Telegraphy and news: Changing perceptions of time and place in nineteenth-century Indian newspapers
Cluster of Excellence ‘Asia and Europe’, University of Heidelberg
This paper seeks to understand how the use of telegraphy for the transmission of news between India and Britain changed perceptions of time and place in nineteenth-century Indian newspapers. The history of the Indian telegraphs began in 1851, when William O’Shaughnessy built the first telegraph line between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour. The network extended rapidly and by 1855 it came to incorporate such strategic centres as Peshawar, Lahore, Delhi, Bombay and Madras. Despite its inevitable limitations, the new technology soon became an indispensable tool for the transmission of military, administrative and commercial information. English-language newspapers in India were also among the earliest beneficiaries of telegraphy and their use of the technology was further facilitated by the opening of the first submarine cable between Britain and India in 1870. Newspapers thrived on the back of this technological progress which significantly altered the process of news collection and transmission. Technologies such as the steamship and railways continued to be used alongside the electric telegraph to obtain “home” news from Britain, as well as international news from around the world. Such technologies mediated the flow of information between the colony and the imperial metropolis and provided newspaper readers in India with speedier and more comprehensive access to news. In the process, the quality of time and place itself underwent significant changes.
Drawing upon a selection of English-language newspapers published in India during the period 1850-1900 and a variety of archival sources, this paper attempts a historical analysis of news with the aim of understanding how perceptions of time and place were shaped by qualitative and quantitative changes in the method of news transmission. The choice of newspapers reflects the biased access to telegraphic news in nineteenth-century India, with vernacular-language newspapers being unable to afford subscription fees to Reuters’ news service until the beginning of the twentieth century. In order to highlight the contribution of telegraphy, the paper compares telegraphic news and news by the overland mail, taking into account both their content and form and showing how the telegraph and the steamer facilitated different temporal and spatial perceptions of the same event. The telegraph added a sense of urgency and selectiveness to news delivery. The time and place of dispatch came to represent essential elements in each telegram: an interwoven pair according to which the “newness” and importance of news was judged. By reading the columns of telegraphic news, readers in India were brought closer to places whose exact geography often escaped them and to which telegrams, which conveyed only the gist of events, could offer only partial access. The disjuncture between time and place was more obvious in the case of news conveyed by the overland mail, as this method of transmission was much more time-consuming: news lacked the temporal immediacy of telegrams, but their richness of detail allowed for a much more accurate reconstruction of the sense of place.