The voyage to India went smoothly and the Tuscany reached Calcutta on Sept. 13, 1833. Logistically the venture was a success — of the 180 tons of ice loaded, 100 survived. But plain logistics weren’t all this affair involved. In India’s sweltering heat, ice set off frenzied emotional, economic and social reactions.
Long before Coca Cola was a twinkle in any entrepreneur’s eye, parched throats across the Indian summerscape were being soothed by a far more original American original.
On Sept. 13, 1833, a cargo shipped named the Tuscany sailed upriver on the Ganges. After four months and some 16,000 miles of seafaring, the vessel hauled up the world’s holiest river to deliver cargo that would be rendered almost as sacred in the summer months to come. The Tuscany had sailed from Boston with 180 tons of ice hacked off the surfaces of the great lakes of Massachusetts.
The architect of this project was Frederic Tudor, third son of a retired judge advocate general in George Washington’s army and founder of the Tudor Ice Company and future “Ice King” of America.
Things were not going well for the once and future ice king; every enterprise he tried resulted in resounding failure. He sustained heavy losses on similar shipments to Cuba as most of the ice melted along the way. He tried to ship Cuban fruit back to New York on the return trip bought with $3,000 worth of borrowed money. Virtually all of it rotted en route, sucking him further into debt. To make matters worse, his agent scammed him out of any scanty profits the trips to Havana managed to make and left him teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Though production of ice had nearly tripled after a resourceful supplier yoked a metal blade to horses and thereby invented the ice plow, business was hardly booming.
Tudor was a Boston Brahmin — a wealthy upper-class New Englander. In India he would find his financial salvation.
Back then, as now, India was where the world turned for its sunstrokes. Tomes were written on the heat and dust of the land, and had they not been engaged in plundering the place, the British would likely have pondered leaving. Aside from vacationing in Darjeeling, canceling cricket matches and having orderlies stay up all night to run hand-operated fans, there was very little the colonists could do about the sapping heat.
Those living in Calcutta hada feeble coolant at their disposal though. It was called Hooghly Slush, a shoddy frost concoction manufactured by a technique perfected by the locals. Boiled water stored in earthen pots was placed overnight in reed-lined pits in the ground. The cool air froze a wafer-thin layer of surface water, which was then skimmed off and stored underground for later use.
This slush was hardly the antidote to the searing heat. Its use posed many problems, most notably that the slush was hardly the sort of stuff you could serve claret with in the evenings. All that hoisting up and into the ground raised obvious concerns over hygiene and potability. And lastly, slush was available only six months a year, and vendors made a killing, charging the exorbitant price of 4 pence a pound. Slush simply was not working, and like everything else in the nation’s capital, the iron was hot.
Tudor was coaxed into striking by Samuel Austin, another Boston merchant who regularly sent ships to Calcutta. Austin’s ships carried empty dead weight on the trip to Calcutta, and he proposed shipping ice to India, which Tudor could then sell. Vending ice in India had been one of Tudor’s longstanding dreams, so he jumped at the chance.
The stakes were dangerously high. Not only had Tudor’s ancestral wealth waned, but a failed dalliance into coffee speculation had left him with $20,000 worth of debt. This venture had to succeed; the ice had to get there intact.
Tudor transformed the Tuscany into a giant sea-worthy thermos. On routine voyages to the West Indies or Cuba, little preparation had been done, as the trip was relatively short. But for this four-month journey, he fabricated an elaborate cool-house measuring 50 feet in length and impregnated it within the ship’s hull. By then, Tudor had discovered how tan (refuse bark from tannery pits) was pound for pound the best insulator available at the time. The cool room was lined with a foot-thick layer of it, and to further reduce melting by minimizing surface area, blocks were cut as cleanly as possible and packed together without any gap in between them. A cushion of hay was finally stacked on top of the cold cargo, and the giant icebox was shut. The fitting took Tudor the better part of a month, and at the end he was so satisfied with what he had put together, he wrote in his journal, “If (the Tuscany) does not carry her cargo safely to Calcutta & arrive with 2/3 of it, no ship ever will and the undertaking should be abandoned.”
The voyage to India went smoothly and the Tuscany reached Calcutta on Sept. 13. Logistically the venture was a success — of the 180 tons loaded, 100 survived. But plain logistics weren’t all this affair involved. In India’s sweltering heat, ice set off frenzied emotional, economic and social reactions.
People were in disbelief at the sight of an American ship unloading ‘burrf’ (snow). Jocquim Stocqueler, editor of The Englishman, provided an account of how on the first day of the unloading, he was woken at dawn by his near-hysterical orderly telling him about the cargo of snow at the docks. Stocqueler armed the orderly with a basket and a piece of green lieze and sent him to buy some. The man returned with half the quantity — so alien an object was ice that the faithful domestic had neither wrapped it in the cloth nor closed the basket lest the ice became “too warm.”
The British themselves behaved like children at an ice-cream parlor, and fueled by the prospect of having ice year round, collected money for commissioning an icehouse at the harbor within a span of three days. Soon, everyone was inviting everyone over for dinner, and showing off how much ice they had hoarded in buttercups, water jugs and trunks. Ice changed everything, including the furniture of the time; the ice chest became staple domestic furniture. Jellies, drinks and meat were cooled in ice blocks. Relentless lobbying saw ice declared a duty-free item and permission was granted for it to be unloaded at night – like, among other things, opium. Ice was used in hospitals as a palliative for patients with fever and diarrhea. Tudor was soon granted monopoly over India’s ice imports and he, in turn, responded by lowering his prices.
In a gesture of supreme corporate ethics, a leading newspaper The Statesman urged citizens to increase consumption so lower strata of the community would be tempted to try some. Tudor’s shrewd marketing strategy was driven by his conviction that once people in the tropics had tasted cool water, they would be unwilling settle for tepid water.
Tudor’s agent William Rogers stayed behind in Calcutta to oversee the storage and sale of the ice. The usual method entailed a 100 pound block being placed behind a glass wall and sold piecemeal at the dock’s icehouse. Roger’s high-class hobnobbing and conspicuousness at the venue turned him into a darling of the ruling classes. Believing him the poster-boy, the driving force and the brains behind the ice-imports, Governor General William Bentick published a gushing gratitude in the India Gazette about Rogers, and presented him with a foot-tall ornate silver cup, adorned with an engraving acknowledging “the Spirit and enterprize which projected and successfully executed the first attempt to import a cargo of American ice into Calcutta.”
Tudor would be enraged to learn of this showering of credit on someone who, he believed, had basically just gone along for the trip. He wrote an ill-spirited letter to the Governor General for publication in Calcutta outlining how it was actually he who deserved credit for Calcutta’s brimming ice coffers.
The ice house of the International Ice Company in Chennai is now Viveknanda Ashram.
The first unloading earned the Tudor Ice Company a profit of $3,000. Business boomed over the next 20 years and profits ran into an estimated $220,000. The trade spread to Bombay and Madras. In the coming years, ice was no longer viewed as a luxury in India. In 1850, when Bombay was faced with an acute ice shortage, prominent newspapers The Telegraph and The Courier suggested an agitation to protest the “incompetence” of the authorities.
Ice imports began waning with the advent of refrigeration in the 1870s. When the International Ice Company established itself in Madras in 1874 and began manufacturing it by the steam process, ice-imports were finally frost-bitten. Dockside ice houses were shut down. The one in Madras was converted into an ashram by Swami Vivekananda and a shelter for young widows.
By then, Frederic Tudor had become a rich man again, and this time round, he did not waste it all away. Which is tragic in a way, for who knows what spectacular get-rich-quick scheme he might have come up with next?