Born in Ireland around the year 1740, James Augustus Hicky moved to London at a young age to apprentice a Scottish printer, William Faden. During his short stint in London’s printing industry, Hicky observed the delicate position of the journalists, as they were punished or jailed every now and then. He took it as a lesson, resolved to avoid party politics and scandal that had spelt doom for so many journalists and never took his freedom from the printers' guild. Instead, he secured the job of a clerk with an English lawyer, Sarjeant Davy. However, after some time, he left the job, attempted briefly to practice as a surgeon in London and finally boarded a ship bound for Calcutta in 1772, as the mate of a surgeon to make his fortune, which landed him in the horrifying situation of an 18th century Calcutta prison.
Hicky started his life in Calcutta as a physician, he prescribed medicines, attended to the bleeding patients and removed the abscesses. Later, he accumulated and borrowed money to purchase a small vessel and started a business in trading goods along the coast of India. Unfortunately, his shipping business collapsed by 1776, as his vessel returned to the Calcutta port with its cargo badly damaged due to rough weather.
As he was unable to return the loan taken from the bankers, Hicky was labelled a debtor, his bankers seized all his belongings, which included his ship, his house, even the furniture and consequently, he was jailed in the month of October 1776. However, before he was sent to the jail, Hicky made a smart move, as he squirreled away 2,000 Rupees with a trusted friend, which he used during his stay in the jail to order for types and pay carpenters to construct a printing press and helped him put the skills in printing that he had learned earlier to good use.
During those days, he was the only printer in Calcutta. He took the opportunity to contact the British East India Company to print bills and handbills for the Army. Armed with this experience, he approached Sir Eyre Coote, the commander-in chief of the Company Army, for printing the new regulations, which he hoped would lay the foundation for the Army’s Code of Conduct for years to come. It was a huge order and he borrowed money for the project, hired assistants for the printing line, carpenters and the blacksmiths, as well as the brass men to make equipment. Unfortunately for Hicky, Sir Coote left Calcutta after giving him the project and as it was sanctioned to him without the knowledge of Governor General Warren Hastings, Hicky found himself in trouble.
However, he began working from his hut in the jail, printing handbills, advertisements, almanacs, documents for the Supreme Court and accumulated sufficient fund to hire a lawyer named William Hicky in the Supreme Court, who helped him to win his cases and get rid of all his debts and free him from jail. After his release, Hicky decided to start publishing India’s first newspaper and spent the next few days posting notices all over the city about the launch of his newspaper. From his experience in London, he was aware of the dangers of printing and publishing a newspaper. Yet, he promised rigid adherence to truth and facts and committed to not print anything that could possibly convey any offence to anybody.
It was the dawn of a new era, when on 29th January 1780, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper in Asia, was published for the first time. It became a sensation within a few weeks of its launch, as people were happy to have a newspaper. It was a weekly newspaper, printed on Saturdays, comprising of four pages at a cost of one rupee, similar in price to newspapers in England at the time and its circulation was estimated to be around four hundred copies each week. The first two or three pages contained the news and opinion letters of the readers, while the rest contained the advertisements.
As Hicky wanted his paper to be apolitical and serve the society, he started to publish articles urging the Company to invest more on infrastructure, road construction and general sanitation, which the city lacked badly. One of his correspondents wrote that the Company needed to clean up the dead carcasses of animals that were left to rot in the open. Hicky soon discovered that his Bengal Gazette has attained considerable power to exert influence over the authority. After the publication of the article on the putrefying carcasses in the streets, the police superintendent posted a notice in his paper asking where the dead were so they could be picked up. As promised, Hicky avoided politics and used to carefully touch upon the role that women should fill in society.
While he published articles professing that women should be chaste and abstain from sexual activities before marriage, he also printed articles supporting women’s right to control their own sexuality. To create public attraction, Hicky intentionally discussed many controversial and disputed topics in his Bengal Gazette, which were considered as taboo and avoided by other newspapers of its time, like female self-gratification or masturbation. He also reported about the pathetic condition of the poor and the distressed and discussed about proto-class consciousness, arguing for the rights of the poor, which often turned into criticism of the rich. However, within a few days of its inception Hicky clearly realised that his promise to stay away from politics would be next to impossible.
Soon, Hicky started to attack the in the East India Company and in the high echelons of society. The Bengal Gazette published a story about the Governor of Madras, Sir Thomas Rumbold, who had been recalled to England to answer charges of corruption in front of Parliament. He also exposed the sad condition of the underpaid Indian sepoys and the subaltern ranks of the Company’s army and criticized the pay disparities and the unfairness of the promotion systems in the Army.
However, Warren Hastings, the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William, did not like it and at his instance, the Company backed to launch ‘India Gazette’, a rival newspaper in Calcutta, which would differ from Hicky in every possible way. As it had the full support of the Governor, it was given the facility of free postage, different departments of the Company placed advertisements and notices in it and in fact, it became the de facto mouthpiece of the Company.
As he learned all about these things, Hicky published a story in Bengal Gazette, in which he alleged that, he turned down the proposal of one Simeon Droz, an employee of the Company, who had sought a bribe from him in exchange of favours for him from Marian Hastings, wife of Warren Hastings.
It was too much for Hastings and he ordered to stop mailing Hicky’s Bengal Gazette from the post office, Hicky, the brave and daring journalist, took the challenge, hired 20 courier men (harkara) to deliver his newspaper to the customers and at the same time declared that Hastings' order violated his right to free expression. He also accused Hastings of corruption, tyranny and even erectile dysfunction. Apart from Hastings, he also accused Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William, of accepting bribes and the leader of the Protestant Mission, Johann Zacharias Kiemander, of stealing from an orphaned children's fund. On the other hand, Hicky was sued by Hastings and Kiernander for defamation and after four dramatic trials in June 1781, Hicky was found guilty and was sentenced to jail. The condition of the jail was horrible and much later, it was moved to Alipore in 1906 and the old structure was demolished to make way for the Victoria Memorial. Nevertheless, Hicky continued to print his newspaper from behind the jail, accusing Hastings and other of corruption, until 30 March 1782, when Hicky’s Bengal Gazette ceased publication, as its types were seized by an order of the Supreme Court.
James Augustus Hicky was freed from jail about Christmas 1784.Nothing much is known about his later life. However, three years in jail ruined his health and he had to live the rest of his life in poverty. He died on a boat, while he was proceeding to China in October 1802. Unfortunately, no image of Hicky is found till this day.