In 1783, Richard Johnston, a captain in the British Army, came to India to join his brother-in-law, Sir John Burgoyne, who was commanding a regiment in Madras. He was hoping for growth in his military career. As his hopes did not materialise, he became a printer, employed by the government run by the East India Company. The decision to pursue an alternative career, however, earned him a name in history as being the founder of the first newspaper in Madras Presidency in 1785, five years after the Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper in India, came out from Calcutta.
The weekly newspaper, named Madras Courier, became the journal which was officially recognised for the publication of government notifications. It ran with the company’s patronage, at least in its initial years. The first issue came out on October 12, 1785.
The Vestiges of Old Madras (1640-1800), written by Henry Davison Love, which records some of the communications between the company and Johnston, shows he received a waiver of postage for circulating the paper within the presidency and waiver of freight charges for importing equipment through the company’s ships.
The paper ran from four to six pages and carried the motto in Latin Quicquid agunt homines, which roughly translates to ‘Whatever people do’. According to Love’s book, the newspaper, measuring 20 by 12 inches, slightly bigger than a tabloid, was marked “Post free, Price one Rupee.”
While extracts from British newspapers occupied the first two pages, the third page carried letters to the Editor and Indian news, and the fourth was filled with poetry and advertisements. Initially, it came out every Wednesday and later switched to Thursdays.
The newspaper was careful not to offend the East India Company in any manner, in contrast to the Bengal Gazette run by James Augustus Hicky, who was critical of the company and ended up in jail with his newspaper having to shut shop just two years after its launch.
Johnston even lobbied with the company to ward off competition in the beginning. In 1788, three men wanted to establish a printing office that can print characters in some Indian languages along with English. However, Johnston requested the company not to grant permission as it would affect the huge investments his company had made with little profit.
Madras Courier did run into a few controversies despite being cautious not to offend the government. Issuing lotteries to raise funds for public causes was common at that time. One such initiative to raise funds was proposed in 1787 to construct an “Exchange” for merchants and traders to meet and do business. However, in October that year, the Madras Courier carried two letters, anonymously signed “Z” and “Y”, arguing that the lottery was illegal, which attracted strong opposition from those working for constructing the Exchange.
In another instance in 1789, Sir Paul Jodrell, then physician to the Nawab of Arcot, complained to the East India Company-run government that the Madras Courier was carrying libellous news regarding him and his family. Hugh Boyd, the editor, defended the newspaper and blamed Jodrell for being vague in his allegations.
In 1791, the paper ran into yet another trouble soon after James Stuart Hall took charge as the editor. James Landon, a civil servant, objected to the publication of a report, in which he saw a distorted account of his official life. Curiously, Hall said he was neither aware of the author of the report nor the allusion to anyone’s life. The paper had to carry a detailed apology.
A few extracted passages from Madras Courier published in Love’s book provide interesting glimpses of the social life in Madras, including the description of New Year’s night ball, which went on till 2 a.m. Madras Courier could not be the only newspaper to come out of the presidency for long. Towards the turn of the 18th century, Madras Gazette, edited by Robert Williams, and Government Gazette, edited by John Goldingham, who played an instrumental role in setting up Madras Observatory, were launched. Historian S. Muthiah, in an article for The Hindu, pointed out that these weeklies eventually drove Madras Courier out of circulation in 1821.