Swadeshi Steam: How an indigenous maritime company challenged the mighty British

A discussion on freedom fighter V.O. Chidambaram Pillai brings out the country’s apathy towards meticulous documentation.

Updated - January 26, 2024 07:53 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 03:37 pm IST - CHENNAI:

Swadeshi Steam: V.O.Chidambaram Pillai and the Battle against the British Maritime Empire - a session by historians A.R.Venkatachalapathy and Ramachandra Guha (not in picture) at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on January 26, 2024.

Swadeshi Steam: V.O.Chidambaram Pillai and the Battle against the British Maritime Empire - a session by historians A.R.Venkatachalapathy and Ramachandra Guha (not in picture) at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on January 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The session on ‘Swadeshi Steam: V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and the Battle Against the British Maritime Empire’ was as much about the life of the freedom fighter who launched the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, seeking to put an end to the monopoly of the British in sea trade, as it was about the paucity of biographies in India and the country’s apathy towards meticulous documentation.

‘VOC dreamed big. More than a century later, it remains difficult to trace the roots of this dream’

Historian Ramachandra Guha began by describing writer A.R. Venkatachalapthy as the Indian historian he “most admires”. With his new book on V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, or VOC as he is popularly called, Dr. Venkatachalapathy “ventures into new domains,” said Dr. Guha. “He is a scholar of literary, social, cultural, and economic history,” he said.

Dr. Venkatachalapathy’s fascination for VOC began at the age of 14, when he first came across him in a CBSE book. He was looking for heroes, and he found one in a man whose life was extraordinary but poorly documented. 

Historians A.R.Venkatachalapathy (right) in conversation with Ramachandra Guha (left) at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024.

Historians A.R.Venkatachalapathy (right) in conversation with Ramachandra Guha (left) at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Dr. Venkatachalapathy began the laborious task of collecting information on VOC — separating fact from myth, poring over newspapers, and travelling across the seas in search of documents and shipping records. The work culminated in the book Swadeshi Steam. 

Dr. Venkatachalapathy described VOC’s life as “melodramatic”. He swore to buy a shipping company and then set out to buy ships even though his wife was heavily pregnant. He had to overcome all kinds of odds to ensure that his audacious venture was a success and competed with the giant British India Steam Navigation Company. He rallied people from across communities (his company had Muslim and Christian directors and merchants as well as Hindus from various castes). These efforts to mobilise people eventually led to his incarceration and bankruptcy. “He was imprisoned and handed two life sentences by a British court: one for seditious speech and the other for abetting the seditious speech of Subramania Shiva,” Dr. Venkatachalapathy said.

Role of VOC’s wife

The historian equally underlined the role of VOC’s wife Meenakshi Ammal in the patriot’s story. Married at 12 and with two children by 18, she did not have much of an opportunity to study, “yet she wrote such beautiful letters,” he said.

Ruing the lack of interest in documentation and biographies in India, Dr. Venkatachalapathy said he was unable to find much of the material that he discovered 40 years ago. However, in VOC’s case, the documentation is even worse, he stressed. This is because the freedom fighter’s friends, fearing retribution for buying shares in the company, destroyed all records. And later, when Robert William d’ Escourte Ashe was assassinated, “a witch hunt was launched and VOC’s associates destroyed whatever material they had.”

The historian relied primarily on three newspapers for information on VOC. Of them, he said, only The Hindu remains.

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