grievances of the common soldier both British and native, the Anglo-Indian, the injustices borne by ordinary people, the rapaciousness of the evangelical clergy involved in commerce rather than the harvesting of souls, the subversions practiced by a biddable judiciary, and the like. Hicky’s Gazette was also popular for its humorous pieces, satire, and human interest stories. Soon assassins, fortunately discovered in time, came for Hicky in the dark of the night. And Hicky, in turn, turned up the journalistic heat. He began suggesting, via anonymous articles using various pseudonyms like Cassius and Britannicus, that it was not a good idea to fight in expansionist wars initiated by Warren Hastings that sacrificed common soldiers for his “personal dreams of conquest”. This, and similar pieces took Hicky to the “edge of sedition”, especially when the articles printed in his paper, suggested mutiny, and the carrying out of a coup.
In consequence, Hicky was slapped with criminal charges of libel against both Hastings and a rich clergyman Kiernander, his bail being set at Rs 40,000, twice his annual income. This forced Hicky to stay in jail.
The newspaper continued however, with Hicky running it from inside the jail, now lampooning all his tormentors including those in the judiciary, with biting satire. After a tumultuous trial, the 24 member jury, many of them East India Company men themselves, returned a Not Guilty verdict. Otis sees this as a landmark judgement for the early “freedom of the press” in India.
There were multiple and separate trials with regard to the priest Kiernander and even sundry others Hicky had offended. Some of these trials returned indictments. In one mounted by Hastings, against Hicky’s paper urging soldiers to mutiny, he was sentenced to a year in jail with fines.
But all this railing at Warren Hastings’ tyranny and corruption had begun to have its effect back in Britain. This, even as the continuous litigation pauperized Hicky and closed down his paper, when his press too was seized in 1782. The litigation and adverse publicity also drove Kiernander into bankruptcy and penury in his old age.
Next came the karmic retribution for Hastings. The East India Company Act of 1784 put severe curbs on the powers of the Governor General and subordinated his actions to control from the Crown. Hastings decided to go home at this, after three decades in India. But, perhaps as a public relations gesture, not before asking the Supreme Court in India to forgive the rest of Hicky’s fines and let him go free.
Now it was Hastings’ turn to be put under the lash. Parliamentarian and political theorist, Edmund Burke, mounted a bid for his impeachment with twenty-two separate charges, in the House of Commons.
After eight years of gruelling parliamentary investigation, through both the House of Commons and Lords — in July 1795, Warren Hastings was eventually acquitted. But not before his reputation and fortune had been destroyed. Hicky died at sea aboard the ship Ajax en route to China in 1802. But clearly, he was not the only protagonist in this drama that ended his days in penury.
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