Hicky: A pioneer who unleashed the power of the press

Last Updated 28 January 2011, 16:57 IST

James Augustus Hicky, the pioneer, started the weekly newspaper basically to counter the nuisance of public announcements through peons and the distribution of hand bills in a growing commercial town like Calcutta.

The printing press had arrived in India through Christian missionaries as far back as 1556, but they were used mainly for printing of religious literature. Illiteracy was a big hurdle for this modern mode of communication to spread fast.

It took more than 220 years after the arrival of modern printing art to use it for publishing a newspaper. In fact by the beginning of the 17th century periodicals were quite well established as a means of public information all over Europe. The first daily in English was published in London in 1702 — ‘The Daily Courant’. A regular weekly publication came into existence in India 78 years later.

The city of Calcutta was witnessing growing commercial activities. The Dutch, French and English dominated the burgeoning trade activities. The East India Company had not made much of an impact. The company officials, traders, agents and the European middle class settled in Calcutta desperately needed a modern medium as their counterparts had back in their countries. Hicky met their demand, giving up his dream of making a fortune in sea trade.

In order to gauge the reactions of the authorities, Hicky brought out a prospectus and expressed his intentions to bring out a newspaper for the benefit of the public. Initially, he did not attract any wrath from the officials as he was  polite in his appeal. When he brought out a two-page weekly, about twelve inches by eight, on Saturday, January 29, 1780, he created history in the Indian subcontinent.

It was almost a one man show. Hicky did not have any editorial support. Most of the editorial content was based on the newspapers that reached Calcutta after almost six to eight months. He freely reproduced all the major developments in England and Europe including the discussions in House of Commons.

Hicky was very daring, but lacked intellectual vigour to be respected by the readers and authorities. The title of the paper was ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser.’ When a rival newspaper was started, he modified the title as ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette Original or Calcutta General Advertiser’ and proclaimed on the front page ‘Open to all parties but influenced by none.’

The advertisements were the most attractive part of the weekly. Notices of the arrival and departure of ships, auctions of European goods, marriage and engagement announcements and government notifications were useful to the people of Calcutta. Later, he would even publish well in advance the likely engagements. Domestic quarrels, slavery, infant mortality also figured in these columns. He used nicknames to attack officials.

Many planned to publish a better paper than that brought out by Hicky. Nine months after the first publication, a new publication — ‘India Gazette’ made its appearance in Calcutta in November 1780.

The arrival of a rival weekly made Hicky furious and his writings became more malicious. He poured venom against his rivals and all those who supported it. He did not even spare Governor General  Hastings, whom he accused of supporting the rival paper. Hastings was very tolerant and was extremely busy in wars with Benaras, Oudh and Mysore kings.

The company officials disliked Hicky’s writings from the very beginning. When the scurrilous and vulgar write-ups continued unabated, the postal facilities extended to Hicky’s newspaper were withdrawn. This angered him further. He declared that the “Governor’s action was the strongest proof of arbitrary power. I would not bend before the official storm.”

Hicky alleged that John Zachariah Kirendar of local Swedish missionary had sold the printing types to the rival paper ‘Indian Gazette’ and heaped abusive remarks on him. A defamation case was filed against Hicky. The court ordered four month’s imprisonment and Rs 500 as fine. Hicky got frustrated as he could not use postal facilities. He started bitter attack on all top officers of the company and did not spare the family members of Governor General and the Chief Justice.

Both administration and judiciary were furious with Hicky. He was arrested and brought before the court on several cases. As he could not pay Rs 80,000 as bail, he was put behind bars. Several defamation cases were filed against the paper and Hicky was convicted in all of them.

Though he was in jail, he had made arrangements for the publication of his weekly. He continued to write from the jail. His satirical references to the war efforts of Warren Hastings angered the administration further and the government decided to silence Hicky by seizing the printing press and the types. Several of his appeals to pardon him did not receive favourable response from the government. In March 1782, two years after he began his journalistic adventure on Indian soil, Hicky had to close the printing shop. Then on, what Hicky did and how he spent his remaining days, is not clear.

Hicky, a pioneer of the Indian press, inspired many others in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to venture into newspaper publishing. Within 10 years of the publication of ‘Hicky’s Gazette’, there were 15 publications across India. By this time there were well established publications all over Europe and America too fighting for democratic rights.
Hicky unfolded the power of the press to the Indians. He championed the cause of freedom of speech and expression. Hicky was a forerunner of a great fighting tradition that continued during freedom struggle against the British authorities. His short temperament, biases and eccentric ways did not earn him respectability as a journalist. He lacked education and a broad understanding of the role of the press. However, he dared to fight the highest authorities and never compromised. For this reason alone he has to be remembered.

(The author is a professor of mass communication and journalism, Karnatak University, Dharwad)

(Published 28 January 2011, 16:57 IST)

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