The ship from America was transported priceless cargo. Everyone was out on the docks anxiously scanning the horizon to spot the ship.

A sweltering afternoon in Calcutta, September 10, 1833 AD

The harbour was abuzz. People were wandering here and there, screwing their eyes up to the horizon, checking to see if the ship had arrived. Not just any ship, of course — there were plenty of those to be seen on the waters, bobbing elegantly — but this was the “Tuscany”, from America. Nothing to boast of, as far as the ship itself was concerned. Just the cargo she carried.

English gentlemen, decked out in their finest walked along the shoreline, accompanied by military officers; one or two ladies, braving the heat and curious eyes, walked on the arms of their husbands, looking at the boats and small craft beached on the shores, and at the water through tall trees.

Many were the murmurs and excited conversations, both among Indians and British, alike.

Finally, a ship arrived, slowly, painstakingly, with two men, seen as little specks on the deck.

“That must be Captain Littlefield,” whispered Colonel Fitzwilliam, to his friend, Dr. Penhallow, watching from the shore. “And if I’m not mistaken, with him is likely William Rogers. Come to set up shop in Calcutta, no doubt.”

The doctor pursed his lips. “Four months on the sea, sailing from Boston, Massachusetts? I wish I could believe that their cargo would reach us whole, but …”

“Well, news is that it’s been well-preserved in felt and sweet-smelling pine-dust, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t.”

“Whatever they’ve covered it in, I hope it gets here,” almost whined another young officer. “I’m dying in this heat!”

His superior chuckled, while his fellow-officers grinned in mingled sympathy and agreement.

A little away, Abhijit Biswas almost tripped over himself as he tried to hasten across the sand. “Is it here yet?” he asked in fluent English, of no one in particular. “I’m not late, am I?”

Colonel Fitzwilliam turned, noticed him, and nodded. “Lord Bentinck is asking for news, I presume?” he pointed in the distance. “She’s almost here.”

“The Governor-General said the cargo weighed 180 tonnes,” Abhijit murmured. “Will it all be in one piece?”

“Something should remain, don’t you think?”

“I hope there’s at least some slush,” the doctor said. “I have two patients burning up with fever and nothing on hand to reduce it.”

“Dear God, no more Hooghly slush,” the young officer groaned. “I couldn’t stand it!”

Arrival

The ship reached shore even as they spoke, and excitement rose to a fever pitch, as everyone surged forward. The captain descended from the ship; the crew swarmed all over the vessel and ground. Doors were open and closed; shouts and exclamations rang all over the place; something creaked and groaned; various instruments were raised and lowered with considerable care.

And then … the sight everyone had been waiting for.

Five or six crewmen manipulated a long, curved double-hook, raised something from within the cargo-hold, brought it across, and lowered it gently, on the craft waiting to carry cargo within city.

The vast swathe of onlookers stared at it, awestruck.

“It’s here,” breathed the young officer.

“And it’s beautiful,” murmured Abhijit.

News spread over the city within minutes, it seemed.

At his home, Jocquim Hayward Stocqueler, journalist, and editor of “The Englishman”, lay fast asleep, mouth open, when he was awakened by his henchman. “Go’way,” he mumbled, at the insistent hand that shook his shoulder. “I’m sleepin’ …”

“It’s burruf,” replied that worthy. “All the way from Boston.”

Stocqueler groaned, rubbed his eyes, and sat up. “If you’ve woken me up for something ridiculous …” His sight strayed to a small table by his bed-side. His eyes took in the object on it. Then, he blinked. And his jaw dropped. “My God…it’s here!”

Later, he wrote his editorial, celebrating the latest arrival, in his own style: “How many Calcutta tables glittered with it that day! The butter dishes were filled; the goblets of water were converted to miniature arctic seas, as they floated 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.”

Then, he laid his pen, rested his chin in his hand and grinned. “And all this hullabaloo over nothing but …” he took a long, cold drink of water. “ … ice!”

Historical Note

“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.”

These words were written on the first page of the diary of Frederic Tudor: the man who, in 1833, brought ice to India all the way from America, mostly in one piece — a vast achievement. Because of this feat, he was lauded as “The Ice King”. The man had to undergo enormous difficulty to taste victory — but taste it, he did. Later on, special buildings were established in cities such as Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, just to hold these huge shipments of ice, imported in tonnes, from across the seas. Jocquim Hayward Stocqueler’s words on how Calcutta received ice, has been quoted almost verbatim.

Today, only one of these Ice Houses survives, in Chennai. Later, it earned fame of another sort, when a great man stayed here in 1897, for nine days.

Now, people know it as Vivekanandar Illam.