The year 1915, Mahatma Gandhi was visiting Chennai, he was already popular thanks to his exploits in South Africa. One man from Tirunelveli was eager to meet him and wanted a private meeting. Though the Mahatma was initially sceptical he finally agreed. The man was actually quite a prosperous merchant at one time, who had lost all his wealth. Some people in South Africa, had collected money for him, and sent it through Gandhi. However an inordinately long period of time, passed back and fro, though Gandhi had agreed to help with the amount, though he kept on delaying it. Finally a year later, he received the amount of Rs 347, though which he could settle his debts.
That man was none other than Valiappan Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai, or more popularly known as V.O.C. He was also called as Kapalottiya Tamizhan( The Tamil Helsman), one of the foremost freedom fighters of Tamil Nadu. It was ironical that the man who had to continously pester Gandhi with letters for an amount of Rs 347, had launched India’s first indigenous shipping service, was a succesful businessman once.
Ottapidaram is a small town in Tuticorin district, famous for it’s Amman temple, and the fort of the legendary Tamil warrior Veera Pandya Kattabomman just 3 km away at Panchalankurichi. It was here on September 5, 1872 that V.O.Chidambaram Pillai was born to Olaganerohathan Pillai and Paramayee Annal. He grew up learning about Shiva from his grandmother, and the Ramayana from his grandfather. Another teacher of his Subramanya Pillai, taught him on the Mahabharat. Like any other child of his age, he loved playing games in the outdoor like goli, kabbadi, silambattam and was equally good at chess.
At the age of 14 he went to Thoothukudi to continue his studies at the Caldwell High School and later at Hindu College High School in Tirunelveli. He worked as a clerk for some time, before his father sent him to Trichy to study law. He passed his law exam in 1894 and returned to Ottapidaram the next year to practice as a pleader. He was influenced by the ideology of Swami Vivekananda to do something for India, and at Ramakrishna Math, met the great poet Bharatiyar, who became his very close friend.
Plunging into the freedom struggle, VOC became one of Tilak’s ardent followers, influenced by his ideology. Along with Subramanya Siva and Bharatiyar, he emerged as one of the prominent faces of the freedom movement in Madras Presidency. Following the partition of Bengal in 1905, he joined the Indian National Congress, and was part of the extremist faction headed by the Lal, Bal, Pal trio. A succesful entrepreneur he set up many institutions like the Yuvanesh Prachar Sabha, Desibhamana Sangam,Madras Anglo Industrial Society Ltd. His biggest achievement though would be setting up India’s first ever indigenous shipping service.
Those days the British had a monopoly over the shipping services, specifically the British India Steam Navigation Company, that ran all the services from India. He started India’s first ever swadeshi shipping company in 1906, to break the stranglehold of the British on India’s shipping sector. With a capital of 10 lakh rupees, VOC registered the Swadeshi Shipping in October 1906, the director was Pandi Thurai Thevar, an influential Zamindar of the area and founder of Madurai Tamil Sangam. The company initially did not have any ships of it’s own, and had to take them on lease from Shawline Steamers. When British India Steam pressurized Shawline to cancel the lease, VOC realized the need of having their own fleet.
Travelling across India, he raised money for the ships, by selling the company’s shares. “I will come back with ships, else I will perish in the sea” he swore and finally managed to purchase SS Gallia and later the SS Lavo both from France. British India Steam tried to undercut his firm, by offering fares of Rs 1 per head, however VOC struck back by offering fare of 50p( 8 Annas). The British tried to buy his company out, however he flatly refused the deal, and soon the first ever Indian shipping service commenced between Tuticorin and Colombo.
When workers at the Coral Mill in Thoothukudi struck work on February 23, 1908, VOC gave a speech in their support along with Subramanya Siva, and also led the strike in demanding higher wages, better working conditions. The management finally agreed to the demands, and Aurobindo praised both Chidambaram and Shiva in his Vande Mataram daily. By now the British were concerned about VOC’s growing popularity, and a British official Winch asked him to give assurance that he would not take part in any political revolt. When VOC refused, he was arrested with Shiva on March 12, 1908 and placed in detention.
Thirunelveli erupted in protest against VOC’s arrest, with schools, shops and colleges shut down, while a massive strike was observed in Thoothukudi. Four people were killed in police firing, and rallies were taken out denouncing VOC’s arrest. Charged with sedition, he was confined in the Central Prison at Coimbatore from July 1908 to December 1910. The judgement was widely denounced, with even the British media claiming it was unjust. On subsequent appeal, the sentence was commuted to 4 years in prison and 6 years in exile.
Interned in Coimbatore and later Kannanur, VOC was not treated as a political prisoner, rather he was treated as a convict, and made to do hard labor. Yoked to oil press in place of bullocks, he was made to work in the hot sun, beaten up. The hard labor and the torture he suffered in prison, took a toll on his health.
Released on December 1912, VOC’s life however was totally ruined. His shipping company was liquidated by the British, who also acquired his shipping fleet. His law licence was stripped from him, and he was not permitted to return to Tirunelveli. Almost in penury, he moved to Chennai with his wife and two young sons, where he ran a small provisions store just to survive. It was around that time he had that long winded exchange with Gandhiji regarding the money that was a dire necessity for him.
Resigning from the Congress in 1920, over ideological differences with Gandhiji, he put in more time in writing and establishing labor unions. With meager income, he petitioned the court to give him permission to practice law again,which was finally granted. He once again began his law practice at Kovilpatti in 1927, and also rejoined the Congress at Salem. However once again he quit the party disillusioned by their approach. He moved back to Thoothukudi in 1932, where he spent the rest of his time in writing, which included a commentary on the Thirukural and Tolkapiyam. Another well known book of his was Meyyaram, where he laid down the conduct of a righteous life and his own autobiography too.
Finally on November 18, 1936, V.O.Chidambaram Pillai passed away in relative obscurity. The man who defied the British, launched India’s first shipping service was no more. However he lives on in the hearts of Tamil people as Kapalottiya Thamizan and Chekkiluththa Chemmal- the great man who pulled the oil press for the sake of his people. The Tuticorin Port has been named in his honor, while his statues are there in Chennai, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi. Freedom fighter, thinker, nationalist, writer, entrepreneur V.O.Chidambaram Pillai was indeeed one of the great leaders of the Independence movement.