A belated remembrance
Visionary V.O. Chidambaram Pillai
A recent newspaper report that I came across stated that the centenary of V. O. Chidambaram’s (VOC) challenge to the Raj, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, was to be celebrated during the first week of this month. Better late than never, even if it is two years too late.
As far as I can gather, VOC and his friends established the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. on October 16, 1906 and on November 12, through the good offices of fellow Congressmen Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose, bought the s.s. Gaelia and s.s. Lawoe to offer a regular Tuticorin-Colombo service. This was a direct challenge to the monopoly enjoyed by the British India Steam Navigation Company, which was later to be merged with P&O. The Tuticorin agent of BISN was A.& F. Harvey. BI’s main agent, however, was powerful Binny & Co. of Madras. BI, a Mackinnon (&Mackenize, in the beginning) Company, was started in 1862 in Calcutta and Dymes & Co was its first agent in Madras. Binny’s took over the agency in 1865 and held it for well over a century; Harvey’s was the sub-agent in Tuticorin.
With Mackinnon’s and Binny’s financial clout, Swadeshi didn’t stand a chance. Deck passage, of Indian labour to the other colonies, is what BI thrived on. And to take on Swadeshi, it cut deck fare to a rupee. Swadeshi countered with an 8-anna fare. Then, BI offered free passage on the deck plus an umbrella to each passenger — and Swadeshi ships found themselves sailing with no passengers. Swadeshi was headed for bankruptcy by 1909!
Meanwhile, VOC decided to twist the British tail harder and mobilised the workers of the Harvey-owned Coral Mills in Tinnevelly to go on strike. He was arrested on March 12, 1908 and charged with sedition. Treated like a criminal, he was sentenced to two life terms of rigorous imprisonment (40 years each), but petitions to the High Court led to his release in December 1912. By then — in 1911 — Swadeshi had been liquidated and its assets sold.
He came out of prison a broken man, without money, without a Bar licence, with few others at the time showing the same zeal for freedom he had done, and banned from returning to Tinnevelly. He settled in Madras, offered advice to labour welfare organisations, and continued to play a role in the Indian National Congress he had joined in 1905, but his heart was not in it and he passed away in Tuticorin on November 18, 1936.
Vulaganathan Othapidaram Chidambaram Pillai was born on September 5, 1872 (that report must have been thinking of a birth anniversary), the son of a successful Tinnevelly lawyer. VOC followed in his footsteps — and was a success too, but he defended the poor, unlike his father. When he was convicted, he lost his Bar licence. His fourth son, it is related, was named by him Walliswaren, after Puisne Justice J.E.P. Wallis who was instrumental in having his licence restored c.1910.
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