Hastings vs Hicky: The defamation trial against the publisher of India’s first newspaper

06 August 2018

In his recent book, the American scholar Andrew Otis chronicles the journey of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette—India’s first major newspaper, printed from Calcutta in 1780. The newspaper was founded by a poor Irishman named James Augustus Hicky, and sold for Re 1 every Saturday. It immediately became a “sensation,” Otis writes, laying bare the underbelly of the early British Empire.

In the book, “Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper,” Otis discusses Hicky’s background and motivations, and describes the making of the newspaper—what it covered and how it challenged the rich and powerful of British Calcutta. He writes that the paper tried to be the voice of the underdog, spotlighting the lives of the “lower rungs of society, shut out from patronage and prestige.” As the paper’s influence grew, it became more political, exposing corruption in the East India Company and criticising the then Governor-General Warren Hastings for fighting expansionist wars that only furthered his “personal dreams of conquest.”

Soon, Hastings moved to stop its circulation. He forbid Hicky from mailing his newspapers through the post office, and gave the postmaster general the right to inspect any mail suspected of carrying the newspaper. But, as Otis writes, Hicky would not “bow, cringe or fawn to any of his oppressors.” He started an “an anti-tyranny, anti-corruption, and pro-free speech campaign using his newspaper as his platform, and words as his weapons.” In June 1781, Hicky was arrested and charged with libel. He went on to face four trials. Otis describes the court battles, the attempts to suppress the paper, and the resourceful ways in which Hicky tried to fight back. In the following excerpt from the book, Otis writes about Hicky’s first trial, in which “the freedom of the Press stood on the line.”

Tuesday, 26 June, Supreme Court House, Calcutta

A hircarrah [courier] stood on the crumbling steps of the Court House in the fierce morning sun, a stack of two-page special edition Hicky’s Bengal Gazette Extraordinary in his arms. Passers-by were glad to escape the brown dirt plaza outside, next to the stinking great tank, and enter the Court House’s cool, dark archways. Under the mildewed, cracked-paint pillars, they read the gazette, printed the day before.

Andrew Otis was a Fulbright Scholar to India in 2013 to 2014 and lived in Kolkata where he researched journalism in early India.

Keywords: media British Empire East India Company media freedom Freedom of Press