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

Hindustan Times | By
Aug 31, 2018 09:04 PM IST

Andrew Otis’ book on Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, India’s first newspaper, fuses the biography of its remarkable editor with the biography of his time

317pp, Rs 899; Westland
317pp, Rs 899; Westland

Newspapers run on two fundamentals. The first is regularity. The second is the averaging out of conventionally-held opinions and its opposite – dissent. Newspapers also shape public opinion. Through them, the government tests its policies and citizens speak up, for or against them. Few have, however, created a public, given it the reporter’s pen and space so that they can directly call out the government, and question its legitimacy for the job.

This is what James Augustus Hicky, an Irishman who jumped ship to make his destiny and his fortune in 18th-century Calcutta, did. Launched in 1780, his Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was the beginning of India’s press. For his paper, the Indian sepoy and the poor European soldier sent news of their work conditions, pay disparities, the unfairness of the promotion systems and quite often, gossip.

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Sample what Hicky gives space to. Here are the details of a bill that one of Hastings’ commanders in Benaras presented to his superior charging him for food, lodging and damage to property, while at Chunar Fort:

“To dieting himself -- and Family for 33 days, Feeding Elephants, Camels, Horses, and Bullocks &c. &c. &c. Breaking of Tables, Chairs, Couches, Teapoys, Shades, Decanters, Bottles and Glassses…. Sicca Rupees, 42,000.” A lot of space was also devoted in Hicky’s paper to city news, women’s issues and anti-war reporting.

Hicky also trained printers who would go on to make Calcutta one of the centres of the bookselling trade. Hicky’s gazette inspired others to start their own papers. Ram Mohun Roy was one of the writers of the second Bengali newspaper, the Bengal Gazette, the name an obvious tribute to Hicky’s.

Andrew Otis’ Hicky’s Bengal Gazette The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper has marshaled all these aspects into a fine book. James Hicky gets a line in our history books; when he is lucky, he gets to be a quiz question. Despite the lack of material, Otis, an American researcher and a Fulbright scholar, has given us a portrait of a crucial time in Britain’s India history. The book also provides the context of Hicky’s unusual turns -- from an Irish subaltern willing to enter into commercial negotiations with the East India Company and quite ready to be the ‘Company man’, to becoming a voice of reform, and finally, the Company’s leading pain in the neck.

By outlining the “corruption” and “forgery” at the heart of the British takeover of India, Hicky’s was the first salvo against the Company, and the Empire. The British Crown replaced the Company but its goal was the same -- profit, plunder and political subjugation. Hicky’s correspondents focused on all aspects of economic corruption that passed through the Company’s offices –administrative, judicial, military – and laid bare its hypocrisies:

“… a native of the Country, who knew nothing of English laws, is hanged for a crime which we had triumphed in committing. [Robert] Clive is made a Peer in England though he committed in Bengal the same crime, for which we hanged Nundocomar.” [Nandakumar was a collector of taxes of the Company. He brought charges of embezzlement against Hastings; he was hung in Hastings’ second term as governor-general of Bengal.]

These revelations in the Gazette were the beginning of the Company’s delegitimisation. Hicky primarily targeted Hastings but also other men at the top, including the Chief Justice.

The thrust of Hicky’s struggle was for the poor and the subaltern European; that he should enjoy the same benefits in Bengal as he did in Britain. Indians were to him “noble savages” but, as this book shows, he included their concerns in his fight.

The front page of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. (Westland)
The front page of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. (Westland)

What gives this book substance is Otis’ ability to fuse the biography of a man with the biography of his time, and to not look away from complexities. His portrait of Hicky is compassionate and affirming. Otis shows the constant risks that the Irishman took to be non-partisan and support what he considered right. This was an editor-proprietor who was willing to correct the picture, even if that display of objectivity went against his own interests.

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

“When Hyder Ali’s army captured Arcot,” writes Otis, “it was thought they had massacred anyone they found. Hicky reported a much different reality… that Hyder had actually escorted the captured Company troops to friendly territory, let them write letters home… Where Hicky once saw a rapacious warlord, he now saw a complex leader…”

Watch: Interview with Andrew Otis, author of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette; The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper

Many of Hicky’s reports were sourced from rumour. His ‘problem’ was that he was tripping on idealism. Newspapers cannot run on that alone. But as one of the first symbols of free speech, a condition that reporters the world over know exists with caveats, James Augustus Hicky is a hero.

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

Otis’ book does a great job of establishing Hicky’s heroism. But the absence of local competitors and of Indian characters with any real agency in the book is puzzling. Could it really have been a case of James Hicky against the rest?

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    Paramita Ghosh has been working as a journalist for over 20 years and writes socio-political and culture features. She works in the Weekend section as a senior assistant editor and has reported from Vienna, Jaffna and Singapore.

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