Sri Lanka was a pioneer in ice manufacturing in South Asia

Sri Lanka was a pioneer in ice manufacturing in South Asia

By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai

Ice manufacturing in colonial Sri Lanka in the second half of the 19 th.century was a landmark in South Asian history.  The Sri Lankan ice making industry was the first and the earliest in the region. The name of the pioneering company has changed several times over the years. Today it is known as Elephant House.

Of course, Elephant House is no longer limited to the manufacturing of ice. It is known for its ice creams and aerated drinks.

Till about the 1830s- the concept of ice was a far-fetched one. All over the world, food was mostly preserved through salting, spicing, pickling or smoking. Those days marine and aquatic items, meat and meat-products would last only a day. Dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables were all sold in markets with spacious platforms for air-passages to provide for cross-ventilation. Examples of these are still to be seen in colonial-era baazars or markets  in many Indian cities like, Pune and Mumbai and Kolkata.

However, the problem of storage found an answer when ice began to be imported mainly from New England in Northern America. Being in the tropical and sub-tropical areas of the globe, the British colonies were introduced to ice as a preserver by colonial officers and the colonial business elite.

From the beginning of 19th century, natural ice was exported from various parts of Northern Europe and America in padded sand-boxes. Ice was made by ice-harvesting. But the process of ice harvesting was a labour intensive one and needed 20 to 100 men for one to four weeks.

Therefore, experiments were conducted to find an easier method to making ice. The success of the experiments was  evident in the increase in the number of ice plants. The Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company (1868) in America was one of the first to make artificial ice. Its prices were lower than those of natural ice.

Nevertheless, the shipping of harvested natural ice remained an important part of business especially in Northern America. In the 1830s and 1840s, ice was regularly exported to far-off eastern regions including England, India, South America, China and Australia.

However, export of natural ice declined in the second half of 19th century due to various political events in the world, especially in the colonies. Among the catastrophic political events was the revolt of 1857 in India – referred to as the Sepoy Mutiny by the British and as the First War of Indian Independence by Indian nationalists. Exports from New England to India had peaked in 1856, just before the mutiny, when 146,000 tons (132 million kg) were shipped. After that, the Indian natural ice market dipped.

The ice market suffered a blow also because of the American Civil War. Import 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 establish many new companies like the International Ice Company in Madras (now Chennai in India) in 1874 and the Bengal Ice Company in 1878 in Calcutta. Operating together as the Calcutta Ice Association, the artificial ice companies rapidly drove natural ice out of the market.

Ceylon Cold Stores in Colombo-2

The Heritage sub-section of the Elephant House official website says that ice manufacturing in Sri Lanka began in 1866. The company was then known as the Colombo Ice Company. Ice was imported from New England and auctioned at the Colombo harbor.

“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 priviledged,” a local report said.

Released in 1969 on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Ceylon Cold Stores, the publication Ceylon in Our Times 1894-1969 reports on the first production of ice in Sri Lanka, thus: “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 area has officially become ‘Kompaniveediya’.

The ice trade was controlled by the English East India Company. Therefore there is a possibility that the term ‘Kompannavidiya’ or ‘Company Road’ came from the name East India Company. The railway station in the area is also known as Kompannavidiya Railway Station.

One Von Possner of the Colombo Ice Company formed his own aerated drinks company in 1883 and introduced the ‘Elephant’ trademark to Sri Lanka. This trademark still used by Elephant House. Later, one Tom Walker, owner of a competing syndicate, bought The Colombo Ice Company and gave it a new name: New Colombo Ice Company Ltd in 1894. Many years later, a change once again took place. In 1934, the New Colombo Ice Company Ltd bought the Ceylon Ice and Cold Storage Company, pioneering the art of keeping frozen foods for selling. The New Colombo Ice Company Ltd changed its name to Ceylon Cold Stores in 1941.

(The featured image at the top shows an ice and aerate water factory in Colombo run by J.W.Fernando)

(Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai is a cultural and visual anthropologist)

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