V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, first Indian to run a shipping comapany in British India.

A rare picture of VOC.mentalcentral.blogspot.in
V. O. Chidambaram Pillai. voccollege.ac.in


V. O. Chidambaram. yoked oil press at Gandhi Mandapam Guindy.
British India en.wikipedia.org

India has been a free country since 15th August, 1947 and prior to  it, it was under the British rule for more than 250 plus years. Indians did not achieve Independence over night and it took 90 tough  years for our forefathers to free our country from the British yoke. In the process, thousands of people lost their lives, wealth and families. Scores of patriots under went untold  sufferings, insults and humiliations. Many of them died in poverty, but their sacrifices are well etched in the annals of Indian history. The story of patriot V.O. Chidambaram is a poignant one, marking him out as one of the daring freedom fighters who faced odds with firm determination and commitment.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai  is the first Indian to have started the  first ever  indigenous steam navigation shipping  company, operating service between Tuticorin (Thoothukudi)  and Colombo. Born on September 5, 1872 Ottapidaram, now in  Tuticorin District of Tamil Nadu, he had his education in Tuticorin and took a degree in Law from Madras University. Following his father Olaganathan's foot steps, he enrolled  as a lawyer. He was a courageous and bold man and  never failed to take up cases from poor people, fighting for justice and fairness. With his grasp of civil and criminal laws  and their right  application to various cases, besides his convincing argument style, he won many cases and established himself as one of the leading lawyers in his region.  Keenly interested in the welfare of the factory workers,  V. O. Chidambaram Pillai  took active role in trade unions activities   in Tamil Nadu (then Madras presidency) and provided a strong leadership. At the same time, being patriotic, as he was, he  joined India's  struggle for freedom by becoming a member of the Indian National Congress in the year 1905,  following the partition of Bengal in the same year.  This provided him an opportunity to get to know many great national leaders. He was a disciple of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a well-known freedom fighter from Maharashtra and Gandhiji was his close associate. Both Gandhiji and VOC exchanged letters regarding independence and other related matter.

Potage samp. 5 Sept. 1972,V. O. Chidambaram Pillai -www.delcampe.net

The Swadeshi movement  was gathering momentum in India at that time, it means outright rejection of foreign goods. Leaders like  Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gandhi wanted to safeguard Indian trade  which was strangled  by coercive British trade  laws. The Indian cottage and village industries  were dependent on trade laws.  Aurobindo Ghosh, Subramanya Siva and Subramanya Bharathi along with other national leaders championed the cause of Indian traders and their grievances. VOC  became a prominent spokesperson for the cause in Madras Presidency (then comprising Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra).  He later presided over the Salem District session of the INC and developed closer contacts with eminent people like Rajaji (C. Rajagopla Chari, Governor-general of India after freedom), Salem Vijayaragavachariar, a well known lawyer of Salem  and Satayamurthy.  In a short period, he developed an obsession for Swadeshi moment. The British dominated in the realm of shipping and charged exorbitant freight rates and fares. Their monopoly in shipping was a headache for mercantile traders.

A rare picture of VOC and his wife. mentalcentral.blogspot.com

To break the British monopoly and help Indian traders, Chidambaram  started an Indian-owned shipping company. He registered the Swadeshi Shipping Company in October 1906 and used the ships taken on lease. The British forced the leasing company to cancel the lease. With great difficulty he raised shares, bought a ship   the S.S. Galia and later S.S. Lavo.  Responding to new competition, the BISNC   reduced the fare trip to Colombo from Tuticorin and finally free trip to Sri Lanka plus some gifts. At last the British Co. wanted to buy the Indian company which Chidambaram refused.

In early February, 1908 labor problems brewed to the brim at  Coral Mill (a part of Madura Coats), Tuticorin over low wages and poor working conditions. Chidambaram and Subramaniya Shiva led the labor strike, Finally,  after nine days of strike, the management conceded to  the workers' demand. Chidambaram's active involvement irritated the British and after several threats,  he and Shiva were arrested on 12 March 1908 in Tirunelveli (then Tinnelveli). Their unjust arrest caused widespread  protest in that region and finally turned into riots. Chidambaram was charged under  sections 123-A and 153-A of the Indian Penal Code for speaking against the British and giving shelter to Siva, being a lawyer, he  refused to take part in the proceedings. He was charged with sedition and a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect 40 years) was imposed. He was confined in the Central Prison, Coimbatore (from 9 July 1908 to 1 December 1910). The judgment was widely condemned by the media  the British Statesmen magazine claiming that it was unjust. Upon appeal, his sentence was slightly reduced by the High court.

 Both at Coimbatore and Kannanoor (now in Kerala)  jail, he was not treated as political prisoner and was treated as a convict  sentenced to life imprisonment. He was forced to hard labor such as breaking hard rocks under scorching sun and and  was "yoked (in place of bulls) to the oil press (in Tamil Yennai Sekku) like an animal and made him to pull it round  under the  hot sun. Because of harsh treatment, his health gradually  deteriorated. By the time he came out of jail,  his  Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had already been liquidated in 1911and the ships sold to British companies.

This eminent lawyer, whose father was also a well known and rich lawyer,  underwent untold misery and pain in the hands of the British. To add insult to injury, the government refused to give him license to practice as a lawyer.  Once a rich lawyer of repute, now    penniless and almost broke, Chidambaram was compelled  to do various odd jobs to keep his family going.  At last the British  Judge at Coimbatore restored his license to practice as a lawyer.  For a while he practiced at Kovilpatti, TN and after a brief stint there he returned to  Thoothukudi and  focused his attention on writing books, etc. He kept away from the Congress Party as he  he was not happy with its certain policies. Chidambaram   continued to live in poverty with two sons till the end of his life. He died unsung on 18 November 1936 at Thoothukudi. He sacrificed everything for the sake of freeing India from the British rule. 
During their long stay in India, the British through their oppressive rule killed ten of thousands of people, including many rulers and noble people and  looted Indian resources.  They earned big a bundle of dough in India and along with it  a bigger bundle of sins and Indian people's curses. They left India, once a rich country with 23 GDP impoverished with emaciated population.


                    (corrections made: 09 December 2016)