Great Sons of India :The Tamil Helmsman who challenged the monopoly of British shipping in India

V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (commonly called VOC) established the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company in 1906 (one of the first indigenous shipping companies of India), which began services from Tuticorin to Colombo. This brought him opposition from the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC) which held a monopoly in shipping services in the Indian ocean.

The indigenous ship building of India had been dead since 19th century due to British regulation to protect interests of British companies and workers. Alongside the ship building monopoly enjoyed by the British, the shipping services were also firmly in their hands.

In 1906, VOC launched his shipping company and christened it Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, after the swadeshi movement. Throughout its short existence, VOC would face opposition from the vested business interests afraid of competition and from the imperial government due to his nationalist credentials.

Since the nascent company did not own ships of its own, it leased a ship, but the lessor was pressurized by the BISNC to cancel the lease. Undeterred, VOC proclaimed: “ I will come back with ships. Otherwise, I will perish in the sea.”

Share certificate of Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company

Eventually, VOC purchased his first ship, but the much larger British monopoly resorted to predatory pricing to run his shipping company into the ground (pun intended). Although unable to match the monopoly’s financial heft, the nationalist sentiment prevailing at the time due to the swadeshi movement ensured that VOC’s company would survive, though barely (as a middle finger to the British, the shipping flags of VOC’s company were emblazoned with Vande Mataram.)

In 1908, he decided to speak at a rally celebrating the release of Bipin Chandra Pal, despite warnings by the British administration. In retaliation, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, though the length of the sentence was reduced after appeal in a higher court.

While he was in prison, his company came under increased strain because of the dissipating national sentiment as the swadeshi movement lost steam. Moreover, the predatory pricing of the British India Steam Navigation Company could not be fought against for too long. In 1911, his shipping company was liquidated when he was still in jail.

Following his release in 1912, VOC continued to face hardships till his death. Though his law license had been restored (it had been revoked following his arrest), his practise was more or less over. He started a kirana store, and also resorted to selling his law books to stave off poverty. He died in penury in 1936.

After independence, to honour VOC, the first ship of a new shipping company was named after him (flagged off by Rajaji himself). The port of Tuticorin itself, where his company started from, was named V.O. Chidambaranar Port Trust. Stamps in his name were issued in 1972.

Still, to this day, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai is largely unknown in India.

Author: Aditya Bhuyan

I am an IT Professional with close to two decades of experience. I mostly work in open source application development and cloud technologies. I have expertise in Java, Spring and Cloud Foundry.

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