‘Kappalottiya Thamizhan’ means ‘The Tamilian who Sailed a Ship’. What makes V. O. Chidambaram Pillai’s sailing, a feat, is – he was the first Indian to form a shipping company (and provide commercial shipping services for Indians), breaking the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company in the seas (during early 1900s).
Born in 1872, in Ottapidaram, South Tamil Nadu, V. O. C was a lawyer by education. Being a nationalist at heart, he wanted to do something beyond law, and decided to form a shipping company (Swadeshi Company) to carry people and goods between Tuticorin and Colombo. His main aim was to break the British monopoly in this trade. He tried leasing ships, but the British company blocked it. So he decided to buy ships.
Since V. O. C didn’t have the required capital, he decided to raise Ten Lakhs by issuing shares for the company. As the amount raised in Tuticorin was not sufficient, he went to Bombay to raise the remaining money. People were impressed with his nationalistic agenda and bought shares enthusiastically (almost donated to this cause!). He not only succeeded in raising the money, but also came back with a ship. His company bought another ship from France.
The British were enraged that an Indian was effectively competing with them on the seas, and hence they dropped their fare. When that didn’t work, they offered tickets for free and disallowed Govt. employees from boarding Indian ships. In spite of it, people and merchants mostly used Swadeshi Company’s ships in that route!
V. O. C was also involved in political activism. He opposed British rule before Gandhiji’s mass freedom movement gained traction. He organized mill unions and made workers fight their British bosses for nominal wages and a weekly holiday. Mentored by Bal Gangadar Tilak and influenced by patriot Subramaniyam Siva, he organized rallies and spoke vehemently against the British rule.
For these patriotic activities, he was arrested by the British in 1908 and was awarded a 40-year jail term. Many Indian publications and even British newspapers wrote against the harshness of this verdict. The famous poet Subramaniya Bharati had to shift his press to the French Territory of Pondicherry as a result of supporting V. O. C. The jail term was then reduced to 4 years by the Madras High Court and Privy Council.
Within these four years, the authorities of Swadeshi Shipping Company buckled to the pressure from the British. They not only closed the company, but also sold one of their ships to the British! This enraged V. O. C, but he couldn’t do anything as he was inside the prison.
After his release, he joined the Congress, but left it as he was not convinced with Gandhiji’s ideologies. Before his death in 1936, he rightly predicted that India will achieve freedom as a result of an impending world war that could begin anytime. This shows his strong political acumen, even in those early years!
Even though he didn’t live to see a free India, he always knew that freedom was on the horizon. Thanks to the thousands of Patriots and Brave-hearts like him, we are able to live in a Free India today. The Tuticorin Port has been renamed as V. O. Chidambaranar Port, in his honor.
References: Wikipedia Article on V. O. Chidambaram Pillai; ‘Nattukku Uzhaitha Nallavar – Va. Vu. Chidambaram Pillai’ by Palaniappa Brothers publications (in Tamil).