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The British And The Electric Telegraph in India Part 1: Motivations
'It was in the telegraph department that the first organised process of communication dawned in India,' wrote Shridharami Krishnalal in the Story of the Indian Telegraphs: A century of progress when describing the advent of the telegraph in India. The invention of the telegraph annihilated realities of distance and time, redefining the possible.1
This series will argue that military, strategic, and commercial imperatives combined with a British desire to expand imperial communications were crucial to the expansion of the telegraph network. In India, the telegraph achieved great military and strategic efficacy. It became a revolutionary mode of communication that enabled unprecedented global connectivity. Initially, the technology was problematic, but the telegraph system developed and improved to become a very effective tool. Although able to overcome time and space with speed, the telegraph did not obviate older modes of interaction. The telegraph network in India helped the country become the most profitable part of the British Empire for Reuters, as a modern press still recognisable to this day emerged. The increased flows of information in the nineteenth century, of which the telegraph was a part, led the British authorities to restrict the Indian press and compelled them to the repressive measure of the 1878 Vernacular Press Act.
In 1850 the Board of Directors of the East India Company sanctioned the construction of a telegraph line between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour.2 Parliamentary Papers reveal the motives of the British authorities in establishing a telegraph network in India. Writing to J. P Grant, the Secretary to the Government of Bengal, the Superintendent of Electric Telegraph William O'Shaughnessy suggested a line to Saugor:
An office at Saugor Point would give intelligence of arrivals often two days earlier than Kedegree, would report vessels in distress, convey orders to outward-bound steamers and shipping, and communicate news and despatches of importance with very much greater facility and certainty than can be accomplished via Kedegree, where inward-bound vessels in the southwestern monsoon seldom anchor, and scarcely communicate even their names before their arrival at Diamond Harbour.'3
O’Shaughnessy saw the utility of the telegraph for conflict, 'I should not conclude the notice of this subject without alluding to the great value the communication with Saugor would prove of in a time of war, in the early receipt of intelligence and orders, and in the possible case of the approach of an enemy's cruiser to the mouth of the river.’4
The swifter transfer of intelligence was a key strategic consideration. Acquiring swifter reports of vessels in distress would be a crucial advantage. The telegraph would provide an opportunity to safeguard imperilled people and cargo while enhancing the coordination of shipping. The British administrators envisioned an innovation that could simultaneously serve humanitarian and economic needs. O'Shaughnessy believed a Saugor line might ensure military preparedness. He viewed the invention as one able to transcend economic and information networks.
Further along in the dispatch, O'Shaughnessy underlines the profitability and viability of an Indian telegraph network. He notes that aside from messages between private individuals, the telegraph transmits to and from public authorities and government departments such as the Marine administration. He wrote, 'the aggregate of such communications, charged pro forma, at the same rate as private messages, shows that the work done by the office is a direct profit to Government, even in this incipient stage of our operations.'5 From an early stage, the telegraph in India served British administrative imperatives. O'Shaughnessy found an alignment in governmental and commercial interest in the project. 'The 10 stations thus contemplated would, on the North-West trunk road line, pay a very considerable sum for the transmission of private business, provided the system be adopted of making a low and uniform charge (for each message of 16 words, of two syllables each, one rupee), irrespective of the distance to which the message is sent.'6O'Shaughnessy comprehended the profitability of the wires for the government and expected businesses to see great utility in this communications revolution.
Responding to O'Shaughnessy's letter to Grant, Governor-General of India, Dalhousie, following a visit to the wires in Bengal, laurelled the telegraph as a success of an Indian national experiment, viewing the invention as ameliorative, clearly consonant with Indian public works, a cause for which he established a department of government in 1854. He championed the celerity with which messages were received and recollected the 'political value' the wires would have served had they been employed in earlier situations. Dalhousie also refers to the cost-effectiveness of the scheme.7
Eight months after the Dalhousie Minute, his plans for telegraphy in India had developed. Writing in December 1852, Dalhousie shows strategic clarity; he describes the use of a network in a country that was not yet under complete British control. Dalhousie wrote: 'Rapid communication with the headquarters of the Supreme Government for public and political purposes from all presidencies, but most especially from the Presidency of Bengal, where political events are most likely to occur, is manifestly the first consideration for the Government of India.'8
Dalhousie outlined the importance of connecting Calcutta with Benares, Allahabad, Agra, Umballa, Lahore, and Peshawar. He thought these places might be the likely settings of political events. Dalhousie reasoned that this nexus would enable 'the earliest intelligence of any such occurrence, and within a few hours to make known the orders these events may require at the extreme post of the western frontier. In like manner, the several local authorities will be able to act with the same promptitude as if they were on the spot, and will find their power proportionately increased'.9
Here Dalhousie grasps the potential for a broader diffusion of imperial commands and quicker responses to unfolding events. He saw the chance to revolutionise strategic communications by enabling a man on the spot to transmit information, with a view to coordinated reactions to political and military developments. Dalhousie placed commercial contact as a very close second imperative.10 Dalhousie comprehended the potential for quicker communication between metropole and colony. Another 'line of importance' would be from Calcutta to Bombay. Via this route, the earliest political and commercial information from Europe would come before quick replies from India could be sent.11 A line from Bombay to Madras was deemed more important than one from Calcutta to Madras. Messages from Europe would arrive quicker this way. At this time, Dalhousie did not believe a Calcutta to Madras line to be politically, commercially, or militarily vital.12
A public dispatch from the Court of Directors of the East India Company (EIC) in March 1854 to the Government of India discerned the public utility the telegraph network could serve. 'We shall be glad to see the electric telegraph made available to the community at large, by the imposition of as low a rate of charge as possible for the transmission of messages.' However, this recognition of public interest was not without caveat, 'we think that precautions should be taken to prevent this important instrument from being abused'. The dispatch emphasised that telegraphic operations should be 'exclusively under the control of government' as 'the circulation of false or accurate information, either from design or false, should be specially guarded against'.13
The Court of Directors of the EIC understood that the telegraph might compromise British rule. Act XXXIV of 1854 'for regulating the Establishment and Management of Electric Telegraphs in India,' passed by the Legislative Council of India, notes this concern. The Act confirms the 'exclusive privilege' of establishing telegraph lines provided the Governor-General grants alternate licences revocable in the breach of certain conditions. The Act affirmed the right of the Governor-General to seize possession of the wires in the event of an emergency. It permitted the authorities to establish telegraph lines along any land belonging to a rail company that adjoined a railway. This Act confirmed the Governor-General's right to regulate the content of messages.14 It imposed sanctions for cutting wires, omitting to transfer messages, disclosing private messages, not paying to transmit messages, and fraudulent contact. The British understood that the telegraph's utility would be recognisable to enemies of the government and prepared for attacks on its lines. The legislature understood the potential for misconduct, underhand activity, fraud, and deceit. The edicts reveal a comprehension of the human motives that would shape the efficacy of the telegraph. The potential for subversion was known and preempted.15
Shridharami Krishnalal, Story of the Indian Telegraphs: A century of progress, 1953, 1
Parliament, House of Commons, (1854-5), East India telegraphs. Copies of reports from India, and laws or decrees passed, respecting telegraphs; and of any despatches from the Court of Directors regarding the establishment of electric telegraphs in India, (243), Volume page, XL.485, Volume 40, 19th Century House of Commons Sessional Papers, 8