'Wild' Irishman's paper that shook the mighty

India's first newspaper was a sensation: book

By Chandrima S. Bhattacharya
  • Published 18.07.18

Andrew Otis, the author of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper, 
at the American Center on Friday. (Bishwarup Dutta)

Chowringhee: Late eighteenth century Calcutta, the leading city in British Indian territory. Warren Hastings is at the helm of affairs, which are being conducted not exactly fairly. Unscrupulous East India Company men are amassing their fortunes at the expense of their government quite fearlessly; scandals abound.

Calcutta seduces. The successful build palaces here and take back to England huge fortunes; the defeated just die or are sucked into its underbelly. Into this hotbed of vice and corruption enters a "wild Irishman". He would found the first newspaper in this part of the world.

Andrew Otis's Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper is a page-turner of a book that charts the newspaper's brief two-year history. With his gazette, Hicky took on the mightiest of the land, both the state and the church.

On Friday evening, Otis, a Fulbright fellow who lived in Calcutta from 2013 to 2014, and is a PhD student of journalism at the University of Maryland, US, spoke about his book at the American Center.

Started in January 1780, the newspaper was in trouble almost from the very start. Hicky was a true disruptor, who could not even stop himself from insulting his own lawyer in court. Not that he founded the newspaper from an entirely noble impulse. He had done it in his rage against the government and its network of interests, which he felt had stopped him from making his fortune. The newspaper was his instrument of revenge against these.

" Hicky's Bengal Gazette was a sensation," writes Otis, a researcher who stumbled upon Hicky on finding the memoirs of William Hickey, Hicky's lawyer and namesake.

Hicky would go after Hastings himself, charging the governor-general with corruption, and also after the powerful clergyman Johann Zacharias Kiernander, who had acquired an estate that his profession couldn't have financed.

Hicky's paper affected the lives of the most powerful around him. Given to bursts of poetry, he lampooned these men, writing scurrilous verses against them while bemoaning his own fate. In "A Tragedy call'd Tyranny in Full Bloom, or the Devil to pay...", a piece published in his gazette, Hicky calls Hastings "the grand Turk", Justice Elijah Impey "Ven Poolbundy" and Justice Hyde "Cram Turkey".

Hicky's court battles, which broke him, form the backbone of Otis's account. He had staked all - and he lost all. He was thrown into jail one year into the publication of his paper. He could not revive it after he was out.

The fiery journalist from Calcutta died an unregarded, impoverished man in a China-bound boat in 1802.

Otis writes a lively, minutely detailed account of Hicky's life. Small discoveries happened during his research. For example, he found that Justice Hyde in his notebooks - the Hyde papers are an immense help to researchers - wrote in a code when he was speaking about his corrupt colleague.

Otis's own experience of researching for this book was quite an adventure. He was "transfixed" as soon as he had found lawyer Hickey's memoirs in the library of his university in Rochester in New York. He followed the book's trail and arrived in the city. Through sheer doggedness, he landed up in the deepest chambers of the high court, where no researcher had ever set foot and where he found papers on court proceedings bound in files from Hicky's time, year by year.

Otis stressed that he has tried to write an objective account of Hicky's life, without being much of a "fanboy".