Frozen in Time: the lost geography of the US-India Ice Trade

Authors: Ishan Ashutosh*, Indiana University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Political Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: Objects, India, United States, Colonialism, Mobility, Trade
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 18
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this paper, I examine the geopolitical significance of the US-India ice trade in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. I argue that in its brief forty-year existence, this trade captures three important aspects of the mobility of objects and their role in the production of colonial cultures. First, the ice trade represents the transformation of a natural substance into a commodity by putting this object into motion, from the freshwater ponds and rivers of New England and into the marketplaces of South Asian port cities. Second, by demonstrating the United States’ role in the emergence of colonial modernity in India, the ice trade helps to dispute a pervasive metropole-colony binary that subjugates the expansive historical geographies that fueled colonialism. Third, I examine how ice transformed the eating and drinking habits of both the colonizer and colonized. For Calcutta’s nabobs and civil servants, it promised a new source of acclimatization to life in the tropics, while for the Bhadralok, the Anglicized native intellectuals, ice offered a taste of a distant land whose arrival aided in the constitution of the modern colonial subject. Furthermore, ice led to a proliferation of perishable commodities imported from the United States that landed in Calcutta frozen in ice. For the coolies tasked with carrying the ice from the ship to the warehouse to the middlemen who helped finance the trade, ice became the source of labor and income.

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