Kappalottiya Thamizhan: V.O. Chidambaram

We all celebrated the Teachers’ Day on September 5th with much fanfare. We should also remember another great personality who was also born on the same day. He is also from Tamilnadu and was instrumental in the freedom fight against the British Raj.

He is the Kappalottiya Thamizhan Vallinayagan Ulaganathan Chidambaram. Also known as V.O.C. (வ.உ.சி in Tamil)

This day and age we celebrate all big businesses established in India and we are proud how big we have grown in the world stage. However, V.O.C’s life is a story of courage, loyalty, love for his country and endurance. He was the entrepreneur that wanted to establish a business that would stop India’s dependency on the British.

Early Life:

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai was born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin District to Ulaganathan Pillai and Paramayee Ammal. He started education at the age of 6. His father ensured that he also learnt English from a very early age. This wasn’t in practise during that period.

At fourteen, Chidambaram went to Thoothukudi to continue his studies. He studied at CEOA High School and Caldwell High School and in Thoothukudi at the Hindu College High School, Tirunelveli.

Chidambaram worked as Taluk office clerk for some time before his father sent him to Tiruchirappalli to study law. He passed his pleadership exam in 1894, returning to Ottapidaram to become a pleader in 1895.

Political Life:

The Swadeshi movement was very active during that era. Chidambaram was influenced by the words of Tilak Maharaj and became his disciple. He entered politics in 1905 along with Subramanya Siva and Subramanya Bharathi and became a prominent spokesperson for the cause in the Madras Presidency.

Chidambaram established many institutions like Yuvanesh Prachar Sabha, Dharmasanga Nesavu Salai, National Godown, Madras Agro-Industrial Society Ltd and Desabimana Sangam.

Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company:

During those times British India Steam Navigation Company was the sole monopoly and all Indian traders were dependent on it for their business. So he established a Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and registered it in October 1906.

The capital of the company was ten lakh rupees. The number of shares was 40,000 and the face value of each share was Rs. 25/-. Any Indian could become a shareholder. The director of the company was Pandi Thurai Thevar, a Zamindar and the founder of “Madurai Tamil Sangam”.

In the beginning, the Company owned no ships. They leased them from Shawline Steamers Company. The British pressured Shawline Steamers to cancel the lease. In response, Chidambaram leased a single large freighter from Sri Lanka. Realizing the need for the Swadeshi Shipping Company to own its own vessels, Chidambaram travelled around India selling shares in the company to raise capital.

I will come back with Ships. Otherwise, I will perish in the sea

V.O. Chidambaram

He vowed, “I will come back with Ships. Otherwise, I will perish in the sea”. He managed to secure sufficient funds to purchase the company’s first ship, the S.S. Gallia. Shortly afterwards, the company was also able to acquire another ship, the S.S. Lavo from France.

In response to the new competition, the British company reduced the fare per trip to Re.1 (16 annas) per head. The Swadeshi company responded by offering a fare of Re.0.5 (8 Annas)

The British company went further by offering a free trip to the passengers with a free umbrella. however, nationalist sentiment meant that the free service was underused.

The B.I.S.N.C. attempted to buy out Chidambaram, but he refused the deal.

The ships commenced regular service between Tuticorin and Colombo (Sri Lanka) against opposition from British traders and the Imperial Government.

Coral Mill Strike

On 23 February 1908 Chidambaram and Subramanya Siva lead a strike encouraging the workers at Coral Mill (now part of Madura Coats) to protest against their low wages and harsh working conditions. Four days later, the workers of the Coral Mill went on strike.

Chidambaram ensured the strike was widely publicised, and it quickly gained popular support. The strike lasted 9 days. The management agreed to increase the wages, to reduce the working hours and to give leave on Sundays. The outcome of the strike encouraged the workers of other European companies, who also gained increased wages and better treatment.

Arrest and Imprisonment

Chidambaram was warned about his activities and was asked to give assurances that he would not participate in any political revolt. Chidambaram refused to accept his conditions, so he and Siva were arrested on 12 March 1908 by Collector Winch.

The arrest was followed by widespread protest. In Thirunelveli shops, schools and colleges were closed in protest, and rioting broke out. Although his supporters were able to raise sufficient funds for bail, Chidambaram refused to leave the jail without the release of Siva and his other comrades. 

He was charged with sedition, and a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect forty years) was imposed. He was confined in the Central Prison, Coimbatore from 9 July 1908 to 1 December 1910.

The judgement was widely condemned in the popular press, with even the British Statesmen magazine claiming that it was unjust. Chidambaram appealed the sentence in High Court, gaining a reduced punishment of four years imprisonment and six years in exile. An appeal to the Privy Council led to a further reduction in sentence.

Chidambaram was interned in Coimbatore and Kannanoor jail. He was not treated as a political prisoner, nor was the sentence de facto of simple imprisonment; rather, he was treated as a convict sentenced to life imprisonment and required to do hard labour, which caused his health to suffer. 

Historian and Tamil scholar R. A. Padmanabhan noted in his works that Chidambaram was “yoked (in place of bulls) to the oil press like an animal and made to work it in the cruel hot sun”

He was finally released on 12 December 1912. Sadly, Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had already been liquidated in 1911, and the ships were auctioned to their competitors. The company’s first ship, the SS Gallia, was sold to the British Shipping Company.

Later Life:

V. O. Chidambaram had a long correspondence with Gandhi, not yet Mahatma, from 1915 to 1920. In 1915, when Gandhi visited Chennai (Madras then), both had met. Some in South Africa with Indian origin had collected money to help V. O. Chidambaram and transmitted the amount through Gandhi. However, V. O. Chidambaram did not receive the money. He had some lengthy correspondence with Gandhi on the subject. In one instance Gandhi wrote a postcard to V. O. Chidambaram in Tamil with his own hand.

The term Gandhi Kanakku (in Tamil meaning Gandhi’s accounting) became prevailing because of this incident. The term is often used in Tamilnadu to refer to any debt when it is impossible to get the money back. But on 4 February 1916, V.O. Chidamabaram wrote to a friend, “Rs. 347-12-0 has come from Sriman Gandhi.”.

Interesting Facts:

I lived all my life in Chennai and was never aware of the fact that the Oil Press that was used to Yoke Chidambaram was kept in Gandhi Mandapam, Guindy. Everyone residing in Chennai should visit the place to get an idea of the courage and suffering he went through