The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 30, 2000

220 years old & still going strong
By Roshni Johar

JUST is the morning of Saturday the 29th January 1780..... and you are an employee of the esteemed East India Company living in Calcutta of the British Raj. You will be among the privileged few to hold the first issue of the first newspaper of India in your hands, namely the Bengal Gazette.

It was edited by James Augustus Hicky and so came to be popularly known as Hicky’s Gazette. Thus, Hicky became the first editor to start a journal in India, though the credit of being the first journalist in India goes to William Bolts, a Dutch writer, who found his way to India after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. But the most he could do was to paste a printed notice in a public place. It was left to James Augustus Hicky to start India’s first newspaper.

The Bengal Gazette was not a daily. Its masthead proudly and courageously proclaimed itself unbiased as "A Weekly, Political and Commercial Paper, Open to All Parties but Influenced by None." However, in actual practice it was not so, being highly partisan in nature.

  Compared to current newspapers, the Bengal Gazette was smaller in size being twelve inches in length and seven inches in breadth. It consisted of only two sheets with three columns on each page and was printed on both the sides of the pages.

Hicky’s Gazette had a limited circulation, not exceeding 200 copies. Its readership consisted of employees of East India Company and other Europeans, mostly traders.

Regarding the contents, the Gazette’s predominant feature was "Addresses to the Public from Mr Hicky" wherein the editor spoke, rather wrote, directly to the readers. Extracts from English newspapers "back home" (i.e. England) and contributions from local writers were also published. There were a large number of letters which sang the praises of Hicky. A section was devoted to amateur verse, named "Poets’ Corner."

The Gazette printed many advertisements mainly about auctions and goods for sale and so also came to be called the Calcutta General Advertiser.

The newspaper carried articles but with a moral tone, some of which were entitled "London Fashions", "Folly of a Fashionable Life" and "Evils that Arise from French Refinements."

Indeed, reading Hicky’s Gazette was like holding a mirror to the life of European community in Calcutta, as the paper published a detailed account of their social life, but laced with a touch of broad humour and satire. It contained stories of scandals, love affairs, local gossips and duels. No wonder its readers found the Gazette very entertaining, describing it as a "witty and scurrilious" paper.

Hicky’s Gazette went to great lengths in fully reporting social events like balls and dances. There were also appeals to guests at so-and-so’s parties "who had taken away what did not belong to them" like "a very elegant pair of candle-stands", "shoes, shawls, pistols," etc with offers of rewards and promise to forget the offence.

Hicky used his Gazette as a tool to ridicule the persons he disliked. One method was to announce possible engagements and the other was to give nicknames to the notables of Calcutta’s European community.

The Bengal Gazette frequently mentioned a lady named Miss Eruma Wrangham who "kept the gossips busy for ten years at least and enjoyed their malice as much as everybody else." She is described as "Chinsura Belle", "Turban Conquest" and "Hookah Turban". Miss Wrangham also appeared under a heading "Public Notice" which read as "Lost on the course last Monday evening, Buxom Clumsy’s heart, whilst he stood simpering at the footsteps of Hookah Turban’s Carriage....."

Of course, the Bengal Gazette from its very start, was bound to be a sore in the eyes of the renowned East India Company as it tended to mock and expose its goings-on. Though its employees found the Gazette highly entertaining, it did not encourage its publication because the newspaper carried the news about its forces fighting against those of the Indian states, who were yet to be subdued. Hicky’s Gazette also disclosed how the Company accumulated vast illegal wealth through private trade, by the Company’s traders procuring goods from Indian artisans and peasants at very low prices and then selling them off for large profits.

Perhaps the only piece of journalism in Bengal Gazette pertaining to a non-European issue was about the advertisement of a sale of a slave-boy, a South African Kafir. The announcement read: "To be sold: A fine Caffer Boy that understands the Business of a Butler, Kismutdar and Cooking. Price four hundred Sicca Rupees. Any Gentleman wanting such a Servant may see him, and be informed of further particulars by applying to the printer." A Sicca Rupee was equivalent to two shillings.

Interestingly, there were repeated insertions of a small piece on a slave-boy who had run away from his master under the heading "Eloped."

Hicky’s writings gradually became very bold and too malicious and satirical to earn the wrath and enmity of Warren Hastings the Governor General, his friend Sir Elijah Impey the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the administration.

The Gazette nicknamed Elijah Impey "Poolbundy" ("pool" meaning bridge). This was obviously in reference to a contract for maintaining bridges, which Sir Elijah Impey had used his influence, to secure for his cousin. Hicky also billed him for the song — "God from Law can take the Sting." Around this time a rival paper, the India Gazette, was being launched. When Hicky came to know that his subscribers were being approached for it, he was simply furious. The enraged Hicky made full use of his paper in criticising those who took up the cause of the rival paper which included Peter Read, a salt agent and B. Messink, a theatre producer. He also attacked John Zachariah Kiernander, the first Swedish missionary.

Being a Government-run paper, postal concessions were ceded to the India Gazette, which were denied to Hicky’s Gazette. Revengeful by nature, Hicky wrote in his paper that Mrs Hastings had exerted pressure on her husband Warren Hastings for this purpose and that the Bengal Gazette could also have been given postal concessions, had he also approached Mrs Hastings.

In the words of Hicky, "there is nothing so sneaking and treacherous in going clandestinely to fawn and take advantage of a good-natured woman to draw her into a promise to getting that done which I knew would be highly improper to ask her husband, though his unbounded love for his wife would induce him to comply with."

Hicky further continued that Mrs Hastings had hinted that she was willing to oblige, only Hicky had refused her offer.

There was nothing to stop Hicky from writing malicious, vulgar and sarcastic articles against the government. The Bengal Gazette started printing imaginary concerts and plays, where he assigned suggestive parts to Warren Hastings calling him "The Great Moghul", "Sir F. Wronghead", "Dictator" and made him sing a song (in paper, of course) entitled "Know then, War is my pleasure".

Warren Hastings, who had been patiently ignoring Hicky’s maliciousness, was terribly annoyed and booked a case against him. He was asked to provide a bail of Rs 8,000. He was charged for defamation and was awarded one year’s imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2000. Hastings was given Rs 500 as damages which he waived. Hicky was jailed but strangely his Gazette continued to appear with its usual defiant tone, vigour and sarcasm. Hastings brought four fresh cases against him and his types and equipment were seized. Thus the Bengal Gazette unceremoniously, but notoriously, passed into oblivion, but to take the place of India’s first newspaper in history. It barely lived for two years.

It was customary in those days to deport back home i.e. England such inconvenient and annoying Britishers but strangely it was not done so in case of Hicky, apparently because his writings had the backing of a powerful group in the administration. There was a lot of in-fighting in the Governor General’s Council, the leader of one faction being Philip Francis, who had nursed a secret desire to be the Governor General himself. Hicky’s Gazette was finally suppressed in 1782, after Philip Francis decided to leave India.

Though it was an Englishman who published the first newspaper on Indian soil, it could hardly be termed as an Indian newspaper as it was predominently an alien product. But, ironically, ultimately it turned out to be one of the benefits of the British Raj.

Journalism in India had come to stay and progress. The people, including the administration and Hastings had come to realise the power and influence of the pen through the Press. A crop of newspapers erupted. The Bengal Journal, the Oriental Magazine and the Calcutta Chronicle started publication from Calcutta. The Madras Courier, the Harkaru, the Madras Gazette, the Bombay Herald and the Bombay Gazette made their debut from Chennai and Mumbai, respectively. Gradually censorship and Government’s repression followed.

Doubtless, James Augustus Hicky started the first India’s newspaper. But considering the malicious contents of his Gazette, he is definitely not in the least, entitled to be termed as father of Indian journalism. He was only the first in long line of Anglo-Indian newspapers. It is to the stalwart Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to whom goes the credit of being called the Father of Indian Journalism.