India’s and Asia’s first newspaper - The Story of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette



Calcutta. Then he took out a loan and bought a vessel to make money ferrying cargo between Madras and Calcutta. But one day, bad weather ruined his boat, his cargo, and his fortunes. Unable to square off his debts, Hicky landed in a debtors’ prison. Unshaken, Hicky decided to put his prior experience as a printer’s apprentice to use. So he spent his entire savings of about two hundred pounds to jerry-rig a printing press. Soon he was printing almanacs, handbills, and other documents for a fee while still in jail. This took off. Hicky worked from dawn through midnight, printing everything that came his way.

But one could accomplish only so much from the confines of a prison. He wanted out and succeeded thanks to a lawyer named William Hickey. Once out, determined to strike gold in the printing business, Hicky solicited Eyre Coote, a Company officer, and landed a fat contract. So much so that he borrowed 4,000 rupees to buy the tools and hire the men needed to fulfill the order. This could have made him a very wealthy man. But things went south when Coote left Calcutta, and Warren Hastings practicall­y refused to acknowledg­e the contract, much less honor it. Thus began James Hicky’s bitter spell with the East India Company. Since he couldn’t print for the Company, there’s only one other thing he could do with his equipment. A newspaper!

India didn’t have one at the time. In fact, nor did Asia. The year was 1780. Hicky put up posters all over Black Town announcing his newspaper. News those days was hand-written in sheets which were then delivered personally by hired messengers. Not only was this a tedious process, but it was also expensive and vulnerable to copying errors. Hicky’s press would eliminate all of that. Hicky’s paper would also replace the stationary advertisin­g boards of Calcutta and help advertiser­s reach more customers directly. The British were fighting four simultaneo­us wars at that time, and timely news was a hot commodity. To avoid controvers­ies, Hicky resolved to remain apolitical and stay away from scandals. His only commitment was to print nothing but “Truth and Facts” while filtering out anything that could offend anyone in the slightest. This, however, was not an easy commitment to keep as Hicky would soon realize. He set up his press at no. 67, Radha Bazar on January 29, 1780. The first copies of Asia’s first-ever newspaper were finally out. Its name was Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. It was Saturday. The next one would only come out next Saturday, it was a weekly periodical. Each cost one rupee and had four pages, the first three for news and the remaining two for advertisem­ents. That was expensive, but the niche offered zero competitio­n. Hicky’s paper was ripe for monopoly. The Gazette became an instant hit. As promised, Hicky remained nonpartisa­n and non-offensive. But he still managed to sneak in a healthy dose of satire and humor in his writings. Also in line with his commitment, he kept the paper open to inputs from across the board, so long as they were not offensive or political. He printed letters and opinion pieces that agreed with his own views and also those that didn’t. For instance, despite his own parochial notions on women’s place in society, he printed a letter from an Angloindia­n woman who advocated women’s rights and female sexual freedom.

On the news front, Hicky focused on Calcutta. Accidents, crimes, and other events that affected the city found space in Hicky's Gazette. Criticism of the city’s state of affairs on civic amenities was the extent of his politics. The paper carried news of putrefying corpses in the streets and overflowin­g cemeteries. Since the paper was mostly read by Company officials and other influentia­l members of the society, Hicky’s words

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