Hicky, Maria and Warren

The travails of Hicky - the ‘Papa of the Indian press’

So many events converged to destroy the life of this hapless character, a bloke named James Augustus Hicky of Calcutta. The Nuncomar case, the ill-gotten gains of Maria - the lovely wife of Warren Hastings, the machinations of Phillip Francis and his paramour Catherine, the fury of Elijah Impey - the chief justice of the Supreme Court and most of all, the ire of Warren Hastings, the Governor General. Hicky was unfortunate to get involved with all these illustrious people though he went about it craftily and with gusto, by bringing out his own newspaper and speaking often and publically about their misdeeds.

We will get into some amount of detail as we go on, and to set the scene, we go back in time to the environs around Fort Williams of Old Calcutta, where the British EIC had established themselves following the black hole incident and the Battle of Plassey. The period we will get to covers the last three decades of the 18th century. The Calcutta of those days was as they wrote, was ‘by all accounts an uncomfortable place of residence, as awkward a place as can be conceived, with mansions and hovels, warehouses and gardens jostling one another, and huddled together in inextricable confusion’. British accounts state that life for the Gorah’s was considered to be so unhealthy that people who met together at the end of the rains, congratulated one another on having survived yet another season.

A record states - In those early days, the Governor's house and gardens lay hard by the Fort, and the grounds extended from the river bank right up to the Lai Bagh with its splendid tank, which we have disguised to-day under the name of Dalhousie Square, and which was the rendezvous and recreation-ground of the Settlement. The beautiful Mrs. Imhoff, or "Baroness Imhoff," as she is usually styled, whom we will soon get to know better, who became the Governor-General's second wife, is said to have held her salon in Hastings Street.

Hastings and Maria at Alipore
A few words on Maria and Warren to start with – Maria née Anna Maria Apollonia Chapuset; or Maria von Imhoff, Baroness von Imhoff was the second wife of Warren Hastings. Their story is a story of love and well documented. During a voyage from Dover in 1769, he met the German Baroness Imhoff and her husband Baron Imhoff, a painter who had obtained a position in the Madras Army. The seasick Hastings was nursed to health (and more for sure) by the Baroness, he soon fell in love with the 22 year old lady and they began an affair, seemingly with her husband's consent in Madras, where the three of them apparently lived together in a public ‘ménage a trois’. Hastings' first wife, Mary, had died in 1759, and it appears he planned to marry the Baroness once she had obtained a divorce from her husband. Imhoff conveniently moved to Calcutta leaving behind his wife, to Hastings care and soon enough, Hastings also secured the position in Calcutta (Hastings was by then on his second tour to India, and in 1774, he was appointed the first Governor-General of Bengal and also the first governor of India) and the Imhoff’s, moved into his property, the Belvedere estate, in Alipore. Hastings’s regular visits to his estate which but naturally occurred, set the tongues of Calcutta wagging. 

Eventfully Imhoff went back to Europe richer by Rs 10,000 (purportedly the remuneration for a painting of Hastings, but in reality the price for a divorce) where he married a Von Schad and Maria as a result obtained a formal divorce from the Baron on the basis of ‘abandonment of a conjugal mate’ in 1777 after which she married Hastings; with Impey serving as the best man. It was this lovely middle aged baroness who became the subject of Hicky’s ire …But let’s get back to the printing scene at first.

William Bolts was the first to announce his plan to start publishing a manuscript detailing the scandals surrounding EIC officials of Calcutta, in 1768. The alarmed EIC bosses immediately expelled him from Calcutta and packed him off to Europe. Following Bolts’s aborted attempt at starting a newspaper, there was a lull and the only way for the upper crest to get some kind of news was to wait for European papers which came when the East Indiamen ships from Europe docked, carrying stale news and many months too late.

A strange fact to bear in mind is the point that the printing press itself had arrived in Goa as early as 1556 and following the first booklet ‘Doctrina Christina’, another was printed in Malayalam (using Tamil script) as early as 1578. However it took two more centuries before Hicky decided to bell the cat and launch his newsweekly, Hicky’s Bengal gazette. Until then the British never allowed publishing in English fearing the power of the pen and we get to know the gist of the reasoning from a 1778 blue book which stated this about native language publishing - Certain publications in Oriental languages, printed or circulated in British India, have of late contained matter likely to excite disaffection to the Government established by law in British India, or antipathy between persons of different races, castes, religions, or sects in British India, or have been used as a means of intimidation or extortion." It is added that “Such publications are read by and disseminated among large numbers of ignorant and unintelligent persons, and are thus likely to have an influence which they otherwise would not possess,” and it is declared to be “necessary for the maintenance of the public tranquility, and for the security of Her Majesty’s subjects and others, that power should be conferred on the Executive Government to control the printing and circulation of such publications. But one person, the aforementioned James Augustus Hicky, took the lead and decided to bring out a local paper, a 12”x 8” 3 column, four pager on the Saturday, January 29, 1780.

Let us get a little bit of personal background on Hicky. Busteed in his “echoes from Old Calcutta’ introduces our man thus - The proprietor of Bengal Gazette was a Mr. James Augustus Hicky, who was probably a printer by trade, and had come out from England, possibly under engagement from the India House, as in one of his early addresses to the public (a form of communication in which he was fond of indulging) he describes himself as " the first and late printer to the Honorable Company," and in another as "free of the Printers and Stationers Company in London." As Thankappan Nair described, the complex James Augustus Hicky was a printer by profession, a surgeon by choice, and a journalist at heart.

From other records we glean that James Augustus Hicky (b.1740 or earlier) the son of William, a linen- weaver of Long Acre (Ireland), was living at Colimba or more precisely at Taltalah, in Colinga Moochipara,  had sailed to Calcutta  as a surgeon’s mate in 1772, though apprenticed as a printer in London. But finding the printing scene somewhat uncongenial, and perhaps trading business more lucrative, he drifted into the shipping line. This was a disaster, for in the years 1775-76 ( as he informed his readers himself later) he met with very many heavy losses by sea, that in the latter year his vessel returned to Calcutta with her cargo damaged, while a bond of his became due for some four thousand rupees. To meet this he offered his all, two thousand rupees, but "the black Bengal banias proved inflexible." Finally he gave up his vessel, cargo, and all his household effects to his creditors, and in October, 1776, "delivered up his person at the jail of Calcutta to free his bail, and for the first time in all his life entered the walls of a prison."

His contemporary, the lawyer and writer William Hickey who met him as a client while Hicky was in this debtor’s jail describes him thus - a most eccentric creature apparently possessed of considerable natural talents, but entirely uncultivated. Never before had I beheld a mortal who so completely came up to what I had often heard described as a wild Irishman! Upon enquiring particularly into the character and conduct of my namesake, I learnt that he was extremely violent, gelding so much to sudden gusts of passion and so grossly abusing whoever acted for him that at length not a professional man could be found to act for him, and he actually remained a prisoner from there not being an attorney who would have anything to say to him.

Hickey claims that Hicky studied printing while in Debtor’s prison and alludes to some training as a doctor.  He says - At the time I first saw Hicky, he had been about seven years in India. During his confinement he met with a treatise upon printing, from which he collected sufficient information to commence printer, there never having been a press in Calcutta. By indefatigable attention and unremitting labour he succeeded in cutting a rough set of types which answered very well for hand-bills and common advertisements, and as he could afford to work cheap he met with considerable encouragement. Having scraped together by this means a few hundred rupees he sent to England for a regular and proper set of materials for printing. Resolving also to have two strings to his bow, he at the same time gave orders for a quantity of medicine, as he proposed to exercise the business of physician, surgeon, and apothecary, as well as that of printer.

Busteed continues - "With his two thousand rupees (I don’t know where he got it, probably Hickey won the case and got him some settlement from the Banias of Calcutta) he purchased a few types, set carpenters to work to make printing materials, and advertised to print for the public." At this he laboriously continued with fair encouragement from several gentlemen of the Settlement for two years, and then ventured further in the same direction, " although," he explained, ' I have no particular passion for printing of newspapers, I have no propensity; I was not bred to a slavish life of hard work, yet I take a pleasure in enslaving my body in order to purchase freedom for my mind and soul." Whilst patiently waiting the arrival of these articles, it occurred to Hicky that great benefit might arise from setting on foot a public newspaper, nothing of that kind ever having appeared. Upon his types, therefore reaching him, he issued proposals for printing a weekly paper, which, meeting with extraordinary encouragement, he speedily issued his first work. As a novelty every person read it, and was delighted.

Initially he printed bill, regulations and other stationery for the EIC from a press located in Radha Bazar.  The payments for later work was grossly delayed and this major grouse troubled him for many years. The arrears were substantial and amounted to Rs 43,514. It took close to 14 years and it was finally around 1790, that the EIC paid a reduced amount of Rs 6,711 to the hapless Hicky, claiming that the supplies were of poor quality. Anyway Hicky had decided that government business was no good and ventured out to publish his own newspaper – which he announced would be ‘a weekly political and commercial paper, open to all but influenced by NONE’. In no time, he was called by the pro establishment as ‘the most objectionable rowdy that ever landed in Calcutta’. Hicky on the other hand thought himself to be - a scourge to Tyrannical Villains, and upstart Schemers and Embezzlers of the Company’s property, Stainers of the British Flag and Disgracers of the English name.

Thus was born Hicky’s Bengal gazette which Busteed stated was - a curiosity in these days, and helps to give a glimpse at certain phases of the contemporary European social life in Calcutta, which could not, perhaps, be got elsewhere. In returning thanks for the first list of contributors, the proprietor states that “should he be so fortunate in his endeavors as to bring so useful an undertaking as a newspaper to perfection he will think himself amply rewarded, as it may in a very little time prove an antibilous specific, from which he hopes his subscribers will receive more natural benefit than from tincture of bark, castor oil, or columba root." As a newspaper it looked for its patrons, both at the Presidency, and in the Mofussil, mainly amongst the free merchants and traders and the general non-official European classes. To these and to their commercial and domestic requirements the advertising columns are devoted. Some of these patrons took to calling him the papa of the Indian press.

The paper was decidedly scurrilous, vulgar and of poor quality. But it did provide good entertainment to the readers and provided them with ample whiffs of scandals floating around the Calcutta high society. Hicky should have continued in this merry way and kept the business to himself, but then again, he was of a different type and started to write about the Nuncomar case, the wrongful acts of Impey and of Hastings in hastening the conviction and hanging of Prince Nanda Kumar (a.k.a. Nuncomar). Not only that, he did not spare many other high level officers of the EIC in Calcutta from his vicious and indirect barbs. Misfortune first hit Hicky when his house burnt down in a local fire and had to be rebuilt in stone and mortar.

The event that really rattled Hicky into making even more personal attacks on Hastings and Maria was the announcement of the launch of a new newspaper coupled with an order by Hastings banning Hickeys gazette from being sent to patrons, through the General post office. The order was issued by Gov. Hastings due to Hicky’s ‘publishing of several improper paragraphs tending to vilify private characters and to disturb the peace of the settlement’. This happened in Nov 1780, about 10 months after Hickey had started his now popular newsweekly.

The new newspaper which was launched with the tacit support of Hastings was the India gazette, with a free post concession. Hicky was incensed to see how the governor general had used his power to strike down his own fledgling newspaper. He screamed and cried bitterly through his medium that Hastings was ‘the strongest proof of arbitrary power and influence’ and his use of the post office to deprive ‘a man off his livelihood was beyond the prerogative of the British crown’. However the practical problem was that his paper could not be delivered to his patrons without the post office and the net loss was about Rs 400 p.m. Hicky would not be deterred though, and he used his friend’s network to spread his paper around and hired twenty harkaras or delivery boys to have his papers delivered to patrons outside the city. In an effort to maintain and even increase his readership, he resorted to increased reporting of juicy gossip and magnifying the misdeeds of Hastings and his friends, with more direct attacks, instead of the previous method of renaming the characters in mock plays scripted in the paper.

The next broadside delivered by Hicky was against Johann Zachariah Keirnander, a Swedish missionary, longtime resident of Calcutta, having moved there after a tenure in Malabar and Madras and who came into Hicky’s cross-hairs for having delivered better quality printing types to his competitor, the aforementioned India gazette. Hicky found fault with the pastor for delivering high quality type (which was in Kiernander’s possession for printing and the spreading of the divine gospel) to his competitor for printing local news.  He accused the pastor of selling the church to the government and the pastor in return sued him for libel, in the Supreme Court. Hicky was found guilty and sentenced to 4 months in prison and Rs 500.

Hicky also concluded in the meanwhile that the free post concession given to India gazette were garnered by Peter Reed and Bernard Messink the owners, after bribing Maria Hastings, who in return pushed Hastings to promulgate the ban on Hicky’s gazette from being posted and in providing tacit support to the new paper (more friendly to him and his cronies). Hicky promptly published his findings and mentioned bitterly that he too could gave got the very same concessions had he chosen the backdoor and enriched the coffers of Maria Hastings.

But Hicky survived through all this due to the ‘behind the scenes’ support which he received from Hastings’s rival, Sir Phillip Francis (he was rumored to be the ghost writer Junius in the Gazette), another member of the five strong supreme council of Bengal. Francis of course had his own troubles and was involved in many a personal scandal which Hicky conveniently glossed over, in his paper. What brought matters to a head was the arrival of the pretty damsel Catherine Grand of Tranquebar to Calcutta and Francis’s affairs with her as well as Francis’s disagreements with Hastings over the conduct of the Maratha war. A court case which was inconclusive was to be decided over a duel between Francis and Hastings. In August 1780, this duel which was the consequence, resulted in Francis receiving a dangerous wound (I will cover this salacious story in the forthcoming article). Though his recovery was quick and complete, Francis returned to Britain, depriving Hicky of a powerful patron, by early 1781. Catherine departed a week later, destined for France, via South Africa.
The duel - Hastings Vs Francis
Hicky was now in for trouble, with Hastings on the ascent and his patron Francis out of the scene. An armed band of 400 persons led by some Europeans raided Hicky’s press in order to arrest him, as ordered by the Chief Justice Impey, Hastings’s good friend. Hicky surrendered and a bail of Rs 80,000 was set. Seeing that he had no way out of it, Hicky appealed for a lesser bail, pleading for Rs 5,000 which was denied and Hicky was imprisoned. Hastings had assumed that the arrest would silence Hicky, but to his alarm, it simply did not. Hicky continued his tirade and publishing from within the walls of the prison and fortunately for him, Hastings had to go to the NWFP for some months, while Hicky’s case was being heard.

Finally he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in April 1782 and a Rs 2, 000 fine. Impey as chief justice also awarded Hastings, libel damages of Rs 5,000 which the Governor General grandly waived. As the incarcerated Hicky continued publishing his paper from the prison, Hastings and Impey retaliated by instituting suit after suit against Hicky, till the paper and the owner were crushed to finally pleading forma pauperis (pauper) after a hard two years stint in the Birjee jail.

Initially the court did not seize his types and press, but due to nonpayment of court fines, they were eventually seized and destroyed and with it all hopes of restarting his publishing business was lost. Time had passed by and by this time there were at least half a dozen competing journals on the street. Hicky was at last broken and it had taken all the might of the Governor general’s office and the power of the Supreme Court with Impey the chief justice. He was also forced to accept a reduced payment of Rs 6,711 instead of the Rs 43,000 arrears owed by the EIC to him, finally in 1793.

The sad middle aged (I should say old, since life in India for the Britisher was quite tough and aged people much faster) man and his family settled down to a life of relative penury treating the ill in the largely native locale of Colimba, after 1785. Records mention that he became an apothecary and a surgeon and tread a miserable path from then on. However we do note that he did contribute to another newspaper run by Almon in 1786. Towards the end, he was recorded as pleading to Hastings in writing during 1799 for mercy and begging for a small job as a clerk at the Calcutta market, if not he said, he will be forced to get a job as a surgeon on a china man, so that he could at least get his family home to Britain. We also note that towards the end he was trading of Chinese and European goods.

It was time for him to go I guess, and finally we see from a newspaper report that James Augustus Hicky died in 1802 on a ship Ajax, en route to China. As he wrote while in prison, Every hope has fled, and the future only offers horror and confinement till death brings release…Hicky, the papa of the Indian press had found release. His ‘garden house’ was auctioned off in 1803. He was survived by his (perhaps Indian Muslim) wife and 9 or so of his eleven children.  Thus passed away the Papa of the Indian Press.

Thankappan Nair, the chronicler of Calcutta rightly states – Journalism was a one man concern in those days of Hicky, for he was his own typesetter, printer, publisher, salesman, advertisement manager, correspondent and news bureau. 

The stories of Hastings and Impey does not end here. Maria amassed immense wealth herself while at Calcutta and Hicky was not entirely wrong in his insinuations. Hastings went back to England in 1784. Upon his return to England he was impeached in the House of Commons for crimes and misdemeanors conducted during his time in India, especially for the alleged judicial killing of Nandakumar, through the instigations of his rival, Phillip Francis. After seven years of court hearings and a great personal cost, Hastings was acquitted in 1795 with a small pension. Francis who was hoping for the conviction of Hastings and a post of Governor General for himself was disappointed and retired to a private life thereafter.  Maria and Hastings lived to long ages. Johann Zachariah Keirnander fell from his chair, broke his leg and passed away in 1799. Catherine Grand went up the ladder and shone as a courtesan, but well her interesting story will follow next.

Memoirs of William Hickey Vol. 2 Ed Alfred Spencer
Echoes from old Calcutta: being chiefly reminiscences of the days of Warren Hastings, Francis, and Impey" – HE Busteed
Hicky and His Gazette - P. Thankappan Nair
Tales of Old and New Madras: By S. Muthiah
Romance of Indian Journalism - Jitendra Nath Basu
Risking Official Displeasure: The Trial and Tribulations of India's First Newsweekly in 1780 - Debashis Aikat
Bengal: Past and Present, Volume 1. Bengal Past and Present Vol.30
Transoceanic Radical: William Duane: National Identity and Empire, 1760-1835 - Nigel Little
The Letters of Warren Hastings to His Wife - Sydney C Grier
Indian Ink : Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company - Ogborn, Miles
Indian Advertising: 1780 to 1950 A.D.  Arun Chaudhuri
Courtesan princess – Annette Joelson

By Victor Surridge, Illustrations by A.D. Macromick - Romance of Empire India, Public Domain
By Johann Zoffany - http://www.victoriamemorial-cal.org/resored-paintings.html, Public Domain, 

The issue of the withheld payment is a classic story of government manipulation. Ogborn Miles covers it explicitly in his fine book – As the story goes, Hicky after printing a first batch of bills was asked in 1779 to print a digest of Sir Eyre Coote’s military regulations. To do so he employed several men to help with the printing, as well as a blacksmith, a carpenter, and brassmen to service the press and provide the brass rues such a publication required and borrowed Rs 4,000 from his friend Captain price. After getting the initial proof approved, he printed 2135 copies. By this time Coote had to rush off to fight Haider Ali at Ft St George and Hicky was asked to contact Hastings for the payments. Knowing that Hastings would not treat him well, he decided to wait for Coote’s return.

A major issue was that the producers of the regulations did not want their work culled and threatened Coote anonymously with murder, for trying to reduce or nullify their lifetime's efforts. So they delayed approvals of further proofs and blocked Hickys attempts to employ new printers with fickle arguments such as ‘the incumbent is fond of liquor’ or ‘was good only to make sky rockets with printing paper’. As the case dragged on, it was finally decided that Coote had no real authority to give a contract to Hicky. Anyway Hicky was eventually paid only a small amount of Rs 6,711, for his efforts, 14 years later, in 1793.

Errata - It has been pointed out to me that the previously posted image, was in reality an imaginary portrait of Hicky and not that of JA Hicky. So the image has been deleted. Regret the error.


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