V.O. Chidambaram Pillai: Life, Work & Contribution

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V O Chidambaram Pillai

V.O Chidambaram Pillai aka Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai (VOC) also known as “Kappalottiya Tamilan” meaning, (the Tamilian who ran the ship). He was a freedom fighter, an eminent lawyer and a distinguished patriot, who served the nation with his sweat and blood. He is believed to be the only man who ran a Swadeshi Ship, despite facing hardships and brutal punishments by the British administration. In this blog, we will talk about V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and his selfless contribution to the freedom struggle of India. 

Who was V.O Chidambaram Pillai?

Born on 5th September 1872, Pillai belongs to the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. His parents were Olaganathan Pillai and Paramyee Ammai. 

  • He completed his education at Caldwell College in Thoothukudi (now Tuticorin), which was formerly known as Thoothukudi. Following his graduation, he worked as a clerk at the Taluk office. In 1894, he moved to Tiruchirappalli to study law, and by 1895, he had become a lawyer in his hometown of Ottapidaram.
  • V.O.C. was deeply inspired by Ramakrishnanathar, a saint from Ramakrishna Mission, to dedicate his life to serving the nation. 
  • He also had a close friendship with the renowned poet Subramanya Bharathi, who shared similar political beliefs. 
  • Until 1905, he was working as a journalist and a professional worker.
Sakshi Education

V.O.C Pillai In Politics & Business

In 1905, V.O.C. entered politics by joining the Congress Party following the partition of Bengal. 

  • He was a staunch supporter of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai and was a strong advocate of the Swadeshi movement.
  • Tuticorin was a major commercial hub, with local merchants conducting extensive trade with Sri Lanka. At that time, the shipping industry, including both passenger and cargo services, was monopolized by European companies. 
  • The British Indian Steam Navigation Company Ltd., the sole shipping firm with a regular service from Tuticorin to Colombo, was known for its poor treatment of Indian customers. 

In 1906, V.O.C. decided to establish an Indian shipping company, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (SSNCo.). The company was officially launched on October 16, 1906, under V.O.C.’s leadership and the backing of his merchant friends. This move posed a serious challenge to the British company, making them take defensive measures. Together with Subramania Siva, V.O.C. started the ‘Swadeshi Sangam’.

Role in Indian Freedom Struggle

V.O.C. faced the Tuticorin Coral Mills strike in 1908. The employees at the mill, owned by the British, were unjustly treated. A large portion of the workforce nearly 59%, who were between the ages of 14 and 16, were forced to labour from 5:00 am to 7:00 pm. In February 1908, they took a stand against their poor conditions, demanding improved wages and a regulation on their working hours.

  • V.O.C voiced his concerns for the cause of the workers, delivering passionate speeches that highlighted their struggles, which gained widespread support and sympathy.
  • In March 1908, V.O.C, Siva, and Padmanabha Iyengar organised a march on 9 March to celebrate the release of national leader Bipin Chandra Pal from jail as well as to hoist the Swaraj flag.
  • However, Tuticorin Collector Wynch alerted the Madras government about the influential and dangerous nature of the national leaders in Tuticorin, seeking to prevent the march.
  • On 12 March 1908, the three leaders, including V.O.C, Siva, and Iyengar, were jailed.
  • The court sentenced V.O.C to two life sentences for sedition. However, an appeal to the Madras High Court led to a reduced sentence of 6 years in prison and 4 years of transportation, which would be served concurrently. 

Aurobindo Ghosh acclaimed VOC in Bande Mataram: “Well Done, Chidambaram! When a political leader is prepared to suffer for the sake of his followers, when a man, famous and adored by the public, is ready to remain in jail rather than leave his friends and fellow workers behind, it is a sign that political life in India is becoming a reality…..All honour to Chidambaram Pillai for having shown us the first complete example of an Aryan reborn, and all honour to Madras which has produced such a man.”

V.O.C and Siva endured harsh conditions in prison. V.O.C suffered greatly, including being forced to work as an ox in the sun, which affected his health severely. His sentence was eventually reduced, and he was released in December 1912.

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How Was The Later Life Of V.O Chidambaram Pillai?

After taking on harsh punishment on himself, he moved to Chennai along with his family. His license to practice law was cancelled and was forced to run a provision store. 

  • His shipping business had been dissolved, with its assets acquired by a competitor.
  • V.O.C maintained consistent communication with Mahatma Gandhi, but eventually cited fundamental ideological disagreements as the reason for his departure from the Congress Party in 1920.
  • He dedicated much of his efforts to establishing labour unions in Madras.
  • He later settled in Coimbatore, where his legal license was reinstated by a judge. He practised law in Kovilpatti. 
  • His later years posed serious financial struggles, leading him to sell his law books for survival.
  • He re-joined the Congress Party in 1927 but quickly cut ties with it.
  • V.O.C passed away in the Tuticorin office of the Congress Party on 18 November 1936 at the age of 64. 
  • He is also known as ‘Kappalottiya Tamilan’ (The Tamil Helmsman).

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Writings of V.O Chidambaram Pillai

He was also an accomplished author in Tamil, his works included-

  • Meyyaram (1914)
  • Meyyarivu (1915)
  • Anthology (1915)
  • Autobiography (1946)
  • Commentary on the Thirukkural (1917)
  • Compiled Works of Tolkappiyam, etc.

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