V O Chidambaram Pillai

V O Chidambaram is one of architects of the modern Indian shipping industry. He was a freedom fighter, an erudite scholar, a prolific writer, and an elegant speaker. He is popularly known as ‘Kappal Ottiya Thamizian’, meaning “the Tamil who sailed the ship”. He is mostly known by his short name VOC.

VOC was born on 5th September, 1872 at Ottapidaram, in the Tuticorin District of Tamil Nadu.

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V.O.Chidambaram Pillai – A 140 year old file photo

During the Colonial rule, the British took over our Seas and Ships. There were many attempts made to win back the seas from the British.

This made Sir Alfred Watson, editor of `The Statesman’ then in 1900, write,

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The first tangible stir in this direction came from South India in the form of Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, offering sailing services between Tuticorin in South India and Colombo in Ceylon.

It was a wholly Indian owned company started by V.O.Chidambaram Pillai, a Tamil barrister, who lived between 1872 and 1936 and was a disciple of the freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Known as VOC for short, he started this navigation company to revive Indian shipping industry, in direct competition to the British shipping services and monopoly of the seas.

Starting with leasing ships, when the lease was cancelled due to pressure from the British, he went on to purchase 2 ships, S.S.Galia and S.S.Lavo, by raising funds from all across India.

There literally ensued a tug of war between VOC’s shipping company and the British shipping company, with both lowering fares alternately to woo passengers. At one point, the British even made the service free.

Yet, when the Indians kept patronizing VOC’s services, as part of the Swadeshi spirit, the British charged VOC with sedition, stripped off his barrister license and sentenced him to 2 life terms, totalling 40 years. It was a Rigorous Imprisonment as meted out to a convict, where VOC was inhumanly, yoked to an oil press and made to toil in place of bulls, under the sun.

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The prison cell that VOC occupied in Central Jail, Coimbatore

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The Oil Press to which VOC was yoked during his period in prison

His life and struggles have been made immortal for this generation by the Tamil film “Kappal Otiya Tamizhan” meaning “The Tamil who sailed the Ship”, in which the legendary Tamil actor, Chevalier Sivaji Ganeshan played the role of VOC.

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Veteran Tamil actor Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan as VOC toiling it out in prison, in the film

Today, VOC’s name is remembered for the intense sacrifice that he made in an attempt to revive India’s shipping industry.

A stamp was issued in his honor by the government of India, in 1972.

A college in Tuticorin is named after VOC.

The bridge connecting Tirunelveli and Palayamkottai, over the Tamaraparani is named VOC

Also, a public park in Coimbatore is named after this freedom fighter.

He is among those great heroes of this land, who stood up for the cause of India’s freedom, and today his name is taken with great reverence all over Tamil Nadu and India.

We have spoken extensively about V O Chidambaram in our book, Brand Bharat, Vol-1.

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