Books

The Saga Of A Swadeshi Company

V O Chidambaram Pillai took on the mighty British Indian Navigation Company by floating the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. His struggle is the story of the early days of the Indian freedom movement in miniature

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Swadeshi Steam by A.R. Venkatachalapathy
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Swadeshi Steam: V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and the Battle against the British Maritime Empire by A.R. Venkatachalapathy

Published by Penguin, December 2023

V O Chidambaram Pillai was from a non-descript town in the southernmost corner of India. A fierce nationalist and an admirer of Balgangadhar Tilak, this leader made both ends meet by fighting petty cases in local courts. But he dreamt big. At the beginning of the last century, he decided to take on the British Indian Navigation Company which controlled the maritime traffic between Ceylon (what is now Sri Lanka) and the Coromandel Coast and float a Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. He knew nothing about shipping. Nor was he from a business community. The only tool he had was his sublime idealism, which was not enough to confront the Goliath that was the British company. The confrontation did not have a fairytale ending. The Goliath came down on the diminutive David with all his strength.

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The British company tried all the tricks in its command to scuttle his audacious venture. His company was forced into bankruptcy. The British Government, for its part, slapped sedition charges on him for spreading nationalist ideals and sentenced him to twenty years of imprisonment. When he returned from prison after about five years—the sentence was later reduced—he was almost forgotten and his company a miserable, failed venture. 

It took quite some time for the people of India to realise the uniqueness of this great man and his venture. V O Chidambaram Pillai is revered today as one of the indisputable heroes of our freedom movement. Every Tamil child knows his name. But the details of this incredible shipping saga would have remained unknown forever, if not for Swadeshi Steam written by the indomitable professor A R Venkatachalapathy. The book is the result of four decades of meticulous research by him and every page of it is testimony to his unstinting labour. A book of this type is a rarity but what makes it unique is its readability. It is about as unique as V O Chidambaram Pillai himself. 

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The life of the Swadeshi Navigation Company was nasty, brutish and short. 

It was registered on October 16, 1906 as a joint-stock company with the authorised capital of Rs 10 lakh and a paid-up capital of Rs 2 lakh. It came under liquidation on July 4, 1911 by a court order. Nevertheless, within the span of less than five years the company captured the imagination of all patriots of not only Tamil Nadu but entire India. The great public personalities of Tamil Nadu of those days such as Pandithurai Thevar, Salem Vijayaraghavachari, Periyar E V Ramasamy, Rajaji and several others gave the company financial support. Vijayaraghavachari, who was one of the founding members of the Congress, stood by the company until the very end. The poet Subramania Bharati was full of enthusiasm and newspapers like Swadesamitran and The Hindu gave the venture the required publicity.

The company, rather optimistically, envisaged that it would succeed in convincing the public to buy its 40,000 shares at Rs 25 each. V O Chidambaram Pillai toured all over to sell shares, but the company floundered almost right from the beginning because many of those who subscribed (by paying Rs 5 per share) did not eventually come forward to pay the remaining due. The company managed to buy two steamers called the Gallia and the Lawoe within a few months of its birth and a steam launch by the name of Miranda. As the author says, “One will never know if the inexperienced SSNCo was short-changed or if they had struck an excellent deal. The troubles the steamers ran into later which disrupted the day to day business…led to many wagging of tongues.”

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The book gives the complete sordid story of how the British Navigation Company and the local British officials created hurdles which later became insurmountable. Added to these woes was the deadly internecine jealousy. Not many people could digest the idea of a lowly pleader from a small town presuming to play a pivotal role in the running of a steam navigation company.

The story of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company is in fact the story of the early days of the Indian freedom movement in miniature—rank, idealist amateurs pitting their wits against deadly professionals. In this story, and in several similar stories all over the world, professionals, without exception, win, but a few amateurs become immortal. Chidambaram Pillai is one such immortal. We should be eternally grateful to the author of this astounding book for bringing out his struggle in such heart-rending detail. 

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P. A. Krishnan is an author in English and Tamil

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