Darmanathan Prouchandy

 Puducheri Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Darmanathan Prouchandy

In south India, Darmanathan Prouchandy of Pondicherry was the first Tamilian to own and run steamers. He was born in Pondicherry on 13th February 1847. He had migrated to French Indochina in the year 1870 from Pondicherry. He very soon became wealthy by indulging in business and floated a steam navigation line of his own in Indochina in 1891. He faced stiff competition from the French-owned Messageries Fluviales. He owned two steamers which plied passengers, goods and mail up and down the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to the South China Sea.

Darmanathan Prouchandy was the first Indian and Tamilian to attempt to run a passenger line by sea in the South China Sea from Saigon to Thailand in 1895. But permission was denied to him by the French colonial authorities of Saigon, Indochina to exploit this line. Tata had started a steamer line from Bombay to East Asia in 1895, which survived hardly for a year. But Darmanathan Prouchandy’s line withstood pressure, discrimination and competition from the French. He ran his steamers successfully for about a decade when he was forced to close down due to unfair competition.

Later we have the Si.Va. Company of Tuticorin which plied steamers from Tuticorin to Colombo since April 1906. It was forced to close down due to stiff competition from the British Indian Steam Navigation company. Very soon in October 1906, a Swadeshi Steam navigation Company was registered to ply steamers between Tuticorin and Colombo. This Company came into existence due to the efforts of V.O. Chidambaram, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Company.

Haji Fakir Mohammad Sait and Sons alone held 8000 shares of the Company out of the total of 40000 shares. However the Company's steamers started running only from May 1907. Within two years the Company was closed down due to stiff and unfair completion from the British India Steam navigation Company. As the major share-holder, Haji Fakir Mohammad and Sons incurred the heaviest loss.

As far as south India is concerned, Darmanathan Prouchandy of Pondicherry was the first Tamilian to indulge in steam navigation business on his own since 1891, well before the Si.Va. Company and the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company of Tuticorin.

We do not have any precise information about Darmanathan's activities during the early 1870s. There is a pos-sibility that he was employed first in the French administration like most of his compatriots and his own brother Mariadassou. However it is not possible to affirm with certainty that he was employed in the French administration as his name is not re-corded anywhere in the French administrative records as far as we know.

Instead it seems more probable that he had come to Indochina on his own in search of opportunities. Due to this independent streak in him, he seems to have very soon indulged in some business, which allowed him to accumulate consider-able money as capital. This seems to have permitted him in the year 1879 to bid for contract to supply diverse items which in-cluded matches, corks, mosquito nets, soap, etc., to the French military hospital of Saigon. Darmanathan was actually one among the bidders of this contract. He won it and signed the contract in French on 29 October 1879. This seems to suggest that Darmanathan was fairly well-versed in the French language. The contract itself is still preserved in the National Archives in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh ville).

In the year 1880, Darmanathan was among the bidders of another contract to supply milk to the Saigon hospital. There were eight bidders on the whole, all of whom were Tamil. But Darmanathan did not win this bid. It should be noted at this juncture that some Tamilians who had migrated to Saigon, es-pecially from the French territory of Karaikal, about 150 miles south of Pondicherry were prominent milk vendors.

Steam Navigation and Business

French laws did not prohibit Indians from entering busi-ness in Indochina. Darmanathan was the foremost Indian and Tamil who took advantage of this situation. With his accumu-lated capital, through his various business activities right from the 1870s, he founded a Steam Navigation Line of his own. He bought a steamer by the name of 'Alexandre' in the year 1891. He obtained a navigation permit from the French colonial authorities and started transporting passengers with this steamer from 23 October 1891 up and down the Mekong River from Chaudoc, situated to the east of Saigon to Hatien, a port of Cochinchina in the Gulf of Siam, and from Chaudoc to Takeo and Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The steamer was 12 metres 45 centimetres long and 2 metres 30 centimetres large, with a tonnage of about 12 as well as 12 horse power. It could transport more than 20 passengers as well as 5 crew members.9 The Mekong river (Mother of Rivers) like the Ganges in India originates from the Tibetan plateau and courses for more than 1600 kilometres before entering south Vietnam at Chaudoc where it splits and meanders for more than 200 kilometres to finally flow out into the South China Sea.

Darmanathan seems to have operated his steamer 'Alexandre' in Cochinchina without any competition until 1895.

Pebble and Fizzy Drinks Business

Even before the closure of his steamer business towards the end of 1900, Darmanathan seems to have reverted to his contracting business. At this time or a little before, Darmanathan had started a new enterprise, dealing with pebbles or broken stones. Actually during this period he had obtained a contract from the municipality of Saigon to supply broken stones to the municipality. But his contract was suddenly cancelled by the municipal authorities. As a result Darmanathan seems to have incurred a heavy loss. He filed a case against the Saigon municipality at the Council of Administrative Litigation (Conseil des Contentieux Administratif) of Cochinchina, claiming for damages.

But the Council rejected Darmanathan's claim outright through a decree dated 27 March 1900. Darmanathan appealed to the State Council (Conseil d'Etat). But the State Council confirmed the decision of the Council of Administra-tive Litigation on 31 January 1903.27 It was at this stage when Darmanathan's business inter-ests were thwarted by the unfavourable and sometimes overtly hostile attitude of the French colonial authorities we see him and his wife operating a fizzy drinks shop near the Saigon harbour. Darmanathan had also set up a fizzy drink manufactur-ing company in Saigon which was the first one of its kind established in Indochina by a Tamil or Indian. It should be noted that when Darmanathan was 48 years old, he had married a Indo-Chinese lady, by the name of Lo Kien, probably during a trip to Hong Kong in July 1895. The couple had very soon two small children.

A son of Darmanathan was recruited in Saigon by the French military authorities to fight in France against the advancing Germans during the First World War. He fell in the battlefield in France. According to family sources, Darmanathan was very much shattered due to the premature death of his son and demanded financial succour from the French government as a compensation for this loss. Darmanathan produced and distributed fizzy drinks in Cochinchina and Indochina. The business seems to have prospered. But during the year 1902, the French Governor-Gen-eral of Indochina seems to have allowed the importation of fizzy drinks into Indochina from Singapore, which was a British colony. This was apparently detrimental to the business interests of Darmanathan Prouchandy.

He wrote several times to the French Governor-General of Indochina requesting him to prohibit the importation of fizzy drinks of a cheaper variety from Singapore. He asked the Governor-General to consult the Chambers of Commerce of the various regions of Indochina and also the Colonial Council of Cochinchina with regard to this matter. He and his wife seem also to have written to the French colonial authorities in Saigon asking them to ban importation of fizzy drinks from Singapore. But all this was of no avail. The French colonial authorities had decided to favour the fizzy drinks company of British Singapore, which they claimed to be of a better quality. As a result, Darmanathan's fizzy drinks business and industry seems to have lingered on until the early part of the second decade of the twentieth century." During the 1890s when Darmanathan plied his steamers, the political consciousness both in French India and Indochina and also British India was still in its infant stage. So Darmanathan's shipping venture was never politically motivated. It was just about five or six years earlier in 1885 that the Indian National Congress was founded in British India. We do not know if Darmanathan was ever aware of it. Darmanathan Prouchandy was a rising Indian and Tamil capitalist.

He was no doubt exceptionally daring and determined to venture into fields in which Europeans held a quasi-monopoly like in steam navigation and in manufacturing fizzy drinks and that too in a country away from his Tamil homeland. However, with his limited capital and lack of official patronage, he was not in a position to counter in the long-term the huge capitalist ventures of the French like the Messageries Fluviales and the imported fizzy drinks. Darmanathan Prouchandy seems to have died a heart-broken, financially ruined man during the second decade of the twentieth century in Saigon without ever returning to his home-town Pondicherry in the Tamil country. As a result, his daring exploits in steamship ventures and carbonated drinks industry in far away Indochina remained relatively unknown to his countrymen.

Even Subramania Bharati, the great Tamil national poet, who sought refuge in Pondicherry in 1908 and who was so much involved in promoting two Steam navigation ventures in Tuticorin (the first, initiated by the Si.Va.Company in April 1906, which lasted for a few months and the second by V.O.Chidambaram in October 1906 called the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, which lasted for about two years), was unaware of the exploits of Darmanathan in the steam naviga-tion business from 1891 to 1900. In the light of all this, Darmanathan can be justifiably deemed as the pioneer among south Indians and Tamilians who tried their hands in steamship ventures." Besides, Darmanathan Prouchandy holds the rare distinction of being the first Indian and Tamilian to have thought and attempted to ply steamers by sea catering to passengers as early as 1893.

In the light of all that we have seen above, Darmanathan Prouchandy must be rightfully hailed as the first `Kappalotiya Thamizhan' (the Tamilian who drove ships) of South India as well as Thamizhnadu and Pondicherry, for having indulged in steam navigation right from 1891 for about ten years.

A memorial is to be erected in his honour by his great grandson J.B.P.More, a reputed franco-Indian  historian at Villa Selvom, No.5, Nehru street, Pondicherry, as soon as possible, in order to commemorate the navigational exploits of Darmanathan Prouchandy.

Those who are willing to contribute to the erection of this memorial; kindly contact Dr.J.B.P.More at morejbplee@aol.com

Navigation permit issued to Prouchandy by the French authorities of Saigon in 1895