V. O. Chidambaram: a forgotten hero

Like I’ve often said, India has produced numerous heroes; some who belonged to the earlier eras such as valorous rulers Prithviraj Chauhan, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj etc and others who fought against the British Raj to win us our freedom. Not all freedom fighters have received the recognition they truly deserve. V.O Chidambaram Pillai (popularly known as VOC) earned the epithet of ‘kappalottiya Tamizhan’ meaning the Tamilian who steered the ship. He started the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, India’s first indigenous shipping service, which ran between Tuticorin and Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a patron of the Swadesi movement. He shared a close friendship with Tamil patriot and poet Bharathiyar. He was influenced by Swami Ramakrishnantha, a saint of the Ramkrishna Mission whom Pillai met in the then Madras, who asked him to work in the national interest and serve the nation.

Chidambaram Pillai was born on 5th September 1872 in the town of Ottapidaram in Tuticorin district. Following the footsteps of his father, VOC studied for law and became a barrister. VOC considered his profession as a means to help the needy and hence, while his father took up the cases of the affluent, VOC often fought for the rights of the needy. Father and son found themselves on the opposite sides during a case. Not only did he demolish his father’s arguments but also caused a dent in the latter’s pride. He moved to Tuticorin in 1900 and walked the path shown by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in keeping with which VOC adopted the Swadesi movement.

1906 was a turning point in VOC’s life because he discovered the cause which would define his life. The task that he was about to undertake and the path down which he was going to walk would not only bring him honour and appreciation but also pain. Tuticorin was a renowned centre of shipping and controlled by those loyal to the Raj. For an Indian to start a shipping company was, therefore, unthinkable to say the least. It was in this environment that VOC established his Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company which plied only between Tuticorin and Colombo. However, what it actually wished to do was familiarize people with the art of navigation, re-establish and revive India’s maritime traditions and open dockyards. The British hated challenge and that is exactly what VOC was doing- challenging the might of the empire.

VOC had hired Shah Allum to ply goods from Tuticorin to Colombo and back. Local traders were convinced to send their goods through Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. Recognizing the threat posed by Swadeshi, the British Government tried every trick in its book to get VOC to dissolve his company including pressurising the owner of Shah Allum to withdraw his vessel from VOC’s company. Not one to be bogged down, Chidambaram instead acquired ships from abroad and rubbed salt on the British wounds by sailing into Tuticorin with flags that had Vande Mataram printed on them. 1908 was yet another milestone year in VOC’s life. He was denied permission to carry out a procession celebrating the release of Bipin Chandra Pal. He was asked to leave the city and since he refused to comply, he was arrested. His arrest led to a riot like situation in Tuticorin with mobs burning down public offices and state records. VOC was held responsible for this situation and was charged with sedition. He was sentenced to two life imprisonments which were later reduced by the Madras High Court to 4 years imprisonment and six years in exile. Finally, he was released on 12th December 1912.

Sadly he came out of prison to find out that his Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had been liquidated in 1911. Not only was he impoverished but forgotten as well. That is the misfortune of our country; public memory is short. He spent the last years of his life in poverty until his death on 18th November 1936. Well here is an incident that should set us all thinking about the way we treat our heroes. It so happened that some people in South Africa had collected money to help VOC which they sent through Gandhi. However, Chidambaram did not receive the money and wrote letters as well as personally met Gandhi and discussed the issue in 1915.

Recognition for this hero, who was a shipping magnate and who died in poverty, came a little too late. Years after his death, it was in 1949 that C. Rajagopalachari flagged the first vessel named SS VO Chidambaram to Colombo. Several statues were installed and the Tuticorin port was also renamed in his honour. What is the use of all this recognition when we couldn’t give him a dignified life after his release from prison? It is said that he spent the last days of his life selling his law books and tutoring students. The irony being he once was a shipping magnate earning in lakhs and a lawyer of repute.