Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 23, March 16-31, 2019

Hicky takes on Calcutta

R.V. Rajan continuing the story of Hicky's Bengal Gazette.

(Continued from last fortnight)

Page 3 images

Hicky, Chief Justice Impey, Rev. Kiernander.

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette became a sensation within a few weeks of its launch. Printed on Saturdays, each issue was four pages and cost Re. 1/-, similar in price to newspapers in England at the time. Hicky dedicated the first two or three pages to news and opinion letters; what was left being for advertisements. He encouraged readers to write him letters. He tried to be witty and satirical. As promised, he avoided politics. He wanted his paper to serve society and ventured into more topics, like the role women should fill in society. Typical for his time, he and his writers supported the belief that the men were superior to women. A contradiction of Hicky’s reporting was that while he printed articles arguing that women should be chaste, he also printed articles supporting a woman’s right to control her own sexuality. Hicky also reported on the poor and lower classes. He expressed a level of consciousness well before his time, shaped and developed by his background as a workman and his experience in debtors’ prison. At some point, he went a step further. His support of the poor would turn into criticism of the rich.
Hicky soon discovered that he had influence. Many people, including Company servants, read his newspaper. Based on on issues raised by Hicky in his paper, actions were taken by authorities. With this, Hicky slowly began to change. He became more political as he saw the power his newspaper wielded. He changed his masthead to proclaim that his newspaper was “Open to all Parties, but influenced by None” indicating that he would be accepting more controversial topics.
The first of these topics was war. He used his newspaper to criticise the Army’s promotion system. Poor subalterns learned with dismay that the system was corrupted by connections and money.
His war coverage gained him an international audience. But his success meant that others with the right connection saw a good opportunity to challenge him.
Bernard Messink & Peter Reed were the first two challengers. Neither of them had any printing experience. Messink came to printing from theatre, where he was well known. Reed came from Bengal’s salt trade, where he was equally well connected. Besides, Reed saw newspapers as a profitable business venture and his experience taught him how to avoid the pitfalls of others. He knew that the best way to succeed was to support those in power. With patronage secured, Messink and Reed launched their newspaper, India Gazette, on November 18, 1780.
They differed from Hicky in almost every way. Where Hicky covered the poor, they covered the rich. Where Hicky was lewd, they were dull and dry. Where Hicky emphasised independence, they made no secret that they had Hastings’ support. Thanks to their closeness to the power centre, they were granted free postage of their paper. Hicky had to pay postage. They became the Company’s de facto mouthpiece, and the Company rewarded them with advertisements and public notices.
Hicky saw injustice in Messink and Reed being given free postage and much advertising and began to take on the Company. He began exposing corrupt officers in the Company and the Government. His first target was Simeon Droz, the chief of the Board of Trade, who was close to Marian Hastings and who had tried to lure Hicky into paying a bribe to protect his paper, which Hicky refused to do.
But Hastings was determined to do something. Hicky was forbidden from mailing any newspapers through the post office or anyone else from mailing them on Hicky’s behalf. Hicky had to resort to direct distribution of newspaper using hircarrahs (couriers). Despite the crackdown, Hicky remained unbowed and his paper remained as popular as ever.
With the help of anonymous correspondents, Hicky started an anti-tyranny, anti-corruption and pro-free speech campaign. Through his writings, he made it clear that if Company servants used their positions to enrich themselves at public’s expense, he would use his paper to shame and expose them. His correspondents focused on three main means of corruption: contracts, nepotism, and taxation without representation. They first attacked Hastings’ many ‘no bid’ contracts. This was followed by an attack on Chief Justice Impey for approving a byelaw under which a 14.5 per cent property tax was announced to repair city roads. Hicky was convinced that the byelaw was a massive fraud to enrich the judges and their acolytes. In the contracts and the byelaw, he saw a violation of the notions of life and liberty that he now believed was his mission to protect. It would not be long before he began to publish articles that more than warned of revolution, and called for it.
In the context of a peace treaty that Hastings had signed with Berar, he attacked Hastings personally, calling him ‘all despotic’, a ‘Great Mogul’, and insinuating that stress from the wars had damaged Hastings ‘personal spring’ giving him ‘erectile dysfunction’. While his personal attacks may have only been insolent, his willingness to let his newspaper be the voice of aggrieved subalterns meant he would begin to be perceived as a real threat to authority and discipline. The pressure on Hastings to shut down Hicky was mounting. In the meanwhile, Hicky launched a scathing attack on Kiernander, the first missionary sent by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.He accused Kiernander of forgetting the sanctity of his function as a priest and for abandoning vows that forbade him from dealing with the world.
By now Hicky had made enough enemies and there was an assassination attempt on him on the night of April 5,1781. Hicky was not intimidated. He saw himself as the scourge of tyrants, the defender of free speech and the protector of the people. It was no longer about revolt against the idea of oppression in some distant place; it was about revolt against Hastings, here and now! Hastings decided to act.
Hicky was arrested from his home on June 12,1781 and charged with libel. The next morning he was dragged into court and brought before the judges and a grand jury of 23 men. The court read the charges against him. Five counts of libel; three from Hastings and two from Kiernander. The grand jury agreed that criminal charges should be brought on all five counts. A sum of Rs 40,000 became the bail amount – an astronomical sum which Hicky was in no position to pay.
Unable to post bail, Hicky prepared for his trial as best as he could from his jail cell. He still printed his newspaper, even though in jail. He turned to his best weapon: satire. Freedom of the Press in Calcutta was about to be put on trial. In anticipation of a packed house, Hicky came to court ready to fight.
Libel in the 18th Century was defined as any printed matter whose content could breach the peace and a printer could be sued for libel on almost anything. Furthermore, printers were responsible for their writers’ articles even if they had never seen their content.
Hicky decided to defend himself. His defence was simple yet radical. He claimed he was the victim of tyranny and despotism and he had a right to print, something that no man, or no company, could take away from him. In spite of his forceful arguments, Impey guided the jury to find Hicky guilty. However, the next day, the jury declared Hicky not guilty.
Though Hicky was lucky in this first trial, in the subsequent three trials dealing with other libel counts, he was found guilty. On October 29, 1781, Judges Chambers and Hyde sentenced Hicky to serve twelve months in jail, pay Rs. 25,000 in fines – not to mention an unnamed sum in court fees – and be imprisoned until the fines were paid.
Imprisonment did not stop Hicky and he somehow managed to continue printing his newspaper from jail. He continued to defend the freedom of the Press, but in tones turned darker, writings increasingly bitter and mood more melancholy.
It was clear that Hicky was not going to soften his stance. The only way to prevent him from printing such libels would be to shut his press down. In early 1782, Hastings brought four more legal actions against Hicky. Still in jail, in debt, unable to bear the costs of his trials, Hicky swallowed his pride and declared himself as a “pauper”.
British Law allowed paupers to keep the implements of their profession because they were seen as the only way the poor could pay back their fines. When the judges permitted his plea, it was a joyous moment for Hicky. However the following week, with no explanation, the judges reversed their decision. Impey ordered the Sheriff to seize Hicky’s printing press. Two weeks later, all his belongings went up for auction. The Company’s printer bought everything Hicky owned for one-sixteenth its value.
Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was no more. Hicky had been silenced within two years of his starting his newspaper. But his case and his complaints would reach the Throne in Great Britain. Warren Hastings was recalled two years later to England where he was impeached for all his wrongdoings in India. After a trial lasting eight years, he was acquitted on all charges. Before he left Calcutta, one of the last acts he performed was to order the Supreme Court to waive the rest of Hicky’s fines and let Hicky go free.
Ten months after he was released from jail, Hicky tried to restart his newspaper. But he was a broken man and his newspaper appears to have failed within months. Hicky faded into obscurity until his death in 1802 aboard the ship Ajax. D’Acres Lane in Calcutta, from where he ran his press is now renamed James Hicky Sarani and has a plaque commemorating him.
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