People & Society

A lesson in press freedom from 18th century Calcutta

Published Mar 18, 2018 11:38pm

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National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The story of press freedom in British India begins with, and is linked to, the East India Company. Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper in British India, was founded by James Augustus Hicky in 1780. It quickly ran afoul of Warren Hastings, the governor general, and other officials as it raised issues of corruption and trade malpractices in the Company. It also made allegations about the extravagant lifestyle of Hastings’ wife, Marian, which landed Hicky in jail. The paper didn’t last long afterward.

A decade later, another Irish-American would incur the East India Company’s displeasure on two separate occasions, leading to his eventual deportation. William Duane, however, went on to make a new life for himself in which he was responsible for a key turn in American politics.

Hicky's Bengal Gazette | Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-SA 3.0 Unported licence]
Hicky's Bengal Gazette | Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-SA 3.0 Unported licence]

Learning the paper trade

Born in 1760, Duane grew up in upstate New York. His father died when he was seven, and his mother decided to return to her family home in Ireland. It was in London, some years later, that Duane learned the printing trade as an apprentice. He angered his mother and lost out on a small family inheritance, when, against her wishes, he married Catherine Corcoran, a woman of the Anglican faith. It had been only a century since Britain had succeeded in driving the Catholic King, James II, into exile and religious differences could still create family divides. At that point, Duane decided to seek his fortunes in British India.

When he made his way to Calcutta, Duane noticed the more unsavoury aspects of how the East India Company operated. In the beginning, when Duane worked for the Bengal Journal – established in 1785 by Thomas Jones (who remains a mysterious figure in history) – he was more conciliatory. For instance, it was Duane who reached an agreement with Lord Hastings to print government advertisements in return for concessional postage rates (a practice that remained quite common until recently). However, it was events that occurred elsewhere and had repercussions in British and French India, that were to soon set Duane at odds with the East India Company.

The French Revolution of 1789 had its impact in French colonies in Asia as well. Chandernagore, a few miles away from British Calcutta, saw its French representatives “overthrown” on May 3, 1790, by a spontaneously-formed citizens’ assembly in what the historian Nigel Little has called a “petit revolution”. Leading French officials were forced to seek refuge in Calcutta.

Chandernagore in a wood engraving. Image credit | Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Chandernagore in a wood engraving. Image credit | Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

At this point in time, relations between the French and British were complicated. The two countries were rivals and enemies, but when it came to age-old privileges, as symbolised by the ancien regime, the British in Calcutta were quick to support the French elite, especially Canaple, the French commander in Chandernagore. Canaple was also at odds with the British commander, Lord Cornwallis who, seeking French neutrality in his battle with Mysore’s Tipu Sultan, had chosen to support Canaple’s opponents.

Into this complex maze of old loyalties and new ideals, Duane waded in, when he wrote in support of the French revolution. He also published an unsubstantiated report of Lord Cornwallis’ death during a campaign against Tipu Sultan – a news item Duane attributed in turn to Canaple.

Deception and deportation

This earned Duane the wrath of John Shore, who had succeeded Hastings as governor general. Duane was asked to apologise to Canaple. At this conciliatory meeting, as Nigel Little writes, Duane instead delivered a lecture on “the rights of man”, a subject championed by the likes of Thomas Paine, the American philosopher whose book on the subject would appear some months later. Duane was arrested and soon faced the threat of deportation.

Duane earned himself some reprieve with an apology. And when the Bengal Journal ceased publication, the irrepressible Duane launched another publication, The World. For all the ambition in its title, The World immersed itself in reporting on how the East India Company functioned. It largely published anonymous reports written by dissidents in the Company and disgruntled army men who wrote of conditions in the Company’s army, especially the pay disparity between officers and soldiers of the army and the Company’s elite merchant corps.

Predictably, such reports drew the ire of John Shore and the East India Company. Threatened with arrest and liquidation of his assets, Duane chose the safer option. He announced an auction of his assets, including The World and booked himself passage in a ship called the Hercules. But he had quite a surprise coming his way.

John Shore | National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
John Shore | National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The morning of his departure, he received an invitation to Government House, the governor general’s official residence. Duane accepted the invitation, considering it a farewell gesture. Instead, Shore, in methods well-emulated by countless Bollywood and other villains since then, had Duane detained, arrested and all his property confiscated.

To London and Philadelphia

Three days later, Duane was put on board an Indiaman – a term used to describe any ship chartered or licenced by the East India Company – headed toward London. It was 1795, six years since the French Revolution, and Duane found himself in a politically-charged London, with revolutionary rhetoric, suspicion and paranoia in the air.

A Visit to Colombia, Duane’s book detailing his travels, is publicly available and his other writings, in six volumes, called the William Duane notebooks, remain with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In the third volume Duane makes interesting observations about the history of India and also writes about the Vedas and the epics.

In London, a newspaperman at heart, he worked for The Telegraph, a paper that spoke for the working classes and artisans. The British Parliament’s Committee of Secrecy had, in 1794, recommended the suspension of habeas corpus, by which those perceived as dissenters and opponents to the government could be arrested without warrant. Duane, having caught the authorities’ attention, fled. This time, it was westward to Philadelphia.

Duane had to make a new life for himself all over again, but he remained loyal to causes dear to his heart. In Philadelphia, he worked for the Aurora, a paper that is believed to have been jointly founded by Duane and Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of the American statesman and inventor who shared his name.

Duane’s life took yet another turn when a yellow fever epidemic in 1798 claimed the lives of his wife and of Bache, who was only 29. For some years, Duane ran the paper in association with Bache’s wife, Margaret, whom he would marry a few years later.

Getting the president elected

As Aurora’s editor, Duane wrote articles in favour of the American statesman, Thomas Jefferson who was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence and a leading figure in support of democracy and states’ rights to veto any unpopular legislation. When Duane was threatened with deportation yet again as per the Alien and Sedition Act, instituted by the government under President John Adams, Duane was quick to file for citizenship.

As the campaign to elect the third President progressed, Duane met his match in William Cobbett, publisher of the rival Porcupine Gazette in Philadelphia. Cobbett spoke for Adams, and the Federalists. Malicious, wildly inventive, and scurrilous news items appeared, with proponents of both sides determined to get their own candidate elected. It was a time when necessary truths, and “fake news” of a kind, flew fast and furious.

Duane’s support for Jefferson received its just rewards, after the candidate won the election to become America’s third president. As records of the historical society of Pennsylvania show, Jefferson, in many ways, credited Duane and the Aurora for his victory. Duane secured an influential position in the military (as support staff), thanks to Jefferson’s intervention. During 1822-’23, he also visited South America, riding muleback across a large part of Venezuela and Colombia, whose struggles against Spain he greatly admired. He was, indeed, a man for all revolutions, and died in 1835.


The article was originally published in the Scroll.in