Excerpt: Hicky’s Bengal Gazette; The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper by Andrew Otis - Hindustan Times

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

Hindustan Times | ByAndrew Otis
Jun 01, 2018 09:56 PM IST

James Augustus Hicky’s ‘Bengal Gazette’ was India’s first newspaper. This excerpt, which features the chapter entitled ‘Open to All Parties, but Influenced by None’, presents Hicky’s character, interests and motivations

317pp, ₹899; Westland
317pp, ₹899; Westland

Open to all Parties, but Influenced by None

Calcutta has grown populous enough to support a Newspaper, of which I send you a specimen. In a little Time I conclude it will be as full of Scandal as the Morning Post. – Philip Francis to Andrew Ross, 12 February 1780.

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Saturday, 29 January 1780

Hicky’s Printing Office

It had been ninety years since Calcutta was founded and his was the first.

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was a sensation.

‘As a novelty every person read it, and was delighted.’ Hicky’s old lawyer, William Hickey, wrote.

People were happy to finally have a newspaper. Hicky tried to cover everything that might be important to Calcutta. He devoted many pages to politics, world news, and events in India. He encouraged people to write him letters and poems.

He tried to be witty and satirical. He gave nicknames to the city’s most colourful characters. One that stuck was ‘Nosey Jargon’, for the city’s surveyor and head of public works, Edward Tiretta. Tiretta, a talkative man who came from Italy and spoke an odd amalgam of English, French, Portuguese, and Hindustani, had a reputation for being flamboyant, minueting his handsome physique in crimson suits of rich velvet, even in the heat of summer. Hicky poked fun at Tiretta for being a ‘nosey jargon’— an overly inquisitive jabberer — and jabbed at Tiretta’s reputation, writing that Tiretta had a ‘happy Turn for Excavations and Diving into the Bottom of things’, a joke that Tiretta’s job as director of public works might also be a euphemism for his sexual orientation. These nicknames, and his light-hearted reporting, made his paper an entertaining read for many.

People were also glad that Hicky made their lives easier. They could enclose his newspaper to their friends and relatives instead of writing all the details of events in their letters. ‘As I propose sending you a regular supply of Calcutta Gazettes there can be no necessity to fill my letters with political information,’ one woman wrote to her sister in England.

Hicky saw his newspaper as a forum where people of many backgrounds could voice ideas for the betterment of society. As he promised, he avoided politics. And he refused to print any partisan letters. He once rejected one letter because it, ‘breathes strongly of faction’. He maintained neutrality, careful not to discuss anything controversial.

He wanted his paper to serve society, so the first topic he ventured into was city improvement. He published articles calling on the Company to invest more on infrastructure, road construction, and general sanitation, things the city lacked compared to its European peers. One of his correspondents, who lived near the Portuguese cemetery, urged the Company to regulate burials. The cemetery was overflowing, with over 400 bodies buried every year in shallow graves without coffins. The monsoon rains often exposed the corpses. Their decaying matter mixed with drinking tanks, poisoning the water and causing disease. ‘I [hope] thro’ the channel of your paper … to remove it,’ his correspondent wrote.

Another topic was road maintenance. One of his correspondents pressed the Company to repair and rebuild the city’s roads. Another wrote that the Company needed to clean up the ‘dead carcasses of animals putrefying in the streets’. While this correspondent was dismayed that animals were left to rot in the open, he was more shocked that the Company had not buried human corpses lying in the street. How ‘trivial is the shock’ of dead animals, the correspondent wrote, when ‘the miserable corpse[s] of our Fellow Creatures’ were lying naked on the streets.

As Hicky ventured into more topics, he touched upon the role that women should fill in society. Typical for his time, he and his writers supported the belief that men were superior to women.

His male writers opined that women should be chaste, faithful, and submissive. Their role was to satisfy and please their husbands. Their value was in how many children they could produce, and their responsibility was to preserve society’s moral values. One of his correspondents wrote:

A Good Wife I think Mr Hicky is one who ever mindfull of the Solemn Contract which she has entered into, is strictly and conscientiously virtuous, constant, and faithfull to her Husband; also chaste, pure and unblemished in every thought Word and Deed—She ought to be humble and modest from reason and conviction, submissive from choice, and obedient from inclination … [She must make] it her constant study to appear truly amiable in the Eyes of her Husband, being conscious that every thing which promotes his happiness, must in the End contribute to her own.

Hicky devoted many columns to quotes that women should be subservient, quoting sections from a book, Thoughts on the times but chiefly on the profligacy of our women, which argued that women should remain ‘modest’, ‘virtuous’ and be educated only for the pleasure of men. They should be taught only subjects like dancing, music and French. By reprinting many sections from this book, he spread the idea that education made women less sexually attractive, that it stripped them of their femininity, and that women’s biology made them intellectually inferior and unable to participate in serious male-only conversation.

While Hicky and his writers argued women should fill a restricted sexual role, they also sometimes applied restrictions to themselves. When he had extra space, Hicky reprinted sections from a 1772 book, The Fatal Consequences of Adultery, which argued it should be illegal for someone to marry the person they committed adultery with. ‘Our modern fine gentle men look upon this crime as a mere gallantry… But what honour can there be in that man, who violates the laws of friendship, the laws of his country, the laws of reason and the laws of God,’ he quoted. The book’s hope was to reduce adultery by reducing the incentive to commit it. Still, the burden fell hardest on women, who unlike men, would have to live with society’s judgment of their actions.

Hicky adapted his patriarchal stance to India. In particular, he focused on the profession of man-midwifery, a profession that had been newly introduced to Calcutta. In Europe, men had become midwives, displacing women from this traditional role. While in Europe there was some resistance to man midwives because they were believed to violate decency between men and women and could lead to improper lust, in India the resistance to man midwives was more complex. Not only were they thought to violate decency, they were seen as foreign invaders of Indian customs.

Hicky, who opposed man midwives because of patriarchy, joined Anglo-Indian women who opposed them because they were foreign. Into the debate, he printed a letter from his first female writer, a lower class Anglo-Indian woman known as Old Nell.

Despite his beliefs, Hicky published her article, allowing a woman into a male sphere at a time when women, most of all women of colour, were marginalised. For although his own views on women’s role in society may have differed from hers, he acted on his paper’s slogan to be open to all parties. He let her write despite her status, perhaps because she did not challenge his belief that a woman’s value was her womb.

Old Nell recalled passing the office of one European man midwife who set up shop in Black Town. She could not imagine the man midwife getting any business as the only people who walked by were Anglo-Indians, Muslims, or Hindus. Few could read English anyway, so they would have little idea what man midwife meant. ‘Therefore I say Mr Hicky, the man must be mistaken and might as well have wrote up Man-Monster to the Ignorant crowd that pass,’ she wrote.

Old Nell was the daughter of an Irish man and an Indian woman. Unlike many other poor Anglo-Indian women, she was literate. Her father had taught her how to read and write. Yet she was unable or unwilling to take advantage of her education. She lived as a farmer, growing root vegetables. She was proud of her work. Every morning she picked vegetables and every day she sold them at the market. Her daily routine and diet of nutritious foods like congee and curries kept her healthy.

She revealed that her lifestyle kept her in better health than European women. She claimed that if they exercised like her then they would have no need for a man midwife, or any midwife at all. They could give birth naturally. ‘Nature will always act her part, if not prevented by luxury and Indolence,’ she wrote. She said her diet, lifestyle, and education would allow her to rear healthier children than any European woman; she could produce six healthy sons even if her skin was not as white as a European’s. And in that, she said, she was equal to any woman, white or otherwise.

You must know Mr Hicky, my Husband is a Gardner, I am therefore up at Day break plucking my Roots, and washing them for Market, from whence I return generally by Nine, but some times sooner, Eat a hearty breakfast (not of Ship Slop Tea) but good Congee, after which I attend to the domestic affairs of our little Cottage, whilst my Husband is Ploughing, and working in the Grounds. Our Dinner is generally made of wholesome Curries, or the Poultry of our Yard, and Congee again serves us for supper. Thus we enjoy sound and perfect health, and I will venture to affirm, that I can turn out, six as fine Choping Boys and Girls, as any in the Parish, and without the assistance of a Man-Mid-wife.

And tho’ my Skin is not so white as your fine Ladies, it is as plump, and as sleek as the best of them.

Old Nell

Another contradiction of Hicky’s reporting was that while he printed articles arguing that women should be chaste, he also printed articles supporting women’s right to control their own sexuality. Perhaps shocking his more prudish readers, he printed one topic more taboo than others: female masturbation. Hicky cared little about norms which considered female masturbation a selfish pleasure that degraded a woman’s purity and lowered society’s honour.

The front page of India’s first newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, on 28 April, 1781.
The front page of India’s first newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, on 28 April, 1781.

Hicky reported a conversation between two women, one of whom was engaged to a man nicknamed Jack Hydrocele, because of rumours that he had a hydrocele, a testicular deformity that could inhibit sex. When the woman was asked if the rumours about her future husband were true, she said yes, her future husband did have a hydrocele. Her friend said she was sorry for her, for without a man she would not be able to get sexual pleasure.

‘For, to tell you the truth, you might as well be Married to your maid as to [him],’ she said.

To her friend’s shock, the woman said she could very well cater for herself.

I shall take the liberty to follow the example of the sensible and fashionable part of my Sex particularly in catering for myself, and in laughing at those Squeamish and vulgar creatures who may have the impertinence to blame me for doing myself Natural justice.

She did not care what other people said about her. She could do herself justice, so to speak.

Instead of shaming her, Hicky mocked those who criticised her. He noted that her other suitors had retired to a brothel to ‘procure a sort of half oblivion of that imaginary happiness which they think Jack Hydrocele is in possession of’.

Hicky was also unusual for reporting on the poor and lower classes. He expressed a level of class consciousness well before his time, shaped and developed by his background as a subaltern and his experience in debtors’ prison.

He printed an article from a Company officer at the Gwalior Fort. The army was reorganising the fort to make it more defensible, hiring labourers to do the work. The officer wrote to Hicky that he had spotted a girl, about age ten, and could not stop staring at her. There was something about her appearance, her ‘sweetness of countenance’, that made him want to learn more about her. He told his hircarrah to find out where the girl lived and who her parents were.

The next morning the girl’s mother came to his house. She told him that she had always been poor, that her husband had died and that she had earned a living making wool but was now too old to work and had to rely on her daughter. He was shocked that they could survive on three paisa, or 3/64 of a rupee, a day. He asked if he could see her daughter, taking out a bag of 100 rupees and giving some to her. ‘Wah wah; Burrah Sahib hai!’ Wow wow, you are a great man! the woman cried. She had never seen so much money in her life. He suggested they come and live with him. They could have all the money they wanted, he promised. But the mother grew suspicious. She asked why a foreigner like him would want two Indian women to live with him.

He was embarrassed by his offer and said that he had a wife and children down the river and they could live with them instead. He thought his offer was an act of charity that would free them from a life of hard labour.

But Hicky reported that his charity was not wanted. Moreover, he was viewed with suspicion. The mother came back an hour later and threw the money back at him, saying the only reason that white men gave money to little girls was for bad intentions. She said she would rather kill her daughter with her own hands than have her become a slave to any man, and that his story of having a wife was all a dirty lie.

Her reply shocked him. After they left, he fell deep into thought. He found himself surprised that such a woman, so poor and destitute, least of all a heathen, could have such honour and courage to refuse him. She did not have the education, refinement, nor enlightened ideals of his fellow Europeans. He had a revelation. It was not enlightenment ideals or Christianity that made people good or bad. A person’s religion did not matter, nor their education or social class. Anyone from any background, man or woman, could be good and righteous.

Why said I should we value ourselves for our Education, or Religion when we find such sentiments in these poor ignorant Heathens? Where will you find such instances of virtue with us, under such temptations for vice? Blush Oh ye people of a more enlighten’d age, Nation and manners, blush for your depravity. Come here and see … what innate Natural Honour is, let the stoics and Philosophers tell me to eternity that there is no such thing as innate principles, that they are all the effects of Education. I tell 74 them, I’ll prove to them that it is false, here was native honour unsullied by Indolence and luxury, unadorn’d by Education, and unsupported or protected by any thing.

He never saw the mother and child again. He wanted to say that he was not ashamed nor meant them dishonour or harm. This was a fact that he was not afraid to share to the whole world via Hicky’s newspaper.

I would give 1000 Rupees this moment that they were with [me], but that’s now impossible, for I have made every enquiry in my power, and can hear Nothing of them, they are removed I suppose to some other place. I’m sorry for it, for I wish’d them both well, and still do, nor have I a thought concerning either, that I would be asham’d to expose to the whole World.

The conclusion Hicky let people draw was that goodness did not come from class, education, or modernity. Goodness was innate. Indian women were not inferior to their European counterparts.

But his article still treated Indians as noble savages. Their goodness came from the fact that they were pure and untouched by the corruption of the modern era. He implied that Indians lived simple lives with simple thoughts in simple times. Hicky may have seen Indians as having the potential to be equal, but throughout his writing, he often did not describe them as actually his equals.

Despite this disconnect, Hicky did not write solely about Europeans. By reporting the tragedies and happinesses of both European and the Bengali poor, he covered the news that others might have passed over. For example, he reported a miraculous story of how one woman survived to give birth amid a great fire. He covered the demise of a palm sap picker who fell to his death from a coconut tree. He reported boats that overturned in the Hooghly and the commoners who drowned. He reported the violence of British sailors who seized men in punch houses to force them into the navy. In bringing stories like these to light, he saw himself as servant to society, covering topics of which many would have been ignorant.

At some points, he went a step further. His support of the poor could turn into criticism of the rich. When one Bengali chief drove over a poor man in his chariot and killed him on the spot, Hicky exposed how the chief covered up the murder. Instead of murder charges going to the Supreme Court, the chief paid off the deceased’s wife and children; they needed money to survive. ‘The matter we hear has been hushed up for twenty Rupees,’ Hicky reported.

Old Fort Ghat in Calcutta on the Hooghly River, werhe most new European arraivals would have landed. Painted by Thomas Daniell and published in Views of Calcutta (1786).
Old Fort Ghat in Calcutta on the Hooghly River, werhe most new European arraivals would have landed. Painted by Thomas Daniell and published in Views of Calcutta (1786).

Hicky covered one issue that affected the poor more than any other: Calcutta’s terrifying fires. Because many poor Bengalis used grass from the Hooghly to thatch their roofs, fires broke out frequently and rapidly, often burning down thousands of houses at a time. Months of extreme heat during the dry season and Calcutta’s narrow roads and unpaved streets made it tough to control these fires.

In March, Calcutta was hit by one of the greatest of these fires ever. Every house, from Bow Bazar in the city’s north to Colinga in the east, went up in flames. ‘The dreadful havoc the late fire has made amongst the poor Bengalis is almost incredible,’ Hicky wrote. Above fifteen thousand straw houses stood gutted. One hundred and ninety died, ‘burned and suffocated by the smoak and flames’, he reported. In one house, sixteen people were burnt alive. In another, five men went in at different times to save two women and a child, but all were suffocated. Women ran to place their babies in Lal Dighi, the city’s main source of drinking water. Looters took advantage of the chaos, burglarising homes. The destruction was so bad that old residents said it was the worst fire in a lifetime.

Thousands were left homeless, with no food, water, or clothing. Even Hicky was affected. His bungalow and little out houses in his garden had been consumed. He called for action in his newspaper, asking the rich and powerful to give food, and more importantly, shelter and clothing. He insisted the Company do something to help.

To the Benevolent and Powerful.

Be it known that fifteen thousand Inhabitants of Calcutta are since the late Fires in extreme Distress, their small possessions having been consumed … but a more dreadful foe awaits them, lingering Diseases, exposed to the extremes of heat and cold, destitute of clothes and dwellings, to feed them may only prolong their misery: many of our Aged have laid down content to die and the Infants wailing in their Mothers bosoms increase the calamity beyond the power of language to describe … Ye Patrons of the Unfortunate, Exert your influence, clothe [them] and give them habitations.

Map of Calcutta, 1784-85 by William Baillie. Hicky lived on the bottom right of the map, in Colinga. His printing shop was at 67 Radha Bazar, near the centre.
Map of Calcutta, 1784-85 by William Baillie. Hicky lived on the bottom right of the map, in Colinga. His printing shop was at 67 Radha Bazar, near the centre.

Hicky soon discovered that he had influence. Many people, including Company servants, read his newspaper. After his articles on the putrefying carcasses in the streets, the police superintendent posted a notice in his paper asking where the dead were so they could be picked up. He got an even greater response to the fire. On June 26, after he published his call to action, the Supreme Council issued a proposal to forbid thatch houses within Calcutta, and to enact a 14.7 per cent property tax to repair the city’s roads. This proposal, called the Bye-Law, would later become a lightning rod for dissent because many saw it as illegal taxation without representation.

Slowly, Hicky began to change. He became more political as he saw the power his newspaper wielded. His friendships with other subalterns and his time trading in India likely convinced him to turn to politics. Bu allowing subalterns to advocate for their rights in his paper, he saw himself providing a public servie. But by dong so, he began to drift away from the neutrality he had earlier espoused. He changed his masthead to proclaim that his newspaper was ‘Open to all Parties, but influenced by None’—borrowing this slogan from Revolutionary American newspapers — to emphasise his independence, and to indicate he would be accepting more controversial topics.

The first of these topics was war. At first, Hicky supported British wars, in particular the fight against the American Revolutionaries. He hewed to the party line that the American colonists should submit to British authority and that their rebellion was sedition. In one poem — a common way of expressing political beliefs at the time — he accused the Americans of rebelling because they were too selfish to pay taxes. He compared the Americans to frogs and predicted that their joy would turn to sorrow when they learned their ally, the French king, was no friend of democracy, but planned to conquer America after the revolution was over. In the end, he predicted the Americans would be eaten like frogs by the French stork-king.

Rejoice, Americans, rejoice!

Praise ye the Lord with heart and voice;

The treaty’s sign’d with faithful France,

And now like Frenchmen, sing and dance!

But when your Joy gives way to reason

And friendly hints are not deemed treason

Let me as well as I am able,

Present your Congress with a fable.

Tired out with happiness, the frogs

Sedition croak’d thro’ all their bogs

And then to Jove the restless race,

Made out their melancholy case …

None but ourselves are fit to rule us:

We are too large, too free a nation,

To be incumber’d with taxation.

We pray for peace but wish confusion

Then right or wrong a revolution! …

The Stork grew hungry, long’d for fish!

The monarch could not have his wish

In rage he to the marshes flies;

And made a meal of his allies;

Then grew so fond of well-fed frogs

He made a larder of the bogs!

Say, Yankies, don’t you feel compunction,

At your unnatural, rash conjunction?

Can love for you in him take root,

Who’s Catholic and absolute?

I’ll tell these croakers how he’ll treat ‘em!

Frenchmen, like Storks, love frog, to eat ‘em.

There were pressing issues he felt he could not avoid. He slowly began to criticise corruption in the Company. But he was careful to criticise only those who were far away from Calcutta. He made sure to restrain his attacks to a person and a place both mentally and physically distant from Calcutta: the Governor of Madras, Sir Thomas Rumbold, who had been recalled to England to answer charges in front of Parliament. Hicky sarcastically wrote that Rumbold was a ‘great man’ for ‘only’ amassing a fortune of about £600,000 while in India, much of it from bribes and extortion. For now, this was Hicky’s only mention of corruption.

Hicky began to air long-standing grievances about pay and promotion. The subalterns who had fought in the Rohilla War seven years ago felt betrayed and deceived that they had never received prize money. Many were convinced both the Company’s directors and Parliament wanted to wash their hands off Hastings’ war. No politician in England wished to be seen condoning an immoral war.

Hicky printed the subalterns’ letters, hoping that publicity would resolve their grievances. He published a letter from an officer who had served in the war, and who had seen one of his veterans at Calcutta’s Old Fort. The officer asked the veteran if the young girl by his side was his daughter. The veteran replied she was not. She was the daughter of his comrade who had been killed in the war. He was taking care of her now, he explained:

Your Honour knows I have been too long in India to have a Child so young as her. But [she] is the Orphan of my old Comrade Thomas Beck, Corporal in the file that was hacked down just on our left. He never rightly recovered but died a little after you left us. As your Honour knew him to be a good Man and got him made a Serjant, had he lived he would have saved something for his Poor Child. When on his death Bed Grasping my Hand [he] said ‘George you loved me: Love my Child as well, and she will not miss her father.’

The veteran continued, with tears in his eyes, that if he had gotten prize money he could provide better for his comrade’s daughter. Other troops in more recent conflicts had gotten prize money, but he had not. He said he was deceived. He was now certain he had fought for a bad cause and that was why he was being punished.

May you Sir never know the loss of a Friend — Poor Tom! All he had he gave, in his Knap Sack was found a few Shafts of Linen and this Breast Buckle, tho’ I have no occasion for that to remind me of him, while this little one is exactly like him lives. I am fonder of her then I could be of my own. I have got his Will by which he left me his Prize Money.—Ah! Your Honour, we have been cruelly deceived. I am sure you was too, as you believed those fine promises true or, you would not have caused them to be read at the Head of the Company. I begin now to think true what a number of people then used to say. That we were fighting in a bad Cause, or else why should those who took the ships; and Chandernagore, get prize Money and we not? … It is our duty to obey and we were told they were our Enemies. Such a sum as mine and Tom’s would be of great service to me.

Hicky also used his newspaper to criticise the army’s promotion system. Promotion was tediously slow. It could often take a decade for a cadet to be promoted. Moreover, the Company army had fewer officers per solider than the British army, especially at the higher ranks, meaning there were fewer promotion opportunities for every cadet. Furthermore, while the Company army promoted by seniority, in reality, the well-connected and rich could subvert the system by returning to England to wait their turn for promotion. Poor subalterns learned with dismay that the system was corrupted by connections and money.

In July, Hicky published a letter from a cadet who grumbled that he stood little more chance of being promoted now than he had when he had enlisted a decade earlier. He did not know what to do, other than to write to Hicky and hope that the publicity might cause change.

It is a disagreeable reflexion, Sir, for a young Man like me … to think, that I am likely to remain in this Schorching, unhealthy Climate for 12 or 14 Years and unless I have interest at the fountain head … have the most valuable part of my life spent, and my health destroy’d in the service … and at the same time see many inferior Officers, return to their native Countries in affluence… Oh ye in power think of this, and let some kind of equal distribution take place.


A poor Cadet.

Hicky covered not just the European soldiers, he also covered the Indian sepoys who fought at the bottom of the Company’s ranks. When lightning struck the military base at Kanpur in June, it set off a fire that destroyed much of the camp. The sepoys suffered the most. Their pay was already months behind, forcing them to borrow money to buy supplies. Now much of what they owned was destroyed. ‘The poor black Troops have suffered much by it and their situation is now truelly miserable … they are always kept three Months in Arrears, so that being obliged to borrow from mercenary usurers at an exorbitant Interest for their daily subsistence, it reduces their pay to a very small Pittance indeed,’ wrote one of his correspondents.

Hicky turned against the war as death tolls mounted. The biggest turning point was the horrific Battle of Pollilur, when the king of Mysore, Hyder Ali, and his 90,000-man army ambushed one of the Company armies. The Company commander formed his force in a hollow square and frantically wrote for help. But it all was for naught. A rocket hit one of his ammunition wagons and ripped a hole in his line. The Mysorean cavalry charged in and the square collapsed.

The battle became butchery as the Company army was wiped off the map. Over 3,000 out of the 5,700 soldiers were killed. It was the single biggest British military defeat in India in a generation. After the battle, the British commander was strapped to a canon and forced to watch as the severed heads of his fellow officers were paraded before him. The youngest soldiers were dressed as women for their captors’ entertainment. Three hundred were forcibly circumcised. The survivors were marched naked or semi-naked into dungeons and fed a diet of toxic rice until they slowly died.

The battle shocked Hicky and his belief that the British were superior to any enemy in India. As reports filtered in over the next few months, he learned just how disastrous the battle was, and how incompetent the Company generals had been. The chief of the Company forces in South India, Hector Munro, stood only four miles away and ignored repeated requests for help. Instead of coming to their aid, he dumped all his artillery into local lakes and fled. To make matters worse, after the battle, Hyder Ali besieged most of South India and cut Madras from any supplies.

The battle made Hicky question why the British were fighting in India. The casualties made the war seem pointless, and he accused the Company of squandering their soldiers’ lives. ‘More Europeans have been ignominiously Sacrificed in the late ill concerted and disgraceful Campaigns,’ he wrote, ‘than were lost … in … the whole of the last War.’

He began to question whether his fellow British were good, and Indians bad. When Hyder Ali’s army captured Arcot, it was thought they massacred anyone they found. Hicky reported a much different reality. He reported that Hyder had actually escorted the captured Company troops to friendly territory, let them write letters home, and even had his own hircarrahs deliver their letters. ‘How noble and General like was this act,’ Hicky wrote. ‘How much we wrong the Infidels of those remote and savage Nations, when we suppose them capable of acting a more base part than we do ourselves.’ Where Hicky once saw only a rapacious warlord, he now saw a complex leader, capable of the same humanity as his fellow British.

With ever-increasing scepticism, he used his paper to report on the war’s humanitarian tragedy. As Hyder laid waste to the countryside with fire and sword, thousands of people came flooding into Madras. Mothers walked with infants at their breasts. Fathers lead their families on foot. The city was full to the brink. ‘The houses and streets of that place are now so full that they can scarcely find rooms to lay themselves down,’ he wrote.

Author Andrew Otis (Courtesy Westland)
Author Andrew Otis (Courtesy Westland)

He reported the terrible effects of war. The price of rice shot up thirty times. Famine came next. ‘The poor Natives near that place are all starving,’ he wrote. People were ‘Dying even at the warehouse doors — Everyday numbers perish in this manner, 5 women with infants in their arms waiting for their turn dropt down dead with hunger’. The human horrors were almost too much to bear, and he saw it as his duty to point them out.

His war coverage gained him an international audience. Many British newspapers like the London Courant, London Chronicle, Public Advertiser, British Evening Post, and the Lady’s Magazine reprinted his news, often verbatim. So did many monthly and yearly journals. His news even reached America, where newspapers like the New Jersey Gazette and Providence Gazette were quick to reprint British defeats. His paper also reached non-English speaking audiences. French journals like the Journal Politique and the Mercure de France translated his articles about British battles in India. Even the German Politisches Journal summarised his reporting. Many other journals, whose records no longer exist, likely also reprinted his news. As the only newspaper in Asia, his gazette became an important source of information.

During these months, Hicky had made his newspaper an independent voice for reform. But his increasing scepticism also made him more willing to question those in power and to break cultural norms. He saw his mission to tell the truth: open to all parties, but influenced by none. He spotlighted the subalterns that occupied the lower rungs of society, shut out from patronage and prestige. And he gave them the means to express their complaints. All he could hope for was that those in power would respond.

But his success meant that others saw a good business opportunity. And, an event was about to come that would make it easier for any competitor with the right connections to challenge him.

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