An Eccentric Irishman

In the 18th century, an eccentric Irishman moved a thousand miles east to India. There, he would go bankrupt, land in prison, but then bounce back to become one of the greatest dissidents the world has ever known. His name was James Augustus Hicky. If you asked him about it, he would probably sit you down and tell you all about the corruption of the East India Company, perhaps accusing British Governor General Warren Hastings of erectile dysfunction while he’s at it.

Hicky was born in Ireland in 1740. In adulthood, he entered the printing trade, before attempting to be a lawyer. When that didn’t work out, he tried to become a surgeon. Because almost no one in London would employ him, Hicky took his eccentricities to Calcutta on an East India Company ship. He passed opulent mansions of wealthy Company employees until he reached the roughest part of town – the part where the Indians and poor Europeans lived. The poorest European immigrants to India went almost unrecorded in history, as they were unimportant to the Company. It is with these poor Europeans and Indians that Hicky chose to live. 

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette

Front page of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, March 10, 1781, from the University of Heidelberg’s archives. (Wikipedia)

Hicky worked as a merchant, attempting to make it big like the top Company officials. However, his cargo was damaged and his business went under. Back then, if you couldn’t repay a debt, you went to prison. So, in 1776, Hicky went to debtor’s prison. Undeterred by his tragic misfortune, Hicky got his hands on a printing press he couldn’t get in London and began printing a newspaper — Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. It was the first newspaper in India. 

Hicky wanted his Gazette to be a bastion of free expression and anti-corruption. Its slogan was “Open to all Parties, but influenced by None.” Soon, however, the businessmen with ties to the East India Company attempted to open a competing paper, the India Gazette. Hicky did not take this lying down. He turned his paper into a platform to ridicule the Company.

A Champion of Women and the Poor

Since he lived with the lower classes of Calcutta, he told stories that no one else could, like the Italian of Calcutta who spoke a combination of English, French, Portuguese, and Hindustani. Furthermore, his time in debtors’ prison infused his writing with a certain amount of class consciousness, decades before Marx published his manifesto. The pages of the paper regularly ridiculed the rich and powerful. 

Though something of a misogynist himself, Hicky allowed women of all backgrounds to write in the paper. Notably, he published a piece by a poor half-Indian half-European woman, which said that her skin color did not make her inferior to Europe’s “fine Ladies.” Progressive for its time, the Gazette received much notoriety for a humor piece that contained a reference to female masturbation. 

Reporting of the East India Company

Hicky was most famous for his reporting on the wars waged by the East India Company. He bemoaned the loss of life they caused. He pointed out how little Company cadets were paid, while the higher-ups took the profit. A voice for the Indian poor as well, he made sure to write about the famine the wars caused. His reports were reprinted in newspapers as far as France and Germany. 

Naturally, the Gazette caused quite a stir around Calcutta. Everyone had to see what it was about. Of course, the East India Company was not happy about this. 

Warren Hastings bites the dust

Public Domain
File:Warren Hastings by Tilly Kettle.jpg
Created: circa 1772 date QS:P571,+1772-00-00T00:00:00Z/9,P1480,Q5727902

When Hicky accused the East India Company of corruption, Warren Hastings blocked his paper from being mailed. Not to be outdone, Hicky publicly accused Warren Hastings of erectile dysfunction (as well as further corruption and tyranny). Hastings responded by suing for libel. 

After a series of four trials (in which Hicky was defended by a lawyer named Hickey) Hicky was sent to jail and his types were seized. Not much is known of what happened to him after, except that he died on a boat to China in 1803. Despite his tragic demise, Hicky’s legacy cannot be understated. He showed Indians how the press could be used to fight for freedom, and his daring dissent has been recorded for future generations to admire.

In 1787, in part due to Hicky’s writings, Warren Hastings was impeached for corruption and sent back to England. The Irish jester of Calcutta had the last laugh.

Ashir Rao is a student at Los Gatos High School, CA. He likes programming and history — especially as it relates to current events.