Excerpt from The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Frozen Water Trade

A True Story

by Gavin Weightman

The Frozen Water Trade
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2003, 288 pages
    Jan 2004, 288 pages

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This luxury was denied to those who lived in tropical climates, including the colonial rulers of the West Indian islands and the prosperous plantation owners of the cotton belt in South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. What would they pay for a shipload of perspiring New England ice during their most torrid season, when the heat was hardly bearable and yellow fever raged? Selling them ice, it seemed to Frederic Tudor, would be an excellent and simple proposition provided a few technicalities could be sorted out. It was a straightforward matter of supply and demand, once the problem had been solved of how to keep the supply from melting before it reached the demand.

The Tudor brothers were in the happy position of having a bit of family money to invest. In 1794, when Frederic was eleven, their grandfather John had died at the age of eighty-six, and had left everything to their father, William. This small fortune consisted of forty thousand dollars in cash and investments, some properties in Boston, and Rockwood. William was always known affectionately in the family as "the Judge," a title he had acquired when he served as judge advocate in George Washington's army. His Harvard education and his military service afforded him many good connections in New England society, where he was well liked for his jovial personality. Before 1794, he had practiced as a lawyer, but he felt he was well enough off after John died to give up work and live the life of a landed gentleman. The Judge was a generous man and a spendthrift, and the family lived well. He could afford to send his sons to Harvard and to give them a generous allowance that enabled them to travel, and sometimes to dabble in speculation. In preparation for Harvard, Frederic was sent to Boston Latin School. At the age of thirteen, he decided that college was a waste of time, dropped out of school, and took a job as an apprentice in a Boston store. His mother, Delia, a cultured woman who was anxious that her sons be properly educated, did not approve. Nor did his eldest brother, William. But neither had any authority over him, and at the time Frederic left school, the Judge was off on a jaunt to Europe. Frederic wrote to him: "I hope you will not be displeased with my going so young." When the Judge returned to Boston, Frederic had already given up his apprenticeship and was spending his days on the Rockwood farm, hunting and fishing with a black servant of the family who had been given the name Sambo. Frederic loved Rockwood and sometimes imagined he could make the farm pay, but he spent most of his time on little schemes that came to nothing, such as designing a water pump that he believed would make ships unsinkable.

When he was seventeen years old and still hanging idly around Rockwood, an opportunity arose that would have an influence on Frederic's later conviction that there would be a demand for ice in the West Indies. His nineteen-year-old brother, John Henry, had a bad knee that had turned him into an invalid. Anxious about his son's health, the Judge suggested that Frederic take John away somewhere. The boys were enthusiastic, and chose to go to Havana, then a thriving trading port on the Spanish island of Cuba. It would not be just a convalescent trip: while they were there they might try their hand at trading in coffee or sugar--they had already made a small profit selling mahogany furniture to Havana. On February 26, 1801, they sailed from Boston on the Patty with $1,000 in travel money given to them by their father.

John Henry left a jaundiced account of the voyage. Both brothers were seasick for the first week or so, got sunburned, and hated the shipboard diet of beef and soup. They were at sea for a month, arriving in Havana at the end of March. At first they thought Cuba a kind of paradise, full of excitement and tropical fruit, and for two months they took tours, engaged in a little trade, and lost money. But by the end of May, as Havana heated up and the mosquitoes and scorpions became bothersome, they decided to leave. John Henry's knee was getting worse, and gave him pain every day. At the beginning of June, they bought passage on a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina, loaded with molasses, which gave off a fierce and heavy stench. To ensure that they would eat tolerably well on this voyage, the brothers loaded up for their own consumption 192 eggs, which would be enough for half a dozen or more each a day.

From The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman. Copyright 2003 by Gavin Weightman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Hyperion Publishing.

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