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The British And The Electric Telegraph In India Part 3: Telegraphy Triumphant
The telegraph dissolved existing paradigms of human connectivity and overcame obstacles to success. Of 11,364 miles of submarine telegraph cables laid globally by 1862, only 25% worked.1 There were problems and failures, and it did take time for the telegraph service to improve; cables broke, messages were unclear, and communication could be tardy.
In 1865 the completion of the Karachi to London line meant Ceylon could communicate telegraphically beyond India, but the line was often very slow. It could take months for telegrams to pass the Ottoman Empire, Germany and France. After the opening of the Red Sea Submarine Cable in 1870, extending from Bombay to London via Aden and the Suez Canal, telegraphic communication became more dependable and easier to use frequently. Ceylon and London were then able to receive messages within a day.2
Ronald Wenzlhumer’s work describes the difficulties those using the Indian telegraph network encountered, and he charts the improvement of the service. In the 1860s, there were problems of efficiency, but ‘the number of errors occurring in the transmission of telegrams in the Indian inland system decreased from 4,526 in 1867-8 to 2,938 two years later, while the total number of messages sent grew from 337,022 to 499,946 in the same period.’3 The telegraph system was able to cater for the few in India and was not as developed as in the West. In 1888-9, state messages accounted for just 2.6 per cent of messages sent via the lines of the Indo-European Telegraph Department. Press telegrams comprised 2.2 per cent, and 95.3 per cent were commercial and private.4 The telegraph was not a panacea; it had to be honed and refined. Wenzlhumer's research underlines the salient commercial use of the wires, as envisioned by the progenitors of the Indian telegraph network.
Telegraphic communication relied on telegraph signallers; their skills were fundamental to the system. Signallers had to translate and transmit the codes; this could be difficult, depending on the code. As errors were not traceable to individual signallers, both signallers at either end of a line would receive a fine; this would lead the signallers to argue with the authorities. Telegrams needed repeating at different stations. Therefore, the potential for error was multiplied.5 The telegraph was a technology mediated by individuals, and its growth saw an increase in governmental bureaucracy. A Complaints Office examined protests about errors, and reforms tightened the discipline of the telegraphic workspace; changes guarded against the selling and divulging of information without authorisation. Character reference books for signallers came into use; books recorded positive and negative aspects of work performance.6
The advent of the telegraph led to the birth of a modern press that is recognisable today; during the earlier days of the telegraph, newspapers did not publish telegraphic bulletins on the front page. Later, the media would assign more importance to such notices. In 1878, the Delhi Gazette moved telegraphic news to the front page, creating a front page in the modern sense of the term.7 Around 1870, the bold letter headlines that we know today came into prominence.8
Reuters dominated oceanic telegraphic news transmission, and they were privileged by the British authorities for doing so. In June 1879, the subsidy from the Government of India to Reuters doubled.9 This outlay reflects the importance of the swift transmission of news to the British authorities in India. Oceanic telegraphic communication enabled reports of political and economic events to travel the globe. ‘India was the most profitable part of the British Empire for Reuters. It constituted a great market for political and commercial news, both incoming and outgoing.’10 The merchants could receive news about the cotton market. The subsidy to Reuters underlines the utility of the telegraph for governmental imperatives. The most profitable part of the British Empire for Reuters was India; this places into context the substantial impact of the telegraph in the country.
The defeat of distance did not necessarily equate to greater accuracy or detail. Accounts sent by mail would often follow news sent over the wires. The telegraph functioned alongside existing modes of communication without replacing them.11 The wires engendered a genuine communications revolution, but they did not consign older methods to the dustbin of history.
Due to prohibitive rates, it was not until 1900 that the first Indian-owned newspaper, The Bengalee, subscribed to Reuters. Newspapers copied news already published as there had been no copyright protection; they did this to avoid prohibitive rates.12 The absence of copyright enabled the Indian vernacular press to disseminate news transmitted by the wires.
During the 19th century, at certain points, the British Government of India moved to restrict press freedom, understanding the potential for the spread of information to subvert the current government. Both the Governor of Madras, Thomas Monroe, and a Governor of Bombay, Mountstuart Elphinstone, expressed a fear of a totally free press in a colonial context during the 1820s. In 1857-9, there were severe restrictions amid the uprisings of this period. In the 1860s, print burgeoned due to more efficient technical methods. The Indian public sphere grew from the start of the century.13 In 1878, the new Vernacular Press Act allowed the Government of India ‘to censor Indian language papers and to close offending ones and seize their machines and paper.’ This law did not apply to English-language newspapers. Some Indian papers evaded this by changing the language of their publication to English.1415 The resort to repressive measures reveals concern surrounding increasing information flows, of which telegraphy was a part. The British authorities would repeal the Act in 1881. Britain was able to direct new technology to the imperial interest. The British Empire also had to face new challenges. While it is true that the British could be repressive, the ideals of the British Empire were conducive to a liberal public space. The 1878 Vernacular Act represents a departure from these ideals rather than an ideological yearning to oppress.
Parliamentary papers from the 1850s reveal British military, strategic and commercial imperatives in establishing a telegraph network in India. Governor General Dalhousie discerned the military efficacy of the wires allowed. The construction of the telegraph reveals the strategic imperative of connecting important British bases. The use of wires for commerce was anticipated.
The uprisings of 1857-58 provide an example of the practical utility of the telegraph for military and strategic purposes, its shortcomings considered. During the late nineteenth century, the telegraph network expanded. In 1870, Britain connected with India via a line exclusively under British control. In 1875 India was the main overland link between the West, the Far East and Australasia; this magnifies the immense impact of the Indian telegraph network in the girdling of the globe with telegraphic wires. The telegraph network in India allowed Britain to assert itself geo-strategically. The British enhanced their presence in the Persian Gulf, with India acting as a vantage point.
The telegraph was not a panacea that dissolved all obstacles associated with distance. Of the submarine telegraph cables laid globally, the vast majority were not operational in 1862. There were transmission errors. Telegraphic efficacy depended on the ability of the signaller to decipher and interpret codes. But as Wenzlhumer has shown, the telegraph became more reliable by reducing errors. The telegraph overcame operational obstacles.
The telegram could not supplant the letter as the most official form of governmental correspondence. However, it was vital in breaking otherwise long silences, serving as a precursor to letters. India was a stage on which a modern press recognisable today emerged. India was also the most profitable part of the British Empire for Reuters; this informs the seismic impact of the telegraph in India. The telegraph did not oust other modes of communication but functioned alongside them.
Only in 1900 did the first Indian-owned newspaper subscribe to Reuters. The doubling in 1879 of subsidies to Reuters by the Government of India reflects the importance of swift transmission to the British authorities. Due to an absence of copyright law, the vernacular press could publish telegraphic information second-hand. The British feared increasing flows of information in the late 19th century. The 1878 Vernacular Press Act, which aimed to restrict the press, demonstrates this. The speed with which news could transmit posed new challenges to the British Empire. While it is true that the British could be repressive, the ideals of the British Empire were conducive to a liberal public space. The 1878 Vernacular Act represents a departure from these ideals for the sake of expediency rather than an ideological desire to oppress.
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Daniel R. Headrick and Pascal Griest, Submarine Telegraph Cables: Business and Politics, 1838-1939, The Business History Review, Vol.75, No.3 (Autumn, 2001), 543-578, 549
Paul Fletcher, The Uses and Limitations of Government Telegrams in Official Correspondence between Ceylon’s Governor General and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, circa 1870-1910, Historical Social Research, Vol.35 No.1, Communication: Telecommunication and Global Flows of Information in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century, 2010, 91
Ronald Wenzlhumer, Connecting the Nineteenth Century World, 2012, 221-223
Lahiri Choudhury, Of Codes and Coda: Meaning in Telegraph Messages, circa 1850-1920, Historical Social Research, Vol.35, no.1 (131), 2010, 127-139, 136
Lahiri Choudhury, Telegraphic Imperialism, Crisis and Panic in the Indian Empire, c1830-1920, 2010, 62-75
Michael Mann, Wiring the Nation: Telecommunication, Newspaper-Reportage, and Nation Building in British India, 1850-1930, 2017, 107
Amelia Bonea, The medium and its message: reporting the Austro-Prussian war in the Times of India, Historical Social Research, Vol. 35, No.1 (January 2010), 167-187, 168
Donald Read, The Power of News, The History of Reuters, 1992, 63
Mann, 88, 75-79
Daniel Headrick, A Double-Edged Sword: Communications and Imperial Control in British India, Vol. 35, No. 1 (131), Global Communication: Telecommunication and Global Flows of Information in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century, 2010, 51-65, 58
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Vernacular Press Act". Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 May. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Vernacular-Press-Act. Accessed 29 April 2023.