Sunday 3 September 2023

"Philippine - Children of the Sun" – Source Documents

This blog post accompanies my publication Philippine - Book First: Children of the Sun. Here, the reader will find a host of original documents that formed the basis for the various stories in the books.


The genesis of Philippine was quite serendipitous. I was working on the story of the Philip family when, on 2 February, 2019, by happy coincidence, Peter Redhead got in touch with me from his home in the United States. He was curious about my story about "Jeanette, Free Negro Woman" on this blog. I was working with the secondary sources by Kit Candlin and Lorna McDaniel for my draft about the family, and passed these sources on to him.

Little did I know that I would have met a kindred spirit in Peter Redhead had been born in Grenada, and lived on Petite Martinique with his grandmother for a couple of years, who told him lots of stories about the Philips. Working in the world of academia in the US, and having done extensive research himself, he knew his way around archives that housed a plethora of original documents from the Caribbean islands.

In utter generosity of spirit, Peter Redhead did me—and the readers of Philippine—an amazing service. For over two years, he emailed me hitherto very little known scans of a large number of historical documents that he himself had painstakingly searched, found, decyphered and often translated from French, in numerous repositories in the US. All throughout the COVID lockdown, we corresponded. In what must have been hundreds of emails regarding the Philip family, so many of my questions were answered, mistakes by other researchers corrected, and needless to say, his cornucopia of documents caused me to re-write and re-write and RE-WRITE a lot of the text!

It was, to say the least, the most exciting and rewarding way to work on a book. Peter Redhead, along with my local editors here in Trinidad, read many of the early drafts, and having done so he often sent me additional information that would correct either details or even large aspects of the narrative. It became my ambition to incorporate all the facts that he sent me faithfully into the book, and they now form the structure of the work to which I applied my imagination in the interpretation of the history of those times, filling in characterisations, dialogue, plot etc.

Philippine, as the printed book, carries a QR code to lead to this blog post for readers interested in a selection of the documents from Peter Redhead's treasure trove. What follows are the visuals of the documents, with  explanations as to their significance in the text, and where they formed incontrovertible proof of new insights into the Philip family, hitherto unknown to or misinterpreted by previous researchers.

Enjoy, and to my friend Peter Redhead many many thanks!" (Gérard A. Besson, 28 November 2022) 

[Note: Gérard A. Besson died on 25 July 2023. This blog post was created from a 64-page Indesign document that Jerry left behind on his computer, in which he had combined the various images of the documents that Peter Redhead had sent to him with text snippets. Since these captions were obviously taken from Peter and Jerry's email correspondence, the "I" may refer to either.)


Saturday 28 January 2023

History of the Oil Industry in Trinidad and Tobago

This is an article I wrote for First Magazine's edition about the oil industry in Trinidad and Tobago in 2008. In light of the present (2023) discussion about the Dragon Field, I thought it might be interesting for the reader to be able to access it here as well, 15 years later. This is the unabridged version from the original manuscript I wrote. If you would like to see the article in its full illustrated glory with many pictures from Paria's archies, you can access them on the clickable links at right.

IN NO TIME AT ALL, the ground heaved up, the Earth moved and the golden sands vanished. The golden pineapples, the sweetest, juiciest in the world, were gone, taking with them the new comers who had arrived on the wind from the Orinoco, a new tribal people who had come over the sea and who, with an astonishing rapaciousness, had decimated the singularly most beautiful object on the island.
The hummingbird became their object of game. The tiny creature was used by the newcomers for decoration—their iridescent feathers in startling blue, magenta, aquamarine, turquoise, yellow, green, and other shades no longer in existence, were turned in to hats and capes, wallets and walking sticks.
It is reported on the best authority that the Great Spirit of Trinidad, the “Land of the Hummingbird”, Iere, arose from his millennium slumber and moved. This move swallowed up the newcomers, plunging them into his very bowels, only to be regurgitated as a lake of steaming pitch.
The very first people have a story that after dying, the souls of the children of Iere return as hummingbirds, perhaps giving rise to the fable that this island is the Land of the Hummingbird.

AT ANOTHER POINT IN TIME: The placid Gulf of Paria appeared to possess no horizon, as the sky and the sea were both a seamless shade of the palest, coolest blue. The canoes, strictly speaking the corials, seemed to appear quite suddenly from the morning air. Three of them were fifty feet or more in length, and ten or twelve wide, the keel crafted from a giant tree, the sides built of boards and held together by the seats. Silent as a breeze they sliced the still water. The paddlers made no sound in their endeavour, as they took their craft into the mangrove forest. In the bow of the leading corial was a body bound up in leaves, packaged for another journey, and perhaps a swift return.
AT THAT SAME TIME, NOT TOO FAR AWAY: The tall man, dressed in iron, examined the jet-black, viscous, semi-solid substance, the crudest oil, asphaltum. In the bay, his ship, the Lion’s Whelp, anchored into the light air, bowed vaguely to the risen sun.
There were bright-red grains of hair still in his white, salty beard. It appeared better than the pitch of Norway; it would caulk her below the waterline before the voyage up the river, now marked “Orinoco” on the chart. A useful specimen to join others, like the cohiba from a nearby island, which was smoked in a pipe called a tovaco.
But the great goal was the Kingdom of Gold, where the king of gold, the man who was covered in gold, lived in a city that was made of gold, the children entertaining their idle innocence with golden toys. The “El Dorado”: that was to be his destiny, now bound by a royal oath, one that may not be violated. He had already named a land for her, Virginia. The first exporter squinted in to the brilliant morning warming the shining water of Guapo bay, near to the black lake at LaBrea. His name was Walter Raleigh, knight errant.

THEN AGAIN, the rolling thunder of the cannon had vanished into the wilderness of the great plains. Atlanta had been burnt to cinders and the slaves were now free. The American Civil War had ended; it was 1866.
The year 1866 also meant discharge for the young captain in the Union Forces. He was not an American; in fact, he had been born in Norfolk in England in 1821, and had been apprenticed at the young age of fourteen to acquire a taste for mechanical engineering in a country where an extensive  programme of building bridges, roads, railways and tunnels was under way—this being on account of the Industrial Revolution, already famous. Subsequently, he had married. “A short marriage, and after an alternative dalliance, he fled with his second wife to Canada, where he settled and did a little mineral prospecting.” It was in those years perhaps, that he may ventured south, over the Canadian border and joined the American Union Army. Just before the war’s end, he was contacted by the West Indian Petroleum Company, incorporated in the United States of America in 1865. He was to be the company’s superintendent for the purpose of exploring for oil, “pitch oil” at La Brea, Trinidad. It is not clear what led to the appointment of the young adventurer, as he knew nothing about oil exploration—drilling perhaps, for water. His name was Walter Darwent. He did acquire thirty $100 shares in the venture.
IN 1895, HE WASN’T A VERY OLD MAN, but he looked it. He wore his hat upside-down on his head, as this left his hands free, because the hat, which was pretty worn, was full of mango doux-doux, tiny and yellow, sweet and pungent, which may have accounted for the small swarm of  bees that had followed him out of the forest.
He was short and a little bowed-legged, brown as a copper penny, and if you looked well at him, well, you could see that he was at least half Carib.
He had been tracking deer through the high woods of the Aripero forest uplands, about four miles east of the Pitch Lake at La Brea, from the night before, without much to show for it, and had spent the night there, his hammock strung high in the branches of a huge calabash tree. The dawn call of the bell birds had awoken him. He eased himself out of his perch and stepped into something that at first he thought to be unmentionable, but as he looked at what was squishing from between his toes, he knew that it was “pitch oil”. Its source was not far off, bubbling away out of a rusty pipe sunken sideways in the ground of the little dappled clearing where he had spent the night.
The oil was black and viscous, pungent, its source so original and so abundant and surprising to find there. He had seen “pitch oil” before. There were seeps of it in it in various parts of this part of his island, Iere, Trinidad, Land of the Hummingbird. Usually it just appeared out of the ground, but this oil was coming from a pipe. It was a curiosity and he would take some to show to Mr. Fretiney—he had to go and look for him anyway. No one remembers his name.
HIS TOKENS, CALLED CHITS, ARE NOW COLLECTOR ITEMS. He had emigrated from Kwangtung, China, to California to seek his fortune in the gold fields. He helped to lay the railroad tracks and had lived in the frontier towns. Later he travelled south to Mexico and came finally to Trinidad, arriving in 1885.
He imported goods from the Far East and exported cocoa, coffee and copra,  eventually operating a chain of shops, 60 at one time, throughout the island.
There was a shortage of specie on the island at the time and the plantation workers, his customers, paid in “chits”, IOU’s. Finding that he was selling goods and being paid with estate IOU’s, and having to give change, but not getting the chits cashed until after the estate’s crop was sold, he issued tokens so he could give change for goods purchased on the chits. These tokens were then accepted for future purchases in the store. They were first issued around 1880 and were marked “La Brea”. John Lee Lum had intended to name his tokens for the areas in which he operated his shops, but didn’t.
HIS FIRST INTEREST IN OIL arose from a meeting in the Crown Lands Department Office in Port-of-Spain, when Fretiney Pantin, an estate proprietor in the south, mentioned that a local hunter had come to him one morning bearing a sample of what was called “pitch oil” on the island. It was the colloquial name for crude oil. He had told Pantin that he had found it bubbling out of a pipe in the Aripero forest.
Walter Kerton, the manager of the Colonial Bank, suggested that he buy the disused sugar estate. The bank wanted to sell it, and at any rate, he as the agent of the Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company, and they would be certainly interested.
He had been 47 years old when he had come out to Trinidad to work for the firm Campbell Hannay & Co. in 1881. He had been born in London in July 1854. Perceiving the prosperity of the colony in 1888, he and Harry Trowbridge had formed the firm Rust Trowbridge & Co. They traded, as most other firms at the time did, exporting the islands agricultural produce and importing food and consumer durables. Trinidad’s economy was doing very well with sugar and increasingly in cocoa. This had led to the establishing of several commission agencies, insurance offices, and banks, and the flourishing commercial sector created a growing government bureaucracy.
He had met John Lee Lum through their shared business interest. He may have been a dry goods and imported food supplier to Lee Lum’s 60 shops, and might have sought him as a partner to help finance the purchase of the Aripero estate near to the Pitch Lake at La Brea, and later in seeking to obtain a  Crown Land concession of over 50 square miles at Mayaro and Guayaguayare. Clearly their intention was oil exploration.
These then are the main cast of characters as the curtain went up on undoubtedly a most splendid performance, one that interestingly is still playing to packed audiences.
THE DEMAND FOR LIGHTING OIL WAS BECOMING AN OBJECT FOR SPECULATION. There was a worldwide shortage of lamp oil. The high quality sperm whale oil, which burnt clear and bright, was expensive; it sold at $2.50 a gallon (equivalent to $105/bbl) as the sperm whale grew more scarce. Oil obtained from shale or coal emitted unpleasant smells and was very smoky. Candles were expensive. As populations expanded and urban centers grew as a result of the Industrial Revolution, solutions for better lighting for homes and factories, streets and schools, were explored.
As always in human experience, necessity drove invention, and an enterprising young Canadian by the name of Abraham Gesner designed a technique for extracting kerosine (which he named) from asphalt taken from the La Brea holdings of Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, who had been granted the original concession for working the Pitch Lake in Trinidad.
The distillate, a form of clarified oil or, as it was to be known, kerosine, was a revolutionary step, one that would change history, quickening the march into modern times. This new fuel was produced in England and in the U.S.A., with asphalt shipped from Trinidad and the finished product reshipped to Trinidad as well as to other places.
An American company called Merimac Oil in 1856 or thereabout set up works at La Brea for manufacture of lamp and lubricating oil. There were somewhat half-hearted attempts to start similar plants locally, but this came to nothing. Interestingly, by the 1880s, the government of Trinidad realised some 16,000 pounds sterling per year in kerosine (“illuminating oil”) duties, a tax “that weighs mainly on the masses” as a dispatch from the United States consul in Trinidad reported in June of 1889.This was one of the distinguishing hallmarks of the colonial era.
The advent of the paraffin lamp using clear-burning kerosine, very different from flickering candles or smoky chimneys, made reading in the evening easier, learning quicker, and education a blessing for a greater number of people. Streets that were pitch-black on nights when the moon did not appear became safe, as street lighting spread through the towns. This allowed for visiting and greater conviviality. Cooking was made less arduous as stoves, ranges of two, three and sometime four burners, came into being.
“Trinidad Oil” they would name it. In a letter to the Earl of Dundonald, dated 25th April, 1857, Conrad Frederick Stollmeyer, acting as agent for the Earl, reported that “Dr. Philbrick’s Company, associated with Hiram Hyde of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Samuel Dower of Boston, also makes oil from pitch … and gives a specific name to the oil – ‘Trinidad Oil’ … Philbrick et al wish to use Trinidad Pitch to make the oil in Boston.”
C.F. Stollmeyer, from 1849 onwards, looked after the Earl of Dundonald’s holdings at La Brea, digging asphalt from the Pitch Lake and shipping it to the United States and Europe.  Born in 1813 in the ancient city of Ulm in Germany, he had migrated to the U.S. in 1833 and came out to Trinidad in 1845 on his way to Venezuela. However, he was persuaded to stay in Trinidad, where he became interested in the possibilities of asphalt and may well be called the “father of the pitch industry in Trinidad”.  
It was out of all this interest that the young Captain Darwent set out on an adventure, and in so doing was to leave his name in the history books.  
The first known reference to Darwent’s Aripero well appears in the Trinidad Chronicle of the 1st May, 1866. There are extant two volumes of this newspaper – those of 1866 and 1867. The extract reads:
“Disinterested information. The following appears in a late number of the Money Market Review:– ‘The Trinidad Petroleum Company Limited have received information, by the West Indian mail from Trinidad, that oil has been struck at Aripero, and the quality was in all respects equal to Pennsylvanian. The yield was expected to be enormous. More particulars by next mail –’ An accidental looseness of expression in this paragraph is likely to convey the idea that the informants have some special interest in the news they forwarded for publication. To counteract an impression which might be injurious to the shareholders of the Petroleum Company we remark, for the benefit of readers in England, that Aripero, where the oil has been struck, is above four miles from the domains of the Petroleum Company: that the oil yielding lands belongs to Mr. Paul Lange and the TPLC are still in hopes of a similar stroke of good luck.”
Thus was perhaps inaugurated the notion of shareholder confidence-building, with “an accidental looseness of expression” that is still in use in the oil industry.
Darwent’s first well in the south of the island, close to San Fernando, proved to be a dry hole and was abandoned. His newly-formed Paria Oil Company—it would appear that he was no longer associated with the West Indian Petroleum Company—with a capital of $9,200 in $50 shares, made another try on the Aripero estate in May 1866. W.F. Penny, who wrote one of the earliest histories of “Trinidad’s Oil”, remarked that “the records afford sufficient detail to identify what is perhaps the first recorded fishing job. On the 20th September 1866, work was begun to recover tools broken in the first attempt. The operation was successfully completed on October 11th. Five–inch ‘tubing’ was seated in rock at 100 feet and 20 feet of oil-bearing strata was exposed below this depth. This formation was tested and produced 2 1/2 bbls of oil in seven hours. A caving in the ‘tubing’ was riveted with rolled casing and the hole deepened to 160 feet on the 15th March 1867. A test at this depth proved impracticable due to caving. The manager of the Aripero estate found the oil from the well was superior in lubricating qualities to coconut oil normally used, and it was estimated it could be sold locally for at least a dollar per gallon. Darwent proposed sinking a shaft at a cost of $2,000. He estimated to produce at least sixty gallons of oil in a week, which would yield a return of 15% on $20,000 capital”.
This well, near to the famous Pitch Lake, is thought to be the first of its type in the world.
It was agreed to send Darwent to the States for more modern drilling equipment. But his unexpected death at La Brea prevented further operations; the extra capital was not raised and the project was abandoned.
Charles Kingsley, one of the Empire’s more intrepid travellers, who was actually literate, wrote in his “At Last—a Christmas in the West Indies” in 1870 that he had come upon the remains of the machinery of the well that could still be pumped. He remarked on the loathsome smell of the oil, not realising that that was the sweet smell of money.
Darwent’s untimely death terminated this earliest phase of Trinidad’s oil history. In the next thirty years, there was just one solitary incident connected with oil. Around 1870, a hunter from Mayaro brought a sample of oil to the warden, Henri Gantaume, which he had collected from a seep near Moruga. The warden sent it to the Colonial Secretary, who forwarded it to England for analysis. It was diagnosed as an artificial product.
FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE MANAGEMENT of the companies that operated the oil fields, the strikes, the deaths and all that followed had been created and exploited by labour leaders who had “fermented the hitherto somewhat inarticulate and dispersed unrest, but had no idea how to control and direct the men towards a settlement of their complaints.” (Penny & L. Harris) After all, the British Empire was not to be overthrown by events at Apex and Fyzabad in Trinidad.
The actual conditions in which the workers lived, the poverty, malnutrition, lack of sanitation, the ignorance that only indigence can cause, all these were taken for granted by the “ruling class” of that period, which was just about at the apogee of the British Empire. Workers in England, India, Australia all over Africa lived and worked and survived in conditions that were similar to what was experienced in Trinidad.
The inflammatory speeches did precipitate a dangerous situation. It was claimed by the management that “their workers” in the fields were “innately good natured and with respect for law and order”. It should be borne in mind that the workers in the oilfields had come straight off the estates and were almost entirely agricultural workers, accustomed to hard work, low wages, seasonal employment, and the paternalism of the mostly French Creole cocoa estate proprietors. So despite the grinding poverty, good-humoredness was indeed often the case, and the workers, “did much to reduce occurrences of violence, tending to confine them to their points of origin”.
It was believed that the places of the origin of the unrest in the oil belt were the shanty towns on the perimeter of the fields, which were “hotbeds of hooliganism”. The powers that be held the view that the workers were inflamed by the speakers whose speeches had a quasi-religious background, “and, as often the case with people of primitive education, the women were mainly responsible for some of the very regrettable incidents which took place...” (Penny & L. Harris). P.E.T. O’Connor, as a Trinidadian employee of Kern (Trinidad) Oilfields at the time, puts these “hotbeds of hooliganism” into perspective in his book “Some Trinidad Yesterdays”, published in 1979, by saying, “But while we in the camps enjoyed our social round and worked in relatively comfortable surroundings, the conditions in the neighboring villages were poor and squalid. The oil companies had as yet made no effort to house their labour force and as the fields grew and attracted more and more labour, the adjacent villages were bursting a the seams and there was an acute shortage of housing. There were no social amenities in these villages, no recreational facilities other than the rum shops and no public transport. Few workmen could afford a bicycle and a worker, after his twelve-hour shift, might have to walk four or six miles to get home.” These and other circumstances, mostly having to do with the poverty that affected the entire colony, had arranged themselves to produce the situation that had exploded in 1937 with the oil field riots.
In the period following the unrest in the oil fields, the Royal Commission that was set up to look into its causes made a number of recommendations with regard to the oil industry. Perhaps the more important of these were the appointment of a “Secretary of Labour” to conduct conciliation between employers and employed. Apprenticeship training, better housing, and proper compensation for injury were to be implemented. Law and order had to be imposed in the overcrowded villages such as La Brea and Fyzabad, which were considered as the breeding grounds for various forms of illegal activity. Primary and apprentice trade schools, improved dispensaries, hospitals and housing were built for some workers over the next few years or so, and recreation fields appeared in the shadow of the derricks and the slowly bowing pumps, where on a Sunday in the dry season in spanking white flannels, cricket, lovely cricket, would be the solvent that would appear hold the Empire together, at least for the time being, notwithstanding all and everything.

, the uses for mineral oil were multiplying in an increasingly mechanical age. The planters and proprietors of estates and lands in Moruga could not fail to be aware of the extensive oil seepages in that locality. Another hunter brought a sample of oil to one of these planters, Mr. Pantin. He had obtained it bubbling from a pipe in the ground in the Aripero forest. Pantin mentioned this to Randolph Rust, whom he had met in the Land & Surveys Office in Port-of-Spain, while in the company of Mr. Kerton of the Colonial Bank.
It was not until 1893 that Rust enters the picture, as a booklet of the Petroleum Association of Trinidad of 1952 remembers. “He had estates at Guayaguayare, bounding estates belonging to Mr. Lee Lum, with whom he was friendly. It was about this time that the great oilfields in Russia and the United States sprang into prominence. This, combined with some successful attempts by Mr. Stollmeyer to run a steamer at Icacos on a mixture of lignite and pitch, must have reminded Mr. Lee Lum of the ancient reports of seepages in the forest. At any rate he obtained a sample and took it to his friend Rust, who at that time was in business and lived in Port-of-Spain. The sample was sent to Redwoods in London who made a favour able report, and from then on, Mr. Rust directed all his life and energy to the discovery of oil in south-west Trinidad. Letters written by Randolph Rust during this time show that from the time he took up this work, it was no narrow ambition.
He looked for the time when Trinidad should become a major oil producing country in the British Empire. Indeed, it would be for decades the largest single source of purely British oil, and functioned as refuelling base for the Royal Navy. How far advanced Randolph Rust’s views were may be judged from the fact that it was not until 1910 that Sir Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, perhaps prompted by information, as we shall see, of Trinidad’s oil potential started the conversion of the British Navy from coal to oil firing,  this may have been signaled to him by the Colonial Office, who would have been  involved into looking into its future potentialities in the context of Britain’s scientific advances. This interest and its attendant activity prompting the Port-of-Spain Gazette to headline: “Brighton could become one of the fuel depots of the Caribbean”. So in the First World War and later in the Second World War, when high-test gasoline for aircraft was added, Trinidad’s oil made a notable contribution to the efforts of a successful conclusion to those conflicts.
For six years Randolph Rust laboured unsuccessfully in the high woods of south Trinidad. The virgin forest of gigantic mora and mahogany trees teemed with deadly perils: venomous snakes were too deadly not to think about. But most insidious of all were the mosquitoes, bearing malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and other fevers for which names would not be invented for several years. Initially, Rust got no financial support; himself and Lee Lum financed the entire enterprise themselves.
In 1901, Rust travelled to Canada. He had married Kate Mac Donald, a lady connected to the well known Hudson family, who had given their name to the Bay of that name, it had been a ship board romance. This journey brought him into contact with the Walkerville Whisky Company of Canada and, after much negotiation, the Oil Exploration Syndicate of Canada was formed. Following a visit by Dr. Ells, a Canadian geologist, the first well was located at Guayaguayare.
People “in the oil” say that it often happens that the first well in an area gives greater promise than subsequent drilling justifies. This was the case with Well No. 1 at Guayaguayare; it produced about 300 barrels initially and encouraged the company to drill ten more wells, none of which were successful. By 1907, funds were exhausted and the Walkerville Whisky Company withdrew. Which is like giving up at 6-Up.
Rust travelled to London in 1910 to raise capital for yet another company, General Petroleum Properties of Trinidad Limited. Speaking at the Royal Victoria Institute, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, he said: “In the light of my discoveries, I felt that Trinidad, England’s most valuable possession in the West Indies, being as it is the keys to the Panama Canal … might herself one day be one of the chief sources of supply of oil fuel, and thanks to that and her unique position might become one of our most important naval bases”. Thirty years later, in World War II, his words would come true.
Within a few years, the word was out. This meant for Trinidad and Tobago the commencement of another economy. Prior to this, our economy had been essentially agricultural, based upon the exportation of granulated sugar and molasses, cocoa (said to be the best in the world), coffee, tonka beans, coconut-based products and other locally grown produce, and of course asphalt from the Pitch Lake.
Wild speculation was the order of the day, with the selling of land and oil rights all over southern Trinidad. Some 60 companies were registered between 1909 and 1912. Amongst them was a firm called the Texas Company, they “had a small presence as early as 1912, marketing kerosine,” as George Higgins would recall in his “A History of Trinidad Oil”. Money changed hands. The sleepy agricultural economy experienced a dramatic uplift: fortunes were made. However, 28 oil exploration companies had folded by 1918.
There were three types of leases in Trinidad at that time:
1. Lands acquired under the old Spanish titles, giving the owner all and every right over the surface and the contents below the surface.
2. Lands purchased in the 1860s but before February 1902, which gave the owner similar rights, except for stones and minerals which might be found below the surface (these belonged to the Crown).
3. Land bought after February 1902, in which case the government reserved all oil and mineral rights and the right to give permits for exploration of these rights.
The government of the day sought to encourage as many local people as possible to enter the oil industry, and licenses on small parcels of land could be readily obtained.
Compensation was also paid for loss of agricultural land that was now put to other uses. Roads were developed to hitherto unknown parts of the island, “behind God’s back” as it was said. The construction of oil camps brought a fresh wave of immigrants from all over the English-speaking Caribbean. The composition of Trinidad’s population was to slowly alter, as our Creole soul gave way to a Caribbean reality.
In these remarkable years, three significant companies evolved: Trinidad Central Oilfields in 1911, United British Oilfields of Trinidad (UBOT) in 1913 and Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, also in 1913.
The entry of “big oil” into Trinidad was sparked by the growing concern of the British admiralty, whose interest in well-run operations in the South Atlantic had assumed great importance. UBOT, a member of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company (Shell) through the medium of the Colonial Office, created an agreement with the British and Foreign General Securities and Investment Trust, the Burmak Oil Company and the British Western Isles Syndicate. This agreement sought to combine their interest in the production and the transportation of oil in Trinidad, British Guiana, Venezuela and Columbia. This company negotiated rights to over 200,000 acres of Crown lands.
Several small companies were to consolidate under the aegis of the South African firm Central Mining and Investment Co., and together with the Hoover Brothers Investment and Consulting Co. created syndicates that accommodated a number of smaller interest, including Randolph Rust’s G.P.P. of Trinidad. This consolidation produced Trinidad Leaseholds. By the start of the First World War, Trinidad’s production had risen to one million barrels per year.
The ecological effects of oil exploration had to be addressed, as dams were built, waterways diverted, the ancient forest felled and the swamps of the Oropouche lagoon drained.

, Trinidad’s production had risen to one million barrels per year. This was achieved through tremendous hard and dangerous work. Huge trees in an ancient forest had to be felled, the massive logs cut and moved, to be later used on site to build rigs, houses and even roads. Narrow gauge rail was laid so as bring in heavy equipment. It rained for half of the year. Malaria was common, and yellow fever took the lives of many. Living in the high woods for sometimes weeks on end, the men came to know how quickly death could strike and, like the old cocoa planters of a previous century, they were to become well acquainted with the ways of the mapapie and coral snakes, scorpions and foot-long centipedes.
Another problem was the nature of the equipment, which was often not suitable. Drilling rigs were huge, wooden contraptions. Roads through the forest were made of slippery hardwood logs, the so-called corduroy roads. Manpower was supplemented by steam engines and by oxen power, as the internal combustion engine was still in its infancy.
The history of Trinidad is the history of its evolving economies, and oil was the latest.  These economies over time tended to reflect the nature of the island’s cosmopolitan population. The French colonists who had come in the 18th century by invitation of the Spanish government, introduced African slave labour and created a plantation economy, cultivating sugar, cotton, coffee and cocoa. The British Empire builders, who were establishing a mercantile global empire based on trade, manufacturing, and shipping, introduced East Indian indentureship to the colony, mostly for the sugar industry. Apart from the Africans and the Indians, who were in the majority, various other nationalities came, because business was good. Fortune seekers from Europe, adventurous young people from the Middle East, indentured labourers from China, Portuguese from Madeira, on through to British West Indian islanders, all came to Trinidad seeking a better life. Everybody was kept firmly in their places by the pressure of colonial prejudice, supported by the ubiquitous gunboat.
The oil companies required a steady increase in their labour force, which resulted in the increase of immigration from the other Caribbean islands. This produced the establishment of new villages in areas which had been previously uninhabited. Their names tell the story: Retrench, Hard Bargain, Monkey Town, Mile End and Point Fortin, close to the Pitch Lake. In 1921, the immigration figures were substantial: 47,667 people came from the other islands, a number that ten years later held steady with another 46, 391 persons. Barbados, Grenada, and St. Vincent were the largest contributors to the population of Trinidad during this period. Not all came to work in the oil, but oil provided an economy in Trinidad and Tobago that offered work, work that they would not have found in their home islands.
Oil exploration was then a land-based activity and required the extension of the island’s infrastructure. The network of roads and bridges was improved. Electricity arrived in places where the evenings had not changed much since the days of the Spanish conquistadors. Water, pipe-borne, appeared, but not much, and not always, not to mention the alarming ring of the telephone. There was no ice in the bush. The railways, introduced primarily to move the agricultural produce from the estates to the port, were expanded.
The intellectual capital of the colony grew exponentially in this period, as a more diverse coterie of professionals came, some to make their homes and to contribute to the quality of life by an increasingly wider interface with their local counterparts. New techniques, in fact new inventions, valves, were created in the workshops of field stations deep in the forest on afternoons when the sun went down like thunder over Venezuela, across the Bay. The school system was influenced as more young men turned to the sciences, and engineering, in all its persuasions, became more and more a career of choice.
The sector of the economy which was based on traditional estate agriculture, producing cane, coffee and cocoa, was, despite the pressures of world supply and demand, very sound. Cane sugar production rose from 43,000 tons in 1913 to 72,000 tons in 1917. Prices rose. In the case of cocoa in 1920, the price of the “golden bean” stood at $23.19 per fanega, which was seen as very impressive by those who understood such measures. This would not last.
The price of oil, however, displaced discussions of the price of cocoa in the hotel bars and gentlemen’s clubs of the colony. By 1918, there was an oil boom on the London stock market. Five hundred dollars per acre was the asking price for land in Trinidad that was considered to be oil-bearing. Remarkable, when one considers that land in that same part of the country went, just thirty or fifty years before, for as little as fifteen dollars per acre.
The age of oil made an impact on Trinidad long before it did in many places in the Caribbean, indeed in the world. Trinidad’s coastal steamers, for example, were converted to oil, so too the power stations. Oil fuel drove the water works. The British Navy took oil from Trinidad. There were three loading wharves capable of taking vessels eight meters in draught. The entire southern half of the island was improved: from Guayaguayare in the west, to the Cedros peninsula in the east, roads and bridges were built. Oil was used to fight mosquitoes in their breeding places, and kerosine, pitch oil, had replaced coconut oil for lighting in the countryside. Cars and motorbuses began to make their hesitant appearance.
Most significant, however, was the creation of new exploration companies. Among those that appeared in the 1920s were Apex (Trinidad) Oilfields Ltd. at Fyzabad, Iëre Oil at Barrackpore, Globe Oilfields at Otaheite, Petroleum Options at Thick Village, Uroz at Piparo, Charuma British Union at Tabaquite, Anglo Trinidad Oil Co. at San Francique and several more. By 1919, there were five distilleries in operation, and production reached 1.9 million barrels annually. 66% of crude production was refined locally. More professionals emerged, surveyors, doctors, engineers, geologists, lawyers, accountants, as well as supply and service companies, shipping agents and the importers of heavy machinery.
The advent of Trinidad oil made itself felt in other Caribbean territories. West Indian coaling stations, once the centerpiece of harbour activities in the smaller islands, ceased operations. Coal prices at $24.75 per ton were not able to compete with oil at $16.80 per ton.
Profound social changes would also emerge in Trinidad life. On the one hand, the development of oil field camp life, generated new and negative forms of racist attitudes and elitism with institutionalised ‘separatism’, adding fresh versions to the already entrenched racism of the colony. It would always be remembered that the largest and most significant of the oil Companies, Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. was founded by South African interest, the Central Mining & Investment Co. and many South Africans would work in the oil in Trinidad. On the other hand,  a vibrant trade union emerged, The Working Man’s Association, born in the crucible of the anti Crown Colony Rule sentiment, the Reform Movement, which had its roots in an ambitious and educated Afro, French Creole, and Indian middle class who resented the inevitable glass ceiling of colonialism.

, hundreds of men from Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean, had seen a different life in Europe, one where the stereotype of the “white boss” was broken forever in the common despair of the trenches.  As they returned, to what for all intent and purpose was an old way, a degrading way of life, they could not help but think of change. In any case, poverty was hell. Some had returned with a heightened political consciousness, with news of the Russian Revolution and socialism. The compensation they received from the Imperial Government left much to be desired, and they resented that treatment.
At the end of the First World War, as the colony took its first halting steps into an industry-based economy, the economic landscape in Trinidad had certainly changed forever. During the war, shipping between Europe and the West Indies had been severely disrupted. Shortages of every sort had halted trade, agriculture and infrastructure development. Inflation climbed to an unprecedented 145% by 1919.
The cocoa economy, so vital to the cash flow of many small and medium import-export companies, almost ceased to exist as its main markets in Europe lay in shambles. Sugar, King Sugar, was also failing on the world markets. Unemployment climbed steadily as more and more men returned home, some, finding jobs in the oil. Working people would soon group themselves into strong trade unions, seeking not only a fair day’s pay, but also social justice for all. Arthur Cipriani, Cola Rienzi, and Uria Butler, were powerful leaders, who with others stood up for the cause of all workers. In the 1920s, it was the oil field workers in particular and the trade union movement in general, who by staging strikes forced the hand of the all-powerful Colonial Government to look at the poor wages paid to workers,  and  the dreadful working and living conditions that had to be endured and to introduce electoral participation in the lawmaking process of the colony—a mantle that inspires the Oilfield Workers Trade Union and other trade unions to this day.
There were other developments in the world that were to impact on Trinidad. The discovery of very large oilfields in Texas and other parts of the U.S.A. had the result of a steep decline in oil prices. Against all this, the stock market crashed, and automobile production in the United States fell by some 47%. This too contributed to the oversupply of oil. From 1930 onwards, oil prices dropped from over one dollar a barrel to as low as ten cents.
In September of 1931, Great Britain had gone off the gold standard, and in 1932, the United States introduced an import duty on petroleum products. As a result, Trinidad’s refined products began to seek a market in the United Kingdom.
Trinidad’s oil economy was soon caught up in this free-falling tumble as both management and staff in the oil business were laid off. Trained people left the fields, some never to return. The happy days of an easy worker-management cooperation ended abruptly. Workers could not understand what was taking place in the ‘real world’ and saw only the hunger in the faces of their families and felt only the frustration and increasing desperation in themselves.
Oil technologist George Higgins writes in his book ‘A History of Trinidad Oil’: “The Petroleum Association of Trinidad considered all possible ways of reducing the hardship and attempted to keep as many people employed as possible. Working hours were reduced from nine to eight hours a day and drilling shifts were changed from two of twelve hours to three of eight to spread out the work.”
Every effort was made to become more cost effective. More efficient production methods resulted in a record 10 million barrels being produced in 1930. This work was to pay off as the years went by, resulting in a production of 20 million barrels ten years later in 1940.
Before this, however, some hard times lay ahead. Nature played a dreadful card in the midst of all of this. In 1933, a hurricane struck the island, and oil production was severely interrupted. The hurricane - and in those days they were not decorated by names of people we know - struck the east coast at Guayaguayare at about 4 p.m. on June 26th, arriving at maximum intensity at 6 p.m., howling all night. The damage was extensive. The mora forest, very old and very valuable to the colony’s economy, was devastated, and some of the coconut estates were destroyed forever. Infrastructure damage to roads, bridges, telephone and electricity lines was considerable. In the oilfields, 90 wooden derricks were completely destroyed and another 150 badly damaged. Wellhead connections were destroyed. The industry was brought almost to a stop. Labour, now considerably more organised, rose to the occasion and worked shoulder to shoulder with the management to restore order and production to the devastated fields.
During the 1930s, despite increased oil production, the hardships experienced by the oil workers, as a result of low wages, only got worse. Once again, nature worked against the economy. In 1934, a drought struck the colony. Hunger marches started in central Trinidad. Workers at Apex Oilfields, led by Uriah Butler of the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP), which had evolved from the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, went on strike and planned a march on Port of Spain. The march was stopped by Captain Arthur Cipriani and the police. Cipriani’s condemnation of the strike action and the subsequent expulsion of Butler and Cola Rienzi from the TLP placed Cipriani in opprobrium in the eyes of many oil workers, even to this day.
1937 had witnessed a marked improvement in the selling price of oil and a consequent expansion of profits, but, as was mentioned before, this did not translate in to a fair day’s pay for the labourers in the oil fields. The average annual pay of oilfield worker in the 30s was only £70, less than $300, whereas it had been £78 in the period 1913 to 1927— a substantial decrease in the face of rising cost. During the first half of 1937, the minimum rate of pay was increased from 7¢ per hour to 8¢, but this had been a case of too little and certainly too late.
The oil workers’ grievances were real. Profits were being made, but their wages were low. European staff were living comfortably in company houses and driving cars.  Their lifestyles had not changed. Unrest grew, as clearly there was other issues involved. The steady expansion of the fields, the upgrading of plants and expertise were immediately affected by the widening unrest. Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler became more active among the oilfield workers and moved them to take strike action. In 1937, riots and strikes spread through the oil belt. The Colonial Government reacted predictably with a heavy hand.
Brutality was the order of the day, and it was played out true to form on both sides. There were several confrontations at Apex and at Fyzabad. Several workers died, many were wounded. On the other hand, Inspector William Bradburn and police corporal Carl (Charlie) King, while they was performing their lawful duty, were murdered. Corporal King by a mob, that burnt his still alive body. An uneasy peace settled on the colony after landing parties were put ashore from the H.M.S. Ajax and the H.M.S. Exeter.
Uriah Butler was arrested. When he was released from jail in 1939, he was welcomed back in the oilbelt with ‘warmth and adulation’, as historian Michael Anthony writes in his book ‘The Making of Port of Spain’.  “His old and tried companion, Rienzi, was overjoyed. Rienzi showed his feeling at a Legislative Council meeting on June 16, 1939, during a debate on public holidays. Rienzi called on government to declare the date of the oilfield riots a public holiday in place of Empire Day. Turning to the Attorney-General, Rienzi said: ‘June the 19th, Sir, is a day which in the minds of the workers marks a landmark in the history of the working class movement.’ This holiday was not granted until 1973. As George Higgins, author of ‘A History of Trinidad Oil’, concludes his chapter about the years of depression and recovery (1930 - 1939): “By 1939, operations were back to normal and looking up. But on the horizon and across the seas in Europe the war clouds were looming, soon to break and affect profoundly the direction in which the Trinidad operations were heading.”
FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE MANAGEMENT of the companies that operated the oil fields, the strikes, the deaths and all that followed had been created and exploited by labour leaders who had “fermented the hitherto somewhat inarticulate and dispersed unrest, but had no idea how to control and direct the men towards a settlement of their complaints.” (Penny & L. Harris) After all, the British Empire was not to be overthrown by events at Apex and Fyzabad in Trinidad.
The actual conditions in which the workers lived, the poverty, malnutrition, lack of sanitation, the ignorance that only indigence can cause, all these were taken for granted by the “ruling class” of that period, which was just about at the apogee of the British Empire. Workers in England, India, Australia all over Africa lived and worked and survived in conditions that were similar to what was experienced in Trinidad.
The inflammatory speeches did precipitate a dangerous situation. It was claimed by the management that “their workers” in the fields were “innately good natured and with respect for law and order”. It should be borne in mind that the workers in the oilfields had come straight off the estates and were almost entirely agricultural workers, accustomed to hard work, low wages, seasonal employment, and the paternalism of the mostly French Creole cocoa estate proprietors. So despite the grinding poverty, good-humoredness was indeed often the case, and the workers, “did much to reduce occurrences of violence, tending to confine them to their points of origin”.
It was believed that the places of the origin of the unrest in the oil belt were the shanty towns on the perimeter of the fields, which were “hotbeds of hooliganism”. The powers that be held the view that the workers were inflamed by the speakers whose speeches had a quasi-religious background, “and, as often the case with people of primitive education, the women were mainly responsible for some of the very regrettable incidents which took place...” (Penny & L. Harris). P.E.T. O’Connor, as a Trinidadian employee of Kern (Trinidad) Oilfields at the time, puts these “hotbeds of hooliganism” into perspective in his book “Some Trinidad Yesterdays”, published in 1979, by saying, “But while we in the camps enjoyed our social round and worked in relatively comfortable surroundings, the conditions in the neighboring villages were poor and squalid. The oil companies had as yet made no effort to house their labour force and as the fields grew and attracted more and more labour, the adjacent villages were bursting a the seams and there was an acute shortage of housing. There were no social amenities in these villages, no recreational facilities other than the rum shops and no public transport. Few workmen could afford a bicycle and a worker, after his twelve-hour shift, might have to walk four or six miles to get home.” These and other circumstances, mostly having to do with the poverty that affected the entire colony, had arranged themselves to produce the situation that had exploded in 1937 with the oil field riots.
In the period following the unrest in the oil fields, the Royal Commission that was set up to look into its causes made a number of recommendations with regard to the oil industry. Perhaps the more important of these were the appointment of a “Secretary of Labour” to conduct conciliation between employers and employed. Apprenticeship training, better housing, and proper compensation for injury were to be implemented. Law and order had to be imposed in the overcrowded villages such as La Brea and Fyzabad, which were considered as the breeding grounds for various forms of illegal activity. Primary and apprentice trade schools, improved dispensaries, hospitals and housing were built for some workers over the next few years or so, and recreation fields appeared in the shadow of the derricks and the slowly bowing pumps, where on a Sunday in the dry season in spanking white flannels, cricket, lovely cricket, would be the solvent that would appear hold the Empire together, at least for the time being, notwithstanding all and everything.

, and because of the refineries’ capacity to produce gasoline and later aviation fuel, Trinidad attracted the intrepid globe-hopping flyers from a very early stage of that adventure. The magnificent men in their flying machines—from the start of aviation, Trinidad was a part of it. Plenty fuel, fine weather, an ever-curious populace—all conditions were optimal for flying demonstrations!
An American called Frank Boland was the first. Ten years after the Wright Brothers had made their first motor flight, Boland alighted on the Queen’s Park Savannah with his little bi-plane in January 1913. A demonstration was scheduled for the 23rd, and hundreds of Trinidadians came out in their Sunday best, the ladies in long skirts, carrying parasols, and the men in elegant hats. Boland took off and most of the spectators saw the wonder of a flying machine in action for the first time! A few minutes later, however, tragedy struck. When Boland attempted to land near the north-western end of the Savannah, where the ‘Magnificent Seven’ stood in brand-new splendour (mansions built by wealthy cocoa planters in the 1900s), he lost control of his plane in wind turbulences and crashed into the ground. He died instantly and left the watching crowd in shock.
Trinidad, situated at the southern end of the Caribbean chain of islands, was on the north-south route of the aviation pioneers, who in wintertime took to warmer climates for their flying demonstrations. Hopping from island to island in their minuscule wooden planes, avoiding mountainous islands like St. Lucia because there was no safe landing there, those dare-devil personalities approached flying like circus artistes, touring the world and making money with their novelty showcase.
A month after Boland’s tragic death, Trinidadians were able to witness a more successful flying demonstration: W. Schmidt from the USA droned with his ‘Red Devil’ over the expectantly upturned faces in the Savannah below and landed safely afterwards.
Doubtlessly, there must have been some boys in the crowd who were bitten by the ‘flying bug’. When World War I broke out a year afterwards, several youngsters lost no time to enlist in the British army, and several of them distinguished themselves in the world of aviation afterwards.
A Tobagonian, Charles M. Pickthorne, for example, qualified as a pilot and shot down the ‘Red Baron’, German legendary flying ace Friedrich Karl von Preußen. Sangre Grande-born Edmund R. Lickfold flew BE2c type aircrafts, fighting German columns over East Africa, and later became a flying instructor in Egypt and an ‘aerobatic’ pilot. He was also the one who taught to our legendary pilot Mikey Cipriani.
With so many sons of the colony involved in the air war, Trinidadians and Tobagonians raised enough money to buy several planes for the RAF: a BE2c which was emblazoned with ‘Trinidad and Tobago Aeroplane’ and put to service in India, and an FE2b bomber, labelled ‘Trinidad’ at the cockpit, which was flown in Europe. The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce bought two FE2b and three RE8 type aircrafts, all of which carried the name of our country with them into the battle of the skies.
The first Trinidadian to be ever killed in an aircraft crash was Frank Vernon Bonyon from San Fernando, whose plane crashed in thick fog while he was flying a mission during the First World War in Belgium.
All in all, 84 Trinidadian and Tobagonian men became involved in aviation between 1914–1918. Four of the local war pilots stayed on in military aviation afterwards: Frank Rooks, Horace Brown, Eric Hobson and Claude Vincent, who attained the rank of Air Vice Marshal by the end of the second World War, serving the British Empire as far as Iraq, Somaliland and Afghanistan.
The adrenalin-packed war action, the leather helmets and long leather coats, the oil-splashed goggles and the smell of gasoline in the open cockpits: the flying bug was to stay with many of these young pilots forever. Some of the survivors went on to become technicians for aeroplanes, some moved on to become flying instructors, and a few remained as pilots when the era of civil aviation began.
After the war ended, aviation came to a standstill in Trinidad. Nobody had any particular interest in it. About once a year or so planes came on infrequent visits to our island. The interest in aviation was only re-kindled in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop transatlantic flight ever. Two years later, the same Lindbergh was sent by PanAm airlines (also formed in 1927) to explore the possibilities of putting Trinidad on their map of destinations. In July of 1929, a PanAm survey team landed off San Fernando to look into the feasibility of a service to British Guiana, and Chaguaramas was chosen as the ideal site for the ‘flying boats’ (amphibian planes that can start and land on water). On 22nd September 1929, the crowd lined five miles of the Chaguaramas waterfront to see the world-famous Lindbergh! He personally handed over the first bag of mail to the Postmaster General, B.B. Littlepage, and thus inaugurated the era of air mail service to our country. The remainders of the jetty for the sea-planes are still visible in the sea behind the Bayside apartment towers at Cocorite.
In May 1930, PanAm’s competitor airline, New York Rio Buenos Aires Lines (NYRBA), was the first to land in Tobago. The plane was called ‘Port-of-Spain’, and it landed in the bay off Plymouth. NYRBA started to carve out a niche for themselves in inter-island excursion traffic, but when the much larger PanAm became aware of this, they bought out the small airline and serviced those destinations themselves.
With so much water around, it was only natural that PanAm exclusively used amphibious planes to service the Caribbean. The government, however, was anxious to link Trinidad to land plane traffic. In 1930, the Piarco Savannah was chosen to build an airstrip for land planes. Previously, the land plane pilots had used the Queen’s Park Savannah, but the winds there proved treacherous and the mountains too close for comfort. On 8th January 1931, the first plane touched down at Piarco, registered by the French Compagnie Générale Aeropostale, which later became the Linea Aeropostal Venezolana.
The first Trinidadians to ever own a plane were Edmund Lickfold and Mikey Cipriani. Their de Havilland Moth airplane was first tried out on the 19th September 1931, and was christened ‘Humming Bird’. Cipriani and Lickfold did hundreds of joy-flights for passengers who were curious to see parts of Trinidad from above, and they gave flying lessons at Piarco. Mikey and his plane became a familiar sight for Trinidadians, inspiring the imagination of little boys, who upon sighting the ‘Humming Bird’ instantly turned into courageous pilots, flying paper planes and roaring through the clouds in respectable drawing rooms.
From 1932 onwards, the ‘Humming Bird’ also flew to other Caribbean islands. Tobago, however, had no suitable airstrip for Cipriani to land. On the 3rd June 1934, Mikey decided to try Shirvan Park as a suitable landing field in Tobago. In bad weather, he lost his way in the Northern Range and crashed in the forest of El Chiquero.
IT WAS A HEROIC TIME, THESE FIRST DECADES OF THE OIL INDUSTRY IN TRINIDAD. It was here, along with a handful of other places scattered around the world, that the industry was formulating itself.
There was about it a sense of innocence that may exist at all beginnings, a random arbitrariness that was driven by instinct, underpinned by the sciences of the day. All this was ongoingly supplemented by innovation, indeed invention, and a lot of wishful thinking, the true mother of free enterprise.
There are a few names of men, and of the firms that they created, which must always be invoked when this marvellous period is remembered, as their shades still hover, sustained by the far-reaching effect of their aspirations and their deeds:
Cunningham Craig, Trinidad’s Government Geologist, 1903–1907. Arthur Beeby Thompson, geologist and engineer, who started the development of Guapo, now Point Fortin, in 1907. John Cadman, Government Inspector of Mines, Trinidad, 1904–1907. The “local” surveyor Mr. Gilkes. The scientists, Dr. Hans Kugler and Professor Urich. The visionaries, risk takers, investors, Hon. Charles Warner, Oskar Maresceaux, and T.A. Finlayson. We name a very few, and beg forgiveness of those not called, but whose endeavor has served to enrich and indeed to make a future beyond imagining.
P.E.T. O’Connor, from whom we heard earlier, was born in 1899 into a family of Irish and French descent long resident in the colony. He recounts in his memoirs his early youth in Manzanilla and remembers these early pioneers: “Before I went off to school in Ireland, those early oil pioneers John Cadman, Beeby Thompson and Cunningham Craig had been frequent visitors to our estate as they combed the island in search of oil. I was enthralled by their tales of far-off lands and gushing oil wells and by their enthusiasm at the future prospects of oil in Trinidad.” With the help of John Cadman he would later be accepted at the University of Birmingham. Cadman, later Baron Cadman, had been Professor of Mining at the University of Birmingham when he came to Trinidad to advise the colonial government on its future oil policy. As a mining engineer Cadman had recognised the need for specialist engineers in the young and growing oil industry and had established his school of petroleum as an “adjunct” to his Faculty of Mining at Birmingham. P.E.T. O’Connor was one of the early graduates of that school and the first Trinidadian graduate to enter the infant Trinidad oil industry. Both he and his brother Connor O’Connor, who was also an engineer and invented valves that still carry his patent, worked in the industry for some fifty years. P.E.T. O’Connor describes in his memoir “Some Trinidad Yesterdays” that his role as the first “local” university graduate in Kern oilfields, where he began working after he had graduated in 1923, was somewhat vague, and his description of being a “jack of all trades” illustrates the various skills required in those early oilfield days: “I was Geologist when I spent hours collecting cuttings from the well as the drill neared the depth at which I had hopefully predicted an oil sand and thrilled at that first smell of oil which heralded success. I was Chemist when I sampled a tank and took it to the refinery at Point Fortin for analysis. I was Civil Engineer when I surveyed the route for a new road or pipeline through the forest. I was Leasehound when the Chinese shop keeper in the village suggested that my credit might be enhanced if I would persuade the company to lease his friend’s ten acre parcel.”
Of the 150 or so oil companies that were registered in the first decades of the 20th century, only about a dozen remained active and achieved commercial successes by the 1950s. These companies, such as Trinidad Lake Petroleum, United British Oilfields of Trinidad. Trinidad Central Oilfields, Trinidad Leaseholds, Apex (Trinidad) Oilfields, Trinidad Petroleum Development Company, Kern (Trinidad) Oilfields and Trinidad Oilfields Operating Company, were led by outstanding individuals, engineers, drillers and entrepreneurs who were the driving forces behind the advancement of the oil sector in this country, in fact the world, in the early 20th century. Here we remember the six major producers of the oil in the first 30 years of the industry in Trinidad and some of the men who pioneered the industry in the early years.
Trinidad Lake Petroleum Company (TLP) could be regarded as the doyen organisation of the industry in Trinidad. It was a subsidiary of the Barber Asphalt Corporation and was primarily involved in the exploitation and export of asphalt from the Pitch Lake.
Originally, it exploited its freeholds for oil, but after 1920, it invariably leased its lands for development by other companies.
Brighton, situated at good anchorage on the coast near the Pitch Lake, was its headquarters. The Brighton Pier, as well as its oil storage of 150,000bbls in the 1950s, afforded excellent loading facilities and were in continuous use since 1912.
The names of early mangers and senior officials were W.D. Fowler, McPherson, Weller and Paul Munoz and its popular manager Vandenburgh.
United British Oilfields of Trinidad (UBOT), a branch of the worldwide Shell organisation, took over the properties of Trinidad Oilfields in 1913. Most of the production came from the Parrylands and Point Fortin fields, which was discovered and originally produced by the Trinidad Petroleum Company.
K.P. Ingram and later T.L. Scott were early managers of Trinidad Oilfields. The first refinery in the island was erected at Point Fortin in 1912. Refining operations on an extensive scale were to continue there for many years. The capacity of the refinery was always in excess of company production, and T.P.D., Kern (Trinidad) Oilfields and other foreign companies provided additional crude supplies.
The high-pressure sands that were found in the Point Fortin and Parrylands fields presented considerable technical difficulties to normal exploitation. The use of heavy muds and electrical surveys eventually solved these problems. From 1936 to 1940, new fields were opened at Penal, Erin, Guapo and Barrackpore, as well as considerable new production at Los Bajos and Point Fortin. Between 1938 and 1944, production varied from 730–790 thousand tons per annum. As a member of Shell, UBOT had one of the strongest financial and most progressive technical backgrounds, making it one of the most influential organizations in the Trinidad oil industry.
One of UBOT’s earliest managers was George Bailward, and another H.D. Fleming, directed the company from the First World War until the Great Depression of 1931, he followed by Colonel Tanner. Van Zeulen was one of its best-known field superintendents.
Trinidad Central Oilfields was formed in 1911 and had its headquarters in Tabaquite. The company was founded by Alexander Duckham who was associated with the industry from its inception till his death in 1945.
Duckham’s firm was involved in the manufacture of lubricating oils. As his interest in the overall oil industry grew, its wider implications were brought to his attention by First Sea Lord John Arbuthnot Fisher, who expressed his uneasiness about the lack of oil produced by the British Empire. As the United States, Russia, Rumania and the Dutch East Indies were practically the only sources of supply, it was potentially a hazardous situation from the British naval point of view in the event of hostilities breaking out. Duckham sent a geologist to Barbados in 1905, who cabled him that “Barbados was a wash out” . In reply, Duckham cabled “Have heard there is pitch in Trinidad, examine and report”. This report led to Winston Churchill’s history-making decision to change the firing of His Majesty’s ocean-going battle fleets from coal to oil.
Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. was founded in 1913, with Mr. Korkhaus as its first manager in Trinidad. He was succeeded by H.S. Fuller at the outbreak of the war with Germany, who was followed by Mr. R. Beaumont, he was aided by outstanding engineers like A.W. Ibbet and H.C.W. Johnston. Their initiative and foresight were largely responsible for the construction of the refinery, storage and landing facilities at Pointe-à-Pierre. Its production was mainly available in those years from the development of the Forest Reserve, Apex, Barrackpore and Guayaguayare Fields. These last two had been Randolph Rust’s concessions. This body of work included the construction of 26-mile 6” pipeline from Forest Reserve to the refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre, which over the next few years would include a pipeline system of 12”, 8” and 6” connections from the above names fields to the refinery and its facilities.
The Venezuelan Oil Exploration Company was acquired, which afforded the company additional production from Barrackpore as well as more land at Pointe-à-Pierre. This was essential for improved storage and refinery facilities. Trinidad Leaseholds at Pointe-à-Pierre became the largest producing and refining company in Trinidad. In 1938, these facilities were comparable to any in the world.
Apex (Trinidad) Oilfields Ltd. was registered in 1919. It developed a few hundred acres of cocoa estates adjacent to the Forest Reserve concession, operated by Leaseholds Ltd. Its first General Manager, Col. H.C.B. Hickling, ran a successful operation from 1919 to 1937, leaving a prosperous, well-organised oilfield.
The concession was compact, proven and very rich oil lands, which were freehold, consequently most of the production was exempt from royalty. Having no outside fields, the company confined itself to the production of oil. The company was fortunate to have Paul Tilbury in charge of drilling and in control of high pressure wells and the expertise of Dr. Kugler as its first geologist.
The success of this company was due to the sound and practical technical policy and economical local control initiated under the enterprising direction of Col. Hickling, who was also able to give valuable service to Trinidad and Tobago as a member of the Legislative Council.
Kern (Trinidad) Oilfields was a subsidiary of Kern Oil Co., which had considerable interest in California. Acquired Perseverance Estate from C.C. Stollmeyer in 1919. Stollmeyer, some years prior to selling to Kern in circa 1912, had erected a second hand percussion rig on the far end of this estate and there, and “with quaint antediluvian tools” at the depth of only 250 feet had struck one of the most spectacular gushers in the early history of Trinidad’s oil. Beeby Thompson describes this in his book Oil Pioneer, “... a rich oil sand was unexpectedly struck and such a violent and sustained outburst of heavy oil followed that the immediate vicinity became flooded with oil...unprovided with any means of control, my colleague C.E. Buch offered Stollmeyer to shut in the well, but Stollmeyer declined assistance saying that he did not intend to interfere with the actions of nature consequently most of the oil was lost.” Some 80,000 barrels of oil, the well flowed at 500 barrels a day for some time. Other estates were purchased from private owners or leased from the Crown. Kern’s first manager was Mr. Stokes, who was succeeded by Mr. Ruthven Murry in 1928. W. F. Penny remarks in his paper on Trinidad oil that up to 1938 profits from the Kern Trinidad venture were only £49,995 and observed that such results by a long-established and successful company should remind optimists of the inescapable hazards of oilfield development.
Trinidad Petroleum Develpment Company was registered in 1918 and from 1920 had its headquarters at Palmiste on Sir Norman Lamont’s estate, and in 1927 moved it to Palo Seco, where its original interest of were located, as well as on the Oropouche lagoon. Its first manager was Mr. G. Kemsley. The first well at Palo Seco was drilled in 1926, and new fields came into existence at Los Bajos in 1930, and Quarry and Coora in 1938. Trinidad Petroleum Development Co. drilled at considerable depth for the times, for example at Palo Seco in 1935 to 7,610 feet, at Coora in 1945 to 7,590 feet, at Los Bajos in 1946 to 8,011 feet, at Quarry in the same year at 7,800 feet. Their methodical approach and deep drilling made the company one of the most consistent producers in Trinidad.
The technology that these companies employed to strike “black gold” in the 1920s and 30s was a far cry from the gleaming tanks and orderly pipelines that one associates with the industry today. In those early decades, the theories as to the origins of oil and as to the likelihood where oil might be found were still in their infancy. The chemical analysis of the substance was not far advanced, and the distillation process initially was a straight break down of the oil into gasoline, kerosene and fuel oil. An oil well that was deeper than 2,000 feet was considered very deep indeed!
“The transition from cable tool drilling to the rotary method was still in progress,” writes P.E.T. O’Connor. “The combination system was generally installed at every drilling site and the cable tool went with its squat wooden derrick and was left in place on the completion of drilling to service the well in its production stages.”
Oil was pumped out of the well and flowed into large pits which surrounded the site, and there were few labour-saving devices. Generally, the thick forest around a well was cleared by hand with axes, and land and roadways graded with shovels and forks by men (and women!) who were called the “Tatoo Gang” in the local parlance. “The bulldozer has replaced the Tatoo Gang,” writes O’Connor, “but the miles of road through our forests remain as a silent monument to the very special breed of men and their women folk who have passed into oblivion!”
The oilfields of the 1920s were still considered “fever holes from which few returned alive” by many, even though yellow fever had been largely eliminated. However, the fields were remote, often miles away from the next village through dense jungle, and not connected to settlements by proper roads. Telephone service was fraught with problems, and when in the radio was invented, it was a major improvement in communications.
Employee safety and environmental concerns were simply not on the agenda of the oil companies, government officials, and only to the degree, on that of the workers where it directly affected them. Hard hats or even boots were unknown, and the labour force was mostly barefooted. The roughness of the oilfields was proverbial, and O’Connor remembers that talk about safety was considered “sissy talk”. There was a job to be done and only the toughest of guys could do it, in 12 hour shifts, being on call 24/7.
The staff on the fields were mainly of British origin with a large percentage of locally recruited personnel. In geology and refining more British experts were available, and there were also many Swiss geologists. An important minority were the drillers, initially of Canadian and Polish descent, who were robust, uneducated types who feared neither God nor man and were largely a law unto themselves. As time went on, more and more drillers with specialist knowledge were recruited from the United States, advising on drilling and production. With the oil industry coming of age, the era of the technologist had begun, and many new developments came from the United States. One of these was that by weighting the drilling fluid used in rotary drilling with barytes, which allowed for better control of the high pressures encountered while drilling through the oil horizons. UBOT brought a complete drilling crew from California in the 1930s to introduce the method to Trinidad, but in spite of the heavy fluid, the first well drilled by them did blow out and cost several lives. The test were continued, however, and the new science of drilling fluids revolutionised the industry in Trinidad and allowed for much deeper wells to be drilled.
The development of the oil industry in Trinidad was in its greatest part implemented by the availability of a population capable of providing the physical effort and mental capacity. Referring to the Trinidadian population of all racial mixtures, augmented by immigrants from Barbados and other British colonies in the region, Penny and L. Harris refer to them as “endowed with good humour and strong sense of loyalty, their outlook and temperament were admirably suited for all kinds of work on the fields and in the refineries.”
The transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial one had its ironies that were not lost on those who experienced it. Oil workers who went out to Guapo, Fyzabad and other areas, were housed in the buildings used by the former cane or cocoa estates, which had been built to accommodate the indentured Indian workers of some fifty or even sixty years before. Some of these had been constructed from material, wood, from the old slave barracks of the 1820s or 30s. These newcomers saw the abandoned sugar mills and boilers, leftovers from the older slave plantation economy, long forgotten relics of other men’s ambition, which had been left to rust and to be engulfed in the jungle.
The living quarters in the oil industry for the European staff and the local workers, in the pioneering days were hardly what you could call comfortable. Those who actually got beds to sleep in could consider themselves lucky! Those who didn’t had to rest their weary limbs in hammocks, on blankets on the floor, and on tables. The very fortunate may have commandeered a dilapidated deck chair or planter’s chair, and one had to be lucky to find it unoccupied when knocking off one’s shift... Pigs and other half-domesticated farm animals roamed the former cocoa estates as such there were from time to time great cook ups. If a building had mosquito screens, it was considered luxury accommodation. But even then, its furnishing was rudimentary, resembling a monk’s cell: iron cot (perhaps), wash basin and pitcher, a potty (sometimes). It was truly a frontier life.
Transport was one of the main problems for oil workers. J. Brackenreed remembers in his memoir, “Transport from San Fernando to Port-of-Spain was next to nothing. The fields had Model T Fords for their senior personnel, and Mr. Arthur Reid in La Brea had a Buick touring car which he hired, charging $25.00 to San Fernando and $50.00 to Port-of-Spain. The only other alternative were the gulf steamers. On one occasion, returning from Port-of-Spain, the boat was due at Guapo at dusk, but did not arrive until 11 p.m. The mule cart which was standing by to carry us and our bags, had already left when we arrived, so there was nothing left but to walk. There were two rivers crossing the beach and the tide was high, so we had to take off our lower garments and carry these and our bags on our shoulders. Have you ever tried doing this with water nearly waist high, on a lovely moonlit night, but with millions of sand flies feeding on the exposed areas?”
There are other stories, like how Emond ssO’Connor, one pitch black night on his way to a party in town with friends, while driving his beat-up old pick-up truck, saw an alligator (cayman) crossing the road. Well Amond, tough as rocks, got out and grabbed the ‘gator by the mouth and threw it in the tray. A few miles on, some locals wanted a ride, so no problem, hop in—that soon turned into hop out! The story goes on to add that the management of the Country Club would not allow the ‘gator in because he was not a member, despite the fact that he was wearing a suit and tie...
The price of oil would from this time onwards have a direct effect on the Trinidad and Tobago economy. This being the case, it is interesting to see the actual price fluctuations between its earliest development period to the 1970s:
1860                 - $9.59 /bbl
1861                 - $0.49
1910                 - $0.61
1923                 - $1.34
1030                 - $1.00
1939 to 1945    - between $1.02 to $1.21
1955                 - $1.93
1960 - 1970      - around $1.80
it still is, and requires a sort elan, of the sort that is sometimes noticed in fighter pilots or deep-sea divers. One of the most spectacular demonstrations of the earth’s natural energy which is met in the oil industry is the ‘blow out’, when the drilling mud, generally followed rapidly by oil, gas or water and some times sand or pebbles, is violently ejected from the well.
Oil and gas trapped in a porous formation flow to the surface when tapped because they have been held under pressure, the reservoir pressure, higher than that of the atmosphere to which it is opened. Reservoir pressures are the driving force behind blowouts. Abnormally pressured areas are naturally more liable to blowouts, since the forces to be held in check are grater, forces which are quite capable of smashing a derrick twisting heavy metalwork into fantastic shapes, shooting the drill pipe hundreds of feet vertically into the air and some times smothering the area in oil or piles of formation sand.
The oil industry in Trinidad is unfortunate in that conditions which merit the title :abnormal” elsewhere in the world, must often be considered normal here. This is particularly true of the reservoir pressures under which oil, gas and water may be confined, frequently at relatively shallow depths. Consequently preventative measures and safeguards are here of even greater importance than in most “normal” areas.
Dangerous business. “A remarkable occurrence in 1936 was a blow-out at Well 306 in Barrackpore,” say Penny and L. Harris. “A crater was formed which engulfed the derrick and drilling rig, and probing with a 300ft length of tubing, failed to discover any trace of equipment.” Penny and L. Harris in their paper remark that, “ It would be tedious and unprofitable to give a chronological account of the many oilwell fires and blowouts which took place at the time. In fact, some of them are not recorded because it was generally accepted that the larger well would come in as a gusher, and, if it did not catch fire, would proceed to full up the surrounding depressions in the land. In cases where foresight had been exercised, such hollows had been transformed into reservoirs by the building of dams. Blowouts were frequent at Parry Lands and Point Fortin, where gas pressures were exceptionally high.”
P.E.T. O’Connor recalls in his memoir “Some Trinidad Yesterdays” one of the more tragic accidents of the early years: “The Dome fire started with the obstinacy of an old Indian land owner. He owned a ten acre block in the middle of the rich Apex field at Fyzabad. He had once had a dispute with the Company and although the Company had successfully drilled all around him, he had stubbornly refused to lease his land to them. Eventually, a small local company was formed to drill the area and a young Trinidad driller was persuaded to undertake the drilling for a share in the venture. His name was Bob Wade. He somehow assembled a drilling rig to drill the first well. All went well; the well was successfully completed and “came in” with a large flow. Everything seemed to be well under control and Bob Wade left for the Club to celebrate his good fortune. As darkness fell, however, a small leak developed in one of the control valves and within hours the well was out of control, sprouting oil and gas into the air. The whole surrounding area was covered with oil and the air saturated with gas. The owner and his entire family rushed to the scene, rejoicing no doubt in the thought that they had struck it rich. Bob Wade hurried back from Port-of-Spain in an attempt to cap the well when the whole area exploded. What remained of Bob Wade was found in his car. He had apparently tried to start his engine so as to focus his head lights on the well head and this had sparked the holocaust. The whole Indian family perished and several workmen.”
O’Connor goes on to relate that the Dome Field was later successfully exploited and was reported to be one of the richest ten acre blocks ever drilled in Trinidad.
In 1938, the Texas Company, who had marketed Kerosene in Trinidad in 1912, acquired an interest in the Canadian company McColl Frontenac’s Antilles venture. They where drilling at Vessigny on the old Merrimac holdings. The American, Merrimac Oil Company, had had a long presence at LaBrea. Where their works had shipped ‘several gallons of lube oil’ and where they had a plant for the manufacture of lamp oil in the 1850,s, “it is said” writes oil historian George Higgins, that Messrs. O’Connor were shipping pitch from the sea banks annually to France” P.E.T. O’Connor joined them there as Geologists and then Manager in 1937.
Between 1938 and 1940, the first exploration efforts in the Northern Basin of Trinidad, with test wells at Barrancones, Talparo and Montserrat, were not crowned by success, as none of these encountered commercial oilsands. To expand the oil industry, marine exploration was the obvious step. While several tentative applications for marine oil rights had been made as early as 1936, but the Trinidad and Tobago government had not yet allotted marine concessions to the various oil companies operating in the island. Not withstanding the dramatic moments, Penny and Harris in their unpublished paper note that a more marked expansion of the oilfields began in 1934 and a stronger financial situation soon developed concurrent with the refinery developments. The Cruse field, an exceptionally rich area of Upper Cruse oilsand found in 1933 by Trinidad Central Oilfields and Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, produced 800,000bbls of crude in 1935. This was followed by UBOT’s boundary developments, which were made possible by the use of heavy mud. T.C.O. and T.L.L. also drilled in 1936 the first Wilson field well, which marked the resuscitation of the dying Barrackpore field and heralded a period of productivity which lasted well into the mid-1950s.
Between 1938 and 1940, the first exploration efforts in the Northern Basin of Trinidad, with test wells at Barrancones, Talparo and Montserrat, were not crowned by success, as none of these encountered commercial oilsands. To expand the oil industry, marine exploration was the obvious step. While several tentative applications for marine oil rights had been made as early as 1936, but the Trinidad and Tobago government had not yet allotted marine concessions to the various oil companies operating in the island.
The oil camps, in very much the same style as the sugar factories, had a form of seclusion, exclusion, finely tuned and not so subtly enforced racial prejudice, although the sugar factories were more accommodating to visitors. They had a separateness from the rest of the colony. It started at the gate: all visitors were checked and the purpose of the visit authenticated. The guard, usually a estate policeman, with the practiced eye of all good servants of the colonial era, could tell at a glance if the contents of the motorcar were acceptable, and could enter and be served at the club by even more discerning bigots. The oil camps excluded most Trinidadians—certainly all blacks and Indians, except in specific roles and stereotyped functions such as nannies, cooks, chauffeurs, gardeners and various sorts of handymen who were ever present. Notwithstanding all of that, the irony is that these were often exalted by the families they served, their faces fondly remembered in photograph albums to this day. They themselves recall in their old age kindnesses and acts of unprecedented generosity received from their European employers.
Then there is the voice of the expatriates speaking from those times: “Since the turn of the [19th] century, the bungalows and staff accommodation have been excellent, while the village erected for the housing of labour employed on the Pitch Lake has provided a standard of workmen’s accommodation which has been a model for other oil and kindred agricultural interests of the island,” write Penny and L. Harris about TLP. “The amenities extended to the staff, which include a very fine club, admirable bathing facilities and a pleasant golf course, have always been available to employees of other companies and generally the open-handed hospitality invariably experienced at Brighton is indeed proverbial.” They would not off course mention the segregation that started at the main gate of the camp. No one spoke of it. It simply did not exist.
Of course special exceptions were made for individuals in the colony’s small but also exclusive coloured professional class, particularly if these persons had received a knighthood. Remembered for all time, to be politicized at a later date, are appalling stories of insult, slights, cruelties, some physical, most mental, others fabricated, that were digested, internalized, never forgotten or forgiven. “South Africans, you know, don’t know anything about West Indians, they think we are like their people at home, savages,” would complain the local press.
Initially the oil camps had been established to accommodate the foreign personnel who had to be brought in from all over the world. These ranged from artisans to professional engineers. All had to be housed and provided with basic amenities in parts of the island where the forest, “high woods” as it was called locally, was as old and “impenetrable” as it had once been marked on ancient maps—similar to that of the neighboring South American continent, of which it once formed a part.
The oil camps were isolated from each other and from the local communities by long distances and by roads that were at times impassible. The camps consisted almost entirely of expatriate families. It was natural that these developed into close-knit communities, depending entirely on their own resources for their physical and social needs. They had little in common with the few planter families around, who did not necessarily seek them out, being themselves attached to their own ways, prejudices and customs. Neither did the oil field employees have a lot to do with the Government officials, Wardens, Justices of the Peace, all of European decent, the local Police Inspector who in those days would have been an Englishman, unless it was absolutely necessary. P.E.T. O’Connor wrote that they had little contact with the business community in San Fernando, as they had little to offer. “Port-of- Spain was a very long way off over almost impassible roads. As the industry grew and the camps expanded, they provided their own clubhouses and other recreational facilities for their members, and these had the effect of making them even more self-contained and separate from the general community.”
He goes on to remark that there was, however, one aspect of camp life that had unfortunate repercussions. “By the very nature of their self-containment, the social and working environments of the staff camps were inseparable, and this led to an almost total exclusion of coloured personnel from staff positions in the industry. To understand and appreciate the nuances of this situation one must, as in the case of slavery and indentured labour, view it in the context of the times, and the social structure that pertained”. As such, racial segregation both in the workplace and socially (O’Connor can hardly bring himself to mention it) was really not different from that of the Southern United States, South Africa, or in truth anywhere in the British Empire, which was an institution that was founded on the notion of the superiority of the “white race”, and in particular of the English.
 ”Doctor Vincent Tothill, who worked for the oil companies spoke more plainly in his book “Doctors Office” “Socially life is much more pleasant with an agricultural company than with an oil field. There is not so much snobbery, and there is more of a chance of meeting local people. The Oil Field clubs are, in my experience about the most snobbish places in the world, quite equal to anything in India. The staff of the Usine (sugar factory) is mostly local, and very delightful people they are. Also there is not so much colour prejudices, and there is an opportunity to meet the best of the coloured people on an equal footing. On the oil fields this is impossible This being so, it stands to reason that there is little social intercourse between the oil field clubs and those of the sugar estates. In fact I think they mutually dislike each other”
Increasingly, however, security arrangements at the oil camps and the refineries had to be stringent, by the very nature of the work being undertaken there. This became more so as the work at these facilities became classified as “official secrets” when the war broke out in 1939. In a sense, what was being undertaken at these facilities was, in a far more modest manner, our own “Manhattan Project.” We were not building an A-bomb, but were involved in the development of high grade aviation fuel at Pointe-à-Pierre that would power Great Britain and her allies in their effort to win the war that was looming. The refineries at Pointe-à-Pierre and Point Fortin were leading the way in the development of new and innovative refinery techniques. This bore fruit at the outbreak of World War II. During World War II, Trinidad Leaseholds, acting as agents for the British Government, designed, purchased, erected and subsequently operated a new refinery constructed for the purpose of producing the maximum possible quantity of 100 octane aviation spirit. The Pointe-à-Pierre refinery, owned and operated by T.L.L., was the only one in the British Empire that had a plant for producing 100 octane aviation spirit in commercial operation. This plant provided much of the fuel used in the Battle of Britain.
As a result of the work being undertaken it was not surprising that many people considered “not the right sort”, local and foreign, could never enter and see the manicured lawns, the world-class lawn tennis facilities, golf courses, and swimming pools of the oil camps. The bungalows, screened against mosquitoes, galleried and jealousied, their tall doors curtained in lace, quiet but for bird song, caught in decades past. Slight odor of vegetable soup on the boil, cultivated voices, Morris chairs. The neat gardens, lawns dotted with mango julie and king orange trees, all hybrids of course, and the gigantic samaan trees.
The last gentle decades of the colonial days, the asphyxiating all pervasive oppression of a structured, segmented, over ruled society, the delicious, now in hindsight, time of order and politeness, just the quiet of those times. The originality and quality of things make those of us now in our own twilight know that we were privy to an end of a past, of a world that no one would ever know again.

Listen for a while to the sound of Dr. Vincent Tothill’s voice, as it comes from his book “Trinidads Doctors Office”, which was published in 1939 (the book was republished by Paria Publishing and is available in bookstores in Trinidad and online - see link at the end of this blog post).

Dr. Tothill was the resident Medical Officer at Trinidad Leaseholds and at Apex. He worked “in the oil” for some fifteen years, it sets the tone of the time:
“On arrival at Port-of-Spain I was met by Mr. Horsford of the Leaseholds, who took me ashore and got me a room at the Family Hotel. It was not then the clean place it is today. The bedrooms opened on to an upstairs gallery with only half jalousie doors, so that I could lie in bed and watch the heads and feet of the people strolling from room to room. The owners of the heads and feet were of various shades of brown and the predominating language was Spanish.
“Mr. Horsford told me I was to catch the train at 7.30 in the morning for the headquarters of the oilfield at Pointe-à-Pierre. On asking what time the train arrived at Pointe-à-Pierre nobody knew. “Oh, sometime in the morning.”
When I got to Pointe-à-Pierre I found an old Ford car waiting for me with an excellent chauffeur, Raymond Allamby, who stayed with me all the time I remained with the company. After lunch, while driving down the company’s road, we received a hail in a loud voice from a white man in dungarees. He had a cigarette dangling from his lip.
He grinned and said: “Are you the ruddy doctor?”
I said: “Yes, including the adjective.”
He said: “My name’s Foster Dawson, and I want you to come over and see one of my ruddy kids who is ruddy well sick.” He then looked at me with a grin and said: “My Gawd—two ruddy hats and a ruddy violin—by the holy guts, some ruddy doctor!”
As a matter of fact, I was wearing a double Terai hat which was much used in Mombassa at that time. It consisted of two felt hats, one inside the other. This hat attracted Dawson’s scorn, in fact, it took him fifteen years to get over it, if he has got over it. Dawson became one of my good friends later on. He was quite a genius as a craftsman in any mechanical line; a most interesting and clever constructive worker. Unfortunately, he liked to be his own boss, as so many of us do, and eventually left the Leaseholds.
 At 3 o’clock after a twenty-mile drive, I arrived at the forest. I had no idea what sort of a forest it was. It was so dense and impenetrable that the oil field could not be seen until you were right in it. Then there was an empty field office surrounded by oil derricks and the all-pervading smell of oil. There was no one to report to or to ask where I was to live or what I was supposed to do.
I kicked my heels until one member of the bachelor staff, Eckstein, came and took me up for a cup of tea. At last into the field office came a gentleman swearing loudly. He had on a marvellous hat of the Stetson variety, covered with oil. He said: “I suppose you are the new doctor? Well, this ain’t no Hotel Cecil, and I suppose you want to be fixed up good and proper. Well, it just can’t be done. I will show you your house.”
The bungalow was quite good; mosquito proofed and, thank goodness, a mile from the field office.
Willans, the Manager, said: “Here’s your house, hope you will like it. Cheerio, so long.” Off he went, and I was left with my baggage in an empty house. No servant and no food. The car went back with Willans. There was a deal table, two beds and a few cooking pots. I wondered how on earth I was to get a servant, and where there was any store to get food. At half-past six the telephone rang, and Mrs. Willans asked me to dinner, saying she would send a car for me. She was very pleasant.
Willans came in in his filthy old oil clothes and refused to change. Mrs. Willans was in evening dress. Willans was in a perverse mood and made remarks about each course as it came on.
“What’s this, Nell?”
“Soup, my dear.”
“Soup?” says he; “It’s not soup, it’s gnat’s water.”
I wondered what on earth the inhabitants of oil fields were like. After dinner a cigar and back to my bungalow to bed. Fortunately, I had my African camp kit with me, which I had to use.
Later on, when I got to know Willans, we became friends, and he was a most entertaining and charming host; a most amusing personality and an absolute comedian when he chose—as he often did. His flow of rhetoric on the derricks was island wide.
Next morning a very large Creole high-brown lady called at my front door, dressed up to the nines. I thought she was a patient. But no, she wanted to know if I wanted a cook. I jumped at the idea. She said: “You know, Doctor, I’m not a cook, but I’m a lady in temporarily distressing circumstances, in fact, I am a nurse. But I can cook, and I would like to cook for you.”
I said: “Yes, I want a cook, but I’m not so sure that I want a lady. How long have you been a lady?”
I did not then know the Creole significance of my question, but how was I to know?
The lady said her name was Isobel la Haye.
I had no idea what wages were paid here, so I asked her. She said very airly: “Oh, fifteen dollars a month will do to start with.” So she got the job.
Fortunately, she was an excellent cook, and did keep my house very clean.
The Leaseholds oilfield was then just beginning to find its way. The shares were then about 12s. 6d. My salary was £600 a year, with free house. This was later raised by Mr. R. Beaumont to £750. In my contract I found words to the effect that I was to be medical officer to the Leaseholds oil fields and adjacent fields. I have forgotten the exact terminology.
The next day I was told that my visits included the Apex Oil Field, about three miles away. The Apex was a separate company, and I had no idea until a year later that the Apex paid £240 per annum of my salary. This gave rise to regrettable misunderstandings.
The Leaseholds themselves had their main field in the forest, twenty miles south of San Fernando. They also had another field at Barrackpore, twelve miles south-east of San Fernando and twenty-four miles from where I lived in the forest. Also there were their refineries and head office at Pointe-à-Pierre. This was another twenty miles from the forest, so distances were considerable. Moreover, the roads were then very bad. None had been pitched and they were full of holes.
After I had been at the forest a week, I had my first night call. I shall never forget it. I was called out by a labourer to Monkey Town, where the labour barracks and palm-thatched huts were. He said his keeper had “made a baby and was well sick.”
When I got there I found an excited crowd round a palm-thatched shack. Inside, by the glimmering light of flambeaus and coconut oil flares, were two huge black men holding up a woman who was stark naked. They had a hand under each armpit, and were violently shaking her to and fro over a boiling cauldron of bush. It looked like one of hell’s decoctions. An indescribable aromatic smell emanated from the cauldron, which appeared to contain a concoction of leaves and bark. The woman was unconscious.
I made the men put her to lie down on a palliasse on the mud floor. I heard and then saw a baby wailing on the floor. I learned that it had been born three days before, and I suppose had not yet been fed.
I asked the men what on earth they thought they were doing? An old hag, like an old walnut, and with a handkerchief tied round her head like a turban, said: “But, Doctor, the afterbirth!”
I said: “Do you mean to say—”
She said: “Yes, Doctor, that’s why we sent for you.”
I said: “Well, you have sent for me three days too late.”
Then a wail went up from the house and I heard a man say: “She dead for true, yes, oui.”
I had nothing with me except some Lysol and a hypodermic syringe. I assisted the patient as far as I could, really to please them more than anything else, as they seemed to be waiting for me to do something, although I had made up my mind the woman was dead. I gave the corpse an injection of pituitrin as a placebo and told the old hag with the turban to send up to my house the next morning for a death certificate.
Next day several people came to my house from Monkey Town, folk whom, of course, I did not know. Apparently they were all the friends and relatives. I sat down and opened the book of certificates of death and asked for particulars.
One lady, whom I did not recognize, gave me all the particulars. I asked how the baby was, and she said: “De baby fine, Doctor, and I self feel too good today—I been to nurse the baby.”
I said: “Oh yes, that’s lucky, have you a baby of your own?” I thought she was a wet nurse. She looked a bit nonplussed and said: “No, Doctor, it have only de one.”
It then dawned on me that this was my patient of last night. She was quite well and had walked to my house, which was some distance. Fortunately for me, they put the recovery down entirely to the injection of pituitrin. After this I had no trouble in giving injections on the field—in fact, folk used to come and ask for them. I fear, however, that I gave many more injections of Salvarsan than pituitrin during my residence here.
My last real jaunt at the Leaseholds was at Charles Willans’ departure. Johnny L.-Harris and I went up to Port-of-Spain to see him off. We had arranged to give Willans a dinner in Port-of-Spain.
Now for all the time that I had known Willans, he was a strict teetotaller, so Harris and I decided we had better fortify ourselves at the bar before he arrived. I forget whether Harris had ordered iced sweet drinks for Willans or not. Anyway, we had a few gins and bitters before his arrival, followed by gin cocktails. As we were not going to drink anything at dinner, we thought we would have a full ration, relying on the dinner to anchor it. In fact, we were feeling quite good and mellow when Willans arrived.
Willans was in one of his best comedian moods, most amusing, in fact hilariously so. I wondered how anyone could do it on teetotalism. When the soup and hors d’oeuvres had gone, Willans turned to the waiter and said: “Where’s the wheelbarrow?” I looked up. The waiter said: “It is coming just now, sir.” To our consternation the champagne barrow appeared, complete with ice bucket which revealed the necks not of small bottles, but of magnums. The barrow was attended by two acolytes. I looked at Harris to inquire whether he had ordered it; he shook his head. Then Willans said: “Now, boys, come fill your glasses, this is my funeral.”
I remember very little of that dinner except that afterwards there was a long line of glasses arranged en echelon across the table and all apparently used. I have absolutely no recollection of Willans’ departure. We might have seen him off, but I do not think we did. My next memory was the morning after the night before. I wondered whether it was worth while getting up and what on earth anybody ever got up for.
had halted nearly all exploratory work in Trinidad. The industry here was dependent on the United States for oil field and drilling equipment, and now the companies concentrated on “obtaining the maximum number of barrels for the fewest tons of imported equipment and stores,” as Penny and L. Harris write.
On the other hand, the war accelerated the refining capacity of Trinidad, which had been so severely curtailed during the depression. Once before, in 1918, the refining capabilities of Trinidad had “contributed to the wave of oil on which the Allies floated to victory,” as an article in the Shell magazine of 1967 writes. But this time, its contribution was both more timely and more important. Even though in the planning stages since 1936, the start-up of these plants coincided with the commencement of hostilities between Germany and the United Kingdom, and as such the initiative constituted a valuable contribution to the war effort. Aviation spirit from the newly-constructed iso-octane plant in Trinidad fuelled the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the Royal Air Force in the critical Battle of Britain in 1940. The accelerating war machine required supplies in much greater volume, and the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery in Trinidad was chosen to provide 100-octane aviation fuel for the air forces of the Allies.
“In 1940 – 1941 what amounted to a new refinery was constructed by an American firm for the British Ministry of Aircraft Construction at Pointe-à-Pierre to produce aviation fuel for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force,” remembers Dr. Vernon Mulchansingh in his paper “Story of our Oil”. “So important was the supply of products from Trinidad that some years after the war the Petroleum Times would comment that no company in the world, certainly no British company, did so much for the war effort in relation to its size as Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd.”
The refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre made a major advance in mid-1938 when No. 5 Dubbs and the hydrogen and iso-octane plants were commissioned, which increased cracking capacity and allowed for the manufacturing of aviation fuel.
The story of the building of Eastern Refinery, referred to for security reasons at the time under the code name “Project 1234”, in the short space of 14 months and in the midst of acute wartime shortages and hazards, is an epic in itself. Most significantly, the facility made Trinidad an importer of crude oil for the first time since commercial oil exploration began here in 1908. At first, stocking up crude was a wartime emergency measure adopted to increase feedstocks to the utmost and to conserve shipping. But after the war, when the Eastern Refinery was reorganised for peacetime operations, imports continued under an agreement made with the Texas Petroleum Company for processing Texpet crude oil from Venezuela and Colombia.
A quick look back in time at the refinery’s founding years shows how much the installation had advanced. Founded in 1917, it had a throughput of some 1,200 bbls/day — a trickle compared to the 1940s and 50s. The No. 1 Refinery at Forest Reserve produced only petrol, fuel oil, and white spirit, as compared to over 200 different types of petroleum products and grades fifty years later. Pointe-à-Pierre was initially an oil shipping port before it became the location of the refinery, selected mainly because the water of Stony Point was deeper than anywhere else in the south. Oil was first found in commercial quantities at Forest Reserve in 1914, and by 1916, the first six-inch trunk pipeline had been laid. It is believed that the first shipment of crude oil was despatched on 16th August, 1916, by Admiralty tanker “Masconomo”, starting a long and mutually beneficial association between the refinery and the British Admiralty. The early years were not without their anxieties, what with the loading line from shore to ship being the last and weakest link in the chain of production.
The original loading line ran along the bottom of the sea to an island jetty a mile offshore. But when No. 1 Refinery started up in 1917, the line was found to have developed so many leaks caused by marine molluscs that it had to be replaced. This replacement was run above water on a viaduct supported by piers. This link was broken twice, once by collision and then by a hurricane which swept away a third of its length. These problems were quickly solved, however, and many technical innovations made Pointe-à-Pierre refinery the largest in the British Empire at the time in complexity of design and in distillation capacity.
Shortly after the First World War ended, it was decided to invest in the first cracking plant. The age of kerosene was giving way to the age of gasoline as motor cars began to be mass-produced, and it became profitable for oil refiners to produce cracked gasoline (made by cracking heavy hydrobcarbon molecules to produce light ones which can be made into gasoline). By this time, refinery throughput had increased to 5,600 bbls/day. The Greenstreet cracking plant was commissioned in October of 1922 and stood where the Augustus Long Hospital is now located. But this cracking installation was soon converted into No. 2 Refinery. The next attempt at cracking was made in 1927, when throughput stood at 10,000 bbls/day, and the Dubbs cracking process was introduced, which proved a great success. Then followed the Great Depression and the Second World War, during which Pointe-à-Pierre became the major supplier of aviation fuel to the Allied effort as described above.

The cool February night had laid the lightest of mists along South Quay. In 1942, Port-of-Spain was still a quiet, sleepy Caribbean town, very far removed from the noise and the fury of the world war that was plunging Europe into a maelstrom of mayhem, unsurpassed in all its war-torn history.
Suddenly several very loud explosions shattered the quiet of the night. Flocks of pigeons took flight into the darkness from the railway station roofs as the echoes reverberated up the valleys. Screams of fright as the city’s residents leaped from their beds, dogs barking as the great sound rolled away into the mountains like thunder, vanishing.
We were now at war; it had finally come to us. In the harbour, the cargo ship ‘Mokihana’ had been blown almost out of the water. 7,400 tons of iron ship had spun about and rolled over on its side, a 45 ft by 30 ft hole ripped out of its plating. Not too far away, the tanker ‘British Council’ was sending huge flames ranging into the night sky, throwing the lighthouse and the tower of the harbour master’s office into grotesque silhouettes, while illuminating the surrounding water with a hellish light.
The circumstances that led to this had its origins in another time, just before anther war. 29 years, prior, in 1913. As previously related Winston Churchill, while serving the British government as First Lord of the Admiralty, had listened to the advice coming from Admiral Fisher, First Sea Lord, who acting on information given to him by Alexander Duckham with regard to the availability of oil in Trinidad, had decided to change the Royal Navy from burning coal to using oil to fire its furnaces. Trinidad became for all intent and purposes a gas station in the south Atlantic.
The Royal Navy had since that time made Trinidad’s Brighton Pier its main fuel depot in the South Atlantic. Now, with another war on, the colony’s oil refineries had become the main source of supply of aviation fuel for the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain now raging.
In the early days of refining in Trinidad, the main process used was the simple distillation of the crude oil producing gasoline, kerosene, and heavy fuel oil for the British Navy. In the last years of the 1930s, however, significant strides were made in the standard of the product produced. This was due largely to the quality of the specialists who were attracted to the work being done in Trinidad. The historian Paul Johnson in his “Modern Times” notes: “ The chemical and petrochemical industry expanded rapidly, with exports rising 18% in 1930-8. [That would be exports mainly from Trinidad]. Employment in the aircraft industry had risen from 21,000 in 1930 35,000 in 1935”. The availability of refined products coming from Trinidad made an impact in what Johnson called key areas, “especially aero-engines....which was to prove of decisive importance both in air- and sea power.”
The refineries at Pointe-à-Pierre and Point Fortin were leading the way in the development of new and innovative refinery techniques. The “heavy handed” handling of the oil field strikes of 1937, that saw some strikers shot by police and several arrested including their leader, Uriah Butler which had been preceded by the appointment of Col. Arthur S. Mavrogordato, who was transferred from Palestine where he had been the chief of Police, to the relative backwater of Trinidad speaks to the importance of the work that was taking place in Pointe-à-Pierre in the period leading up to the war. During World War II, Trinidad Leaseholds, acting as agents for the British Government, designed, purchased, erected and subsequently operated a new refinery constructed for the purpose of producing the maximum possible quantity of 100 octane aviation spirit. The Pointe-à-Pierre refinery, owned and operated by T.L.L., was the only one in the British Empire that had a plant for producing 100 octane aviation spirit in commercial operation. This plant provided much of the fuel used in July, August and September of 1940, the period of the Battle of Britain, when Britain’s fighter-squadrons decisively defeated an attempt by the Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF’s airfields in south-east England.
Due to the very effective cooperation between all the oil companies in the Caribbean area, it was found possible to exceed the design capacity of the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery by the purchase of raw materials or blending components, and thus to make a very substantial contribution to the winning the war. Trinidad with its secure approaches, the Serpent’s Mouth in the south and the Dragon’s Mouths in the north, and its commodious Gulf of Paria, was a vast and ideal harbour. In the second world war it was a vital rallying point for merchant shipping, which arrived daily to form convoys to ship precious cargos across the Atlantic to an extremely hard-pressed England. Cargo ships came to Trinidad from Australia, New Zealand, the South African Cape, the Argentines and Brazil. Their holds were packed with copper, rubber, meat, wheat, flour and iron ore. Some were to take on aviation fuel, oil and pitch, sugar and cocoa, others were to ferry men and women across the cold Atlantic to join the massive war effort.
The garrisoning of the island had already begun. Detachments of young Americans were encamped in the forested heartlands of the island and at a significant naval base at Chaguaramas. Experienced British naval commanders had established H.M.S. ‘Benbow’ as the Trinidad sector headquarters. A designated royal ship, housed on dry land, just opposite to where the power plant is on Wrightson Road.
The overall preparedness to defend the convoys was well underway. The vital importance of these convoys to the survival of England cannot be overstated.
The German high command was well aware of the strategic importance of the Gulf of Paria and the Point Fortin and Pointe-à-Pierre refineries. The creation of a submarine fleet to deal with the convoys coming out of Trinidad waters was a first priority status for the German ‘Kriegsmarine’. The launch of the U-boat offensive, unleashed in formations, known as ‘wolfpacks’, were to become the nemesis of seafarers in Caribbean waters.
The midnight action that had sent flames towering into the night, grotesquely illuminating the sleeping city, had had its genesis in U161 under the command of Kapitänsleutnant Albrecht Achilles. Free from its origins at Bremerhaven, U161 had silently crossed the Atlantic to surface off Trinidad’s north coast, just a little west of Maracas. The treacherous waters and swirling currents of the Dragon’s Mouth were not alien to Albrecht Achilles. At another time, he had sailed these waters as crew of the famous Hamburg–Amerika line.
At 9.30 a.m. on February 18th, U161 slipped through the Grand Bocas, just under the surface at periscope depth in the bright morning light. Achilles did this confident that the lookouts at Stauble’s Bay would be far less vigilant in the morning as they might be at night. He was not entirely right. He was spotted and a report from the Stauble’s watch ultimately alerted No. 1 bombardment squadron at Wallerfield to carry out an anti-submarine search.
Some miles off the Grand Bocas, U161 dropped beneath the surface into the 100 fathom deep water and vanished. Topside, the aircraft circled in vain.
Now inside the Gulf, Achilles took U161 to the shallow water southeast of Chaguaramas. A soft muddy cloud rose about the submarine craft as she settled on the seabed to wait out the day.
As the night fell, Achilles brought up U161 to periscope depth and silently swept the horizon. With no patrols in sight, he brought his boat to the surface. Dark, sinister, streaming water from her hull, this totally alien shape headed in the direction of a brilliantly lit up Port-of-Spain. Slowly, the boat moved through the fishing boats, heading out their dim lanterns held above their sterns. Few marked her passage, none noticed the white horse of the 2nd U-boat flotilla painted on the side of her conning tower. For a moment made invisible by the rugged outline of the five islands, U161 was now in the channel. With care her commander picked his targets, brought the boat about and fired two torpedoes which not only shattered the night but also something of our innocence.
As all pandemonium broke lose, as U161 slowly left the scene. Alarm bells ringing, sirens wailing, the search for the submarine was on. Calmly, Kapitänsleutnant Achilles brought his boat almost to the surface, put on his port and starboard lights, put his officers on deck in white tropicals, adjusted the boat’s speed to those of the search boats. He switched on his running lights and began crossing the entrance to the great bay. He knew that hardly any of the men looking for him had ever seen a U-boat. His men, stationed on deck in gleaming white, scanned the sea ahead as he joined the search, and quietly, quietly U161 left the scene...
“The declaration of war in 1939 had been a signal for the Germans to unleash their submarine fleet to pray on the vital shipping that plied the waters around the British Isles. This initial thrust later developed into the famous Battle of the Atlantic,” Commander Gaylord Kelshall (retired) of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard wrote about the German submarines that were in action in the South Atlantic. He thought that the initial thrust later developed into the famous Battle of the Atlantic. That, in all its drama was reminiscent of the First World War, when German U-boats had almost brought Britain to her knees. Hitler’s Kriegsmarine had set out to emulate and better their forebears.
The British, once more under siege, resorted to the formula that had frustrated the Germans in 1917 and established a convoy system. By October of 1940, the German U-boats answered with a wolfpack concept and the battle at sea entered a new and grimmer phase. The end of 1940 marked a period when more than one thousand ships had been sunk, despite the efforts that had been put into protecting them. The Churchill–Roosevelt arrangements that were put in to place where by Britain received much needed military assistance and America gained long-term leases so as to set up Naval and Air Force bases in the British Caribbean, so as protect its western coastline, involved Trinidad and Tobago directly. Because of Trinidad’s oilfields, and its refining capacity, the island became a place of rendezvous; understandably so as the island lies just off the South American coast opposite to Venezuela, its northern and southern peninsulas extending westwards almost to the Venezuela coast. The two thousand square miles of water within the peninsulas is called the Gulf of Paria. When the entrances to this area are properly protected, it becomes the finest natural harbour in the western hemisphere.
The island’s oil refineries, other refineries in Venezuela and Curaçao (opened in 1918), its proximity to the Panama Canal caused it to be seen as significant, a possible target for a German invasion. In time it became one of the largest naval bases in the world and a major convoy center. It was later used as a US Navy training area of considerable importance as well as a major tactical base for the prosecution of the war against the U-boats in the Caribbean. In the last years of the war it would be the site of one of the largest US airbases in the world.
Every word said by oil pioneer Randolph Rust almost fifty years before, at the Royal Victoria institute in 1910, was to be proven true, when he remarked that he expected Trinidad to become the chief sources of supply of oil fuel, and one of the Empire’s most important naval bases—in short, the one of the Empire’s “most valuable possession”. It has been estimated that at various times there were as many as 50,000 Allied forces on the island, mostly US personnel.
For those who worked in the oil, news of the war came via the BBC who reported that the Simon Bolivar, the pride if the Royal Netherlands Steam Ship company, had been sunk. She had run regularly between Rotterdam and the Caribbean. Luckily there was little loss of life, although some Trinidadians did mourn the loss of some dear ones. Soon there was news of another engagement, the first of the war perhaps, and one with a special interest for us, as it concerned the cruisers H.M.S Exeter and Ajax and Achilles, whose marines had landed in Trinidad in 1937 during the time of the oilfields strikes. They had fought an epic battle on the River Plate and had sunk the German battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee.
In 1938, the two refineries owned by UBOT and Trinidad Leaseholds actually installed two 6-inch, guns to defend the refineries from attack by sea. These guns had been built in 1911/12, and a volunteer group among the engineers were trained by military personnel in their use. After the declaration of war in 1939, several anti-aircraft guns were also installed in the area of the refineries. The Graf Spee, on its way into the South Atlantic, was actually expected to enter the Gulf of Paria and attack the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery one day at 5 pm, and a frantic preparation to protect the installation ensued. However, the Graf Spee changed course and by 7 pm it was clear she would not execute the expected attack.
P.E.T. O’Connor recalls in his memoirs: “The importance of our oil industry was supposed to make us vulnerable to enemy raids. There was, perhaps, the possibility that an enemy submarine could lob a few shells into Pointe-à-Pierre, or that a raiding party might attempt to blow up a tank or two, so we had our Home Guard and our air-raid shelters. Every oil company had its platoon or company of the Home Guard depending on its size. Whether or not we could have held an enemy at bay is highly problematical, but we took ourselves very seriously as we were instructed in the art of jungle warfare on Sunday mornings and learnt to dismantle and reassemble the odd sten-gun which was placed at our disposal. We had mock raids on each other’s oil installations which generally ended up with the capture of the club house, for these raids were a thirsty business. There was the occasion on which we set out to attack Forest Reserve. We borrowed one of our company’s trucks to transport our platoon to a suitable point from which we would organise our attack, but the Forest Reserve Camp cheated on us. They staged an ambush half a mile outside their camp and as we drove peacefully along, we were greeted by a hail of blank rifle fire from the bushes. The driver or our truck, not a member of the Home Guard, was so terrified that he promptly ran his truck into the ditch and the exercise was over.” So much for the hot war in the tropics!

Trinidad had attracted the flying pioneers, and had in fact contributed to this industry, not only in the quality of its refined petroleum products but in the gallantry of the men who served in the Royal Air Force in both world wars. The availability of fuel and the pursuit of audiences had attracted the first intercontinental flyers, the “barn stormers”, they certainly served to enliven the imagination of a generation of young men who would later see service over the western front in the Great War. The establishment of the airmail routes brought some of the larger carriers to our skies and turned us in to a major hub, linking North and South America. Out of this interest and because aviation fuel was available and not expensive a pilot training school was started at Piarco aerodrome, where a new generation of flyers were trained, some of whom would serve with distinction in the conflict to come.
It was the Second World War that brought the establishment of an airline which would become synonymous with modern Trinidad. This would not have happened had it not been for those developments taking place at Pointe-à-Pierre.
Trinidad’s oil and the remarkable men, who had created the industry and who were the driving force behind it, and the young flyers who’s aircraft were powered by it would become the silent heros of a deadly world war in the years ahead, and on their return create an institution. Lowell Yerex, in starting British West Indian International Airlines (BWIA) towards the end of 1940, created a national institution.
BWIA’s second-hand Lockheed Lodestar was registered VP-TAE and was the island’s fifth aeroplane. Its first flight was of course bound for Tobago. It became the first airliner to land on the grassy runway at Crown Point. This was followed by another proving flight, this time to Barbados’ Seawell Airport, which had been pioneered by KLM some years before. Crown Point was shortly after declared a custom’s aerodrome, joining Piarco and Cocorite where the sea planes came ashore.
By January of the following year, Piarco, the windy little aerodrome on the plain beneath the Northern Range, was about to experience a significant change of status. Captain R.H. Burton R.M.R. (A) took command of what was to be now known as the Piarco Naval Air Station. The US Air Force had already established them selves at Waller Field, in fact their were four Air Force bases in operation on the island by 1943. This had come about as the result of the increase in U-boat activities in the Atlantic.
BWIA pilots in 1943/44 literally held the islands together. The war in the South Atlantic, just off Mayaro, Toco and Maracas, forced all but the navy and the merchant marine to take to the sky. New air hostesses joined the crew, Helen Scharf, Margarete Bolton and Dolores Gibb. The post of Director of Civil Aviation was handed over to Wing Commander Maurice Banks in 1944. After the war was won, Banks guided the fortunes of BWIA.
 The young men who had attended the A.T.C., the flying school at Piarco, had left their jobs in Port-of-Spain where they had worked as clerks or just enjoyed the good times were now fighting for their very lives. In 1943, twelve men from Trinidad died for liberty in the air war over London and the European continent. They were flying a variety of craft from Avenger Torpedo Bombers to Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancaster Bombers over the Hamburg docks. Some who were to survive were pleased to join BWIA among them: Fernand Farfan he had flown Spitfires in the Middle East. He had been trained at Piarco. Having joined up in 1941, Farfan took part in that famous battle at the Falaise Gap. He returned home as the first local pilot to fly for BWIA.
Philip Kelshall had flown Mosquito fighters on night missions over London, so as to surprise the intruders - which was considered as dangerous. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Kelshall also served with the 29th Nightfighter Squadron. When his official ‘tour’ was over, he returned to Trinidad in July 1946 to become the second local pilot for BWIA.
Esmond Farfan returned to Trinidad at the end of the war. He had served as Captain of a mighty Lancaster bomber over the shrapnel-filled sky of Berlin. He had seen the fires of Stuttgart and Darmstadt and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Esmond was to become BWIA’s third local pilot and served the airline for 33 years. Before the end of the war Waller Field, a US Air Force base at Cumuto in central Trinidad, became for a time one of the largest and busiest in the world. This field, having access to aviation fuel from the close by refineries, was involved in the transatlantic operation that moved tens of thousands of soldiers from Europe on to the Pacific theater in the war’s closing years. This operation was to serve as the model for the Berlin airlift in the period of the start of the Cold War.
As the Trinidadian airmen came home, some found jobs with the airline as navigators, engineers and mechanics. These young men and women set the tone for generations to come.
The European staff of technicians and scientists, together with local skill and labour, had developed at Trinidad Leaseholds in the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery the high octane fuel that had attracted the air pioneers who in turn had caught the imagination of a generations of young men. These, after serving in the RAF, returned to build what was for a while an institution that made us all proud. This was the core from which the airline’s ‘esprit de corps’ came: BWIA was born out of the patriotic fervor that had won the war.
A different future would now take shape, both in the wider world and in Trinidad and Tobago. One that would usher in new technologies and a different world view, in fact a new interpretation of history. A new narrative for the new nations that would come into existence as the old order came to a close and colonialism ended.
Around us in Trinidad, the institutions, symbolised by the buildings that contained them and which had served the old colonial order, would change.
Government House, above, home of the British governors in Trinidad since 1865. The Overseas Forces Club, above right, long disappeared, which had shown during the war years our solidarity as a colony with the combined Allied, British, American and Canadian efforts to win the war, and below White Hall, which stood as the high water mark in the old cocoa economy and served as the headquarters of the American military establishment in the colony during the war, and which would assume a different symbolical role in the years ahead.
IT WAS NOW QUITE A DIFFERENT TIME ALTOGETHER. The end of the Second World War had brought with it victory for the Allied cause. This had been accomplished by the gallantry of the few in the service of a great many. Their effort had been harnessed to the devastating combination of high technology, invention and unrivalled productive capacity.
The war had catapulted the world into a new age. With the creation of radar and the dramatic advances in aviation and, as we have seen, in the production of high octane aircraft fuel technologies, the Battle of Britain and other battles, on land and on the high seas, had been won.
But other inventions of the times foreshadowed a more dramatic future. This may have been indicated when it was learned how the code used by the German High Command during the war might be broken. This achievement was, to a considerable degree, the success of the British Post Office Research Establishment in the building of “Colossus”, the first electronic computer which had produced the acceleration in the analysis process that served to crack the German and Japanese military and naval codes.
But even more dramatic, indeed deadly and world-altering, was the atomic bomb. The war had catapulted the human race into an astounding future, one that lay beyond the furthest imagining of all those who had started on this venture into “The Modern” before the turn of the 19th century, which had been inaugurated by the industrial revolution.
The beginning of the end of the colonial era had commenced in a manner that now, in hindsight, may be seen as tragic. In the winning of the war, Great Britain was now the poor man of the world and, as been suggested by some, had lost the will to dominate world affairs. That role would increasingly be assumed by the United States of America.
There was to be a changing of the guard. In the oil industry in Trinidad the signal for this was the change of ownership of the Trinidad Leaseholds Company. This had been our “Colossus,” for as in ancient times all roads led to Rome, all pipelines in Trinidad led to Trinidad Leaseholds’ refineries at Pointe-à-Pierre.
The owners, the shareholders and the Board of Directors that had led the company through the war years and had been a part of heroic world events, were now prepared to sell their greatly valued asset, no doubt at a very good price. As historian George Higgins was to say, Chairman Simon J. Vos retired with a golden handshake for a job well done.
The company was acquired by the Texas Company, who had made a modest entry into Trinidad oil as far back as 1912, and who had become associated with the McColl Frontinac interest at the Antilles fields in 1938. In 1946 they had made a processing agreement with Trinidad Leaseholds for the refining of their imported crudes that came from the Colombian and Venezuelan fields . In 1949 they purchased an institution in the oil industry in Trinidad, Brighton Terminal Limitedand the 5000 bpd refinery, from the Barbour Oil Company of New York and as such had the right to use the Brighton Jetty, owned by the Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company. They could now import crude, ship out product or supply bunkers.
This would be followed by: the building of the cat-cracker in 1952, the acquisition by Texaco, as the company would be known, in 1956 when the refinery throughput was about 80,000 barrels a day, the quadrupling of production since then with the addition of a Rexformer, hydrotreater, and a second platformer, the conversion of the old Dubbs units to additional topping units, and the addition of a massive 150,000bbs/day topping plant, followed by additional plants for the production of such petrochemicals as benzene, toluene, cyclohexane, and normal paraffins, and the commissioning of the first lubricating oil manufacturing plant.
These events were significant in the sense that they would speak, over the next few years, of fundamental change in the management of the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery—at a time when the politics of nationalism was ushering in independence movements all across the British Empire. The Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), which was now led by John Rojas, registered its concerns. These had to do with the manner in which the workers would be treated by the new management. The union was concerning itself with the nature, the interpretation, of the racial prejudice they were expecting to receive at the hands of yet another set of European bosses, and in a series of protest meetings, sought to highlight the racial confrontations taking place in the Southern States of the United States, perhaps making the point that the South African brand of racism that had been identified by them in the oil fields, was to be replaced with a Deep South, Dixie, variety, reflecting the notion that one brand of imperialism was to be replaced by another.
It was George Higgins’ opinion that “It would appear that there had been undertakings given to Government by the Texas Company with regard to dealing with workers. No one was clear as to how these would work out or what exactly those undertakings were. What was clear was that the company had spent a great deal of money in acquiring the refinery and all that came with it and as such felt convinced that it would it would be an extremely profitable venture”.
In the decade after the war, Trinidad and Tobago experienced general economic growth. The oil industry, linked to the international market in which Texaco was a player, powered the economy, which in turn benefited other sectors. Trinidad increasingly became a classic petroleum economy, always dangerously dependent on oil for export earnings and for government revenues.
The American bases had created thousands of jobs, absorbing almost 20% of the entire labour force. There was a buoyancy in the economy, coming to some extent from consumer spending that was driven by the comparatively high salaries paid out by the Americans to local workers and staff and by the spending of the American servicemen themselves.
In the beginning there had been the intrauterine beat, and eye went in search of it, and found it in the belly of a drum. A primal urge fulfilled. Colonial life had banned the drum, it had become too disturbing in the night. But rhythm in the blood demanded expression. At first they were found, sometimes stolen, begged and bartered for. Steel drums. They came from the oil fields, from the American bases, from the sky, like cargo.
The politician Albert Gomes in his autobiography ‘Through a Maze of Colour’ wrote “The Second World War saw the birth of the steel band. It was both an innovation in musical expression and a social explosion in Trinidad. It also provided an unparalleled instance of puritan humbug. It would be impossible to trace the origins of the steel bands. These must always remain shrouded in mystery and a subject of endless speculation–all things considered, a not surprising genesis for this musical aberration and gimcrack orchestration, whose romantic odyssey spans an arc of picaresque adventure that began in the slum areas in Port-of-Spain, recently reached Cape Kennedy, and is still orbiting.”
The Steel Band, the oil industry and war time Trinidad all hang together in the collective memory of many who were not even there.
The quantity of 55 gallon oil barrels that appeared, their unique similarity to one another, so original in iron, in a world that was still wooden, mostly. They were modern and came from away, flattened they could become fence material or serve as roofing. Mostly they were water barrels, as found objects they were recyclables, and as such could be transformed into any thing and made to tell a story. It was an aesthetic experience, a cross-cultural process - as well as an economic and political one - which was defined by the act of recovering and transforming the detritus of the industrial age, into hand made objects of renewed meaning, utility, devotion, and capable of producing sound of arresting beauty.
They say, one is never sure, that the steel band started in 1937 or ‘38 when “Alexander Ragtime Band” from New Town formerly the “Calvary Tamboo Bamboo Band” came out to play. Their leader was Lord “Humbugger” Carlton  Ford.  He had with him as tuner Victor “Tutie” Wilson, The pans were first made of paint tins, biscuit tins, linseed oil tins, carbide pans, zinc buckets and dust bin covers.  These would all be called pans. Tuned into two notes, they were beaten furiously and rhythmically together to the sound of bamboo poles striking on the ground. What a novelty ! What a spectacle  ! No wonder they caught on in a place like Trinidad, where every thing is possible. A year later, the pan craze brought forth many more similar bands. The boys from Hell Yard, on Charlotte Street in Port-of-Spain, they say discovered it, one “Big Head Hamil” to be precise. As you see it is esoteric, and shrouded in mystery, Winston “Spree” Simon indisputably played his famous “God Save The King” on a “ping pong” for the Governor in 1946, so his “John John” band which was called “Destination Tokyo”, is traditionally given the cake. But it was the 55 gallon oil barrel, that stole the show.
Take a rusty, discarded oil drum, a heavy cannon ball, a blazing fire, a hammer for the fine tuning, plenty noise, a pair of strong arms, a musical ear, and you get a sound that is so soft and tinkling that it could be the sound track to Peter Pan’s flying fairy, or it could be a thundering pulse racing sound, pounding in your ears, reverberating in your belly, playing Ravell’s Bolero. It had emerged from the barrack yards of the slums, it was immediately recognized by the youth of all origins as unique to them, it readily crossed all barriers and belonged to everyone. It was, and rightly so the only musical instrument discovered in the twentieth century, it came from the oil, from Trinidad and Tobago, the land of the Hummingbird.

tended to reflect both its past history and its future in terms of economic and political development. A census taken at the time showed that there were 15,283 persons of European descent, 2.7% (comprising British officials, businessmen and their families, as well as Trinidadians of European descent); 261,485 of African descent, 46.9%; and East Indians at 195,747, representing 35.1%. The Syrian-Lebanese population was 889 persons, 0.2%; and the Chinese numbered 5,641, 1%. Mixed-race or coloured totalled 78,775, 14.1%, and who were a mixture of all the above, with 26 people representing the last of the tribal peoples, and 124 who couldn’t say. The population then was 557,970 souls.
The colonial government, untroubled by this segmentation, in some instances encouraged, an ethnicity-based pattern of economic development to take shape.
This loosely arranged itself along lines where Many people of African descent, the descendants of the slaves and other Africans who had not been enslaved, almost 47% of the population, were to be found in the lower echelons of all areas of the civil service and the police. Both of these services had grown incrementally as the colony’s economy expanded. Very large numbers, in the tens of thousands, had come from the other islands of the Caribbean over the previous 100 years or so, particularly, as we have seen, in the 1920s and 30s when the oilfields were being opened up. A great many people of African decent were self-employed as tradesmen and artisans, such as masons, barbers, carpenters, shoemakers, mechanics, drivers, and plumbers. They worked in the towns and for the trading companies in menial positions, a few as clerks. A great many were longshoremen who worked on the Port-of-Spain docks. Many were servants in the households of the Europeans as well as all others who could afford help. Some coloured people were in agriculture owning cocoa estates, large and small. Some were vegetable farmers, but generally they were labourers. They were mostly Catholic in the first half of the19th century, but with increasing immigration from the other islands, a larger and somewhat more socially upwardly mobile Protestant presence emerged. Some became teachers; it has been argued that the best of these were Methodists. Of these there were remarkable individuals who molded the minds of their young charges with the highest ideals and a sense of social justice, and who gave to them an excellent grounding for entry into the university system of Great Britain. For it was only with an education that the barriers of race and class could be challenged. Concerned with and affected by colonial pressures, they formed “movements” and entered politics in the context of the time.
Trinidad and Tobago had not experienced the complete “colour bar” as was known in some other British territories.
This was because of the nature of its Spanish/French/African heritage where there were some individuals, even families who were socially white, at least in local eyes. This had to do with money, of course, but also with the extent to which these individuals had been educated and had assimilated European, English culture. With the right manners and clothes, the right accent, and lots of hard work the deserving would be rewarded by the Crown with O.B.E.s, M.B.E.s, knight hoods and other imperial awards. This element would include some of the mixed, Afro-European or lightly coloured people, some 78,775, or 14.1% of the overall population, were by and large in the civil service or found jobs in offices as clerks, supervisors and accountants, and were shop attendants in the stores. Some were teaching, some in agriculture, a few in the professions. Having an education had produced the professionals, men who gained status and wealth in the practice of law, in medicine and increasingly in the sciences, including engineering. Some worked in the sugar industry, a few increasingly in the oil.
 The majority of people of East Indian descent, who had arrived from 1845 to 1917, some 35%, were to some considerable extent engaged in agriculture. The vast majority were Hindu’s some were Moslems, many were converted to Presbyterianism. They were mostly labourers in the cane fields and were involved in farming, market gardens and animal husbandry. Although a few had become proprietors of plantations, cocoa as well as sugarcane, some were in the retail trades, owning rumshops and shops that sold food; a few were in transport, gas stations and construction. Two or three families owned cinemas. They increasingly entered the professions, becoming lawyers and doctors. The Indo-Trinidadians’ rural, family-centered, religiously biased lifestyle did not readily allow for the overall miscegenation that characterized the general population. Apart from being primarily rural-dwelling, they were strongly religious and their communities developed socially, religiously and occupationally separate from the Creole population (this term means everyone born in Trinidad, not Tobago who is not of Indian descent). They entered politics slowly in the first decades of the 19th century. Their leaders, community, religious and Labour were preoccupied  with their own concerns because indentureship had kept them on the estates and their way of life ensured that they remained largely rural. This isolation was encouraged by the colonial government and the planters’ lobby even after the indentureship system had ended in 1921,
The descendants of the resident European colonists were mostly involved in business and civil administration and agriculture. In the case of the British, the Scots had established themselves in the colony from the early 19th century, creating firms that were engaged in importing and exporting, retail, and distribution. Over time, joined by other British, they would become involved in the oil industry and light manufacturing, insurance banking and real estate. The owners of these concerns would hold the nominated seats in the island’s Legislative Council and to a degree influence local affairs. Some over time would form the English Creole society. They would be buttressed by the intransigent English, comprising the officials, ranging from the Governor, the Colonial Secretary, down to various personnel in the Judiciary, colonial civil service, people who worked as artisans in the oil and in the sugar industry, the police on through to absentee landlords, vagabonds and “remittance men”. A few stayed on to form families; most left at independence. The English mingled less with the locals than the Scots. The Scots, however, being boilermakers on the sugar estates, took comfort with more than a wee “drap” on windy, rainy nights...
The Trinidadians of Portuguese descent were largely in retail, owning and working in shops that sold food. Some were in the commission agency business, importing goods and exporting local produce. Others, coming from a background of blending and bottling spirits in Madeira, owned rumshops and bars. A few were gardeners, some were in clerking and worked for other Portuguese, and increasingly in the larger firms that were owned by the Scottish merchants. A handful entered the civil service, where one or two made it to the top. In a manner similar to the Indians their earliest arrivals, 1849, had been indentured labourers. According to local prejudice they were not considered socially to be European, although they were. This had prevented social mobility, but had accommodated close, some would say intimate, ties with the general population. They were upwardly mobile producing professionals and individuals who became prominent as labour leaders and politicians.
To some extent apart from the English, but sharing in the prestige of pigment, were the French Creoles. This term included Irish, Spanish, Corsican and some German families that being Catholic had married into the French pioneer families of the late 18th century, most of whom were still socially and politically European. These clung to aristocratic notions of themselves that were largely imaginary but were expressed in stylish entertainments, gracious living and a more charming way of expressing their prejudices than the English. Being firstly agriculturist, the French Creoles had benefited from the cocoa boom and reminded of better times had spent their fortunes quickly. Having a fondness of amour they contributed considerable to the mixture of races in Trinidad. Two or three individuals entered the larger trading houses and were appointed to the boards that governed them. Three or four sat in the Nominated seats of the Legislative Council representing agricultural interest. A great many worked in the civil service, up until the 1950s, in positions of responsibility that was controlled by the inevitable glass ceiling that affected all natives. Some worked in the sugar industry and increasingly in the oil, quite a few were in the professions and a great many functioned as clerks, accountants and managers in various offices. Quite a lot took Holy Orders in the Catholic church and influenced education beneficially.
Despite their relatively small number, hardly more than thirty families, the French Creole culture left a lasting impression. It mostly expressed itself in religion, family life, keeping up with the Jones’ and marrying one’s cousins so as improve one’s pedigree, and it proved surprisingly resilient to change. In attitudes to work and productivity the French Creoles were far more relaxed than anyone else and in the pursuit of gaiety, particularly in the Carnival arts which permeated the society, they were extemporaneous.
The Chinese imported wives from China as well as other Asian specialities and exported the island’s produce. They ran small retail outlets and groceries and increasingly larger ones, owned restaurants, steam laundries and bakeries. They produced some professionals and became Christians. Some were clerks, worked in banks, several were entrepreneurs and they more often than not employed other Chinese. They too enjoyed miscegenation, and with independence gave us our first local Governor General, Sir Solomon Hochoy.
Those from the Middle East, Syria and the Lebanon, were mostly Christian. They were all involved in the small retail trade. Many had started off as peddlers, several still were at the time of the census. Not perceived as socially or politically European, in the colonial milieu they were excluded from European and coloured middle class society, but instinctively entrepreneurial, and perhaps not being aware of, and certainly not allowing this isolation to interfere with reality, they proceeded to become enormously wealthy in the dry goods and other forms of enterprise particularly real estate. They had come mostly from small Christian enclaves in the Moslem Middle East and this was to contribute to some considerable degree to their non-involvement with the overall community, although like the Chinese and the Portuguese they did interface elaborately and intimately with their customers. They too imported spouses.
This segmentation of the society in the years before independence was to some considerable degree encouraged by the British authorities. Nevertheless, it was accepted and participated in by the overall population and in many ways perpetuated after independence. The patterns of activity took some elements of the segments of the population, mainly Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Syrians and the localy, descended Europeans increasingly into the professions and into entrepreneurial  business activities and evident prosperity, and left some others seemingly to work forever for the government, in private concerns, as small owner-operators, or limited to the professions. This would come to affect the political landscape in the decades to come, a situation that would be further exacerbated by the monolithic petroleum-based economy that would dominate all others.
PARTY TIME. Dr. Eric Eustace Williams founded the ‘People’s National Movement’ in the early 1950s. History could argue that both he and the political party that has dominated Trinidad and Tobago for more than half a century had its roots ultimately in the Patois-speaking, Creole, free black and coloured intelligentsia of pre-emancipation days, and in the Afro-French reform movements of the later 19th century that had agitated against Crown Colony Rule. This would be only partially right, however. Dr. Williams, born 1911, was a product of his environment which was largely 19th century, but he was also a man of his times, which were the first decades of the 20th century.
The Reform Movement came into existence largely as a reaction to British Crown Colony rule. It was out of its endeavour for self-determination, framed in nationalistic sentiment, that popular leaders were to emerge.
One of these was Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, of European descent, who had styled himself as the defender of ‘the barefoot man’ and who went on to put back-bone into the new-born trade union movement, the Trinidad Workingman’s Association. The TWA was itself a product of the reformists and the forerunner of the trade union movement that in the 1930s had challenged the management of the oil companies and confronted the status quo. They had, through ardent militancy, brought about  improved wages and working conditions in the oil fields and altered the social and political conditions in the colony. Challenged in his old age by the young, vigorous, out-spoken and ‘man of the people’ Portuguese politician, intellectual and trade unionist Albert Gomes, the Captain faded eventually from the stage of local politics.
The Gomes years, important to the development of nationalism, stretched from the middle 1930s to the early 1960s, came to an end with the failed Federation. This was the period when individuals, independents, middle-class trade unionists and a host of idealists, some really political opportunists, were allowed to play at politics by the Colonial Office. This is where Eric Williams appeared on the scene. He had proved himself eminent in scholarship, in debate and his command of language. He possessed the common touch. He was the locus of the entire French/African colonial experience, and it was felt by many of his constituents that he was arrogant enough to deal with both the British and French creole establishment. His stature was messianic. What he said, what he did in those formative years are cast, to this day, in iron, immutable, or so it would appear.
Dr. Williams took advantage of the post-war disenchantment of the ‘Gomes government’ and its loss of working class support. But he was not alone in terms of locally-grown ‘genius’. The first generation of significant Indian leaders on a national level was defining their role on the political scene. The Capildeo brothers, Lionel Seukaran, Mitra Sinanan, Badase Maraj and others emerged from local estate life and rural politics on through to the Legislative Council. They overtime would be an opposition in the waiting.
Dr. Williams had been educated at Oxford University in the period just before the last war. Although not actively participating in the left-wing politics that had become fashionable in England in the period, he possessed broadly socialist views. He was a historian, and would become an ardent nationalist. Williams entered politics in Trinidad and Tobago with an energy and a sense of intention that had never been seen before. He was among a relatively small elite in the 1950s, the period of decolonialisation, who appeared in the colonies and who had acquired the ideology, the techniques and above all, the vernacular of western politics in the post-war period. His impassioned discourses, which were professorial in character and historical in content, were garnished with resounding phraseology that captivated his audiences.
One of the most significant economic milestones of the 1950s, and occurring in the same year that Eric Williams won the elections to become the first Premier of Trinidad and Tobago, was as we have seen the acquisition of Trinidad Leaseholds by the American Texas Company.
Since 1946, Trinidad Leaseholds, and the Texas Company had a processing agreement, whereby TLL processed Texaco’s Venezuelan and Colombian crude. Also, Trinidad Leaseholds and the Texas Oil Company ( the arm of the Texas Company operating in Great Britain) marketed their products jointly in the UK since 1947. What followed in 1948 the startup of the Regent Oil Company, with shares owned 50:50 by TLL and a company called Caltex. The latter owned all the shares of the Texas Oil Company in the U.K, and was jointly owned by the Texas Company and Standard Oil of California. Regent was a marketing company, and it rapidly acquired 15% of the market. As such, Trinidad Leaseholds was able to maintain an output of between 7.3 and 7.9 million barrels per year between 1946 and 1954 (production had peaked at 8.7 million barrels during the war).
However, even though a successful drill at Soldado in 1955 was promising, TLL was continuously plagued with the fact that crude resources in Trinidad were just too small. In order to continuously supply crude at a price that would allow the company to maximise on its profit margins, TLL would have to amalgamate with another major oil concern. Eventually, the Board of Directors accepted an offer by the American Texas Company (which, through Caltex, already owned half of TLL’s marketing company Regents) and Trinidad Leaseholds was acquired by Texaco for £63 million.
What a furore in the streets of Port-of-Spain and San Fernando! A British company, located in a British colony, bought by the “Yankees”—who actually had been a marketing partner and been supplying crude through Caltex all the time, but who really knew about that? Higgins cites a calypso that commented on popular feelings about this transaction:

Well the days of slavery back again
Ah hope it ain’t reach in Port-of-Spain
Since the Yankees come back over here
They buy out the whole of Pointe-à-Pierre
Money start to pass, people start to bawl
Pointe-à-Pierre sell the workmen and all.

But of course, the trade made sense: oil supply in South America and the Middle East was expanding rapidly, the Texas Company wanted to tap into that supply and market products in the UK and elsewhere, and Leaseholds had extra refining capacities. In 1957, TLL (which by that time had changed its name to The Trinidad Oil Company) became Texaco Trinidad Inc., (Textrin) and after a while, the Regents name on top of gas pumps in the United Kingdom changed to Texaco. Textrin had two Trinidadian personalities on its Board of Directors in 1957: Marc de Verteuil (representing the former Brighton and Antilles companies) and H.O.B. Wooding, QC. With the necessary cash injections from the Texas Company, Texaco Trinidad’s holdings and interests almost quadrupled in the next 12 years. Such is the power of amalgamations!
In the first years after the acquisition, the refinery was expanded substantially, geared to yield aviation gasoline primarily for commercial aircraft servicing the Caribbean region (in later years, also increasingly jet engine fuel), and fuel oils for export to the US east coast markets. In those years, the refinery’s crude still came to a substantial part from its own and other Trinidad sources: Throughput at Pointe-à-Pierre in 1956 was 80,000 bbls/day, of which 40,000 came from Trinidad crude (split into 22,000 from Leasehold’s own fields and 18,000 from Apex and other local fields). The other sources were Venezuela (25%), Saudia Arabia and Safaniya (10%), and Texaco-owned sources in Arabia and Indonesia, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. In terms of local crude production, from the acquisition of TLL in 1956 to 1959, Textrin increased annual production from the former TLL wells by 6 million barrels to 14 million barrels, and that from Antilles and Trinidad Northern Areas by 2.8 million barrels to 7.9 million barrels (the latter mostly offshore production).
Fuel oil for export to the United States rose to 55.4% of production of Textrin. “Satisfying the fuel oil demand was, perhaps, one of the compelling reasons for the takeover of TTOC,” writes George Higgins in his “HIstory of Trinidad Oil”. “In one stroke the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery put Texaco Incorporated in a fully competitive strategic position vis-à-vis Esso at Aruba and Shell in Curaçao.”
Project 1236 followed (this was now the period of the Cold War, with codenames still in use), which included the installation of major tanks in Pointe-à-Pierre, together with new berthing facilities for tankers that increased ever in size. The Suez canal was closed in 1956, and larger vessels had to come around the Cape of Good Hope to supply crude to Trinidad from the Middle East and Asia—up to 85,000 tonners at the time. Additional areas of mangrove swamp were reclaimed, new subsea pipelines to fill tankers further out at sea laid, and a 6,500 kW gas-turbine for electricity generation installed, the first of its kind in Trinidad. In 1960, Textrin offered a full range of petroleum and petrochemicals. Its marketing arm, Texaco (Trinidad) Ltd., operated out of the Colonial Life Building in Port-of-Spain, the first modern multi-storey office building in the city.
In 1960, Texaco opened a modern office block in Pointe-à-Pierre. The era if working in moskito-netted, wooden buildings on stilt, wearing shorts, tall socks and short-sleeved shirt, came to an end, and central air-conditioning as well as new dress codes required the office staff to appear in long trousers, shirt, tie and socks. There were minor revolts by the staff, but these were quickly settled and compromised on (no ties for Trinidadians necessary), but in the larger picture, the 1960 OWTU strike called against Textrin was a more serious affair, since it was the first serious industrial action taken since 1937 and brought back the fears on both sides of that time. The issues were eventually settled after much shouting on both sides, but, as Higgins describes, “the peace and tranquillity that had prevailed on the industrial scene never really returned to what it had been previously”. In fact, the years preceding and immediately after independence in 1962 were plagued by strikes, with millions of man hours lost in Trinidad and Tobago. One could argue that the competitiveness of the fledgling nation was seriously impacted by these strikes, and a general air of labour hostility cemented itself in the emerging body politic to this day. The early 1960s were the beginning of  a developing “strike consciousness” on the part of businesses, which Minister of Finance A.N.R. Robinson in the budget speech of 1963 said was inhibiting the impetus to grow. “Unsatisfactory industrial relations during the past two years have struck at the root of confidence of investors, rapid wage increases are reducing the competitiveness of local labour,” he commented. “These factors combined are tending to nullify the various incentives offered by the government to attract investment.”
Texaco’s new office building was fitting for a refinery that was in 1960, with a total refinery capacity of 350,000 bpd, the largest in the British Commonwealth, and the second-largest in Texaco. It hailed a phase of Project 1236 which comprised the building of a lubricating oil manufacturing plant, canning plant, lube oil storage, blending facilities, a jetty capable of loading lube oils and petrochemicals in bulk or in drums. This phase was built under the provisions of the Pioneer Industries legislation and was exceedingly profitable for Texaco, as the legislation gave it a tax break of several years. The Aid to Pioneer Industries Programme was an attempt of encouragement from the government to help some people to venture into industry. From its inception in 1950, it had resulted in 71 products being declared pioneer products and 72 manufacturers declared pioneer manufacturers by 1957. Williams informed parliament in his budget speech of that year of the needs to develop agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, tourism and transport, improved harbours and a better airport in Tobago. “Oil production increased five-fold from 5.38 million barrels in 1927 to 28.93 in 1956,” he said, adding that food imports for the ever-increasing population were on the rise. While he held out some hope for an even better cocoa crop, he cautioned that the government was becoming more and more dependent on oil, which accounted for 80% of exports at the time.
Prime Minister Eric Williams opened Textrin’s new manufacturing unit personally in 1964—a prestigious project, because it enabled to refinery for the first time to manufacture a full range of locally-manufactured petroleum products in addition to petrochemicals. The project also had the side effect that dry materials no longer needed to be transported from Port-of-Spain harbour to Pointe-à-Pierre by Government railway, but could be offloaded at the newly-built jetty directly. This was a big drop-off in revenue for the railway, and a contributing factor to its closure not long afterwards, with plans to implement a new train system not underfoot until the time of writing, more than 40 years later.  The other contributing factor to the demise of the railway was of course the increase in cars and the improvement of the road system. Already in 1962, Williams announced his plan to phase out railroads and substitute with road transport and regulation of the taxi system. The car began to take over Trinidad. The number of vehicles imported in 1955 was 4,798, which had almost doubled by 1960 to 8,439. There was one licensed vehicle for every 19 people of the population—even though unemployment hovered around 14% and sometimes rose to 18%! Williams actually saw this as a sign of development. “The increased consumption reflects the higher purchasing power of the people. The community spent $7.8 million in 1956 on its imports of 3,353 motor vehicles of all sorts. In 1960 it spent 16.7 million on 6,680 motor vehicles,” he remarked in his 1961 budget speech.  By 1961, the Beetham Highway and Lady Young Road had been completed and the Maracas-Las Cuevas Road was about to formally open. Williams lamented that while the number of licensed private cars had increased by 5,848 over the three-year period from 1956 to 1959, persons paying taxes increased by only 420! For every additional 14 persons who acquired a car, only one paid income tax. There were 28,771 private cars licensed and 32,757 registered, while only 15,400 people paid taxes. So much for life being sweet in an oil producing country, where the biggest refinery in the Commonwealth churns out cheap gasolene and cars are the measure of prosperity as the government struggled to collect revenue through taxes...
Another problem presented itself with Project 1236, in that the stevedores required for the new jetty, who were in charge of unloading cargo, were controlled by the highly-politicised Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Trade Union (SWWTU), which was an addition to the OWTU already in place in Texaco. Naturally, “demarkation problems” occurred initially with the stevedores, with the union demanding that more of its Port-of-Spain men be deployed at Pointe-à-Pierre (not a very practical solution), which took a while to sort out.


Graduated from US Naval Academy in 1926
Served in the NAvy until 1930
Joined the Texas Company in 1930
Served in WWII in the Navy in South America and Washington
Assigned to US Embassy in London as Petroleum Attaché to coordinate petroleum supplies for the Allies (where he became aware of capabilities and potential of Pointe-à-Pierre refinery)
Vice President of Texaco in 1949
Director in 1950
Chairman and CEO in 1956-1965


In closing of this segment of the history of “Black Gold” in Trinidad, one must mention Augustus Long, who was to retire as Texaco Chairman and CEO in 1965, and who had a keen personal interest in the developments in Trinidad. Long had a personal relationship with both Prime Minister Williams and Governor-General Sir Solomon Hochoy.  In terms of the problems and opportunities facing a small nation emerging out of colonialisation, which was also host to the largest non-US investment of Texaco in the world, the men saw eye-to-eye. Sir Solomon also had a personal interest in the providing of adequate housing to low-income households in the country, a concern Augustus Long shared because the housing of oil workers had been a perennial problem of the industry. Between 1950 and 1956, the total population of Trinidad and Tobago had increased from 635,834 to 742,500, and this trend continued—with the petro sector as one of the main reasons for immigration.
It was a time when commercial banks were not offering loans to lower income brackets to build homes, and Textrin, with the assistance of government, came to an arrangement with the banks to keep sufficient cash balances with those institutions to offset home mortgage facilities extended to its employees. A separate housing department was set up at Textrin. As a consequence, large areas in Guayaguayare, Pointe-à-Pierre and Brighton were developed for housing at the company’s expense, and government and the credit union also made land available for building at San Fernando and Claxton Bay, for employees to build their own homes on freehold or long-term leased lands. All this contributed to the reason why up to today, the hospital at Pointe-à-Pierre was named for Augustus Long, remembering this great private sector person who “put his money where his mouth was” and invested so substantially in a better life for countless Trinidadians and West Indians at large.
Texaco’s Pointe-à-Pierre refinery was undoubtably in the front rank of the world’s largest and most highly integrated refineries. The huge industrial and residential complex stood on what once were six coconut estates with pretty French names: Bon Accord, La Carriere, Concord, Bonne Aventure, Plein Palais and Plaisance. As such, in its first 50 years, the refinery grew from a small batch distillation plant, perched on a hillside near a vulnerable pipeline viaduct, to a huge petroleum and petrochemical complex with its attendant tank farm, reservoirs, and shipping port — once one of the largest in the world, one that helped to win two world wars, and one of the most beautifully-sited refineries in the world up to this day.

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