V O Chidambaram Pillai – An entrepreneur fights British

Who is V O Chidambaram Pillai

Heroes have various ways of growing into their role. For Valliappan Olaganathan or V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, also called as Kappalottiya Tamilan, it is through his entrepreneurial skills.

V O Chidambaram Pillai

V O Chidambaram Pillai
A young VOC

How It All Started

V.O.C. used his entrepreneurial skills to defy the British government as he left the legacy of being the hero who founded the first indigenous shipping service between Colombo and Tuticorin. But he actually started as a lawyer who spent his career helping the poor with their legal woes. He also joined politics in 1905 as a member of the Indian National Congress, when the Swadeshi movement that aimed to stop the coercion of trade by the British. V.O.C. then poured all his efforts into supporting the movement for India’s independence, leading him to set up the Steam Navigation Company in 1906.

How His Entrepreneurial Efforts Played Out

As a way of supporting the country’s independence from the British Imperial rules, V. O. Chidambaram Pillai wanted to cut the monopoly held by the British shipping companies in Ceylon short. This was his first step in showing how he wanted to help the Swadeshi movement. Inspired by another freedom fighter, Ramakrishnananda, he founded the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. He obtained the idea from the requests of the local citizens. The shipping company opened on November 12, 1906, but it was registered a month before that.

The company had 40,000 shares at Rs.25/-. He permitted any Asian to be a part of the company as a shareholder. The company was under the leadership of Director Pandi Thurai Thevar, who was a Zamindar, and President Madurai Tamil Sangam. The first investor was Janab Haji Mohammed Bakir Seit, who then owned 8000 shares.

V.O.C.’s company started leasing steamships from the Shawline Steamers Company, but the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC) pushed the leasing company to cancel that lease. However, V.O.C. knew that it won’t simply be enough to continue leasing steamships, which had him traveling around India to sell his company’s shares and get enough capital.

He succeeded when he bought the S.S. Lawoe and S.S. Gallio with the help of fellow freedom fighters Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose. The initial capital was ten lakh rupees.

The Indian shipping company then provided services between Colombo and Tuticorin. Since it offered the first ever Indian comprehensive shipping service, it competed head on with the BISNC. The latter tried to win over the competitors’ passengers with reduced rates to around Re.1 (16 Annas) per person. But V.O.C. tried their patience even further by reducing his rates to Re.0.5 (8 Annas) per head, something that the Brits beat by providing free umbrellas and free rides. The competition pushed V.O.C.’s shipping company to the brink of bankruptcy in 1909. The BISNC also tried to acquire V.O.C.’s company, but he declined.

Instead, the Steam Navigation Company continued providing regular service between Colombo and Tuticorin, despite protests from the Imperial Government and the British traders.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai didn’t stop his British opposition efforts with his shipping company. He also mobilized the Coral Mills workers against the British. He gave a rousing speech that encouraged the workers to fight against the company in a bid to improve their low wages and working conditions. They organized a strike four days later, led by V.O.C. and Subramanya Siva.

V.O.C. did his best to publicize the event and it did, gaining massive support in the process. The management then gave in to their demands after a nine-day strike. This encouraged the workers who felt mistreated by other European companies to stage their own strike and they succeeded.

V.O.C.’s political activism caused the British government to arrest him on charges of sedition and was sentenced to two life imprisonments. He was a political prisoner, but he was treated like any common convict doing hard labor, leading to health problems. He was released due to failing health.

V O Chidambaram Pillai
VOC in prison

The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was liquidated in 1911 before he was released in December of 1912. The steamships he purchased with pained efforts were auctioned to competitors, with the British Shipping Company buying the S.S. Gallio.
Still, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai did put up a good fight against the British rulers using his brains for business. He certainly put his entrepreneurial skills to good use!

Image Credit: http://pixelsindia.blogspot.com/2012/01/vochidhambaram-pillai-rare-photos.html