Book Review: ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette’ by Andrew Otis- The story of India’s first newspaper and its times

The legacy of British colonial rule in India includes a lot of things such as railways, roads, communication infrastructure etc. But what is not often talked about is their role in establishing something which has become extremely widespread and powerful in India, journalism.

This is probably because of two reasons. Firstly, crediting the British in any way for development of journalism does not fit neatly in the nationalist narrative of press being an important tool in the anti-colonial struggle and the national movement for independence. Secondly, the evolution of journalism in India cannot be attributed to British in the same way as other features since the colonial administration did not have a direct role, not a positive one anyway, in its development.

Nevertheless, the fact that journalism in India was founded by a British, if not the British, stands true. The story of how it came about has been narrated in a fascinating account by Andrew Otis in his book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette.

The book tells the story of the first Indian and also the first South Asian newspaper, Bengal Gazette which was started in 1780, woven through a specific set of characters led by James Augustus Hicky, the Irishman who founded the newspaper. These characters include the officials of East India Company, religious clerics and lawyers, all of whom were British in origin. In fact, the story of the origins of journalism in India does not include a single significant Indian character. Yet it foreshadows a lot of events and phenomena which were about to impact and influence Indian lives in the years to follow, most of all in the arena of press and journalism.

The story of Bengal Gazette and more importantly that of Hicky is rife with audacity, courage and recklessness on part of the journalist-proprietor of the newspaper and ruthlessness, guile and repression on part of the colonial administration. On the one hand was Hicky, who started a humble, little newspaper as a way to prosper in society but slowly evolved into an anti-establishment voice both against the East India Company and an influential church in Kolkata, albeit often relying on rumours and scandal. On the other hand was the mighty East India Company whose influence was steadily increasing, coupled with an ambitious man of clergy. This David versus Goliath story is full of guile, intrigue, corruption, vice, courage and tragedy.

Yet the way the book has been written, all the characters, no matter how bad the things that they have done may seem, have been humanised to a certain extent. In the afterword of the book Otis has provided a disclaimer and a possible reason behind this, “the dialogue in this book is derived only from those who recorded it, and may reflect their biases and motivations”. Nevertheless, with the narrative built from these records the readers get a chance to peep into the lives and minds of these characters along with their reasonings and perspectives. But the power dynamic of the narrative has been preserved to a great extent through Otis’s subtle interventions, often going beyond the lives of the central characters, briefly glancing at the world beyond that of the few British men and women, into the dark underbelly of the then Calcutta city, its ghettos and jails.  

What makes the entire account so authentic is the deep rigour and diligence in the research that has gone on into the making of the book. Otis has briefly related his journey which began from his university in New York and took him to the archives and institutions of Delhi and Kolkata to go through an actual copy of the Bengal Gazette along with other historical documents, finding which was quite challenging in face of tedious bureaucratic and judicial procedures. But he went beyond as he travelled to Germany and Britain to fill in the details about the various characters and the plot of the narrative. The amount of research that Otis has put in to provide a historical account in a storytelling form can be estimated by the sheer number of references in the book. Most of the thoughts or events detailed in the book are directly taken from the actual letters and writings of the people they are ascribed to. Yet, Otis has given his own touch in stitching these testimonies together by taking recourse to creative licence without compromising the integrity of the story and its historical accuracy which makes the book both informative and intriguing.

Set in the years when East India Company was coming into its own, the book certainly provides valuable insights into the formative years of British colonial rule in India. But more importantly it provides a glimpse into the origins of journalism in India, its shortcomings and achievements and the challenges it faced. The first newspaper of the subcontinent was scandalous and courageous in equal parts, providing a litmus test both for the ethics of journalism and the power of censorship resting in the hands of administration, right at the onset of journalism in the country. This particular thread, if one were to pick it up from the book, can definitely provide a valuable perspective to look at the state of journalism in India at present as well.   

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