“Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper” by Andrew Otis

Hicky's Bengal Gazette, 10 March 1781 (University of Heidelberg archives, via Hicky's Bengal Gazette, 10 March 1781 (University of Heidelberg archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

Asia has a long history of the printing and dissemination of news. In his book on origins of modern journalism in India, Andrew Otis mentions bulletins published by the Chinese, handbills by the Japanese and newsletters distributed by runners. Ever since the introduction of the printing press in India in the 16th century by the Portuguese Jesuits, the European colonists and missionaries used the technology to print their newsletters. Irishman James Augustus Hicky is significant in this flow of events:


Despite this long history of printing in Asia, Hicky was the first to found a newspaper, something that was printed on a regular basis and intended to convey information. He was part of a greater struggle for Enlightenment ideals of inalienable rights, ending taxation without representation, and the freedom of the Press.

The story of James Augustus Hicky will haunt and inspire journalists the world over.

Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper, Andrew Otis (Westland, May 2018)
Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper, Andrew Otis (Westland, May 2018)

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper is a gripping story of 18th century Calcutta politics and the fate of those who became infamous because of a newspaper. It contains an episode that resonates well with the current state of journalism, at least in India.

Hicky survived by doing odd jobs as a clerk, and an apprentice to a lawyer, surgeon and a printer, before setting out for India. He came to Calcutta in 1772 as a subaltern, among those at the lowest of the European social order in the colonies. After having failed in trade, Hicky set up a printing press and began to print the updated regulations for the army and the British East India Company. While his business relations with the Company deteriorated, Hicky got close enough to its officials to understand how corrupt the bureaucrats could get. When he could not recover money from the Company for his printing services, he decided to do something much more useful. He founded Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper, not just in India but in Asia. Very little has been written about him; what little is available is extreme in terms of judgment:


History has long misrepresented the founder of India’s first newspaper. Scholars during the British imperial era characterised Hicky as a rogue and scoundrel, a man who undermined the British Empire. Some recent historians have gone too far in the other direction, claiming Hicky’s newspaper was a ‘gem of journalism’, unmatched and unparalleled. Some errors have compounded over time into serious mistakes. Modern historians have misspelled Hicky’s name, or gotten basic facts wrong. Some have incorrectly stated that he was deported from India. Others have misstated his place of birth. Yet others have included fanciful, wholly imaginative drawings of him.


Otis’s story of Hicky and his newspaper intends to:


call for further interpretation of Hicky. He saw himself as the voice of the poor and those of lower status. He also articulated that the means of imperialism must match the ends, that the East India Company should not launch wars of conquest. Perhaps this is why, for centuries, he was dismissed as a scoundrel. British imperial historians, mired in class-based attitudes, focused on his interest in scandal, ignoring that he was concerned with more serious issues, such as questioning the moral right of Britain to an empire.

Hicky’s gradually began to see himself as the “Scourge to Tyrannical Villains”.

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette lived for a brief, if eventful, span from 1780-1782. Hicky began it with the agenda of liberating people from the need to narrate or describe the events themselves. Now, they could attach clippings from his newspaper in the letters they were writing to family and friends, near and far. It was also an “advertiser”: it could carry advertisements farther than the city hoardings could. There were items related to world news, politics, and opinion letters too.

Warren Hastings, governor-general of India from 1772 to 1785 (by Johan Joseph Zoffany, in the Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons)
Warren Hastings, governor-general of India from 1772 to 1785 (by Johan Joseph Zoffany, in the Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hicky began to understand the extent and the power of his readership and reach when his reportage on the famine and a fire accident in Calcutta caught public attention and people began to offer help. A law was passed to collect a tax that could be used to take care of the public roads. Hicky got bolder and began to publish articles about graft in the army and the corrupt ways of the Company officials, including the Governor General Lord Warren Hastings. A priest sent by Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge had been embezzling money, a junior official confided in Hicky.

Hicky’s attacks on Hastings and Johann Zacharias Kiernander, the Swedish missionary working in India, began to increase. While Hicky’s earlier vision was to stay away from politics, he gradually began to see himself as the “Scourge to Tyrannical Villains”:


The Liberty of the Press is of such infinite consequence, that if the constitution was overturned, and the people involved in an object State of Slavery, a Man of Spirit with a FREE PRESS might soon restore the one, and redeem the other, and without it the bravest People on Earth, cannot long preserve their rights and Liberties.


Here is Hicky’s call for a revolution:


To the Inhabitants of Bengal, Countrymen and Friends …
I will not wrong either your Understandings or your feelings, by supposing you ignorant of, or insensible to, the oppression which now prevails; but I wish to inspire you with something more – to expose to you the weakness and inferiority of your oppressors. To lay before you your own comparative greatness, and to display to you your Power …
Calcutta: Old Court House and Writers Building (1786), from a plat, by Thomas Daniell, 1786 (cf Wikimedia Commons)
Calcutta: Old Court House and Writers Building (1786), from a plat, by Thomas Daniell, 1786 (cf Wikimedia Commons)

Otis’s six years of research included  the several court cases that Hastings and Kiernander slapped Hicky with. Among these were the liberties Hicky took in conflating the personal and the political sides of the people he covered in the paper. That intertwining led to scandals. In one instance, he wrote that Hastings was suffering from erectile dysfunction:


It is reported that the Great Mogul [Hastings], is seized with a fit of Dispondency and Political despair, and that the Faculty are of opinion his Perneal Spring is out of order.


Another time, he wrote that Kiernander was under the influence of “filthy lucre and detestable avarice.” The court convicted him for some and acquitted him for some others. But he was hounded once again for Hastings sued him once again for the charges he was acquitted for.

Hicky defended himself:


If there had been papers in praise of Mr Hastings or of another certain gentleman in the settlement, I should have inserted them with great pleasure.


But the court found it all far too arrogant. Hicky retorted: “Everything a poor man says is insolence.” He was speaking truth to the power that believed that the Press was a means to intimidate people.

There was no escape. None of his sources came forward to support him or to prove that what he had published was based, to a great extent, on evidence. Hicky was jailed for more than two years. He became penniless. His family suffered the consequences too, living in the jail with him. He petitioned:


I am immured in a loathsome prison for life, for all patriotism and public spirit is fled from this quarter of the globe … Here, after a confinement of upwards of two years, I am doomed to terminate my miserable existence, gradually sinking with a broken heart to the grave.


In showing the antipathy with which the Company treated Hicky, Otis evokes a mix of pity, fear, and disgust. The history that he narrates with great sensitivity to detail did not end well for anybody. Hastings and Kiernander could not recover from the scandal. They won the cases, but felt convicted socially. In spite of being in the prison, Hicky continued to publish whatever scoop he managed to get hold of. Fuming at his persistence, the court eventually shut his paper down. Hicky’s paper was shut down soon. However:


In those two years, he had uncovered corruption in the East India Company, challenged the tyranny of a despotic government, and exposed embezzlement in the Christian Church. He had fought for the freedom of the Press against a company eager to eliminate dissent, and against a missionary eager to profit under the facade of faith. He had defied both the Church and the State, and had demonstrated the power of the Press to protect the people and to expose tyranny, injustice and corruption.

Prosecutions against journalists continue even today.

Otis’s study throws light on the course of events that followed from several angles. William Duane, a founder and editor of a later newspaper, was similarly prosecuted. Several other brilliant journalists were to follow. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was among them. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru used newspapers to spread and strengthen the spirit of freedom struggle and reform of Indian society. There have been countless cases of prosecutions against journalists which continue even today. Otis concludes by pointing towards the contemporary situation:


India’s press is only partially free. Interference in editorial content from government and large media owners, online censorship, legal actions, threats from nationalist organisations, and an increase in killings of journalists make for a worrying reality… Hicky is an example of the importance of standing for liberty and free speech. He sacrificed everything to defend the freedom of the Press: his ambitions, his person, and his paper. As he so frequently discussed in his Gazette, where the Press is free, the people are free; where the Press is oppressed, the people are oppressed; and when the Press is gone, the people are no longer protected.


The story of James Augustus Hicky will haunt and inspire journalists the world over.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.