Hicky's Bengal Gazette
Front page of Hicky's Bengal Gazette, 10 March 1781, from the University of Heidelberg's archives.
|Publisher||James Augustus Hicky|
|Founded||29 January 1780|
|Ceased publication||23 March 1782|
67 Radha Bazar|
Hicky's Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser was an English language weekly newspaper published in Kolkata (then Calcutta), the capital of British India. It was the first newspaper printed in Asia, and was published for two years, before the East India Company seized the newspaper's types and printing press. Founded by James Augustus Hicky, a highly eccentric Irishman who had previously spent two years in jail for debt, the newspaper was a strong critic of the administration of the Governor General Warren Hastings. The newspaper was important for its provocative journalism well before its time and its fight for free expression in India.
Hicky began publication of Hicky's Bengal Gazette on 29 January 1780, having first printed a prospectus announcing that he would begin printing a newspaper. The idea of printing a newspaper in India had been floated twelve years earlier by the Dutch Adventurer William Bolts, but Hicky was the first to execute the concept. Hicky's newspaper was printed once a week on Saturday, and retailed for Re 1. Its circulation was estimated to be around four hundred copies per week, although possibly more.
Hicky first maintained a neutral editing policy (his slogan was "Open to all Parties, but Influenced by None") but after he learned that competitors with ties to the East India Company were intending to launch a rival newspaper,The India Gazette, he changed his editorial stance. Hicky accused an East India Company employee, Simeon Droz, of supporting the India Gazette as punishment for Hicky's refusal to pay a bribe to Droz and Marian Hastings, Warren Hastings' wife. In retaliation for Hicky's accusation, Hastings' Supreme Council forbid Hicky from mailing his newspaper through the post office. On November 18, 1780, the same day that the first India Gazette was published, Hicky modified the name of his newspaper from Hicky's Bengal Gazette; or, Calcutta General Advertiser, to Hicky's Bengal Gazette; or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser to emphasize that his newspaper was founded first.
Hicky claimed Hastings' order violated his right to free expression, and accused Hastings of corruption, tyranny, and even erectile dysfunction. Hicky also accused other British leaders in Calcutta of corruption, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William, Elijah Impey of taking bribes, and the leader of the Protestant Mission, Johann Zacharias Kiernander of stealing from an orphaned children's fund. Hicky's editorial independence was short lived as Hastings and Kiernander sued him for libel. After four dramatic trials in June 1781, the Supreme Court found Hicky guilty and sentenced him to jail.
Hicky continued to print his newspaper from jail, and continued to accuse Hastings and others of corruption. He was finally suppressed when Hastings instituted fresh law suits against him. Hicky's Bengal Gazette ceased publication on 23 March 1782 when its types were seized by an order of the Supreme Court.
Hicky's Bengal Gazette was known for its sarcastic and provocative writing style. Unlike many newspapers of its time, the newspaper discussed taboo topics like female masturbation, and proto-class consciousness, arguing for the rights of the poor and the right to taxation with representation. It was strongly anti-war and anti-colonial and routinely ridiculed East India Company leadership for their expansionist and imperialist objectives.
The memoirist William Hickey (who was not related to the paper's founder) describes its establishment shortly after he had succeeded (in his capacity as an attorney-at-law) in having James Hicky released from debtor's jail:
"At the time I first saw Hicky he had been about seven years in India. During his confinement he met with a treatise upon printing, from which he collected sufficient information to commence [as a] printer, there never having been a press in Calcutta ... it occurred to Hicky that great benefit might arise from setting on foot a public newspaper, nothing of that kind ever having appeared. Upon his types &c., therefore reaching him, he issued proposals for printing a weekly paper, which, meeting with extraordinary encouragement, he speedily issued his first work. As a novelty every person read it, and was delighted. Possessing a fund of low wit, his paper abounded with proof of that talent. He had also a happy knack at applying appropriate nicknames and relating satirical anecdotes".
Hicky benefited little from the paper, as William Hickey further tells us that he allowed it "to become the channel of personal invective, and the most scurrilous abuse of individuals of all ranks, high and low, rich and poor, many were attacked in the most wanton and cruel manner ... His utter ruin was the consequence".
Hicky's Bengal Gazette was the first English-language newspaper and the first printed newspaper to be published in both the Indian sub-continent and in Asia. The newspaper became famous not only among the British soldiers posted in India at that time but also inspired Indians to write newspapers of their own.
Five archives are known to have collections (all incomplete) of Hicky's Bengal Gazette:
- University of Melbourne
- University of Heidelberg
- National Library of India
- High Court of Calcutta (only an extraordinary issue dated 25 June 1781. No other archive has this issue)
- British Library
- Andrew Otis, Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper, New Delhi: Westland Publications, 2018.
- Otis 2018, p. 290.
- The Memoirs of William Hickey Vol.II (1775-1782), London: Hurst & Blackett, 1918, p. 175.
- Hickey, Memoirs, Vol. II, p. 176.
- Otis 2018, p. 26.
- Otis, Andrew (2018). Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper. Westland Books. ISBN 9386850915.