A Frozen Journey

Continuing on about Madras, a place where I lived for a while, a place which hid so many mysteries and tales of a time long gone, I am now walking along the Marina beach and pause to stop at a structure called Vivekanadar Illam or so they call it these days. People reading this would mutter, ‘there he goes again, talking about some musty old geezers who made history, who talked about correct ways of living and all that’. Far from it, my friends, for this will take you along an astounding journey. Yes, I agree I will traverse into Bengal and mention the luminary Vivekanada, but only in passing.

I used to visit a small factory close to the Marina beach to get some training on some electronic equipment in the 80’s, and used to hear the name of a stop bellowed by the bus conductor every day – he used to say ‘Ice house’…and I assumed, yup – that must be some ice factory. Well, was it an ice factory? What lies behind it? Let us find out…But for that I have to take you first to the Hooghly River in Calcutta.

My late uncle, whom we called Bhanu Etta, earned his livelihood between the 60’s and 80’s working as a pilot in Calcutta. Now for those who start thinking about planes and airmen, I have disappointment in store; he was a pilot in the waters, guiding large ships through the sand and mud banks of the Hooghly River safely to their respective berths. Now the intention of telling you this was to set the scene, to let you know that the port of Calcutta was not like the one at Madras where a large ship could directly sail in and berth. He used to tell us about the dangerous mud formations near Diamond harbor and further down the river and how bad it was if a ship, god forbid, hit one of them (remember? that was how Vasco Da Gama ended up at Kappad near Calicut!). But well, my uncle was not around when the amazing event occurred.

Now what if the ship was an American ship carrying some strange cargo? We are about to find out what happened at Diamond harbor, on Sept 5th 1833 and its eventual connection to our landmark in Madras.

Sept 5th 1833

The land was still abuzz with the Himalayan - Nepal (7.7 Richter) earthquake. Rumors were flying about the effects and aftershocks. The natives were talking incessantly about the arrival of Kalikalam and the end of the earth. The Burra sahibs of the EIC and the other Goras at Calcutta were on the other hand, dismissive. They had bigger things to worry about, such as the rains and the heat, for it was unbearably hot and torridly humid. They were for example more worried about ‘milady’s’ complaint about the gown sticking to her body and her feet slipping in shoes while at the ball or being bitten by the mosquitoes. The business of ruling over an inhospitable landmass called India was complicated indeed. As somebody said, the deadly heat of Calcutta was more dangerous to British life than even a possible uprising by the natives. They often quoted the comments of Dr Edward Ives an English surgeon in 1774 who wrote about his horrible experience of a sultry day saying "not a breath of air was there for many hours, both man and beast and the very fowls of the air so sensibly felt it that some of each species fell down dead".

One bright Englishman even suggested a solution which was to sleep with Indian Women (based on a historic firman (decree) that the Portuguese once obtained from Shajahan to sleep with Bengali women). Now how that worked in cooling off somebody, I do not know, but let us agree for a moment on the superior Anglican expertise on heat control, and not argue, for this particular solution has no direct bearing on this story.

Introducing the Ice trade

Ah! Where was I? Yes, Sept 5th 1833, yet another hot day in Calcutta. The Tuscany was expected in the harbor. It had been sailing from Boston in the USA and bound for Calcutta since May 12th, a long four month voyage, laden with a 180 tonne cargo of believe it or not, ice.

Some months ago, I introduced to you the match king of the world Ivar Kreuger, now it is my chance to tell you about the Ice king Frederick Tudor. Many years ago, I had heard a joke where an American tried to sell a glacier to an Arab, tugged through the waters by a ship, but only recently did I read about the Ice story.
A very interesting person, Tudor had by 1830 made ice a commodity, one that could even be transported around the world, till another bright guy invented the refrigerator. Tudor “harvested” ice in winter from Boston-area lakes and ponds, stored it in icehouses of his own design, and transported it in the insulated cargo holds of sailing ships, sending it to far-flung ports like Havana and Calcutta. His first shipments to West Indies were unprofitable, for they did not know what to do with the ice. But he hit mother lode with Calcutta and later Madras. In the next 20 years Calcutta was one of the hottest destinations and a very profitable one for the Ice king Frederick Tudor. He made over $200,000 only from Calcutta. He had for the last few decades, struggled with his icy business (frozen water business as it was called then) and was suffering through financial hardship, bankruptcy and several stints in debtor’s prison. But it all changed with Calcutta. Tudor was to tell Captain Littlefield of Tuscanny – As soon as you have arrived at latitude 12 Deg north, you will have carried ice as far south as it has been carried before, and your ship becomes a discovery ship…..as the first ship that has carried ice to the East Indies.

The stratagem in the later parts of the frozen water business was as follows - When January rolled around and the ice was ripe, it was time to harvest. In the mid-1820s, one of Tudor’s suppliers—a Bostonian named Nathaniel Wyeth developed an efficient method of cutting ice, better than the usual method where men used long saws to cut through the ice. He instead used horses to pull a metal blade, an ice plough, which cut the ice. Thus ice could be harvested in much larger quantities. These large, neatly cut blocks lasted better than rough sawn ice, and could be stacked in warehouses and ships more easily. Much later, in 1833, fellow Boston-based merchant Samuel Austin proposed to the struggling Tudor a partnership for selling ice to India, then some 16,000 miles (26,000 km) and four months away from Massachusetts. And it was thus that in May 1833 that the brig Tuscany sailed from Boston for Calcutta, its hold filled with 180 tons of ice cut during the winter. When it approached the Ganges in September 1833, many believed the delivery was an elaborate joke, but the ship still had 100 tons of ice in its holds upon arrival.

And being goods delivered by a Boston Brahmin exporter, I suppose this ice was ‘pukka’ stuff, even for the high castes of Bengal (that was a pun, in America it has been applied (after it was coined by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes later in 1860) to the old, upper crust New England families of British origin that were extremely influential in the development and leadership of arts, culture, science, politics, trade, and academia.

Back to Calcutta - The ship is coked now and the ice has been offloaded. Many a hoary story or yarn remains about the subsequent happenings. Like how a Parsee went to the captain and asked him – ‘How this ice make grow in your country? Him grow on tree or shrub? Some were disillusioned as the ice melted as quickly as they got it, some were more interested in the Baldwin apples that remained fresh in the hold next to the chilly ice. It was euphoria time in Calcutta. The ships officers soon mixed with the Anglo Indians and had iced drinks for weeks. As people were to remark, the Boston-India trade which had declined was finally back on even keel.

It was not that Calcutta had never seen ice until then. Indeed they had, only it was a kind of slush - made in a different way. Hooghly plain ooze was made by skimming surface ice from water in unglazed pots placed overnight in reed-lined pits. But you can imagine how it compared to the crystal clear blocks.

It was unloaded from the ship as quickly as possible, and after paying all expenses, Tudor realized a profit of over $3,000 on this first shipment. After some discussion, the British voted to grant Tudor a monopoly, and decided to erect a substantial ice house for him. He sold ice there by placing a 100 pound block on display behind glass – replacing the block each morning with a fresh one to make up for whatever had melted the previous night. And anyone who could afford and icebox invested in one of those zinc lined wooden contraptions. Calcutta’s ice consumption in the coming years rose to 3000 pounds compared to 30,000 at Boston.

A Calcutta historian, in speaking of the ice, eulogized, "I will not talk of nectar or elysium, but I will say that if there be a luxury here, it is this - it is this. ... A block of pure ice weighing 2 maunds," he continued, "was a sight Calcutta had never seen before. The idea of having the purest ice at three halfpence a pound during the whole year, instead of having the Hooghly slush for six weeks at fourpence the pound, was irresistible."

Either the reporters were over enthusiastic or the onlookers were – many amusing reports can be read. Like how a Bengali braved to touch a piece of the ice, and, believing that he had burned himself, wrapped his hand in his robe and rushed away followed by a number of the alarmed onlookers. Another story goes thus - J Stocqueier, a colorful journalist and editor of The Englishman, the leading daily newspaper in Calcutta, was rudely awakened by his old faithful who could not wait to give him the news that burruf (ice) had arrived from America. "There it lay", wrote Stocqueier latter "in a square mass of purest crystal, packed in felt and fragrant pine dust. A quantity of rosy American Baldwin apples reposed upon the surface of this glacier". Back in his office, the facile editorial pen wrote on, “How many Calcuatta tables glittered with ice that day. The butter dishes were filled, the goblets of water were converted to miniature arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended until noon and people rushed to pay each other congratulatory visits. Everybody invited everybody to dinner to taste claret and beer cooled by the American importation.”

Meanwhile the American captain of the Tuscany was presented a gold cup by the Governor General (you can see it on the video) by Lord Bentinck, and the romance of American ice was listed as an achievement of his government. In Boston, as the business boomed, the India wharf and an India Row where prosperous ‘shippies’ lived became in places and it soon became fashionable to marry an East India Capn. But the arrival of ice in Calcutta benefited far more than the upper crust in Calcutta. Food was kept fresh for weeks, doctors used ice as a treatment for fevers, and many other uses were found as well. The retuning ships also introduced the Asian cockroach to Boston.

Another person who was to picture in this business during the winter of 1846-1847, was Boston writer Henry David Thoreau who watched a crew of Tudor's ice cutters at work on Walden Pond and recorded these remarks in his journal. He wrote

Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work like busy husbandmen, with teams and horses and apparently all the implements of farming, such a picture as we see on the first page of the almanac…………

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the Periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and islanded in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Back in India, Calcutta was not the only place where Tudor conducted his ice business. Tudor, the `Ice King', built three houses, one each in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, to keep ice under proper insulation.

And so we finally we come to where we started, the Vivekanadra Illam or the Ice house of Madras, built by Tudor. This is the only one that remains while the others have long since vanished or evaporated like the frozen water business. When the International Ice Company was established in Madras in 1874, “to manufacture ice by the steam process”, the Tudor Ice company in India was finally done with. Bilgiri Iyengar who later purchased the ice house converted it to Castle Kernan, however, it did not succeed as residential quarters because of inadequate ventilation. Swami Vivekananda returned to India via Madras after a triumphant tour of the West in February 1897 and stayed at the ice house for 10 days and thus provided the reason for the new name. Later it became a child widows home, a school and so on, the details of which can be read in greater detail in the linked Hindu articles and the Madras reference book. Interesting is another observation in an old book that the sea shore was closer to the Ice house in those days than it is today. Also noteworthy is the fact that Ice was sold in madras at 4 Annas per pound in 1840.

Frederick Tudor was an opportunist merchant. He had seen that something that was useless in New England would be of great value in Calcutta, becoming a wealthy man simply because he figured out what to do with one hundred tons of ice, and setting a fine example of transcontinental trade. But there were many people who would have made snide remarks all along – that man Tudor is trying to sell ice around the world - what stupidity!! Tudor had long since proved everyone wrong. Apparently, the inscription on the front cover of his first diary were his words he lived by: “He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success, has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love or business.”

The Englishman in India – Charles Raikes
Beyond The Veil, Indian Women in The Raj - Pran Nevile
Hindu article
Mechanics Magazine 1836
The maritime history of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 - Samuel Eliot Morison
Tudor’s story
Walden - Henry David Thoreau
Ice saw pictures & details
A video on Tudor
The Madras Tercentenary commemoration volume, Volume 1939 - By Madras Tercentenary Celebration Committee
Hindu articles – 1 & 2

Pics - various websites - each acknowledged with thanks


1. The dates of departure and arrival of the Tuscanny are somewhat hazy and clouded in the enthusiastic pen strokes of various writers who first tackled this icy subject. The departure dates vary between 6th -18th May and the arrival between 5th and 16th Sept 1833. But I assume that for the purpose of entertaining reading this inaccuracy would not matter. Probably the arrival dates at Calcutta were clouded between the time Tuscanny was first sighted and the time it docked.

2. Strangely – the ice industry was taken over by the spring or mineral water industry – waters from the alps and all that stuff, even arctic beer and Swedish springs have leapt to the forefront of a multibillion dollar industry which sometimes relies on tap water, but makes the millions preying on man’s fastidious preferences when it comes to ingesting food and water.

3. About Thoreau and his work let me borrow the words of Kenneth Champeon from the blog Things Asian

His masterpiece Walden is peppered with references to Eastern texts like the "Bhagvat-Geeta", the Vedas, the Vishnu Purana, the Sanchya Karika; the Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra; the Indian poet Kalidasa and his drama Shakuntala; the Tartar belief in the transmigration of the soul. Thoreau was a bridge between his "restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century" America -- which would certainly strike us as none of these things - and the various Golden Ages of departed Asian civilizations.

Of the Eastern texts, Thoreau favored the Bhagavad Gita, which he claims to have read in the mornings during his sojourn at Walden. To him, it was the pinnacle of Asian culture, of all culture. "How much more admirable," he wrote, "is the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East!" In the pond, he bathed his body; in the Gita he bathed his "intellect." Much of his preferred mode of living can be traced to the Gita's spirit. He even employs its tropes when he says that he must toil "to save the universe from annihilation." In Stephen Mitchell's adaptation of the Gita, the line is: "If I stopped acting, these worlds would plunge into ruin."

Thoreau gave something back to the India from which he drew so much inspiration. Gandhi read Thoreau's seminal essay "Civil Disobedience" and came to embody its message of nonviolent resistance, and of being guided by laws higher than those of mankind. Gandhi had other Western influences, notably Ruskin and Tolstoy. But his kinship with Thoreau is more palpable. Only Thoreau may have loved the Gita and India as much as Gandhi did, and paid as much obeisance to "higher laws."

Mahatma Gandhi first read Walden in 1906 while working as a civil rights activist in Johannesburg. He told American reporter Webb Miller, "[Thoreau's] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,' written about 80 years ago…..

Strange connection, isn’t this? Thoreau, the British, ice from Walden pond, Gandhi, India, Calcutta Vivekanada & Madras!!!!


Vijay said…
Maddy your two blogs splice ice, lies, spice, vice, avarice, and enterprise into a history-buff's paradise! Sorry, the verse in the Hindu footnote got me going, and yes "avarice" doesn't rhyme :) Great post!

Quick question- with glacier ice available aplenty in the Himalayas within shooting distance of Calcutta, I wonder why some Brit entrepreneur didn't use cheap Indian labor to harvest ice in the mountains and bring it down to Calcutta? Should be cheaper than getting it from Boston? Or did the Brits not have easy access to the areas we now call Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley in Chinese Tibet?
Anonymous said…

I was reading the book 'Frozen Water Trade' to write a post on this. But you beat me to it :-)

Wonderful story.
Sunil Deepak said…
A truely wonderful read! Thanks
Maddy said…
Hi Vijay ...That was an interesting question. I think the expense in getting roads built in those high ranges would have been horrendous. Secondly with mule and camel loads of ice, it would have been gone in no time..but that is an unqualified guess...Check the price that Tudor sold his ice at - half the price at which local slush was sold - and 4 annas in madras..cant beat that I guess..
Maddy said…
Oh - JK I am so sorry, we could have collaborated, even...but go for it anyway - I covered the story from the popular angle, you can pick another approach...say the economics of ice trade. I got a fine paper on this story after i posted this, will send it to you..It includes even the religious aspects of how factory ice got accepted in the caste-ist India.
Maddy said…
Thanks PNS..

and thanks Sunil - long time no hear - hope you are doing fine..
Shiraj Jahafar said…
Maddy, awesome read mate and i admire the way you researched the topic and put everything together! I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly waiting for more.

The bus route from my home near Hamilton bridge(another landmark worthy of your research!)to The New college used to pass through ice house and i always used to wonder why it was called so!
Maddy said…
Thanks Shiraj - the Hamilton bridge story is very interesting as you say - and how it became barber bridge along the way....
Reads like a thriller! Full of suspense and twists!!
Enjoyed reading the piece. Shows how a solid story can be built around the thinnest of threads!!
Happy Kitten said…
yet again, I wish you would put this all into a book so that one can continue reading!

waiting for you to unearth yet another story from history..
Maddy said…
Thanks CHF..

Watch out for the next one, I think you will all enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed putting this and the next toegther..

I will work on it, have to find a publisher though...
margaret said…
Great read! You are a prolific writer Maddy. I've bookmarked your page and will return to reading your blogs as I'm sure they will provide many hours of information and enjoyment! I have a website (it is in need of updating when I can find the time to do so!) at www.margaretdeefholts.com Drop in for a visit.
Margaret "Pennme" Deefholts
Maddy said…
Thanks a lot Margaret - appreciate it
will definitely peruse your web site
Happy Kitten said…
Remembered your post while reading this..http://scroll.in/article/731353/why-its-difficult-to-discover-good-books-though-they-are-out-there
Maddy said…
Thanks HK..
long time no hear..
off to India for a vacation...

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