The Calcutta Journal, founded and edited by James Silk Buckingham, later a famous adventurer and travel writer, was perhaps the highest quality, most influential and controversial newspaper in India of its era, in addition to being its first daily. While it operated only between October 1818 and April 1823, it became the highest-selling periodical in India due to its ability to break news before its competitors and its fascinating articles on ongoing wars, Britain’s new overseas ventures and human-interest stories, with some issues illustrated with engraved maps (then a very rare and expensive medium in India).
The present work is the Friday, April 23, 1819 issue of The Calcutta Journal, which importantly features an exceedingly detailed and authoritative report of the Siege of Nowah (January 8-31, 1819), the decisive event of the Hatkar Rebellion, written by an officer who participated in the action. Importantly, the report is illustrated with two full page engraved maps based upon original field engineer’s manuscripts.
To background, the Hatkar Rebellion was 20-year-long revolt by the Hatkars, a subcaste of the Dhangars, a breeding caste known for their marital skills, who fought against the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad. They lived in the Nanded and Berar regions in what is today Maharashtra, and were led by a brave and clever leader, Novsaji Naik. The Hatkars had previously fought for the Maratha Confederacy, but with the decline of what was once India’s most powerful native power, their land came under the auspices of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
The British East India Company (EIC) completed its quest to dominate peninsular India upon vanquishing and total dissolving the Maratha Confederacy during the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-8). As this victory neared, the Nizam, an ardent ally of the British, asked the EIC to assist him in subduing the Hatkars. The British duly consented, as they knew that allowing unrest to go unchecked anywhere, could cause rebellion to spread like wildfire across the country. In other words, it was critical for the British to project strength, as their gains could be quickly undone by any sign of weakness.
In late 1818, the Hatkars controlled several important positions in the Nanded and Berar regions, posing a major threat to the adjunct British and Hyderabadi territories. The most important of these bastions was Nowah, near Umarkhed, Nanded District (Maharashtra). Nowah was a well-built square shaped fortress, manned by force of 500 Arab mercenaries.
The British sent a force of 3,782 troops commanded by Major Robert Pitman of the Bengal Native Infantry, to take out Nowah. Arriving on site on January 7, 1819, Pitman’s force besieged the fortress for 23 days, launching a massive volley of artillery at the enemy, while enduring Hatkar counterattacks. While Novsaji’s men fought bravely, the British were eventually able to storm and take the fort. This effectively ended the Hatkar Rebellion, strengthened the Anglo-Hyderabadi bond and restoring peace to what is today the interior of Maharashtra.
Focusing upon the account of the Siege of Nowah within the present issue of The Calcutta Journal, it was delivered to the paper in the form of an anonymous letter, ‘To the Editor’ signed N., dated Calcutta March 27, 1819, and that stated that while the report was “only intended for the private information of a few”, ‘N’ hoped that the unnamed author would not mind it being published if it benefited the public. In any event, the author of the report clearly possessed direct and high-level knowledge of the events at Nowah.
The contained ‘Journal of the Siege of Nowah’ is accompanied by 2 maps, or “Sketches, the detail of which will be very easily understood, and very instructive”. It tracks the daily progress of the battle from January 7 to 31, and in great detail records the artillery positions, types of ordnance used, and the actions related to the fierce British volley against the fort and the Hatkars’ countermeasures. It was a true contest, as the British pressed hard, and the Hatkars resisted with great courage and spirit.
The climax occurred on January 31, when British sappers planted mines by the northwest corner of the Nowah, blowing holes in its side, so allowing a “storming party” to rush into the bastion, meeting little resistance. It is remarked that “although opposition we met within the breach, was so different from the resolution and watchfulness displayed by the garrison at all times during the siege”; the reason was that the defenders were apparently stunned by the mines and did not in any way expect to be stormed. Moreover, the British noticed that of the Haktars “did not appear that they had any idea of surrendering”, and were prepared to fight for much longer.
The British officer also noted that the Nowah Fort was one of “very considerable strength; not derived from, as is usually the case in this part of India, from the natural advantages of the situation, but from it being constructed, in almost every respect; according to the general principles of fortification”, and that aspects of it were “admirably constructed” in a manner that “Would not disgrace a European fortification”.
Importantly, the report is accompanied by 2 engraved maps, ‘Drawn and Engraved expressly for the Calcutta Journal’. This is significant, as printing maps in India was extremely expensive and difficult to arrange prior to the introduction of lithography to the Subcontinent in the early 1820s and the founding of country’s first professional map publisher, the Asiatic Lithographic Press (est. 1823). Indeed, in 1819 there would have been only a few people in Calcutta capable of engraving maps. For these reasons very few maps were printed in India prior to the 1820s and newspaper issues only seldom featured maps.
It should be noted that both maps are based upon manuscripts that must had been drafted by a professional military engineer, due to their quality, style and detailing.
The first map, ‘Sketch of the positions taken up before the Fort of Nowah 1819’, depicts the fort and its vicinity, noting the British artillery positions set up to the north (note that the map has a southward orientation), while British cavalry units cover the other sides to prevent a Haktar retreat.
The second map, ‘Plan & Sketch of the Fort of Nowah 1819’, provides a close-up view of the fort and shows how the British ‘storming party’ breached its defenses on January 31. A formal engineer’s plan, it depicts the fort in exacting detail with key aspects identified by letter. a represents the British entrenchments in preparation for the storming; b shows the positioning of the mines, c shows the 3 breaches in the fort on the northwest corner, dd shows the supposedly bomb-proof ramparts, and ee shows the traverse on the southwest corner. In the lower right corner of the map is a side profile of the ‘Section through the Breaches’ while to the right is a sectional profile of the entire fort.
Otherwise this issue of The Calcutta Journal features many of the things that one would expect, with sections such as a ‘General Survey of News’, noting the death of Queen Charlotte, matters in Parliament, etc.; news from Europe; news from Asia, noting other military affairs in India and Stamford Raffles’ adventures in Aceh (Sumatra); Nautical news; Domestic Occurrences; Shipping Intelligence and Commercial Reports (giving weekly Import statistics for commodities into Calcutta from both the Inland and from the Sea).
A Note on Rarity
The present issue of The Calcutta Journal is extremely rare, like all issues of early Indian newspapers. It is also remarkable for being illustrated with 2 maps, a feature seldom seen in Indian periodicals, especially before the 1820s.
A few libraries hold incomplete collections of issues, including the British Library, Library of Congress and National Library of Singapore. Moreover, we can trace only a couple of instances of issues appearing at auction over the last 25 years.
The Calcutta Journal: India’s Top-Notch but Controversial First Daily
The Calcutta Journal, or, Political, Commercial, and Literary Gazette, while brief lived, was one of the most influential, high quality and controversial newspapers issued in India during the first third of the 19th century.
It was founded and edited by James Silk Buckingham (1786 – 1855), an author, journalist, traveler and politician who would become internationally famous for his 1820s accounts of his voyages through the Middle East. A self-educated man, haling for a naval background, Buckingham spent a great deal of time living with non-Western peoples and this led him to have an unusually modern and progressive social views. He was also heavily influenced by the Whig Party and the radical philosophy movement in England. These factors led him to form close bonds with leading Bengali reformers, such as Rammohan Roy.
Buckingham published the first issue of The Calcutta Journal on October 2, 1818, and for some time issues appeared bi-weekly, until June 1819, when they were produced daily, making it India’s first daily newspaper. The enterprise was sponsored by the free trading community of businessmen in Calcutta, who generally held liberal views and who had major ongoing grievances against the EIC’s conservative, monopolistic regime. These sentiments, combined with Buckingham’s own radicalism, guided the paper’s editorial policy.
Buckingham spared no expense or effort to ensure that the paper stood out from its contemporaries, aiming to include the highest quality articles based upon the most current news from across India and abroad. Importantly, a handful of the issues (including the present) featured engraved maps of the sites of important current events, including key military battles or the founding of new colonial outposts. These maps were usually based upon original manuscripts and were often the first printed maps of these subjects. Notably, one issue even included the earliest map of newly founded colonial base of Singapore. It must be noted that map engraving in India was very expensive and could only be executed by a very small number of people.
Buckingham’s investments in quality paid off, as in what was a fiercely competitive environment, The Calcutta Journal had the largest readership of any periodical in the Subcontinent. By 1821, the paper had over 1,000 regular subscribers, a huge number for India.
However, the East India Company, which ruled British India, was a private, for-profit corporation that jealously guarded its interests. British subjects resident in India did not enjoy the same legal rights as they did at home or in other colonies, and this was especially evident with respect to the EIC’s treatment of the press. Its regime of censorship started right from the beginning, as the Company shuttered Calcutta’s first newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, in 1782, founded by the city’s first printer, James Augustus Hickey. From then on, the censorship laws were often applied arbitrarily, depending on the whims of the governor-general of the day.
The EIC was notoriously corrupt and riddled with nepotism and favouritism, and this was much resented by Buckingham’s circle of reformers and free liberal traders.
The Company’s hierarchy took an immediate dislike towards Buckingham, and the feeling was mutual. While there is no evidence that Buckingham encouraged rebellious sentiments, the EIC was deeply suspicious of his ties to Bengali reformers and the more ‘troublesome’ members of the British community in Calcutta.
However, the big rift occurred when Buckingham started publishing ‘anonymous’ letters to the editor in The Calcutta Journal that called out specific instances of EIC maleficence. On less frequent occasions, Buckingham also penned editorials in his own name that called out similar abuses.
These actions enraged members of the EIC’s council, and they had their General Secretary issue numerous letters or reprimand to Buckingham, which assumed an increasingly threatening tone.
However, Lord Hastings, the Governor-General of India from October 1813 to January 1823, was personally of a relatively liberal disposition and he forbade any overt actions to hinder the operations of The Calcutta Journal.
In January 1823, John Adam, the most ardently anti-Buckingham member of the council, became acting Governor-General, and moved quickly to shut down the paper (the last issue of The Calcutta Journal appeared on April 26, 1823) and to expel Buckingham from India.
Buckingham had many powerful friends in Calcutta who were outraged by what they saw as Adam’s overreaction. However, the Acting Governor-General moved so swiftly that Buckingham was long gone before they could do anything meaningful to protest his measures. Many believed that the loss of The Calcutta Journal marked a steep decline in the quality of journalism in India (certainly it made journalists afraid to voice their opinions).
Subsequent EIC administrations came to regard Adam’s actions as an overreach, and the furore over the fate of The Calcutta Journal gradually led to the liberalization of the press in India.
In 1834, the House of Commons declared that the shuttering of The Calcutta Journal and Buckingham’s removal from India to have been unjust. It ordered the EIC to apologize to Buckingham and to grant him compensation in the form of an annual pension of £200.
References: Cf. British Library: Asia, Pacific & Africa SM 155; Library of Congress: Newspaper 2263; A. F. Salahuddin AHMED, Social Ideas and Social Change in Bengal 1818-1835 (1965), pp. 58-65.
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