In a meticulously researched, erudite, and vividly written study, Edwin Hirschmann traces the life and career of Knight, founding editor of the Bombay Times of India and Calcutta Statesman, against a richly detailed canvas of Indian history from 1857 to 1890. In recovering the voice of a forgotten pioneer of the Indian press, Hirschmann illuminates a vital chapter of Anglo-Indian journalism. Robert Knight, he sets out to prove, ‘more than anyone else, made the press the “fourth estate” in India’. Hirschmann’s biographical study is a welcome addition to the growing body of works on early Indian journalism. With its focus on the English newspaper press in India, it supplements and complements recent volumes that are primarily concerned with the coverage of the subcontinent in the British media (see, e.g., Negotiating India in the Nineteenth-Century Media, eds. David Finkelstein and Douglas M. Peers, 2000; Chandrika Kaul, Reporting the Raj. The British Press and India, c. 1880-1922, 2003).
Piecing together fragmentary archival material (Knight’s private papers and other family records were destroyed in 1949), Hirschmann reconstructs the life of a remarkable Englishman. He can give us only glimpses of the private Robert Knight, husband and father of eleven children, who constantly struggled to support his large family on a meagre income. His focus is on Knight, the editor and internal critic of the Raj, who never tired of reminding Britain of its obligation to reform and modernize India. Seen largely through his editorial responses to key events in 19th-century Indian history, Knight emerges as a complex figure: a devout Christian, who went from advocating religious neutrality to seeing Christianity as the only way to India’s moral and social regeneration; and a firm believer in the ideal and mission of Empire, who was aghast at its bungled execution and the wrongs of imperial practice. For Knight, the Raj needed moral justification. To this liberal moralist, India was ‘only a trust in our hands, to be administered for the welfare of its people’.
The book traces Knight’s professional life in five chapters, outlining ‘the making of’ a reformer, editor, dissident, imperial critic, and ‘Statesman elder’. Hirschmann, professor emeritus of history, walks the biographer’s tightrope between the factual and the fictional with the firm stride of a seasoned historian, filling in biographical gaps and silences with ample historical context, informative detail, and critical insight. At times we get more history than life narrative: Knight, whose early years remain obscure, is introduced in absentia, through a discussion of the reformist climate of Britain in the 1830s and 40s. Hirschmann’s sympathy for his subject is well balanced by evidence of Knight’s impetuous and, at times, obsessive character. Knight’s enemies called him intemperate, unscrupulous, and impulsive; his friend Allan Octavian Hume described him as a kind-hearted man with ‘a vile-tempered pen’.
Knight made his journalistic debut as editor and proprietor of the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, renamed Times of India in 1861. He quickly branded himself a renegade and dissident: he denounced the ‘shameless profligacy and dishonesty’ of the British war with Persia, advocated racial equality, and called for representative government. His sympathy with the Indian cause during the great rebellion of 1857 attracted official opprobrium and popular wrath. Hirschmann depicts a man of radical ideas and moral rectitude: Knight, he claims, was the first to propose that Britain pay reparations for the damages caused by the rebellion. Knight made rural poverty and the need for economic improvement his enduring theme. Hirschmann portrays him as a ‘passionate defender of the peasants’, who supported Bengali cultivators during the indigo riots, proposed agricultural reforms, and advocated railroad construction as a vital means of stimulating rural development. In opposing British fiscal politics Knight did not mince words: he denounced the Inam Commission as ‘unprecedented scoundrelism’ on the revenue department’s part, and called Finance Member James Wilson’s income tax the ‘perfectly monstrous device’ of a ‘Financial Dictator’.
In 1864 Knight returned to England on home leave. He left a city grown rich on cotton exports, an effect of the American Civil War, and from England watched helplessly as Bombay’s new-found prosperity turned to ruin. Hirschmann’s account of the 1866 financial crash is uncannily familiar—when the wild speculative bubble burst and Bombay banks collapsed, Knight lost Rs 50,000. He never truly recovered. He lost the Times of India in 1868, but resurfaced as editor-proprietor of the monthly Indian Economist, through which he continued his critique of imperial economic policy. Dissent turned into outrage during the 1866 Orissa famine: ‘Knight’s prime example of economic laws misapplied during those years was the famine policy. Nothing ignited his indignation as much as the perceived indifference and/or ineptness of the British in handling famine,’ asserts Hirschmann.
Knight’s turbulent involvement in Bombay politics and civic affairs ended abruptly in 1873. He left the city to take up a government job in Calcutta. The move was ill-fated, the job disappointing, and Calcutta, as Hirschmann wryly notes, ‘not a congenial setting for a liberal’. Knight had taken the Indian Economist with him to supplement his meagre salary as assistant secretary in the statistical bureau. His coverage of the Bengal and Bihar famine soon earned him official ire: government subscriptions were withdrawn and the feisty editor was asked to choose between his journal and his job. Forced into selling the Indian Economist to the government, Knight outwitted his mighty opponents: he used the profits from the sale to buy the Friend of India and the Indian Observer. Meanwhile, he had become involved in another venture, the Calcutta Statesman. Hirschmann is able to show Knight’s role in the paper’s murky beginnings. Knight could barely enjoy the Statesman’s instant success: he lost his government appointment.
Hirschmann portrays Knight as a man who maintained close ties with the Indian and European business community, but was shunned by the administrative elite. He insinuates a connection between Knight’s misfit status and the underlying hostility of his editorials: ‘To the official establishment … Knight was an outsider, not part of that great fraternity of the covenanted service, a mere scribbler, of insignificant family and education, and a man of strange opinions’.
Knight’s continued faith in the imperial ideal was severely tested under Viceroy Lord Lytton’s heavy-handed rule. He tepidly supported Lytton’s extravagant Delhi Durbar, expecting that some good for the Indian people would come of it. His hopes were frustrated, and he became a bitter enemy of Lytton, attacking his Afghanistan policy, the lowering of the ICS examination age, and the repeal of the cotton tariff. Ironically, when Lytton passed the notorious Vernacular Press Act in 1878, Knight remained silent. The champion of press freedom and ally of the vernacular press was away on tour in north India, his attention occupied by the Agra famine, another blatant case of government failure. By this time Knight had decided that his voice needed to be heard by the British public. Worn, but not defeated by twenty years of fighting an increasingly despotic Indian government, he took the battle to the heart of empire and returned to London in 1878. In the following year he launched the London Statesman, to ‘awaken the conscience of the English people to the real character of our rule in [India]’ and to protest against the Tory government’s ‘divorce between politics and morality’. Hirschman shows us Knight at his most acerbic: We have come from India to protest against the ruinous self-complacency in which our countrymen are steeped. . . . People of this country have no conception of the misery through which the people of India have gone in the last few years. And . . . it is our rule that is the cause, either directly or indirectly.
And, grimmer still: In speaking of what we call ‘our’ Indian Empire, we generally overlook the two hundred millions of human beings who are its natural and rightful possessors, and to whom, one day, that Empire will have to be restored. . . . British rule in India is nothing more than this—that a huge horde of British officials collect the taxes, imprison and hang the natives . . . and are heavily paid for doing so.
What hastened the paper’s demise was not Knight’s outspokenness but his disclosure of political intrigue at Hyderabad: he had come across a full-blown scandal of empire and was eager to defend Salar Jung, the Nizam’s powerful divan, against British injustice. Hirschmann provides fascinating insights into Knight’s correspondence with Salar Jung, who discreetly helped finance the Statesman. Knight’s unwelcome revelations resulted in a case of libel against him, and made the cautious divan sever his links with the incautious editor. Once acquitted, Knight disclosed more lurid detail of official misconduct in the Nizam’s dominion. His charges against the British resident, Sir Richard Meade, did not endear him to the establishment. In September 1881 the Statesman closed down.
Meanwhile, Knight almost lost the financially troubled Calcutta Statesman, edited in his absence by William Riach. Upon his return to Calcutta in 1883, he was caught up in the agitation over the Ilbert Bill. Hirschmann highlights Knight’s ‘rare sensitivity’ in the discourse on race: at the height of racist media frenzy, Knight castigated the use of racially tainted vocabulary: ‘The native’ suggests to an English ear . . . the idea of a savage people’, he wrote in the Statesman, ‘and the term “half-caste” is so constantly used opprobriously, that no public writer should ever use it, when he can avoid it’.
The London debacle, however, had dampened Knight’s spirit. His editorials, Hirschmann notes, now often took ‘a cynical and world-weary approach’. The old renegade briefly resurfaced in the coverage of the Hyderabad railroad case, a scam to buy out the Nizam’s state railroad that involved British residency staff. Knight, with characteristic obsessiveness, revealed a saga of corruption and intrigue: ‘A century of tawdry linen was strung out across eight rambling articles within sixteen days, an indictment of British encroachment, bullying, cheating, and exploiting the dynasty of the nizams and their officials.’
Through the Statesman, by then the largest Indian newspaper, Knight lent support, albeit diffident and ambivalent, to Viceroy Lord Ripon’s policies. Hirschmann suggests a troubled relationship, with Ripon never reciprocating Knight’s goodwill: ‘Knight remained an untouchable to him; neither the editor’s political support nor his incisive revelations ever won the viceroy’s favour’. Knight later summed up Ripon’s viceroyalty as ‘a period of great promise and insignificant results’.
For the inveterate advocate of self-government, the rise of the Indian National Congress was a ray of hope in a darkening world. Knight fought his final editorial battle in the Burdwan Libel case, accused once more of defamatory writing. Fate was not kind to him: he spent his last years sick, disillusioned, and afflicted by the death of two of his children and several grandchildren. He died in January 1890. The vernacular press remembered him with sympathy and admiration; the Times of India, as Hirschmann strikingly reveals, distanced itself from the man who had made it.
The book’s attempt to reconstruct the history of the two foremost English newspapers in 19th-century India through the story of Knight is necessarily limited: Hirschmann’s approach at times makes the Times of India and the Statesman appear as though they were one-man enterprises, while his sources tell a sadly familiar tale of archival neglect (the early archives of both papers apparently no longer exist). Missing from his narrative is the irrecoverable story of the editorial office, a site of conflicting opinion and negotiation, of editorial resistance to official pressure, and of economic struggle in a volatile market. Hirschmann can only hint at the tension accompanying editorial policy and practice in depicting Knight’s fraught relationships with his Bombay financiers, and his Calcutta co-editor William Riach. Was Knight, as the book’s epilogue suggests, ‘a prophet without honour’? One readily agrees with Hirschmann when he attributes a ‘visionary’ quality to Knight’s writing. Take, for example, an editorial of 1859, in which the Raj is evocatively called ‘a marvel of audacity’, similar to ‘the feats of a tight rope dancer; a very interesting, but by no means satisfactory spectacle, and one suggestive of a tragic ending’. To the end, Knight remained faithful to his journalistic credo: ‘It is not the place of the newspapers . . . to be courtiers of the Government, but to represent the interests of all classes. And there is no country in the world, perhaps, in which it is more important that the Press should discharge this duty’. Knight discharged his duty to India in ways bound to outrage the political establishment. He boldly, passionately, and often unwisely cultivated the art of editorial insult. ‘He has about the best intentions and the worst judg-ment of any man I know’, lamented his contemporary, Allan Octavian Hume. Hirschmann’s timely, rich, and nuanced portrait of Robert Knight, intrepid critic of imperialism, allows us to view him more favourably.
Ulrike Stark teaches in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, at the University of Chicago. She is currently working on a biography of Raja Shivaprasad.