On September 6, 1833, the arrival of a ship in Calcutta was a cause for much joy for the city’s European inhabitants, including colonial officials. The ship, Tuscany, had set sail four months ago from Boston in the United States. When it reached Calcutta, the British governor-general, William Bentinck, presented William C Rogers, the man in charge of Tuscany’s cargo, with a silver cup. The ship’s crew was also feted and its captain received a letter of gratitude from Bentinck. There was good reason for the enthusiasm. Tuscany was carrying 100 tonnes of a commodity that the English in India despaired for: ice.
A few months before Tuscany’s arrival, Calcutta’s Anglican bishop Daniel Wilson wrote to his family in England, “The weather is perfectly suffocating. None can pity us but those who know our sufferings.” The historian Percival Spear writes, “the last solace for the English in the hot months was ice.” But, it was a commodity in very short supply. Around 300 years earlier, the first Mughal emperor, Babur, had also bemoaned the absence of “ice and iced water” in the same vein he lamented the dearth of good quality melons in India. His successors deployed horses and elephants to move ice from Kashmir to Delhi, Agra and Lahore. The Mughal capitals also had ice pans which, writes Spear, “were strewn with straws of various kinds. Water pots were provided and should the weather promise a cold clear winter night, water was poured into cloth-bottomed pans, which were then fitted onto the earthen squares or hollows. On a good night, ice would form at a depth of one-and-a-half inches in these pans. These were then gathered by shivering coolies and stored in ice pits. These ice pits were covered with a low mud house, thickly thatched, drained by a well and further protected from the air by layers of straw. Within the pit, the ice was beaten into a solid mass by relays of blanketed coolies.”
The British found transporting ice from Kashmir too expensive. But they did continue the practice of ice pans. However, the ice produced in these pans was too slushy to be added to gin and tonic. The arrival of ice from the US signalled a freedom from this slushy substance. At four annas a pound, the American ice was also cheaper. The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal described the arrival of Tuscany as an “epoch in the history of Calcutta, worthy of commemoration”.
JH Stocqueler, the editor of The Englishman, wrote of being woken up by his hysterical orderly who had seen slabs of “snow” at the Calcutta docks. The editor dispatched his orderly with a piece of cloth and a basket to get some of the ice. But, writes Stocqueler, the faithful domestic had neither wrapped the “ice in cloth nor closed the basket lest the ice became too warm”. Another eyewitness account describes an Indian who touched the ice as breaking into a shriek, believing he had been burnt.
The newspaper, India Gazette, thanked one Fredrick Tudor for making “this luxury accessible, by its abundance and cheapness”. As a 20-year old growing up in Boston in the early 1800s, Tudor had hit upon the idea of harvesting ice from the frozen water bodies in Massachusetts and transporting them to the Caribbean and the tropics. An extract from Tudor’s diary, quoted in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, November 1933 offers a hint of the young American’s business sense: “The frost covers the windows, the wheels creak, the boys run, winter rules, and $50,000 worth of Ice floats for me upon Fresh Pond.” “Basic to his success in a new industry and trade was Tudor’s ability to harness the New England climate to serve the needs of man, and this ability depended on a constant and minute study of its caprices. Observation of the weather was with him a matter of business: as the season of cold approached, and as long as it continued, he watched the heavens and noted the thermometer with the sharpest of eyes,” the Proceedings note.
But, in the beginning, Tudor had few supporters for his ideas. Even his father, an enterprising businessman, refused to sponsor him, saying that the thought of exporting ice was “wild and ruinous”. Undeterred, Tudor took loans and transferred about 240 tonnes of ice to Havana, but lost $ 4,000 in the endeavour. In Frozen Water Trade, the historian Gavin Weightman writes that on its first voyage, “Tudor’s ship lost its masts in a storm”. Encounters with pirates were frequent. However, during each trip, he learned to minimise the melting of ice by packing it tighter and insulating it with sawdust instead of straw.
The process of cutting ice from Massachusetts’ frozen rivers was laborious and deterred mass production. It took Tudor nearly 20 years to gain a foothold in the business. He was even arrested and jailed a few times for being in debt. The Bostonian owed much to an invention by one of his suppliers, Nathaniel Wyeth: a horse-drawn ice cutter that replaced the laborious process of cutting ice with saws, chisels and pickaxes. Tudor himself was a tireless entrepreneur, touring the Caribbean and offering bartenders free ice to give customers chilled drinks.
The Journal of the Asiatic Society notes that “the ponds from which the Boston ice is cut, are situated within 10 miles of the city; it is also procured from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers, in the state of Maine where it is deposited in ice-houses on the banks and shipped. A peculiar horse-drawn machine is used to cut it from the ponds in blocks of two feet square, and from one foot to 18 inches thick, varying according to the intensity of the season. If the winter does not produce enough to freeze the water to a convenient thickness, the square slabs are laid again over the sheet ice, until consolidated and so recut. The ice is stored in warehouses constructed for the purpose at Boston.” “On a good day,” noted the philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who lived near one of Tudor’s ice ponds, “more than 1,000 tonnes of ice were carted away”.
Within three days of the arrival of the consignment in Calcutta, the city’s European residents had impressed on the civic authorities to construct an ice house. India Gazette campaigned for making ice duty free and requested that permission should be given to unload the cargo at night. The Board of Customs, Salt and Opium acceded to the demand. Within a few months of Tuscany’s docking in Calcutta, the duty on ice was removed and ships carrying Tudor’s consignment were allowed to unload during the cool night.
In less than 15 years, the ice trade between India and the US expanded more than 30 times — from 100 tonnes in 1833 to more than 3,000 tonnes in 1847. The first consignment of ice earned Tudor a profit of $3,000. Over the next 20 years, he made more than $220,000. Ice houses were set up in Bombay and Madras as well and ice became the second most important commodity after cotton in the Indo-American trade. The Europeans would look forward to consignments from Tudor’s ice farms. But, very often, ships were delayed and often warm winters in New England presaged ice famines in India. In that case, a doctor’s certificate had to be produced to get ice — ice was palliative for fever and stomach disorders. The Statesman urged the English to use more ice, “so that the lower strata of the community would be tempted to try some”.
The discovery of modern methods of ice-making sounded the death knell for the ice trade between India and the US. The Calcutta ice factory came up in 1878. The city’s ice house was razed in 1882. The ice house in Bombay became a warehouse after the 1880s, till, it, too, was demolished in the 1920s. The Madras one remains, renamed Vivekananda Illam (or Vivekananda House) in 1963.
Tudor died in 1864, a millionaire. He had staved off the Bengali mercantilist, Dwarkanath Tagore, whose pleas for participation in the ice trade went unheeded by the colonial government. Along with a monopoly in ice trade, Tudor had also secured monopolies in American butter and New England apple.