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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Apparently Frederic knew nothing of the Mediterranean trade in Alpine ice, but he had heard of something similar in Peru, where snow from the mountains was sold in the city of Lima. All in all, Frederic was in little doubt that carrying ice to the West Indies would be pretty certain of success, and he was confident that he and his brother would make "fortunes larger than we shall know what to do with." He asked Otis, whatever his own opinion of the scheme, not to mention it to the Judge, as it was a secret and their father did "not have a hint of it."

After he had dispatched this letter, Frederic set off for Niagara Falls with his cousin James, who at that time had no idea he was to be brought in as a partner in the brothers' pioneer venture in the ice trade. James had spent most of his childhood with the Tudors and was more or less one of the family, for his mother had died when he was a boy and his father was insane and incapable of caring for him. He was the same age as Frederic, just twenty-one, and had recently graduated from Harvard. The trip to Niagara was just a youthful jaunt, but on the way, Frederic made a point of studying the construction of two icehouses he had heard about. One of them, in upstate New York, had three walls above-ground and only one cut into the earth, and Frederic was intrigued to see that it apparently kept ice as efficiently as any other icehouse. Frederic was no scientist and had absolutely no idea about the thermodynamics of icehouses, which are surprisingly complex. For most of his lifetime, the nature of heat was poorly understood. Much thought had gone into the design of icehouses both in Europe and in America, and as Frederic had suggested in his letter to Otis, it was believed that you had only to dig down a few feet anywhere in the world to find cool earth in which to store ice. In time, he realized that this was nonsense; it would prove vital for the continuation of the trade he established that ice could be preserved just as well above-ground as below, and that if the atmospheric temperature was above freezing, the only source of "cold" was the ice itself. William, meanwhile, appears to have given the ice venture little thought, and to have spent his time enjoying the beefsteak-and-oyster dinners held weekly by members of a Boston literary society he had helped found, the Anthology Club. He had given business a try on his trip to Europe a few years earlier, and felt he had no talent or taste for it. As he did not need to earn a living, he preferred the pleasant company of Boston's young literati. It is a wonder that Frederic persuaded him to get involved in the ice trade as winter closed in on Boston in 1805. But he went along with his younger brother's plans, which were, on the face of it, quite straightforward.

European colonial powers in the West Indies each had a different set of laws and regulations relating to trade, all of them subject to rapid change as treaties were made and broken. It was the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson won his famous victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets off the southern coast of Spain. Though the West Indies were thousands of miles away, such momentous European events sent ripples across the ocean. With its newly won independence, America was continuously adjusting its policies on trade to take into account the shifts of European power and allegiance. For reasons that were never made clear, Frederic decided the best bet for his first venture was the French island of Martinique. Maybe he feared that the most promising market, which was certainly Havana, would draw too much attention to his venture too early, or perhaps the tension between Spain and America at the time warned him off.

Wherever he sent the ice, Frederic wanted to have an officially sanctioned monopoly on the trade, for without it, he was certain prices would be driven down by competition and he would not make the profits he dreamed of. Both his brother William and his cousin James spoke French, and his mother had many friends and contacts in France, so they felt they had a good chance of presenting their case to the colonial governor, or prefect, on Martinique. The principal town on the island, St. Pierre, had a population of thirty thousand, a Tivoli pleasure garden, and sufficient perspiring expatriates to provide willing buyers of Rockwood ice.

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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