Stop the Presses

The arrest of the man who started the first newspaper in Asia

01 December 2022
The front page of a copy of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, in 1781. Hicky viewed himself as a defender of free speech.
Courtesy of the University of Heidelberg
The front page of a copy of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, in 1781. Hicky viewed himself as a defender of free speech.
Courtesy of the University of Heidelberg

Andrew Otis’s Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper depicts the trajectory of the eighteenth-century journalist James Augustus Hicky, who, while based in Calcutta, used a press to start the first printed newspaper in Asia in 1780. Via this paper, he criticised British rule, attempted to reveal the catastrophic effects of battles such as the Battle of Pollilur, exposed ongoing corruption in the church and the East India Company, and argued for press freedom. At times, Otis notes, his publishing was contradictory. For instance, he printed articles supporting the notion of women being chaste as well as those arguing that women should be in control of their own sexuality.

Hicky’s legacy has been subject to oversimplification and misunderstanding, Otis suggests. “Scholars during the British imperial era characterised Hicky as a rogue and scoundrel, a man who undermined the British Empire,” he writes. “Some recent historians have gone too far in the other direction, claiming Hicky’s newspaper was a ‘gem of journalism’, unmatched and unparalleled.” Otis’s book draws on archival research, including the few remaining copies of the newspaper and Hicky’s letters, to trace the journalist’s life and work.

In this excerpt from the book, which was first published by Westland and has recently been republished by Penguin Random House, Otis describes Hicky’s arrest. Through his paper, Hicky had antagonised, in particular, Warren Hastings, the governor-general at the time, calling him “despotic,” among other things, and suggesting that he had erectile dysfunction. Hicky was eventually sued for libel but continued the paper from jail.

Don't want to read further? Stay in touch

  • Free newsletters. updates. and special reads
  • Be the first to hear about subscription sales
  • Register for Free

    Andrew Otis is a journalist and historian. He holds a PhD in Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a BA in History and Political Science from the University of Rochester.

    Keywords: East India Company British Empire libel law media freedom
    COMMENT