While there have been many accounts of the beginning of print in the Indian subcontinent, the enigmatic figure of James Augustus Hicky, the editor of India’s first newspaper, has eluded sustained scholarly attention. The popular perception of Hicky has been that of an irascible Irishman who repeatedly tilted with the redoubtable Warren Hastings and got thrown into jail for his pains. Beyond that, what we know of the journalist is lost in the potpourri of scandal, gossip and intrigue that marked the period characterized by Partha Chatterjee as the ‘black hole of empire’.
‘History has long misrepresented the founder of India’s first newspaper’, writes Andrew Otis in his preface to the story of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. Part of the reason for this is the state of archives relating to Hicky’s time. Otis’s wry preface will ring familiar to anyone trying to access archives in South Asian depositories—the delays, red-tapism and the occasional stroke of luck. Nevertheless, Otis was able to get his hands on two crucial bodies of sources—the papers of Justice John Hyde, deposited with the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta and now happily digitized; and the archives of the Calcutta High Court dispersed over six locations. Out of these and other sources, Otis has been able to tell Hicky’s story in a refreshingly engaging style. From the dramatic prologue in which a broken old man lay dying in a ship called Ajax, the story of India’s first modern journalist moves at a cracking pace.
Hicky arrived in Calcutta in 1772 as a surgeon’s mate, hoping to shake the pagoda-tree which had made so many of his countrymen rich beyond measure. But there were also others who had been ruined beyond measure, and the unfortunate Hicky would fall into this second category. When his namesake William Hickey arrived in Calcutta in 1777 to start a career in law, one of his first trips was to the common jail in response to a begging letter by a fellow Irishman. This was Hicky (without an e) who had failed in a succession of business ventures and had been committed to gaol for his debts.
Hickey the lawyer managed to get Hicky the printer out of jail, and in 1780, Hicky the newspaper editor was born. From the very beginning, Hicky conducted his newspaper along fearless lines, pulling no punches. The punches landed on two men in particular. One was Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of British India; the other was Johann Zacharias Kiernander, a missionary sent to India by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. It was in 1778 that Hastings decided to embark on a Maratha campaign, leading to a bitter falling-out with his colleague on the governing council Philip Francis, and culminating in a famous duel in the Belvedere grounds three years later.
But it was Hicky who took the first pot-shots at Hastings, castigating him for the conduct of the Maratha wars and the rising death toll. Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was a four-page affair, published every Saturday and priced at Re 1. It was a mixture of news, opinions, and advertisements. The 9-16 December 1780 issue, for instance, carried an advertisement from Hicky himself: ‘To be SOLD. A FINE Coffre Boy that understands the Business of a Butler, Kismutdar and Cooking. Price four hundred Sicca Rupees.’ Besides, there were notices of auctions of everything from books to booze, and a customary poet’s corner. It was an immediate hit, and Otis gives us generous samplings of Hicky’s journalistic fare. As the paper gained in popularity, Hicky became more political, providing a platform for the Company’s subalterns to air their grievances. But it was his ‘war coverage’ that ‘gained him an international audience’, writes Otis, with publications as far afield as America reprinting his news.
Trouble, however, was in the offing. It first came in the shape of a rival newspaper launched by Messrs Messink and Reed in 1780, and with the blessings of the Governor-General who gave them free postage. This incensed Hicky who turned his guns on one of Hasting’s associates, one Simeon Droz. This was to be the beginning of Hicky’s unequal battle with the Governor-General, as the Irishman ‘started an anti-tyranny, anti-corruption and pro-free speech campaign using his newspaper as his platform.’ The missionary Kiernander, who had sold his press to Messink and Reed, also came into the firing line. As Hicky’s articles became progressively more incendiary, it was only a matter of time before retribution would begin to come his way.
One does not wish to give the whole story away, but there would be no fairytale ending with David slaying Goliath. Nevertheless, what Hicky had done would have far-reaching consequences for the freedom of press in India. The Gazette catalysed the birth of a clutch of newspapers in Calcutta, some government-sponsored, but the others not so. Their speculation on the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1798-99 led to the first imposition of press censorship in India, in the form of the Wellesley that banned, under the pain of deportation, any ‘licentious’ material pertaining to the East India Company. This succeeded in putting the lid on a free press in India for nearly two decades, but there was a case of Hicky redux when a free-thinking sailor called James Silk Buckingham launched the Calcutta Journal exactly two hundred years ago, in 1818. Buckingham received staunch support from Raja Rammohan Roy and carried translations of articles on social issues which appeared in the nascent Bengali-language press. This led to Buckingam falling foul of the authorities, and in 1823, he became the first journalist to be deported from India. This was also the year of the Press Regulation Act of 1823 which made licensing compulsory for periodicals and their printers. Otis reports briefly on the Buckingham-Rammohan association in his epilogue, leaving one hopeful that Buckingham may one day receive the same attention that Hicky, belatedly, has.
While Otis has structured the story of Hicky like a fast-moving political thriller, he has been scrupulous in indicating his sources. The last fifty pages of the book encompass a wealth of archival material deposited in London, Halle, Calcutta and Cambridge, including the voluminous Hyde papers which one hopes will be freely be available to researchers now that they have been digitized.