He was the first European to fight for a liberal press in India and advocated self-rule for Indians – a man who had the courage of his convictions. He was the father of Indian journalism, just as A.O. Hume was the founder of the Indian National Congress and the father of Indian nationalism. C.V. Narasimha Reddi provides a portrait of James Silk Buckingham and dwells on his times
Two dominating personalities of great vision – James Silk Buckingham and Raja Rammohan Roy – appeared on the Indian press scene in the early 19th Century. Together, they fought not only for a liberal press in India but also for the abolition of sati (where a widow is burnt alive on her husband’s funeral pyre). In fact, James Silk Buckingham was perhaps the first European who opposed the East India Company’s rule, besides advocating an elected Indian legislature. Jawaharlal Nehru described him as “among the earliest champions of the freedom of the press in India”. Sadly, he is now a forgotten hero.
Born on 25th August, 1786, Buckingham was basically a mariner and a Whig in political affiliation. Most of his youth was spent travelling widely in the Arab countries. In June 1818, he was commanding the ship, Humayoon Sha, when he was ordered to proceed to the coast of Madagascar carrying slaves. Rather than embark on such an obnoxious task, Buckingham surrendered his command in protest.
He published two books – Travels in Palestine and Travels among the Arab Tribes – as well as articles on his impressions of the Arab countries in some Calcutta journals. They attracted the attention of John Palmer, head of a well-known mercantile house, who felt the need for a journal to voice the problems of merchants.
On 2nd October, 1818, the Calcutta Journal made its appearance, with James Silk Buckingham as the editor. It was a bi-weekly issue of eight-quarto size pages, priced at one rupee. It went on to become the first daily to be published from Calcutta. Buckingham described the functions of an editor as “to admonish Governors of their duties, to warn them furiously of their faults and to tell disagreeable truths”. The journal would be a chronicle of political, commercial and literary news and views, he declared. In the absence of a legislature, he considered the press a very necessary check on an irresponsible government.
Buckingham brought a breath of fresh air to an atmosphere polluted by the intrigues and scandal-mongering in the European community. He focused on news of local conditions, the life of the people and constructive criticism rather than invective. He published extracts from the home newspapers, though the choice was coloured by his own political inclinations. The carelessness of the police and the fact that certain Europeans were a constant nuisance on the streets of Calcutta during nights were fearlessly pointed out.
Charts and illustrations were also used to add to the impact of the reports. Through the journal, Buckingham introduced English literary masterpieces such as Lord Byron’s Don Juan and the Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
The Letters to the Editor column was a notable feature of the Calcutta Journal and was very different from what used to appear in the earlier newspapers, especially the Hicky’s Gazette. The space was open to anyone with a grievance. One letter which the Calcutta Journal carried was from a military man who questioned the promotion system in the Army and wrote that he looked forward to a time when power would be in the hands of those who would protect Indians. A furious government traced the author – one Lt Col Robinson of His Majesty’s 24th Regiment of Nagpur – and ordered him to leave India. That was how the press was suppressed.
However, in another instance, when Buckingham questioned the credentials of one Dr Jameson, who was appointed to four positions simultaneously – superintendent of the Medical School, secretary of the Medical Board, surgeon of the Free School and clerk to the committee for controlling the expenditure of stationery – Lord Hastings, who was the then Governor-General, took no action against the editor.
Editorials in the Calcutta Journal concentrated on the omissions and commissions of government policies in regard to military and public affairs. Buckingham was fearless in condemning Hindu customs like sati and the government’s failure to put an end to them. He was a friend of the Indian-owned press and defended its right to exist to voice Indian opinion. In tune with his editorial policy, Buckingham gave prominence to news and views in Bengali and Persian journals and published a summary of such news in his own journal. He did not spare even the chief justice, the Governor of Madras or the Lord Bishop of Calcutta. In fact, in 1819, the editor was warned for attacking the Governor of Madras in his journal. With his fearless writing Buckingham infused a new dimension into Indian journalism.
As the Calcutta Journal became popular, other papers like the Government Calcutta Gazette, the India Gazette, the Bengal Hurkaru and Asiatic Mirror launched violent campaigns against it. The Asiatic Mirror made false allegations against Buckingham. However, with the demise of that paper, the Calcutta Journal had increased its popularity and, by 1822, the subscribers numbered more than 1000 – civil servants, military officers, merchants and the educated section of Calcutta. The paper became a success, with its own building and a new printing press imported from London. It was described as well-conducted, independent and a clever publication that gave voice to the people.
Unfortunately for Buckingham, when Lord Hastings’ term came to an end, John Adam, known as Adamant Adam because of his attitude to the press, became officiating governor-general in 1823. The tide turned against Buckingham. His repeated disclosures of official malpractice and his success in securing redress of public grievances proved a danger to the East India Company. John Adam appointed former editor of Asiatic Mirror, Rev Samuel James Bryce, as a clerk of the stationery, at a salary of 600 pounds per annum. Buckingham not only criticised the appointment but also made a sarcastic remark that the knowledge of the clerk of the stationery may seem to be incompatible with theological education. A furious John Adam revoked Buckingham’s license and he was deported to England in 1823.
Though Buckingham was deported, his journal continued to function under the editorship of Sandys who, having been born in India, could not be deported. While leaving India, Buckingham said “I would lose no time in directing all my personal exertions in another and higher quarter to obtain for my countrymen in India the freedom and independence of mind.” He also promised that he would try to stage a comeback to India.
True to his promise, Buckingham started a journal, Oriental Herald and Colonial Review in London (1824-29). It reproduced articles from the Calcutta Journal in the fight for freedom of the press and other problems in India. Buckingham continued to fight against East India Company rule from London. The rulers could hardly tolerate the reprints and, consequently, Sandford Arnot, assistant editor, Calcutta Journal, was not only imprisoned but also deported. Soon after this, the Calcutta Journal closed down.
Buckingham became an MP in 1832 and not only opposed the renewal of the East India Company’s charter but also urged the institution of posts of viceroy and secretary of state for India. He pressed for an elected Legislature to reflect Indian public opinion. In 1832, Buckingham also advocated rule by Indians in India. At the time of his death in London, on June 30, 1855, Buckingham was at work on his autobiography.
(The writer is editor, Public Relations Voice, and former director, Information and Public Relations Department, Andhra Pradesh.)
January – March 2017