AR Venkatachalapathy is a rare historian with an enviable publication record in both Tamil and English. His recent efforts to communicate to the English language-reading audience have been sizeable, marked by extensive primary research and lucid writing. These have included Who Owns that Song (Juggernaut, 2018), Tamil Characters (Pan Macmillan, 2019) and The Brief History of a Very Big Book (Permanent Black, 2022). Each clarifies aspects of modern and contemporary Tamil history.

His latest book, Swadeshi Steam, is the most substantial of these efforts. It tells the story of VO Chidambaram Pillai, or VOC (1872-1936), mythologised in Tamil cinema as the proverbial “Kappal Ottiya Tamizhan,” in the poetry of Subramania Bharati, and in multiple hagiographies. Chidambaram Pillai set up the short-lived Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (SSNCo) in Tuticorin to provide passage for labourers and cargo on the Tuticorin-Colombo route across the Palk Strait in the early 20th century. In so doing, VOC and his associates challenged the monopoly of the English-owned British India Steam Navigation Company. There were formidable obstacles in making such an attempt.

The swadeshi in the capitalistic modern industry

The Swadeshi movement originated in Bengal in opposition to its Partition, which took place in 1905 but was later reversed. It attempted to tackle head-on the metropolitan economic domination of the colony by boycotting British goods and starting home industries. As Venkatachalapathy points out, the SSNCo was not the first such attempt at a native-owned steamship navigation company. But it was certainly the most politically charged.

An extension of swadeshi into the domain of a capital-intensive modern industry was always going to be a challenge. But VOC persisted, impressively securing the finance, infrastructure, and manpower for this endeavour and winning much support from other Swadeshi nationalists in South India. In the end, however, the British engaged in rate-cutting that bled the SSNCo dry. To cap it off, VOC suffered incarceration for the labour strikes and riots that unfolded in Tuticorin and Tirunelveli. And when one of the key British officials responsible for putting down the uprising was assassinated, VOC was implicated. He died a poor man and in a sad condition.

Like Venkatachalapathy’s other works, Swadeshi Steam is written in a lively and engaging fashion. Its literary quality is reminiscent of the epic form. There are bardic forebodings, metaphors about casting one’s net, and suspenseful warnings. At least thrice in the book, he says “but we must not get ahead of ourselves.” This is the excitement in the telling. There is a flair for the dramatic, Chapter Six starts with the following: “If the coup in the boardroom was not enough, SSNCo was soon headed into a political storm that rattled the company, setting it inexorably on the path to destruction” This is a book which can beneficially be read out loud in parts. By presenting it in such a fashion, the author locates himself in a longer tradition of written text that owes much to an oral tradition of storytelling.

Swadeshi Steam took 40 years of research, writing, and thinking to bring to fruition, consolidating six Tamil language monographs written over the course of Venkatachalapathy’s career that clarify various aspects of the much beloved but poorly studied VOC. But there is also much fresh research in this book. Readers are treated to everything from information about financial supporters of the SSNCo, to freight rates culled from the archives of the British India Steam Navigation Company in the United Kingdom, to court records held in Chennai. No available detail is spared.

Pluralising history

There are a number of important contributions that those with an interest in South Asian history would appreciate. The Swadeshi movement has long been primarily thought of in isolation from South Indian history. And South India’s contribution to the unitary nationalism of the Congress is comparatively under-studied. Written in a popular and easily accessible style, this book contributes to the project of pluralising that common understanding. Early nationalist thinkers like Dadabhai Naoroji had identified ways in which wealth was being drained from India by the British. VOC and the Swadeshis identified concrete ways in which such exploitation could be reversed.

Swadeshi Steam also complicates the dominant view of Indian capitalism articulated by figures like Nasir Tyabji and others. Related to their origins in mercantile communities, Indian capitalists never had much of a long-term or capital-intensive investment horizon and preferred a quick buck. Tyabji points out in Forging Capitalism in Nehru’s India (2015), for example, that they proved remarkably resistant to the attempt to remould them into industrial capitalists. But by examining SSNCo and illuminating other abortive preceding attempts, this book shows that the turn to modern industry and willingness to confront the British head-on in a high fixed-cost business was also part of the story. It just was not successful. Ultimately, the postcolonial state would be at the forefront of the more capital-intensive industrialisation that defined economic planning and the prerogative of industrial self-sufficiency that dominated the first two decades of independent India’s economic history. By offering some glimpses of VOC’s interest in the concerns of labour, Swadeshi Steam also invites further research on the relationship between labour organisation against British managers and efforts toward indigenous capitalism.

The book takes up some of the more staple concerns of the formerly flourishing field of Indian economic and social history – a first for the author, who is known more as a cultural, social, and political historian – but also moves in new directions. Venkatachalapathy shows how colony-metropole relations shape business activity. He details how geography shapes the pattern of industry that came to Thoothukudi and offers us an account of the key commodities traded in the Tirunelveli district. In that sense, there are considerations here that economic historians of South India like Chris Baker, author of An Indian Rural Economy, 1880-1965: The Tamil Nad Countryside, would hold dear.

But Venkatachalapathy also provides food for thought for concerns have returned to the field of South Asian history since the global financial crisis of 2008. Much recent literature on capital and caste, like that of Ritu Birla and Harish Damodaran, has shown how commercial activity takes shape within caste networks. In Swadeshi Steam, the author shows how the SSNCo galvanised a range of figures and cannot be easily reduced to Hindu or Muslim, mercantile or landed caste as an initiative. Rather, it was something that transcended these identities.

Microeconomic history

This book provides a worm’s eye view of microeconomic history, unusual again for South Asianists but worthy of our attention. Fundamentally, it shows us how VOC, financed, advertised, and ran a business. That involved creating a board of advisers. It entailed negotiating contracts and securing transport vehicles for your business. And it meant suffering brutal competitive tactics. The employment of foreign sailors raises the question: to what extent can you actually indigenise a business? There is an eye for prices, balances, share prices, and cash flows. The author furnishes us with great detail. On page 263, for example, we see a table that gives us the discrepancy between book value and market value of three steamers as estimated by the collector.

But alongside all these calculations is a serious reckoning with the human dimensions of commercial activity – the triumphs, the sorrows, the excitement, the frustration. Braiding this together with the more formal microeconomic treatment, the book offers us something quite special for the study of political economy at large. Character sketches of a number of Tamil figures who are comparatively obscure bring this material to life. People in this book like the Mandayam brothers continued to back Swadeshi Steam even when the going got extremely tough. They hail from a variety of backgrounds. There are ship apprentices and politicians. There are also the more venal British colonial officials and turncoats like Guruswami Aiyar who come together and thwart the lofty aspirations of the SSNCo. Working from small fragments, the author shows us flickers of personality. This is an exceptionally difficult feat to pull off in the absence of detailed documentation. Venkatachalapathy’s dedication to picking up the scraps left by the historical record, suturing them together, and placing them under the appropriate contextual lens is unique.

The history of political economy has returned to academic focus in South Asian studies. The work of Navyug Gil, Eleanor Newbigin, Tariq Omar Ali, and Mircea Raianu are just a few examples. There is more in the pipeline. Swadeshi Steam offers us a way to bring human and microeconomic concerns together while continuing the best traditions of economic and social history. It reminds us of the multiple valences and meanings of Swadeshi and demonstrates that South Indian history lends itself well to the study of political economy. It does so in a way that can, and I hope will, be enjoyed by the curious general reader.

Aditya Balasubramanian is Senior Lecturer in History at Australian National University and the author of Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India (Princeton: 2023).

Swadeshi Steam: VO Chidambaram Pillai and the Battle against the British Maritime Empire, AR Venkatachalapathy, Penguin India.