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Robert Knight: Reforming Editor in Victorian India

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About the Book Robert knight, the Principal founder and the first editor of Times of India, Mumbai and Statesman, Kolkata has hardly ever been mentioned in accounts of British India and omitted from biographical dictionaries. Using remote letters, crumbling newspapers, and obscure official archives, this book presents the first historical biography of the pioneering editor. It also outlines the history of two of today’s leading newspapers. Knight fought...

About the Book

Robert knight, the Principal founder and the first editor of Times of India, Mumbai and Statesman, Kolkata has hardly ever been mentioned in accounts of British India and omitted from biographical dictionaries. Using remote letters, crumbling newspapers, and obscure official archives, this book presents the first historical biography of the pioneering editor. It also outlines the history of two of today’s leading newspapers.

Knight fought for a press free of government restraint or intimidation. An ardent critic of colonial rule, he made the press a ‘fourth estate’-a part of the Political process in India. This volume documents the making of the reformer editor, taking us through his London background and start in Bombay; the first editorship and creation of the Times of India; the ill-fated move to Calcutta, the launching of the Statesman; the London venture; and finally the mature editor coming to terms with the empire.

Against a backdrop of key event of India history from 1857 onwards, Robert Knight’s editorial responses, and his personal life are all lucidly intertwined in this biography. Edwin Hirschmann elaborates on the connections of the world of newsprint with the colonial establishment and Indian people. He also provides a fresh approach to the Orientalism debate by deploying the narrative of an Englishman, involved in the age of the emerging public communication system.

This book will interest scholars and students of modern Indian history, literature, journalism, practicing journalists as well general readers interested in biographies.

About the Author

Edwin Hirschmann is Professor Emeritus of History, Towson University, USA.


I first met Robert knight in a journalism history which told of his creating the Times of India in Bombay and mentioned offhand that he later moved to Calcutta and founded the Statesman. Nothing further. As these were the two most prestigious newspapers in India, here was a hidden giant, a forgotten founder. Knight had been omitted from all histories of British India and all biographical dictionaries.

I soon discovered why, as I began excavating archives, the files of knight’s newspapers, and other remote sources. Knight’s editorial views and their vehement and pungent style provoked the enmity of many of his Anglo-Indian countrymen, including three consecutive viceroys. He scorned the view that India people were a part of the booty of the buccaneering seizure of India by the East India Company; he saw them as citizens of Victoria’s global empire and encouraged them to work for political rights, a free press, and economic justice. He applauded the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and pointed the way for it.

During the course of this forty-year project, I have had the support and assistance of many many people whom I must thank. Undoubtedly the first and foremost is late. B.J. Kirchner. Without Bernard Kirchner’s help and his enthusiastic enthusiastic encouragement, I could never have undertaken this project. A retired editor of the Statesman, he had married into the knight family and introduced me to them. Principal among them was Hilda (knight) kidd, youngest and only surviving child of Robert. She too urged me to search out the story of her father’s life. She was 93 when we met; she had been fifteen when her father died and knew little of his controversies, but she remembered some crucial childhood details which enabled me proceed.

There were knight’s grandchildren, Imogen (Grace’) de Morgan, Catherine, Lady Peake, George Knight (who thoughtfully provided a family tree), and his brother, Robert (‘Ivan’) knight. And the great-grandchildren: Joan young, Evelyn (‘Eve’) knight, Michael Peake, the Rev. Canon Jeremy Peake, and especially helpful in recent decades, Deirdre (‘Sally’) Godwin-Austen. One great-nephew who filled in some important blanks was Jamie R. Camplin.

I have had many years of support from my home institution, Towson University, in Maryland, USA, its Albert S. Cook Library, and my History Department colleagues, especially karl Larew, Ronn Pineo, Patricia Romero, and Wayne Mc Williams. There was financial support at various times from the American Institute of Indian Studies, National Endowment for the Humanities, and US Educational Foundation in India (and its Fulbright Program). I am also grateful to many professional colleagues, of whom the foremost has been S.R. Mehrotra, of Shimla, who over the decades has even shared research finds with me. Also Edward S. Moulton, whose advice and encouragement have been most helpful; Norman G. Barrier, Marc Jason Gilbert, Uma Dasgupta, T.J.S. George, Aroon Tikekar, Nilufer Bharuchia, Julie Codell, and my guru of old, Robert Eric Frykenberg.

There were the libraries and other institutions which extended their cooperation and hospitality: Indian National Library, Kolkata; National Archives of India, New Delhi; the state archives of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Maharashtra; British Library, London; US Library of Congress, Washington DC; Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University; Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi; Asiatic Society of Bombay; and the university libraries at University of Bombay; School of Economics, Yale University, and University of Manchester.

There was the staff of the Statesman in Calcutta, headed by the late C.R. Irani, who helped the search for elusive details of their past.

There were my helpful and patient editors at Oxford University press.

The helpers were many, but all errors of omission and commission belong to only one.

Finally a note on chapterization. I have deliberately kept the expression “The Making...’ in all the chapter titles as I feel this is the best way to show continuity in Robert Knight’s life, how it remains constant, how it evolves and changes. These are not isolated episodes; they show changing circumstances tested his beliefs in human freedom and dignity, his hatred of oppression and injustice, his faith in Christianity and private enterprise, his growing doubts about imperialism, etc. At each stage of his life he had to amalgamate new events into his existing beliefs.


Imperialism, the rule of one people by another, requires some combination of physical, usually military force, political skill, and popular persuasion. When the military force is weak, as in the British Indian empire, the acceptance of alien rules most of the populace, or at least its acquiescence, is essential. Never have so few ruled so many, so easily, as in the Raj’, the Britishrun Government of India. But when sufficient segments of the populace turned against it and were stirred into resistance, British rule could not be maintained. It was an ‘empire of opinion’, a journal warned in 1836.

Control of the populace required control of public opinion, and the required control of mass communications. As long as the mass media-the newspapers-explained the news from the rulers’ point of view, political events could be kept under official control. However, the empire was jeopardized when a dissident such as Robert knight presented his view of current events, and in the process dispelled the halo of omniscience and omnipotence of the empire. The papers which knight created-the Time of India in Bombay and the Statesman in Calcutta-vigorously criticized the Raj as long as he controlled them.

The Raj was an ill-matched hybrid of British and India concepts and practices. The very thin end of the wedge had been the trading operations of the East India Company, which led to the gradual takeover of political power in the subcontinent (never actually a ‘conquest of India’). Even before the takeover had been completed, however, British opinion (as expressed through Parliament’s charter revision acts) demanded that the Raj curb its authoritarian appetites and recognize the rights of its subjects. This was implemented by officials in India in a most reluctant and dilatory manner.

One reason for these demands was the growing numbers of Britons settling in India after 1820, due to increasing security and easier transport. Some of these were independent businessmen and professionals, who felt that the Magna Carta accompanied them whenever they travelled within ‘their’ empire. Another reason was the view that god-fearing Englishmen, by seizing political rule, had also accepted some responsibility for the welfare of their subjects. As early as 1783, Edmund Burke had denounced the British predators in India as ‘birds of prey and passage’ who swooped to plunder. Thomas B. Macaulay, in the bubbly benevolence of his 1835 ‘Minute on Indian Education’, urged the Raj to thrust India into the modern world by providing English education instead of its own.

The British settlers were not walled off from their Indian neighbours, and ideas and influences spread. The British interest in community news led to the first newspaper in India, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, in Calcutta, in 1780. It published official announcements, advertising, local gossip, and other items of local interest. It was soon shut down by authorities, but others followed. Indians had their traditional networks of communication for official and local purposes, but they soon saw the advantages of the new print technology, and the first Indian-run newspaper began in 1816. Like their English contemporaries, they met immediate local needs, whether these were market prices, religious discourses, or caste/community announcements. With such a fragmented audience, these early newspapers were necessarily fragile and ephemeral. Only with sturdier roots could they brave the displeasure of the Raj.

Robert knight broke the path for them. More than anyone else, he made the press a ‘fourth estate’ a part of the political process. He was the principal founder and first real editor of both, the Times of India in Bombay and the Statesman in Calcutta, which under him grew into the foremost newspapers of western and eastern India, respectively. He often attacked and provoked the Raj, alienating most of his countrymen, but spreading ideas and critical attitudes to English-knowing Indians like ripples on a pond. Therefore, his angry challenges of official policy and conduct gave Indians a sense of grievance and purpose which helped pave the way for the development of Indian nationalism in the years which followed. Personally, it cost him dearly.

This study of knight shows the reactions of a young Englishman with a head full of liberal ideals when the encountered the realities of India. One can see a true believer in the mission and benevolence of British rule gradually sinking into disillusion and even despair. Knight worked to improve the newspaper press of India and develop it into a sturdier and more respected part of the political scene, despite the obstructions he faced. Yet, a study of his shows how this idealistic man caught in a double-bind grappled again and again with the puzzle of whether imperial rule of one nation by another is ever justified. In fact, his writings led to the exposure of ‘scandals of empire’ in those times, rather than in historical hindsight.

British rule peaked from the Great Rebellion of 1857 through the early years of the nationalist movement, into the late 1880s. Knight was probably the only Anglo-Indian journalist who spanned this peak period and exposed and exposed its failures to the public.

Recent studies in mass communications in India ignore the mundane daily newspaper and focus on specialized periodicals and the stereotypes which they promulgate, or else on communication links between Indian issues were handled by the British press. Benedict Anderson’s revisionist study of nationalism states that ‘national consciousness’ can be traced to a common written language, promoted by the publication and promotion of books and journals in that language (which he print-capitalism).

However, a case could also be made that ‘national consciousness’ grows from common information on the events which impact a community and the common perception of those events. A new tax, a restrictive law, a war, an insurrection, a struggle for power-such events affect all, and the way in which people learn of them-through word of mouth, public speakers, or newspaper headline-helps to determine their reception and response. Robert knight fought for a free press which could fully and candidly inform the people of public affairs. This is the crux of his controversial life and his perceptions of the British Raj at the peak of its power



List of Plates









The Making of a Reformer, 1825-56



The Making of an Editor, 1857-63



The Making of a Dissident, 1864-72



The Making of an Imperial Critic, 1875-81



The Making of a Statesman Elder, 1881-90



Epilogue: A Prophet without Honour?



Appendix A: The Role of the Press Under Imperial Rule



Appendix B: A.O. Hume’s Defences of Robert Knight and His Newspapers









Sample Pages

Item Code: NAL448 Author: Edwin Hirschmann Cover: Hardcover Edition: 2015 Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi ISBN: 9780195696226 Language: English Size: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch Pages: 288 (5 B/W Illustrations) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 460 gms
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