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'Only a Trust in Our Hands'

Ulrike Stark

By Edwin Hirschmann
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 272, Rs. 795.00


Twenty-two year old ‘Mr Knight, Merchant’ caught a glimpse of the Empire’s underbelly even as he stepped off the steamer that brought him to Bombay on 8 October, 1847. He was greeted by a ‘fakeer’ heaping curses on yet another white man who had come to exploit his wretched country. The young man, who had just left a modest home in South London, took the episode to heart. Over the next decade, he drifted through a succession of jobs as a mercantile agent, shop manager, and freight broker that left him broke and ready for a career change. In 1857, Robert Knight (1825-90) entered the rough and ready world of Anglo-Indian journalism to establish himself as one of the most outspoken editors and ardent critics of the British Raj in India. For the next thirty years, he would relentlessly expose the evils of imperialism. In the empire of opinion, his editorial pen was feared and admired.   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 ...

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