Telegraphy and Journalism in Colonial India

Project title: Asymmetries in Cultural Information Flows: Europe and South Asia in the Global Information Network since the Nineteenth Century (2008-2012)

PI: Prof Dr Roland Wenzlhuemer

Doctoral researchers: Amelia Bonea, Paul Fletcher

Funding body: German Research Foundation

Host Institution: Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” University of Heidelberg

Project description:

In the course of the nineteenth century, a global telegraph network emerged as a new vehicle for transcultural contact and interaction. Constraints of time and space lost much of their importance in global communication, while access to the communication network became exclusive and prohibitively expensive. The new system employed specialized codes and signs and was geared to serve European scripts and languages. Access required special skills and the existence of a specially trained group of operators. In addition, telegraphy introduced artificial limits on the length and content of communicated messages. All this led to the emergence of asymmetries in long-distance communication and global information flows that followed an entirely new rationale. The main purpose of this junior research group was to trace these asymmetries and to find out how they impacted on cultural flows and exchanges.

As part of this project, my doctoral research explored the intersections of journalism and electric telegraphy in nineteenth-century India. Drawing on English and, to a lesser extent, Hindi and Japanese-language sources, it combined global and micro-history approaches with theories of media and communication to develop an interdisciplinary theoretical framework for understanding how new technologies of communication were incorporated into journalism in colonial South Asia. This research led to the publication of my first monograph, The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India, c.1830-1900. The aim of this monograph was to challenge conventional narratives of media revolutions, showing instead that the use of telegraphy was gradual and piecemeal and that imperial rivalries, capitalist enterprise and individual agency shaped the content and form of reporting, enabling the articulation of competing visions of journalism. This study also speaks to contemporary concerns about the impact of information technologies on journalism.

*Photo: Delhi Telegraph Memorial (2010), author’s archive

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