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.
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.
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.
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.