The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India
India, Oxford University Press, 2016, ISBN: 9780199467129; 400pp.; Price: £27.68
University of Manchester
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
Amelia Bonea has presented a timely book that combines the mechanisms of technology and news making in critically meaningful ways to present the production of printed news as contingent, variable and even accidental. It examines particularly the role that the telegraph played in changing the landscape for the circulation of news in colonial India and promoting certain journalistic practices and visions that emerged with this technology within English language journalism.
The overwhelming trend in the historiography of newspapers in South Asia has been to treat ‘the press’ as solely identifiable with the finished product of the printed newspapers. This has led to closely written histories of the published content of the individual news presses, and their editorial management. But what comes into play before the news is actually ‘made’? What processes determine the flow of news? Which pieces of news make it to the printed page and why? How far can technology enable news making and how does it sit alongside more traditional means of news accumulation in India? The book answers these questions and many more. It looks into the worlds of journalism and politics of news reporting during a relatively unknown but formative period in the history of the newspaper press in South Asia, when the more familiar histories of the nationalist press were not operative.
The potential archive here was vast, with 421 English language and vernacular newspapers being published in British India and the princely states in 1885 alone (p. 26). Bonea chose therefore to be guided by the narrative of telegraphy, selecting major English language newspapers which were most directly affected by the technology at this time. The critical dates in the history of telegraphy also form key reference points – from the opening of the Indian telegraphs for public use in 1855, to the facilitation of the Red Sea Route in 1870 – with the book finally stopping short of the introduction of wireless telegraphy in 1900. There are five chapters in the book organised in a practical manner, with three chapters out of five (chapters one, two and four) dealing exclusively with telegraphic news, while the two others [three and five] explore the world of 19th-century journalism in South Asia within which telegraphy is to be located. The News of Empire approaches the research through three principal methodological routes: that of geography – the news pathways and channels of communication; that of technology – the social, political and cultural contexts and ramifications of telegraphy; and that of reporting/journalism – the processes of news making, explored through specific instances of news reporting. In addition to the obvious source of newspapers, the book uses the Reuters archives as well as a host of government records, reports and other printed sources.
The book provides a fascinating description of the material culture of telegraphy, with the most captivating accounts of the transmission of news: from London to India and vice versa. Telegraphic intelligence reached Bombay from London via the sea route. The initial message went via land cable from London to Cornwall where it was read by a siphon recorder. The message was then re-punched for transmission to Gibraltar, where an operator acting as a ‘human relay’ simultaneously read and re-sent it to Alexandria via Malta. At Alexandria it was written on slips of paper and retransmitted over land cables to the Suez, from where it was forwarded to Aden, where a ‘human relay’ intervened once again, helping it on its final journey over the 2,000-mile-long submarine cable to Bombay. Once overseas news reached India, it was rapidly distributed by the Telegraph Department to various parts of the country via ‘news bulletins’. These were published for free at the main telegraphic centres – Calcutta, Madras, Agra and Lahore, as well as other repeating stations using Morse technology. But while free, the dissemination of telegraphic news was hierarchical, not only being limited to the suitably equipped centres but also being available solely to those newspapers ‘of sufficient standing and circulation to render the communication of intelligence to them a real convenience to the community’ (pp. 175–6). It also tells us of an interconnected press world, joined up not just by technology but also personnel – where the same person often straddled the line between journalist-editor and printer-proprietor, and worked for a number of newspapers both in India and Britain – and standardised reporting practices.
While Bonea does not dispute the importance of telegraphy for the world of 19th-century journalism, she is keen to point out its limitations. The telegraph did not immediately revolutionise news, the book argues. Its absorption was halting and imperfect, given over to the vagaries of nature, malpractice and ignorance alike. Thus in its early days only one in four telegraphic messages was correctly transmitted (p. 97), messages became abridged during transmission and even misread (p. 298). The work here is in line with more recent histories of technology such as David Arnold’s recent book on everyday technology – a critical work which should have been mentioned here – which showcases the smaller stories of the typewriter, bicycle and sewing machine which impacted Indian lives in incremental ways, taking the focus away from the big stories of modernisation and change.(1) Bonea also suggests we place the telegraph alongside older modes of communication such as steamers, carts and even carrier pigeons (chapter one). Again this is something that Arnold has already explored, for instance with regard to the context of traffic in urban colonial India, where the impact of fast moving motor cars was considerably impeded by the simultaneous presence of pedestrians, pack animals and plodding bullock carts on the city streets.(2) In fact, the technical shortcomings of telegraph have been pointed out before, and are directly acknowledged in the book (p. 23).
The other part of the technological narrative is located in the social and cultural history of telegraphy and journalism in India (in chapters two and three). Chapter two asks how telegraphy was mediated by a myriad of social and cultural contexts, and in turn shaped people’s imaginations about modernity. Although it does not quite manage to deliver the goods promised – as inevitably vernacular responses to telegraphy would remain locked in vernacular sources, a category not explored here – the glimpses it provides, e.g. a tribal song on telegraphy (p. 122) are nevertheless rich in the possibilities they suggest.
What is of greater significance, and comes out clearly in the book, is the location of telegraphy within a complex political economy of circulation of news, and journalistic practices. Where Bonea adds substantially to existing works is in her painstaking recovery of this context of telegraphy for 19th-century journalism. In suggesting informational hierarchies – as between Home (news from Britain and Europe) news and India news, the predominance of commercial news networks, and preferred practices in selection, spread and layout of telegraphic news in newspapers, she shows telegraphy’s adoption as a mode of communication in the world of journalism as piecemeal and gradual. The political context of dissemination of news – the role of the colonial state – also sufficiently impeded the neutral production of knowledge via technology. While telegraph engineers hailed telegraphy as ‘the great revolution’, journalists noted its restricted use owing to high costs until the last two decades of the 19th century (p. 166).
I think the real strengths of the book lies in its recreation of the world of 19th-century journalism. Chapter three in particular opens out the world of news making in terms of bringing alive the granular world of printer-publishers, technicians, and newsmen. The chapter locates telegraphy within the broader processes of communication, journalism and news reporting in colonial India to assess its place in contemporary news making. Journalism, Bonea tells us, was an ‘occupation’ not a ‘profession’ in 19th-century India. It was badly paid, and therefore had to be carried on alongside other jobs or through multiple journalistic contracts. Neither did it earn much respect. European journalists were distrusted for their potential to publicise scandals and for fear of political criticism, while most newspapers were seen as provincial in their scope. In addition there existed hierarchies between ‘Home’ and English run newspapers in India, Anglo-Indian and English language Indian papers, and the English language and vernacular presses. The attitude to the vernacular press can be summed up in a contemporary comment that compared it to the cicada: making noise ‘out of all proportions to its size and consequence’ (p. 155). The sharp remark was aimed at anti-colonial sentiments being vociferously expressed in these newspapers. Where the book genuinely makes fascinating contribution is to bring alive this world of the pre-nationalist phase of printing when newspapers had a different role to play and journalism was less led by a singular objective such as that of nationalism. In many ways this was the world of news and newspapers in the making.
The best part, however, is reserved for the end. The two case studies – that of the Austro-Prussian Was of 1866 and the assassination of the Plague Commissioner, W. C. Rand at Poona in 1897 – studied in the last chapter offer a close profile of this world. It shows how the two major Anglo-Indian newspapers under focus here – the Bombay Gazette and the Englishman – were shaped as much by colonial control and economic considerations as the personal visions of editors, proprietors and printers. The case studies also highlight both the advantages (timely access of news) and the pitfalls (mistakes in reporting, absence of sufficient detail) of telegraphy as technology. But the rich wealth of information here on the scope of telegraphic news within the world of journalism, their flows across land and sea, the layout of the telegraphic features and advertising (and here is a story yet to be told), shipping news, and the politics of reporting paints a rich tapestry of the news scene in South Asia in the 19th century. The space occupied by domestic news in relation to foreign news is of interest. According to Bonea, prior to the 1880s (thanks to lower rates) there was much domestic telegraphic news, most of which concerned itself with shipping and commercial intelligence. Although political news had featured in the 1850s – and no doubt would have been important around 1857 at the time of the Rebellion – they declined during the two decades following. By contrast, the post 1880s period had much more political news to present. The nodes of overland communication in the sub-continent were good indicators of the politics and nature of news transmitted. Thus the Englishman had its news coming from Simla, the summer capital, whereas for the Bombay Gazette, Poona and Allahabad, in addition to Simla, supplied news.
Chapter four highlights the expansion of Reuters in India, and the resulting commodification of news that engendered its protection through copyright. It also examines the relationship between the colonial state, Reuters, and the newspaper press in 19th-century India, showing how official visions of news and reporting sat alongside, clashed with and/or circumscribed alternative visions championed by journalists and Reuters. Mechanisms of colonial control ranged from the supply of official gazettes containing ‘approved’ news to Editors Rooms to draconian press regulations. But the assumptions of control are a bit thinly stretched here and to a certain extent a reflection of the limitations of an English-language-newspaper source base. The critical literature on censorship does not bear this out, nor do the production and reading practices of vernacular newspapers. The 19th-century print world was too flexible and innovative to be trapped by censorship and knew how to sidestep official regulations, often with great dexterity. Historians such as Robert Darnton have shown how slippery the hand of control was when it came to censoring – especially how news could fall in between the cracks of the oral and written – while the story of the very vocal and nationalist Amrita Bazar Patrika changing its medium from vernacular to English overnight to escape the clutches of the draconian 1878 Vernacular Press Act is too well known to merit repetition here.(3)
This brings me to the point of readership. As Bonea points out, the primary audience for the newspapers under focus was ‘a relatively small group of Anglo-Indian merchants, soldiers, administrators, and other civilians resident in the subcontinent as well as a growing group of English-educated Indians …’ (p. 3). Such news was in high demand among these audiences, particularly the mercantile community and the competition to get to the latest intelligence was so acute that press telegrams were allegedly trafficked by newspapers (p. 189). The ‘rush for news’ at the Colombo post-office shows how eagerly news from home was awaited by colonials in India (p. 165). But vernacular newspapers lent themselves to a different pace of leisurely, collective reading, a collaborative enterprise between readers and listeners. Initial vernacular newspapers were weeklies, with dailies materialising in the early 19th century.
The book, however, is ambitious in its scope when it declares its intention to engage with the additional non-print world in which news circulated, including the oral culture of reading aloud. But the phenomenon of oral cultures interacting with the world of print has been examined in depth before.(4) The strength of the 19th-century print-cultures, it has been argued, rested on their willingness to be malleable, to adapt to the ways of oral cultures initially and allow for residual pre-print practices to continue in the writing, production and consumption of print.(5) The News of Empire does not really add much to this literature, in methodology or perspective, particularly because the vast world of vernacular newspapers remains beyond its scope. What I would have really liked to see are the specific instances of orality shaping the specific cultures of news reading and circulation. Was this interaction with news different from that with books? Did reading aloud change the material layout of the reading matter (e.g. was the fifth page read before the first?)? And how far in that sense did the reader shape the reading/listening experience of the audience? What about the emotive intervention of the reader, and to what extent did it alter the prioritisation of news as intended by the editor?
This is a rich and informative book that opens out the way for further and interesting research into telegraphy and journalism in the 19th century. Ironically, where it excels is an area that I thought was under-emphasized in the book – the material culture of news and news making – rather than in its stated objectives of outlining the interconnected story of technology, modernity and print-culture.
- David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago, London, 2013).Back to (1)
- David Arnold, ‘The problem of traffic: the street life of modernity in late colonial India’, Modern Asian Studies, 46, special issue 1 (January 2012), 119–41.Back to (2)
- Robert Darnton, ‘Literary surveillance in the British Raj: the contradictions of liberal imperialism’, Book History, 4 (2001), 133–76.Back to (3)
- Anindita Ghosh, Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society (New Delhi, 2006); Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard, MA, 2013); Miles Ogborn, Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company (Chicago, IL, 2008).Back to (4)
- Anindita Ghosh, ‘An uncertain "Coming of the Book": early print cultures in colonial India’, Book History, 6, 1 (2003), 23–55.Back to (5)
I would like to thank Anindita Ghosh, whose work on print history in Bengal has provided some of the inspiration for my own study of journalism and technology in colonial South Asia, for her careful reading and generous commentary on my book. By way of response, I would like to address what I understand to be the three main points of criticism Dr. Ghosh raises: the lack of engagement with vernacular newspapers and, by extension, the issue of government control over the vernacular press in colonial South Asia; the book’s failure to deliver its alleged promise of examining how cultures of orality intersected with the field of news journalism; and, finally, the review’s conclusion that the book ‘excels [in] an area that … was under-emphasized … – the material culture of news and news making – rather than in its stated objectives of outlining the interconnected story of technology, modernity and print-culture’. I will conclude by responding briefly to the more minor charge that the book should have included a reference to David Arnold’s pioneering study of ‘everyday technology’ in India.(1)
With regard to the first point, it is indeed true that the focus of the book is on English-language newspapers published in colonial South Asia in the course of the 19th century. As Dr. Ghosh acknowledges, the introduction contains a section on methodology (pp. 25–8), in which I discuss the main criteria that informed the selection of the newspapers examined. Briefly, they were: a newspaper’s use of telegraphy, which inevitably meant a bias towards daily newspapers that placed a greater emphasis on the timely reporting of news and were often published in English; a newspaper’s lifespan and current availability in the archives and libraries I was able to visit; the book’s own thematic focus on the development of the press in the 19th century, a period that witnessed the introduction of electric telegraphy in the Indian subcontinent; project manageability; and, of course, my own linguistic abilities.
Hindi is the only South Asian language I am able to read, albeit imperfectly. This is certainly not ideal, since full-fledged daily journalism in this language was a development of the early 20th century rather than the period I have studied. As Francesca Orsini has discussed in her work, ‘While Urdu newspapers flourished in the nineteenth century, the only Hindi daily launched in the North Western Provinces was more the result of an experiment than of existing demand (Hindosthan, 1883)’. Calcutta, she goes on to point out, was ‘an early centre of the Hindi press’, due to the ‘concentration of Marwari capital and of Bengali publishing … But it was only between 1910 and 1920 that political weeklies, and dailies after 1920, grew in every town into real focuses of political activity, and often of factionalism, attracting activists and writers.’(2)
This caveat notwithstanding, as the introduction also suggests, the book does contain occasional references to news published in Bharat Jiwan, a Hindi weekly from Benares, whose news-reporting practices I examined in the issues published in July 1884. Based on this analysis, the book highlights some of the main points of difference between reporting in English-language and vernacular newspapers, for example in the field of meteorological news, newspaper layout and the reporting of foreign and domestic news (pp. 178, 270, 282). Perhaps the most remarkable difference was Bharat Jiwan’s practice of publishing domestic and foreign items of intelligence in the same section (called samāchārāvalī or ‘News miscellany’), a stark contrast to their English-language counterparts’ usual insistence on the segregation of these two categories of news. Furthermore, the format of the telegram was not clearly identifiable in the issues of Bharat Jiwan examined, although this was not the case with another Hindi weekly, Shree Venkateshwar Samachar, published from Bombay at the beginning of the 20th century, which featured a ‘Gist of Telegrams’ (tārsār) dedicated to the reporting of foreign news, including Reuters telegrams (p. 282). In this respect, one of the main arguments of the book was that, although it is possible to trace the crystallization of certain trends and patterns of reporting, both for the English-language and vernacular newspapers examined, it is equally important to emphasize that there was also plenty of room for innovation and diversity in the way news journalism was practiced.
While I agree that this degree of engagement with vernacular sources is not sufficient and I can only hope that other scholars will be stimulated to pick up the threads of inquiry this book has begun to suggest, I would, however, like to stress that the book is not based solely on the examination of English-language sources, be they primary or secondary. In fact, it also makes use of material in languages like Japanese, French and Romanian, for example in its attempt to highlight the interest of the Japanese Telegraph Association in the development of the Indian telegraph network, as reflected in the pages of their Denshin kyōkai kaishi (Bulletin of the Telegraph Association, pp. 96–7) or the global appeal of Indian news, which reached, albeit sometimes in highly misreported form, audiences in regions as geographically and culturally remote as Transylvania (p. 151; also pp. 150–1, 295–6, on interactions with the press in Japan). It is an aspect of the book that I am keen to emphasize, not least because this type of auto-ethnographic confession suggests how my own educational training in a number of academic traditions has shaped the type of history I write, amongst others by prompting me to uncover connections and exchanges that have received less attention in previous literature.
While reconstructing the mechanisms of press control put in place by the colonial government, especially in relation to the distribution of official intelligence via the electric telegraph, was an important aim of the book, it was not, however, my intention to suggest that such mechanisms were unequivocally successful in practice. On the contrary, there is a constant emphasis throughout the book on the need to distinguish between the discourses and practices of telegraphy (e.g. chapter two, ‘Sites of practice and discourses of telegraphy’, pp. 95–147). Put differently, the book argues that we need to distinguish between colonial regulations – of telegraphy, of the press – as they appeared on paper and their actual processes of implementation, which were much more fraught and complicated than the colonial machinery itself would have us believe. It is for this reason, for example, that I refer to A. R. Venkatachalapathy’s pertinent remark about the imperfect and ‘limited’ manner in which the colonial government was able to survey the printing presses and literary production in colonial Tamilnadu (p. 11).(3) It is also for this reason that I point out that there is no indication that Sir Owen T. Burne’s elaborate proposal to ‘divide-and-rule’ the press in India by assigning newspapers to ‘imaginary classes’ and playing them against each other through the supply of official intelligence in a preferential and discriminatory manner was ever implemented in the way he envisaged it (pp. 220–9). Perhaps more relevant, for the overall argument of the book, is my attempt to show how vernacular – and, indeed, English-language – newspapers that were either excluded from the press message privilege which would have enabled them to receive telegraphic news at reduced rates or could not afford to subscribe to Reuters’ services, successfully eschewed such prohibitive government regulations and financial barriers. One example was the practice of newspapers that did not subscribe to Reuters to publish its telegrams, oftentimes without attribution: in fact, ‘clipping’ news was not necessarily an ‘objectionable’ practice in the early days of journalism, but it became increasingly so after the advent of news agencies whose business model was based on the commodification of news (pp. 247–53).
With regard to the second point of criticism, contrary to what the review suggests, it was not my intention to engage in any substantial way with the world of non-print, but merely to acknowledge its relevance to the topic by way of occasional examples. In fact, the introduction (p. 3) acknowledges this ‘narrow focus’ of the book on printed news and goes on to point out, drawing on Francesca Orsini’s work on the intersection of oral and print cultures in colonial north India, that this should not be interpreted as an endorsement of a ‘rigid distinction between printed and written news’.(4) Indeed, as Dr. Ghosh rightly points out and her own work has convincingly borne out, such a distinction between the world of print and orality is not tenable. In this context, the above caveat was meant to acknowledge the limitations of my own approach, limitations that were dictated primarily by considerations of manageability and my own interest in the history of print journalism. My contribution to the topic was to outline some of the ways in which orality intersected with the history of news journalism, for example in the field of reading aloud or by pointing out that word of mouth could travel faster than intelligence via the latest technology of communication (e.g. during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, p. 131). In the former case, I argued that practices of collective reading and reading aloud were not restricted to Indian audiences but, contrary to what British colonizers themselves often suggested, were also encountered among Europeans in the 19th century, whether in the confines of their homes, in clubs or coffee shops (p. 187).
Coming to the third point, the stated aim of the book was to ponder how technologies of communication and English-language journalism intersected in 19th-century India by looking specifically at the example of the electric telegraph and its incorporation into news reporting practices (p. 2). Reconstructing the material culture of news and news making was central to this exercise and involved examining the relationship between telegraphy and journalism from three complementary angles: 1) tracing the routes along which news travelled and understanding how technology enabled its circulation, 2) ‘embedding the use of technology in the specific socio-economic and historical circumstances of the period examined and identifying the social networks that shaped the exchange of news’, and 3) conceptualizing newspapers as ‘sites of practice’ of telegraphy and ‘examining specific instances of reporting in order to understand how the format and content of news journalism developed’ in the course of the 19th century (p. 25). In other words, one of the arguments of the book was that reconstructing the material culture of news was essential to understanding the relationship between news journalism and technology. While previous studies of the history of telegraphy in the Indian subcontinent have certainly engaged with questions of modernity (5), as Dr. Ghosh also points out, my contribution to the topic was to highlight the manner in which that technological modernity was fraught not only for the colonized Indians, but also for the colonizers themselves, a point that has received much less emphasis, particularly in accounts of telegraphy as a ‘tool of Empire’.(6) This perspective is also connected to the earlier point about the need to distinguish between the discourses and practices of telegraphy.
Lastly, the bulk of this book, which is based on a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 2012, was written before the publication of David Arnold’s study of ‘everyday technology’ in India. This explains the lack of reference to that particular book, although the study does engage with his earlier work on the history of science, technology and medicine.(7) Arnold’s book, with its emphasis on sewing machines, bicycles, typewriters and rice mills, highlighted the manner in which a scholarly preference for ‘big’ technologies like steamers, telegraphs and railways – a sin of which I confess to be guilty myself, at least in this particular book – has led to the neglect of ‘smaller’ technologies which have played a central role in the lives of millions of Indians. In the same time, by showing that a significant percentage of the sewing machines, typewriters, cash registers, matches, etc. that entered the Indian market after the turn of the 20th century were not of British, but of American, German and Japanese manufacture, Arnold also documented how extra-colonial interactions and networks of exchange shaped the history of technology in India. I hope that some of this spirit, of going beyond the British experience, can also be distilled from my own book, in particular in its conceptualization of journalism as ‘an enterprise predicated upon the circulation of intelligence and opinion’ (p. 23) that involved multiple layers of participants across geographical, socio-economic, political, institutional and technological divides.
- David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago, IL, and London, 2013).Back to (1)
- Francesca Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere, 1920–1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism (New Delhi, 2011), p. 63. In this connection, see also R. R. Bhatnagar, The Rise and Growth of Hindi Journalism (Varanasi, 2003).Back to (2)
- A. R. Venkatachalapathy, The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu (New Delhi, 2012), p. 183.Back to (3)
- Francesca Orsini, Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India (Ranikhet, 2009).Back to (4)
- E.g. D. K. Lahiri Choudhury, Telegraphic Imperialism: Crisis and Panic in the Indian Empire, c. 1830 (Basingstoke, 2010).Back to (5)
- Daniel Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1981).Back to (6)
- David Arnold, Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge, 2004).Back to (7)