On June 12, 1781, policemen—both Indian and European—armed with sledgehammers, broke into Irishman James Augustus Hicky’s house in Calcutta to arrest him on charges of libel. The charges being pressed were from Warren Hastings, the then governor-general of India. On June 25, a day before Hicky was to be put on the stand in the courtroom, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette—the newspaper started by Hicky in 1780—issued a statutory warning, saying his arrest had put freedom of speech on trial.
Eventually, he was found guilty and put behind bars. Following the verdict came the demise of his newspaper in 1782. But in the short span that it was active, Hicky’s newspaper ruffled quite a few feathers with its unapologetic reportage, unearthing the dirt on the East India Company and British officials such as Hastings.
And it’s this story that Andrew Otis narrates in his book, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper. Otis’ labour of five years—examining archives in India, the UK, and Germany—pieces the timeline of the newspaper in a chronological manner from 1780 to 1782, detailing events that led to the launch of the newspaper, its rise as a voice against the establishment and the eventual repercussions Hicky and the newspaper faced.
The author describes how Hicky would blatantly report the deep-rooted corruption and nepotism within the ranks of the Company, encouraging his correspondents to write about the pathetic living conditions in Calcutta. Interestingly, Hicky would often weave humour with reportage by giving monikers to politicians and officials such as ‘Cram Turkey’ (turkey marinated for a feast) for a Supreme Court judge.
Sadly, however, the multi-faceted journalist died penniless, unable even to feed his family. Otis reproduces a 1786 letter, in fact, that Hicky wrote to one of his correspondents called William Young, in which he shares his despair and frustration with the system and society that refused to stand by him.
Otis’ book comes at a time when the integrity of media is under the scanner the world over. The opposition that Hicky faced from the establishment in the 1700s still finds relevance today, and that’s one of the main reasons this book makes for enlightening reading.