The British Transoceanic Steamship Press in Nineteenth-Century India and Australia: An Overview

By Putnis, Peter | Journal of Australian Studies, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The British Transoceanic Steamship Press in Nineteenth-Century India and Australia: An Overview


Putnis, Peter, Journal of Australian Studies


It is commonplace to speak of the present era as an information age in which a globalised media and worldwide communication networks play an unprecedented role in shaping events. However, as historian Robert Darnton has pointed out, 'such statements convey a specious sense of a break with the past'. He argues that 'every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events'. He calls for a general attack on the question of how societies in the past 'made sense of events and transmitted information about them', via greater research attention to the history of communication. (1) Similar calls have recently been made in relation to British imperial history. A G Hopkins has argued for a renewed attention to imperial connections, neglected in recent decades because of an understandable emphasis amongst historians on the writing of postcolonial national histories. He notes that contemporary attention to issues of globalisation has highlighted the need for closer attention to nineteenth-century developments in the flow of goods, finance, migrants and ideas. These flows were greatly enhanced 'by technological improvements, notably railways, steamships, submarine cables, telegraph facilities and refrigeration, all of which tied the Empire together more closely than before, cut the cost of transactions and began to create, for the first time, an integrated world market'. (2)

Duncan Bell has also noted how contemporary debate about the global political order has led to renewed interest in the nineteenth-century communication revolution which, he argues, 'impacted not only on the material structures of social and political life but also on the cognitive apprehension of the world', generating, amongst elites at least, a 'new globalising sensibility'. (3) So-called 'new imperial history', writes historical geographer Alan Lester, has focused on 'the material and discursive connections between colonised and metropolitan spaces' in an attempt to tease out the ways in which 'discourses of national identity, gender, sexuality, race and family were all mutually constitutive'. (4) Such work ideally builds upon detailed historical reconstruction of the communication networks of an empire whose elites, as Simon Potter has said, 'interacted through friendship, acquaintance, travel, business, correspondence and, crucially, the sharing of news'. (5)

This paper aims to contribute to the historical reconstruction of the communication networks of the British Empire, particularly as they linked readerships in India and Australia via shared experiences of British news and culture. I have written elsewhere that the communication histories of colonial and postcolonial India and Australia connect and disconnect, and converge and diverge in ways which reflect, on the one hand, their once common membership of the British Empire and their subjection to British commercial and technological influence and, on the other, their very differing cultural, geographic and political circumstances. I have noted that the interconnectedness of these histories is particularly striking with respect to the development of telecommunications systems and international news agencies, particularly Reuters. (6) In this paper, I consider the role of the transoceanic steamship press of the nineteenth century as a major purveyor of British news, literary material and advertising in both India and Australia. My particular focus is on two highly influential newspapers--Home News and the European Mail--each of which was published in both Indian and Australian editions. These newspapers, printed in London on the eve of the departure of each steamship mail service, were published especially for colonial readerships and formed a major cultural link between Britain, India, and Australia.

Steamship newspapers were major business enterprises and were an important news medium of the British Empire, particularly before the use of the telegraph became widespread.

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