History revisited

India’s first newspaper covered corruption and scandal (and sexual practices) fearlessly

From Warren Hastings’s erectile dysfunction to the corrupt Chief Justice, nothing was too much for ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette’, writes the author of a new book.

On January 29, 1780, a man named James Augustus Hicky founded India’s first newspaper, naming it Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. While starting it, he promised that “nothing will be inserted, unauthenticated” and that his newspaper would have a “rigid adherence to truth and facts”.

What he didn’t say was that his newspaper would focus – and be known to history – for its reporting on corruption and scandal among the British ruling class.

India’s first newspaper survived for only two short years before its printing press and types were seized at the end of March 1782. The newspaper was exposing sinful deeds (by 18th century standards at least) that the British elite would rather keep hidden.

For India’s first newspaper, no topic was too taboo to cover. From Governor-General Warren Hastings’ erectile dysfunction, to the top Army commander’s harem, and even the supposed sexual relations of the top missionary in Calcutta, they all earned a place in the newspaper. Through Hicky, we can learn a lot about freedom of the press, and what can and should be covered.

No taboos

In 1780 in Calcutta, there was a public works director named Edward Tiretta. Hicky wrote in the newspaper that Tiretta had a “happy turn for excavations and diving into the bottom of things”, a joke that Tiretta’s job as director of public works might also be a euphemism for his sexual orientation. Because of Hicky, Tiretta became known through the city as “Nosey Jargon”, the 18th century equivalent of a flamboyant gay man.

Hicky was also not afraid to talk about female masturbation. A woman, whom Hicky chose to keep anonymous, had just got engaged to a man with a hydrocele, a testicular deformity that can inhibit sex. Hicky reported that the woman said she would “take the liberty...in catering for myself,” and could do herself “natural justice”, so to speak. This was an old way of saying she could handle her own sexual gratification.

Hicky did not condemn these individuals for activities that would have been considered sinful in the 18th century. In fact, he often supported them. When this anonymous woman married, Hicky reported that her other suitors had retired to a brothel to “procure a sort of half oblivion of...imaginary happiness”.

These examples are not to say we should revere Hicky as a liberal hero. His views on sexuality may have been ahead of his time, but his opinions on women’s role in society were not; he argued that women should be educated for men’s pleasure, and should be chaste and faithful to their husbands. Moreover, although he founded India’s first newspaper, it was mostly written for Europeans, as they were most of his subscribers and advertisers. That said, Hicky did certainly care about the Indian population of Bengal, once publishing an article calling on the British East India Company to provide shelter and clothing to the inhabitants of Calcutta after a great fire.

Nicknames

Hicky had special names for politicians and officials in Calcutta. He called one of the judges of the Supreme Court of Bengal “Cram Turkey”, meaning a turkey fattened up for a feast. This particularly portly judge, John Hyde, had a passion for pomp, such as celebrating the King of Great Britain’s birthday.

Hicky gave nicknames to dozens of others, such as “Tent Pole Impromptu, “Lucy Chinless”, “Pomposo Brandy-face”, “Vicar of Bray”, “Dick Squib”, “Nat Chucklehead”, and “Mac Bacon Face”. The real names of many of these people are unknown today. However, I have identified some. For example, “Charley Bullock” referred to Charles Croftes, a notoriously greedy contractor who supplied cattle to the East India Company. These satirical nicknames were unique. I haven’t found another newspaper of the time to use them so pervasively.

Allusions to corruption

There was a very real reason Hicky didn’t refer to colonial officials by their actual names. By innuendo he could avoid lawsuits. If any colonial official could definitively prove he was the real “Mac Bacon Face” then Hicky could be sued for libel.

When Hicky used nicknames to allude to the corruption of the most powerful men in British India, the authorities began to take notice. Hicky nicknamed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bengal, a man named Elijah Impey, “Poolbundy”, because Impey was alleged to have embezzled profits from a contract to repair Bengal’s river embankments (the pulbandhs, as they were known). Hicky nicknamed Justice Robert Chambers “Sir Viner Pliant”, because Chambers (who once held the prestigious Vinerian professorship of law at Oxford) had accepted a bribe from Governor-General Hastings.

With these nicknames, Hicky mocked the most powerful men in British India, daring them to sue him. That is exactly what they did.

Trial for libel

In June 1781, nearly a year and a half into printing his newspaper, two of the most powerful men in Calcutta – Johann Zacharias Kiernander and Warren Hastings – sued Hicky for libel.

In one article, Hicky accused Kiernander, the leader of the Christian Mission in Calcutta, of stealing from a fund to pay for the education of orphans. Through my research I have corroborated some of Hicky’s claim. Kiernander was indeed siphoning money from the orphan fund and using it to fund other parts of his Mission.

In another article, Hicky accused Hastings, the governor-general of British India, of erectile dysfunction. Hicky first argued that Hastings was planning illegal wars of conquest; Hastings had stationed troops in the capital of the neighbouring state of Berar, with the goal of pressuring and eventually subjugating the Maharaja.

Hicky may be complimented for his perspective, but his article was as rash as it was prescient. He called Hastings a “wild”, “disgraceful”, “wicked” and “despotic” “Great Mogul” bent on conquering all of India. At the end of the article, almost as an afterthought, Hicky wrote that the stress of war was giving Hastings erectile dysfunction (Hastings’ “pereneal spring” was “out of order”).

In other articles, Hicky called on the Army to mutiny because Hastings was a “madman” intent on slaughtering troops for chimerical dreams of conquest. As a last straw, Hicky printed an article calling on the “inhabitants of Bengal” to rebel against British government. These articles were too much for British authorities to bear.

Hastings and Kiernander joined forces. On June 12, 1781, Hicky was arrested and “dragged into a stinking prison under the same roof with thieves and murderers”. Over the next few months, Hicky was repeatedly sued for libel and sentenced to prison. Hicky refused to give up, somehow printing his paper for another nine months from jail. Finally, in March 1782, the Supreme Court issued an order to seize Hicky’s printing press and shutter India’s first newspaper for good.

Hicky remained in jail for the next three years, but both Kiernander and Hastings faced punishment of a sort for their “sins”. Kiernander went bankrupt and had to flee Calcutta to avoid his creditors, while Hastings was recalled to England for impeachment.

Teaching lessons

What can we learn from India’s first newspaper?

Hicky blended real reporting with an eye for the salacious and appealing. In a world where newspapers around the world struggle with declining revenue and subscriptions, Hicky shows that a path to success may lie in reporting both hard and soft news. Newspapers have an obligation to report hard news – like foreign affairs and politics – that gives citizens information to make informed voting decisions, but readers often prefer to read soft news like crimes and scandals.

Hicky did both and his paper was very popular as a result. In fact, when he first began to criticise the East India Company of corruption, his paper immediately jumped in popularity.

I haven’t found another newspaper of Hicky’s time that was so daring. Even today, some editors might blush to write what Hicky wrote. In that, India’s first newspaper was unique. It was fearless in how it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, and it paid the ultimate price.


Andrew Otis is a PhD student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He is the author of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper published by Westland.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.