US historian revisits the forgotten legacy of India's first newspaper

US historian revisits the forgotten legacy of India's first newspaper
His Bengali is a bit rusty now but some years ago, US-based historian Andrew Otis spent a lot of time in Calcutta asking librarians, bureaucrats and other strangers: "Keno hobe na?" Why not? Over time, the question saw him gain access to copies of India's first newspaper, Hicky's Bengal Gazette. Run by James Augustus Hicky, a "fearless but flawed" Irishman who was sued for libel by governor general Warren Hastings, the 200-year-old paper--replete with expletives, poems and even frontpage bylines of a woman grocer--set the tone for press freedom before it was shut down by the government in 1782. In an interview, 33-year-old Otis, author of the recently-republished book 'Hicky's Bengal Gazette', tells Sharmila Ganesan Ram about this "unique" first draft of history.

Before we meet James Hicky, the "wild Irishman" behind India's first newspaper 'Hicky's Bengal Gazette', we meet an erudite English man with a similar surname in the book. Tell us more about lawyer William Hickey and how he became your travel guide in 18th-century India.

William Hickey is a lawyer who arrives in Calcutta after an elite education in England. My book starts with him walking through Calcutta’s debtors’ prison. It’s a dark, dingy place, full of poor people who can’t pay their debts. In the back he finds a “wild Irishman”, a man named James Augustus Hicky (no relation). Despite being taken aback by James’s lower class Irish mannerisms, William agrees to help James get out of prison. Three years later, James Augustus Hicky ends up launching India’s first newspaper. When I was a college student, I came across a copy of William’s memoirs in the basement of my university library. As I read them, I realized this is a fascinating time in history. I thought that it was fitting to introduce my readers to the story of India’s first newspaper through the same man who introduced me to 18th-century India.
History has not only misspelled James Hicky's name but also called him many names. Is this what prompted you to spend five years retelling his story?

What prompted me to retell Hicky’s story is that it is important, regardless of poor historiography on him. Without him India wouldn’t have its first newspaper, its first struggle for freedom of the press, and its first place where rights of life and liberty were debated. These are the building blocks of free societies. While reading about journalism history in India, it is important to ask ourselves: what if India didn’t have the same traditions of free expression that it does today? That’s why I wrote this book.
What brought Hicky to Calcutta? How did he become a journalist?

Money originally brought Hicky to Calcutta. But his shipping business failed when his ship was damaged in a storm. That’s how he ended up in debtors’ prison in the first place. Hicky became a journalist after he was released from debtors’ prison. He had actually apprenticed as a printer when he was young so he had previous experience. Life is ironic sometimes. A man who later sacrificed for freedom of the press was originally motivated by money.
Why was Hicky sued for libel?

Hicky was sued for libel because he accused Governor General Warren Hastings of corruption and abuse of power. Hastings sued Hicky to stop these accusations.
Was gaining access to a copy of 'Hicky's Bengal Gazette', which ran for two years from 1780 to 1782, easy?

Originally no, but the real problem was not so much gaining access to a copy as it was gaining access to a full print run. Five libraries have collections of Hicky’s Gazette, but they’re not complete. It’s like piecing together bits of a puzzle. Only by looking at all the collections was I able to understand Hicky’s Gazette in its entirety.
What was your first impression of India's first newspaper?

I was first impressed by how unique it was. It’s unlike hundreds of newspapers I’ve read from that time. There are moments in it that remind me of how people 200 years ago were just as human as we are. There is a touching letter that Hicky printed. It’s from a veteran named George who fought in one of Hastings’ wars. George’s friend Tom died in battle next to him, leaving George to raise Tom’s daughter alone. As he was dying, Tom grasped George’s hand and said, “George you loved me. Love my child as well, and she will not miss her father.” The veterans were promised money for fighting but never received it. George writes that he is worried he won’t be able to raise his friend’s daughter without the money: “We have been cruelly deceived. I begin now to think true what a number of people then used to say: that we were fighting in a bad cause”.
What pages can The Times of India--and contemporary newspapers in India-- take from Hicky's Bengal Gazette, in your view?

Credibility and trust are the most important things for a newspaper. As journalists, we owe it to our readers to tell the facts and tell them straight, without bias or exaggeration.
You took crowded trains, negotiated Kolkata's bureaucracy and handled many rejections in the process of research. How good is your Bengali now?
I haven’t practiced in six years. “Keno hobe na?” was probably my favorite thing to ask. Many times people told me “Hobe Na”, but I would reply “Hobe”. There is always a way!

How do Indian archives compare to archives in the US, UK and Germany?

The main difference is it’s usually easy to access information in Europe and the US. In India, it can be very difficult. This might be for philosophical reasons, or it may be for infrastructural reasons. In US archives, there’s a philosophy of sharing access: archivists go out of their way to make things easy for researchers. It could also be that archives in the West tend to be better funded.

Did the five-year-long deep dive into Hicky's Bengal Gazette alter your views on press freedom and the role of journalism?

I think it has reinforced the reasons why free speech and freedom of the press are some of the most fundamental rights we have. There is a reason these freedoms are on the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. These rights, however, are not as broad in India. There’s a quote I like in Hicky’s Gazette. It goes, “When our dogs, our guardians, are gone our house may be robbed whilst we sleep.” The press is often described as a watchdog. Without the press, and without broad constitutional rights, our freedoms may be taken away while we sleep.

After the book was published as a hardcover in 2018, you worked on a dissertation on online news...

My dissertation looked at how tech companies present news online. Tech companies often do a poor job of indicating whether articles are opinion or not. This increases perceptions of bias and reduces trust in the press. This is not only poor design, but it affects democracy.

You are now working on a book on the 1781 rebellion against the East India Company. Was Hicky your travel guide to this not-so-well-known mutiny?

Yes, Hicky was my travel guide to this rebellion. He covered it in his newspaper. The 1781 rebellion is an exciting and important story that no one’s written about fully before. It may have actually come closer than the 1857 rebellion to defeating the British. The rebels nearly captured Warren Hastings.
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