Autocratic rulers, high level judicial corruption, irrigation scams involving crony contractors, a head of a religious trust diverting funds to invest in real estate, fake news, defamation lawsuits and attempts to intimidate the editor and muzzle the press. The events in Andrew Otis’ book ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper’ , published by Westland /Tanquebar Press, seem so relatable, so contemporary, that it is hard to believe that these are real events which took place in 1780s – in Warren Hastings’ India.
The British East India company (EIC), a private trading corporation gained control of Bengal, following the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764). At that time an average man in England earned 17 pounds a year, while an East India company employee in India could make as much as 800 pounds a year, through bribes and private trade. Not surprisingly, India became a kind of El Dorado, which attracted a number of Europeans who came to here to make a fortune. Among them, was James Augustus Hicky.
Hicky began India’s first newspaper – Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, which was also the first newspaper in all of Asia, almost by chance. He had invested huge sums in printing equipment for fulfilling a large government contract to print army regulations and forms, but once the work was almost done, the government refused to release his payment. Caught in a jam, with a lot of money invested, Hicky launched a newspaper in 1780. It was a great success. Originally, Hicky had planned for the newspaper to be non-political, balanced and impartial, but in the corrupt East India Company Raj, that was easier said than done.
This is the time when British Governor General Warren Hastings was tightening his grip on power. Determined to have complete control, he had liberally granted all the lucrative and senior positions, even in the Supreme Court of Bengal to his cronies. Given the times, Hicky could not be a neutral observer. He began an anti-government, anti-tyranny, and pro-free speech campaign through his newspaper. He exposed the ‘Poolbundy’ scam in which huge sums of money had been paid to crony contractors to repair embankments. He also ran a relentless campaign exposing the corrupt practices of Warren Hastings and his associates.
The establishment struck back. First, they patronized the ‘pro-government’ India Gazette as a rival to Hicky’s paper. Then, there were libel cases filed against him, and despite winning most of them, Hicky was thrown into prison and his paper shut down. Within two years, Asia’s first newspaper had been forced to shut shop and Hicky would die in penury. But what makes the story such a riveting read, is its relevance to the present day.
I spoke to journalist Andrew Otis, the author of ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper’ on Hicky, the fascinating secrets still hidden in archives, and the relevance of Hicky’s story to today’s times. Otis is based in Washington D.C
How did you stumble upon this fascinating story? How did Hicky come into your life?
I really have to go back when I was an undergraduate in 2010. I came across Hicky when I was writing a thesis for an undergraduate paper and I thought he was something of an interesting character. I didn’t think much of him for a year or so, until I wrote an application to visit the British library to look at old British colonial newspapers in South Africa, India and England so forth. I was interested in history and in journalism, so I though let me put the two together and see what I can make of it. I was in the British library one day in 2011, and I thought to myself, this is such a fascinating story about Hicky. Why has no one written about it? And then I thought, oh well! I can do it. To be fair, there have been some scholars who have written on Hicky, I just thought the work that they have done could be added to.
What was the starting point to your research?
My starting point was, I was in the British Library one day, in the Newspaper archives, and I was flipping through Hicky’s Gazette, going page after page, and I found the stories Hicky wrote about [Warren] Hastings and Kiernander the missionary and I thought, this is something interesting, I wanted to know more about this world, the corruption, the wars with the Indian nawabs and so forth.
How did you trace Hicky’s early life?
There isn’t that much about Hicky’s early life. Some of the documents are in the Calcutta High Court, and they deal with when he first landed in Calcutta, when he was a surgeon. They were court records where he had actually sued his patients, where they hadn’t paid him money for his operations. No one had looked at this before, and then I also found in the British Library his lawyer’s memoirs in the original manuscript copy. William Hickey [the lawyer] had written more than what is available in the printed version.
In your book, you have written about finding secret notes about the judicial corruption at the time, what are those about?
Those are John Hyde’s notebooks. They are about 74 volumes of about 20,000 pages or so of legal notes. John Hyde was one of the first judges of the Supreme Court of Bengal. When he was presiding over trials [in Calcutta], he would write down details of what happened. He had to write in code sometimes because he was recording the corruption of the judges who were sitting, quite literally 2 to 3 feet to his left or right. And he didn’t want them to read what he was writing. As I have mentioned it in my book’s preface, there is a professor named Carol Johnson in New Jersey, and she has decoded it, and she is working on a project to put it online.
Was there any big ‘Eureka’ moment during your research for the book, where you found something you were looking for?
I wouldn’t say there was one moment. The best analogy is like when you are playing with Lego, piecing it together, and then you realize like you are missing a piece and can’t find it. And then one day, you find it and its all solved. That’s what happened to me.
For example, when I saw Hyde’s notebooks, there had been other scholars who had looked at them, but no one had mentioned the code. I saw the notebooks and I used them as a reference to figure out what happened during Hicky’s trials when he was being sued for libel by Warren Hastings and so forth. And when I was reading the part about Hicky’s trials, I saw the code, and I thought – this is strange! What is this?
I sent it to Carol in New Jersey, and she actually broke the code. I found out that Hyde was talking about his fellow judges taking bribes. Then I went to Hicky’s report and tried to match it with what Hyde had written in his notebooks. So in this way, through my own journalistic process, I was able to confirm some of the things that Hicky wrote in his newspaper.
What is interesting is that, often while reading about India’s colonial history, the term the ‘British’ is referred to as a monolithic block. But through the book, you realize that just like today, it was only the top 1% of the East India Company officials and their cronies, who were minting millions, while there was a huge British underclass in India with quiet harsh and difficult lives, whose voice Hicky eventually became.
There was a whole European subaltern class, who was not the top class. And these were the people who were struggling, simply to make a living, to send their children to school and so on. I really wanted to point out their story and their struggles, in a way that I hadn’t really seen in history. The fact that these people don’t generally show up in history books doesn’t make their struggles any less real that the Warren Hastingses of the time. A part of my goal was to show as much as I could, that even these people who you may never have heard of, had lives just as similar, as hard, as difficult as ours today.
Hicky’s times were interesting because this was when printing really flourished. So how do you see the times that he lived in and his legacy?
There are some other historians, like Miles Ogborn who have written that printing was power, and the European colonial government used printing to solidify their authority. So when you look at Hicky, it’s not just about a newspaper, it’s about a source of power that Warren Hastings wants to control. And having it [the newspaper] as an opposition was very negative to the early rule of the British East India company and the Warren Hastings government. While there were 200 years of corruption and exploitation under the British Raj, Hicky’s legacy can be seen as an early attempt or at least the desire, to rein in the excesses and have some sort of basic oversight and basic human rights in India.
Considering the times we live in today, the strongmen in power, attacks on the journalists, muzzling the press and so on, the events in the book feel so close, so relatable. If we had to draw a lesson from Hicky’s saga, what would that be?
If I had to draw one lesson from the book, that lesson would be … the characters change, the people change, but the story is the same. And the reason I say that is because there are different Hickys, different personalities, say [Jamal Ahmad] Khashoggi recently, from Saudi Arabia, writing in the Washington Post against [the Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman and was murdered right? So the idea that journalists seeking to expose or trying to bring to light [the excesses of] power, I think that is timeless and it happens from Hicky’s time till today.
One of the things that makes me fearful today is the fact that the amount of sheer influence that authoritarian leaders have on social media, and their ability to sway the masses with misinformation, with fake news, I think that’s a new challenge journalists have to face.
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