ice manufacturing in South Asia

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By 2017-11-05

By  Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai

Set in the year 1885- Hollywood Director Steven Spielberg's 1990 futuristic, sci-fi blockbuster movie Back to the Future (part-3-based on the novel of the same name by Craig Shaw Gardner) has its actor-in-a-leading-role a scientist and inventor-Dr. Emmet Brown- demonstrating to the main protagonist- Marty McFly- how he makes a single block of ice from a massive machine.

The dramatic enactment of creating ice in 1885 is graphically elucidated in the movie through an enormous machine which the scientist is credited to have invented. The huge machine is shown to violently vibrate and spurt steam from a big chimney on top as various attached wheels start to turn, a conveyor belt jerks several times and finally everything comes to a standstill as a single block of pale-brown ice tumbles out of the machine.

The proud scientist is shown to drop it into his tea to make an impeccable cup of 'ice tea'. Adding the perfect degree of satire and comedy, this story however is a reminder of an era of historical transformation as technological advancements started to introduce a new concept within the ice-market- the manufacturing of commercial ice for general consumption. In the entire economy that helped to pave the way for the popularity of this idea- the British colonies of South Asia had an important and major role to play- including Sri Lanka.

The ice manufacturing market in British colonial Sri Lanka during the last quarter of 19th century created a mark in the history of South Asia- making it the first and the earliest manufacturers of commercial ice in the region.
Though the name has eversince changed several times, the company in Sri Lanka continues to this day as an important landmark in the history of the country under the popular and household name of Elephant House- which by no means is only limited to the manufacturing of ice alone today- as its many ice cream and aerated drinks feature amongst much-loved refreshments from the country.
Dr.Emmet Brown in Back to the Future sadly admitted to Marty that his 'ice-machine' was not yet ready for the market to make commercial ice as it was incapable to produce several artificial blocks at the same time.

This is precisely the factor which received a makeover by the second half of 19th century through the ether process of making ice for larger quantities. Till about 1830s- the concept of ice was a far-fetched one. Food was mostly preserved through various methods of salting, spicing, pickling or smoking all over the world. Various types of marine and aquatic items, meat and meat-products were mostly prepared by butchers for only the day's trade. Further, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables were all sold in local markets with spacious platforms for air-passages to provide for cross-ventilation. Such examples are still visible across colonial baazars or markets built in many Indian prominent cities, like, Pune and Mumbai (in western India and formerly Bombay) and Kolkata (in eastern India and formerly Calcutta). The problem for storage soon found an answer through the import of ice especially from the New England origin areas of northern America.

Especially set in tropical and sub-tropical climates, the various colonies of different European nations found it to be a lucrative trade to introduce ice forconsumption. This was meant for not only the consumption by colonial officers and the elite masses, but for the preservation of various food products as well. This in turn was also helpful for the market as it helped to preserve meat, fish and all related products. From the beginning of 19th century, natural ice used to be mostly from various parts of Northern Europe and America- which were exported through various padded sand-boxes at nearby as well as far off places. This was done through availing natural ice through the process of ice-harvesting. However, the process ofice harvesting was a labour intensive one and needed 20-100 men for one to four weeks.
Thus, attempts began with various experiments to find an easier method to make ice- and in turn came up many ice manufacturing plants. The Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company (1868) was one of the first to operate and make artificial iceregularly in America, with its prices lower than that of natural ice in the New England regions.

Nevertheless, by the time the artificialice trade became a part of the regular economic activities, the shipping of harvested natural ice was already an important part of businessespecially across northern America- the New England origin areas. Across the 1830s and 1840s- from these regions of northern America, ice was regularly beingexported to far-off eastern regions including England, India, South America, China and Australia.However, this trade of exporting natural ice came to a standstill towards the second half of 19th century due to various political events across the world- especially the various colonies. One of this was the events of 1857 in India- referred today as the First War of Indian Independence.

This slowed thespread of export ice into India. Exports from New England to India peaked in 1856, when 146,000 tons (132 million kg) were shipped, and then the Indian natural ice market dipped. At the same time, the ice market was also not faring well during the American Civil War, and imports of ice slowly declined through the 1860s. As the monopoly of the American ice companies kept faltering, the introduction of artificial ice plants around the world by the British Royal Navy helped to establish many new counterparts- like the International Ice Company in Madras (now Chennai in India) in 1874 and the Bengal Ice Company in 1878 Calcutta (now Kolkata in India). Operating together as the Calcutta Ice Association, they rapidly drove natural ice out of the market and began the age of artificial ice manufacturers in South Asia.

The setup of ice factories in the colonies followed a typical trend of introducing many British concepts within the colonies- from new democratic ideologies, social reforms and economic policies which was thought to further help to connect to the local socio-cultural ethos instead of directly being dependent on the English set-up. This age of transformation is also best reflected through the works of William J. Duiker and Jakson J. Spielvogelin their World History-Vol-2-since 1500- as they mention the words of one senior English politician who was reported to mention in the English parliament in 1898- democratic institutions "can no more be carried to India by Englishmen...than they can carry ice in their luggage." Democratic rights being compared to the urgent need of packaging ice may seem ironical, but it also reflects the significance of the latter in the daily life of especially the colonial officers.
In between the faltering ice markets from America as the Indian markets were preparing to pick up, the commercial ice market saw its inception in Colombo.

The Heritage sub-section of Elephant House official website informs the beginning to be around 1866 as the Colombo Ice Company with the ice being imported from New England and auctioned at the famous Colombo harbor and the "white glittering chunks of ice created tremendous interest amongst the social elite of the day and was available only at functions and houses of the socially privileged".
Released in 1969 at the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Ceylon Cold Stores- the publication Ceylon in Our Times 1894-1969 mentions about the first production of ice in the country as- "The production of ice on a commercial scale began with the formation of the Colombo Ice Company in 1866 (it became New Colombo Ice Company in 1894 and then Ceylon Cold stores in 1941). Its premises in Glenie Street became known as the 'Ice Kompaniya'.The name lingered, now the entire district has officially become 'Kompaniveediya'. On the other hand, the trade was being also controlled by the English East India Company.

The possibilities are that- thus, the region came to be known as 'Kompaniveediya' or 'Company Road'- also imparting the same name to the railway station in the region as Kompannavidiya Railway Station. About the strategic location of the Ice Company a mention can also be found in Ceylon in Our Times 1894-1969 which states that "The location of the firm on the banks of Beira Lake (in 1866) was influenced by the fact that the lake was then a vital link in communications in Colombo. It had a total of 22 employees. A German engineer, Arthur Von Possner was the manager." This transportation also seems to have been aided by the construction of the Kompannavidiya Railway Station in 1878.

The Heritage sub-section of the official website ofElephant House also further mentions in brief the short journey of the initiation and the final stages of the Elephant House under the British. Mr. Von Possner left the company in 1883 to form his own aerated drinks company and introduced the 'Elephant' trademark to Sri Lanka.
This trademark still continues as part of Elephant House. Later, a Mr. Tom Walker- an owner of a competing syndicate bought The Colombo Ice Company and gave the new name of New Colombo Ice Company Ltd in 1894. Many years later, a change once again took place in the company when in 1934;this New Colombo Ice Company Ltd bought the Ceylon Ice and Cold Storage Company- pioneering the art of keeping frozen foods for selling. This New Colombo Ice Company Ltd changed its name to Ceylon Cold Stores in 1941.
Thus, by the turn of the century and 1900, the ice trade was not only an important part of the economy of Sri Lanka, but was well recorded in the many colonial accounts as well. One such account is found in the Arnold Wright edited volume of Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (published in 1907) which mentions the ice and aerated drinks trade between 1900-1906- "This business was founded seven years ago on the existing site, as a mineral water manufactory and an ice-making plant was added in 1901." By 1906- around "50 hands" were working at various departments of the factory.

"The ether process was adopted in making ice, while the aerated waters are bottled by steam machinery of the latest design." Interesting to witness is also the maintenance of a standard that qualified for international quality and competition and thus, both the ice as well as the aerated drinks are also further mentioned as to be of "the best quality, and the chemical employed have been declared by the local analysts to be absolutely free from all organic matter, the popularity of the beverages manufactured testifying to their wholesomeness and excellence."Arnold Wright's works also further elucidates the significance through a picture of the ice factory in 1905 and 06 showing the many workers busy within the factory and the transportation bullock-carts parked outside the factory. Ice remained an important part of economic activities.
Beginning though, as part of a significant economic activity- the use of ice however remained limited to a luxury few customers. 'Ceylon in Our Times 1894-1969- highlights the importance of availing ice amidst the elites of the city- especially between- 1894-1969 and states- "The tables of the well-to-do families in 'Victorian' time were loaded with delicacies, but ice was so scarce that to have it at home gave Ceylonese then something to talk about and record, as they did in their diaries. The diaries of Edmund Roland Gooneratne, John Gerald Perera, and John GodfriedPieris throw light on the tantalising fare rich families had in their daily meals.
They also shed light on one of the status symbols of Ceylon in that era – the serving of ice... Ice was difficult to get and more difficult to keep.

Mr. Gooneratne noted how 'Peter ...and them were feasting on the 20 lbs. of ice which were brought from Galle but only about seven remained. They drank it with brandy." Various fiction works also have highlighted the times and mention may be made of Carl Muller's the Jam Fruit Tree. Set in a background of around 1900, this story about the Burghers of Sri Lanka mentions amidst the many comic cameos, how the protagonist- the Von Blosses, had to plan ahead of purchasing beef and ice from the Colombo Ice Company. Both the fiction as well as the non-fiction works are evidence about the exotic nature of the availability of ice for consumption and how the demand amidst the colonial officers as well as the elites had created a niche in the economic spectrum of the society through controlling various other food and beverage products as well- e.g. meat and fish, vegetables and other food items.
The gradual commercial manufacturing of ice changed the course of economic activities- leading to the various changes in the diet of the local populace.

Thus, the socio-cultural fabric of the society witnessed a gradual transformation through the introduction of commercial ice.
With a long-standing history that went into its making, the shining blocks of ice today- atop any cool drink on a hot summer day- does not seem a luxurious item to behold however; it was once considered an exclusive product that could be experienced only by a selected few. The very manufacturing of commercial ice also weaved an important socio-cultural as well as economic fabric for the country- not only in terms of manufactured ice, but making it available for preservation for many products as well.
Thus- glistening blocks of ice not only transformed a section of commercial activities within the country, but also helped it further be connected to a wider economic network of South Asia as well.

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