Remembering the ‘Tamil Helmsman’ who launched India’s 1st shipping firm

VOC started India's first shipping company to fight British monopoly, but not many remember him on his 150th birth anniversary

VOC Pillai
Vallinayagan Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai, or VOC, was born on September 5, 1872 | File Photo: Wikipedia

Every year, when the birth anniversary of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is celebrated as Teachers Day on September 5, another stalwart from history who shares his birth date with India’s second President continues to remain confined to the footnotes in textbooks. That is the case even in his 150th birth anniversary.

Vallinayagan Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai, or VOC, was born on September 5, 1872, as the first son of advocate Olaganathan and Paramayi Ammal at Ottapidaram. He made substantial contributions to India’s freedom struggle. He is also known as ‘Kappalottiya Tamilan’ (the Tamil helmsman) for launching India’s first shipping company to fight British monopoly.

After completing his law degree in Tiruchirapalli, he became a reputed barrister. Being service-minded, Chidambaram took the cases of the poor for free.

In an era when criticising judges attract cases, it is difficult to imagine that Chidambaram not only filed a case against a judicial magistrate judge Ekambaram Iyer for taking bribe, but also won it. From the very beginning of his career, he fought malpractices in the judiciary.

First Indian helmsman

Chidambaram brought to the south the Swadeshi Movement started by the ‘Lal Bal Pal’ triumvirate (Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal) in north India in 1905. As part of the movement, he registered a shipping company called ‘Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company’ with Rs 10 lakh in 1906 to break the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company. He thus became the first Indian to run a shipping company.

The very next year he got two ships named SS Gallia and SS Lavo from France. His company gave stiff competition to the British services, as people opted to travel by his ship.

“Because of this, he was called the ‘Swadeshi Naavaai Naayagan’ (Swadeshi Helmsman). But after his death, it was M P Sivagnanam, another freedom fighter, who gave him the title ‘Kappalottiya Tamilan’ (The Tamil helmsman). He should have been called ‘Kappalottiya Indian’, since his reputation then had spread all across the country,” said Rengaiah Murugan, a librarian doing research on Chidambaram.

Related news: HS Doreswamy: When the quest for freedom continues

Murugan founded the VOC Research Foundation along with like-minded researchers. It is in the process of launching a website that will tell the story of VOC and provide access to all his works.

Chidambaram also organised the first general strike in India when he organised the Coral Mill protests in 1908 demanding higher wages and better working conditions for workers. He inspired leaders like Periyar to get into politics.

A political prisoner

In 1908, Chidambaram organised a meeting to celebrate the release of Bipin Chandra Pal, who was arrested for contempt of court. Another freedom fighter, Subramaniya Siva, addressed the event. For these reasons, Chidambaram and Siva were arrested in March that year.

“After his arrest, there was a riot in Tirunelveli. The government offices were attacked. A government oil godown was set on fire and it took three days to put it out. There was police firing, in which four people died,” writes Murugan, who distributes a 25-page book titled ‘Makkal Thalaivar VOC’ free of cost to create awareness about Chidambaram among youngsters. The booklet, an abridged version of a book titled ‘VOC Vaazhvum Paniyum’ written by historian A Sivasubramanian, has been translated into English, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.

Initially, Chidambaram was sentenced for life for 40 years. But on an appeal from his well-wishers, it was reduced to four years in jail and six years in exile. He spent four years from 1908 to 1912 in Coimbatore and Kannanur prisons. In Coimbatore, he was made to pull oil press because of which his health started deteriorating.

“Even in jail, Chidambaram did not give up his fight against the British. There, he fought for inmates’ rights like medical checkup, quality food, etc. To impart moral values in them, he simplified the couplets from Thirukkural. Later, it was published as a book titled ‘Meiyaram’. It must be included in the school syllabus,” says Murugan.

Why Chidambaram has been sidelined

After his release, Chidambaram lived in Chennai between 1913 and 1920 to serve the exile punishment. Later, he moved to Thoothukkudi and lived in penury till his death. He survived by doing odd jobs like providing legal advice to trade unions, taking tuitions on Thirukkural, etc. He left his properties to his brother Meenakshi Sundaram, who became a lunatic after hearing the original sentence against  Chidambaram, and his sister Maalai Ammal.

“The British issued various orders against Chidamabaram. They said no one should welcome him when he is released, he should not be given employment and that there will be an investigation against those who met him. These restrictions continued till his death in 1936. As a result, he remained isolated from society. So none of the big leaders at that time in Chennai came to extend their support to him,” says Murugan.

At the same time, Gandhi started emerging as a mass leader and because of him the Congress changed its freedom struggle strategies. In later days, Chidambaram was seen supporting the ideologies of the Justice Party, which started a campaign  against Brahmins and is said to have been the start of the Dravidian movement. That is also a reason why he got sidelined, says Murugan.

“In the 100 volumes of ‘Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’, the names of about 150 freedom fighters from Tamil Nadu are found. However, there is no mention of Chidambaram. The then Congress leaders like Satyamurthy objected to having a bust of Chidambaram in the party’s Chennai office. But, today, Tamil nationalists have started to remember him,” says Murugan.

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