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Why did the Indian shipping industry, particularly steam navigation, not flourish during the British reign in the country? This question is worth deeper analysis. That is what J. B. Prasanth More, the Puducherry-born, Paris-based academic, has attempted in his latest book, Indian Steamship Ventures, 1836-1910.
More is well-known to readers of inmathi.com through his explorations of issues such as freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose’s mysterious disappearance, Muslims’ growth in South India and Tamil poet Bharathi’s incognito stay in Puducherry during the freedom struggle.
Tracing the history of the Indian steamship ventures, More, in his latest interview to inmathi.com, shed more light on the topic.
It was the British who introduced steam navigation in India, as they did the railway line in the 19th century. They set up Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company in 1840 and started monopolizing the trade.
Indians try to break monopoly
In a bid to break the British monopoly over the seas, a few Indians got together to launch the indigenous versions of foreign steamships. Among the most notable were Dwarkanath Tagore and his grandson Jyotirindranath Tagore of West Bengal, Dharmanathan Prouchandy of Puducherry, Jamsetji Tata of Maharashtra and Siva V. O. Chidambaram of Tamil Nadu.
More said it was Dwarkanath Tagore who first tried to challenge the British monopoly over shipping, introducing steam navigation from Kolkata port to the Hooghly in 1836. Yet, unable to withstand the pulls and pressures from the British, he closed his venture. It was his grandson who revived his grandfather’s venture in 1884 and ran steamers across the Ganga waterways. However, by some quirk of fate, his company too got wound up.
J.B. Prasanth More, the Puducherry-born, Paris-based academic, in his latest book Indian Steamship Ventures, 1836-1910, analysed the question why the Indian shipping industry, particularly steam navigation, had not flourished during the British reign in the country?
Among the South Indians, it was Dharmanatha Prouchandy of Puducherry who launched the steam navigation line in the Mekong delta of the French Indo-China. But with the French monopolists frowning upon his daring trade, he had to close down his venture which lasted from 1891 to 1900.
The story is the same with industrialist Jamsetji Tata, a Parsee, who launched the Tata Line in 1894 tying up with a Japanese company, and yet had to shut it down in 1895 after a year of tactical pressure from the British rulers. Later, in 1903, Taj opened the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai.
Though Dwarkanath Tagore was originally credited with being the pioneer of Indian steam navigation, it was Dharmanatha Prouchandy, a Tamilian, who was the first Indian to establish steam navigation on his own in 1891, running two steamers between Cambodia and Vietnam, carrying passengers and goods. Besides, unlike Tagore’s company, Prouchandy’s shipping company was able to withstand the foreign rulers’ pressure for a decade, said More.
In July 1905 the Bengal Muslim merchants and zamindars in Chittagong floated the Bengal Steam Navigation Company and introduced a passenger ship to Rangoon.
Similarly, the Chettiyar jewellers and Muslims from Tamil Nadu based in Rangoon set up the Madras Steam Navigation Company with a capital investment of Rs. 10 lakh with its head office located in Rangoon which is 1,150 nautical miles from Madras.
Talking about the legendary steam navigation company set up in Thoothukudi in 1906, which played a major role in awakening swadeshi fervour and patriotic passions across South India, More said that before V. O. Chidambaram (VOC), hailed as the Tamilian who pioneered marine navigation, went about setting up the steamer company, it was Siva Nallaperumal who set up a navigation company with a capital investment of Rs. five lakh in April 1906 and ran services between Thoothukudi and Sri Lanka. But it was short-lived, unable to overcome obstacles from the British Steam Navigation Company.
Provoked by the failure of the indigenous shipping company, VOC set up the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (SSNC) with a capital investment of Rs. 10 lakh in October 1906. Surprisingly, his name had not figured in the list of 10 directors of the company as he was merely the assistant secretary in the organisation. Of the 40,000 shares of the concern, it was Mohammed of Ramanathapuram, who held the lion’s shares (8,000 shares) and Pandithurai, also of Ramanathapuram, held 2,000 shares.
In a bid to question British monopoly over the seas, a few Indians launched indigenous versions of foreign steamships. Among the most notable were Dwarkanath Tagore and his grandson Jyotirindranath Tagore of West Bengal, Dharmanathan Prouchandy of Puducherry, Jamsetji Tata of Maharashtra and Siva V. O. Chidambaram of Tamil Nadu
Under pressure from the British India Steam Navigation Company, the Bombay company which had leased freighters to VOC’s swadeshi company stopped the service. Hence, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company bought two ships from France and named them SS Galia and SS Lavo. Incidentally, Bharathi objected to the foreign names for the Swadeshi ships. The ships arrived at the Thoothukudi port in May, 1907.
But as VOC subsequently plunged into the vortex of fiery political developments, the SSNC could not continue operating.
VOC attended the Surat Congress held in November 1907 where he sided with the extremists led by Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aravind Ghosh. He was also appointed secretary of the Madras Presidency unit of the party.
VOC had already rubbed the British administration in Tirunelveli district the wrong way, by supporting the workers’ strike at Coral Mills (Harvey Mills) in Thoothukudi. Moreover, when Bipin Chandra Pal was released from prison in 1908, VOC invited him to Tirunelveli and praised him at public meetings.
Robert William d’Escourt Ashe, who was the acting Collector and District Magistrate of the composite Tirunelveli district, was inimical to VOC’s political activities as well as his indigenous shipping company. He ensured that VOC was convicted of sedition and sentenced to prison.
By the time VOC was finally released from the Kannanur prison in 1912, the company he had passionately floated to stem British monopoly over steam navigation and to deepen the spirit of the freedom struggle was liquidated in 1911. Ironically, one of its ships was sold to the British company itself.
In all, the Indian shipping ventures helped the Indian freedom struggle gather more steam and yet they suffered several setbacks, unable to hold their own in the face of cut-throat competition from the British rulers, said More.
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