Emden & Pillai

Posted by Maddy Labels:

While I was writing this, I wondered for long – How would Hitler have addressed Champakaraman Pillai? Well, he obviously did as he gave Pillai an apology of sorts for his demeaning comments about Indians in Mein Kempf (they are people incapable of governing themselves, he said). Food for thought, I guess – Herr Schampak maybe?

And the following lines that Ganesan (he learnt it in his kid days) once used, repeatedly spun around in my mind "Emden vitta gundu, adhil erindha tank rendu.."

All this started as I was musing about my days in Madras in the early 80’s, the walk to Marina beach up the Pycroft’s road and the Presidency College on the shore. And then I remembered the shell on the High court wall and Emden, the German ship. I thought I would research a bit more of that story and it was thus that this amazing tale came to light, I had not the slightest clue until then, no history book or patriotism class had taken me there, but first a bit about the ship…

Even today people in North Kerala call dark stout guys ‘Yumunden’ without knowing that the origin of the name was the hulking WW1 German frigate SMS Emden. SMS Emden’s story is well covered on
Wikipedia. But we will focus on the day it steamed into Madras Harbour.

Late at night on September 22, 1914, Emden quietly approached the city of Madras on the east side of the Indian peninsula. Once in range Emden opened fire on many large Burmah Shell fuel oil tanks that the British kept near the city. After firing 130 shells the oil tanks were burning and the city was in a panic. Although the raid did little damage, it was a severe blow to British morale and thousands of people fled Madras, thinking that Emden might be planning another attack. Emden then sailed southwards down the east coast of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), causing panic among the British .Sri Lankan mothers frightened their children with the Emden bogeyman, and to this day a particularly obnoxious person is referred to as an Emden. Emden supplied new words to many South Indian Languages. Malayalam word Emandan meaning 'a big and powerful thing' or 'as big as Emden' derived from Emden following its successful attack on Madras Port.

Emden’s story is a classic war adventure, there are many a book written on it. In the end seventy-eight (some say 60) British ships were required to run her down. The adventures of the ship are chronicled in the book
Last Corsair.

I thought the story ended there, but it did not….

Incredible as it may seem, the Emden had a very strong Malayali/Tamil connection. I was amazed when I stumbled upon this, well, to sum it up in a simple line; this anti imperialist attack was apparently directed by the Ship’s engineer Champakaraman Pillai, assisting the captain Helmut Von Mueller. (This is quite a bit of fiction, Pillai was not involved at all, as I can add after more research)

S Muthaiah states - Fanciful legends abound of his (Pillai) being Mueller's second-in-command, of his directing the firing on specific targets in and around Madras Harbour, and of his rowing ashore at Cochin to greet his family and admirers! Authentic records of the voyage of the Emden do not corroborate any of this, but they do speak of his work aboard the cruiser and his post-War attempts to gather in Germany an anti-British group of Indians, a forerunner to the Indian National Army. His volunteer force, another legend has it, was the inspiration for Netaji Subash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army.

Pillai was among those who first gave the slogan of "Jai Hind" to the people of India and to the many Indians abroad who were struggling for the cause of Indian Independence. He had the privilege of being the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of India set up in Afghanistan in December 1915, with Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh of Kabul as President. However, the defeat of the Germans in the war shattered the hopes of the revolutionaries

Dr. Chembakaraman Pillai
died in Germany in 1934 (poisoned or tortured to death by Nazi’s) and, after his death, his wife Lakshmibai, a Manipuri, who is said to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis herself, returned to India and lived in Bombay till her death in 1972. The most intriguing part of the Chembakaraman story is the mystery of his missing papers. J. V. Swamy, a nephew of the doctor, claims that shortly before Lakshmibai's death, the Bombay Police visited her flat and took away 17 boxes containing her husband's papers…

The story does not end here too. After many a success, Emden had to be destroyed, the ships crew were well aware that their time was up, they were finally chased & cornered by as many as 60-80 Allied ships --------The ship was finally sunk (Von mueller’s repor
t is interesting reading).

But Von Müller’s landing party at the Cocos Islands managed to steal the 97-ton copra schooner ‘Ayesha’ and sailed to Penang. From here they made their way to Istanbul, which I believe, is another fascinating story. They survived numerous threats to make it to the Arabian Peninsula, where they travel by camel caravan and survive an attack by Bedouin tribesman before reaching safe haven in Istanbul.

So much behind that Emden attack on Madras, a luminary called Chebakaraman Pillai, Hitler, Imperialism, the ship SMS Emden and the British…What a story!!

A note On pillai’s last days
RKN has written a short story ‘Emden’ in his collection of short stories ‘Old & New’

In lighter vein, there’s a movie called Emden mahan (re-titled Em mahan)in Tamil
A couple of stories about the ship and the voyage

Courtesy – Hyperlinks above, for the pictures


  1. ludwig

    Just learned about your blog and read this article. What an amazing story! Thanks for sharing. Look forward to more from the blog.

  1. Me

    There is an even more interesting connection between Emden and Kerala.

    The book "Ruby of Cochin" is a book about Jews of Kerala. Before WW2, Emden actually docked in Kochi. The German sailors ,walking around, got lost due to lack of power and walked into a street. Turns out that it was the street where Kerala Jews lived - they fed their foreign guests and the sailors went back peacefully. Ironically, in the world war the fact that sailors of Emden knew the ports of Kerala made it (in)famous around Kerala. It is still common around Trichur to use the word "Emandan" for something really large - leftover from the WW2 days when coastal regions were advised to turn off lights due to threat of an "Emden" ship.

  1. Maddy

    thanks me..
    I had written further about pillai in another article
    but coming back to emden you mentioned, that is another ship and from a later period. Yes, I have ruby's book, it is a charming book actually.