Great Hopes, Great Bucks and the Great Blast
From labourer to millionaire - the ‘Trinidadian Dream’ came almost true for East Indian immigrant Bunsee Partap
On 2nd February 1869, the good ship Poonah brought 215 immigrants from India to Trinidad. One of them was a man called Bunsee Partap, who was indentured to Belle Vue Estate in Oropouche.
Bunsee was a Hindu. In India he had belonged to the Malla caste, a low service caste. He was not to remain single for a long time: family tradition has it that a year or two later, he married the widow Luckpatea, whose high-caste husband had died shortly after coming to Trinidad.
After their indentureship was up, the couple accepted £5 each in lieu of a return passage to India and purchased 2 1/2 acres of land adjoining Belle Vue estate, as well as 10 acres near Fyzabad.
They must have worked very hard in their little family business, and eventually Bunsee was also lending money at the then ususal interest rate of around 10 to 12 per cent. Like other former indentured Indians, he leased out his lands to small farmers, who were allowed rent-free usage of the land for a limited amount of time in return for planting and raising a specified amount of cocoa trees. After their lease was up, Partap was left with a huge cocoa estate full of mature trees bearing fruit. He was thus able to profit from the cocoa boom of the late 19th century.
With their various business ventures, the hard-working Partaps became well-off people. Among the villagers in Oropouche Bunsee had the nickname ‘Mahatoo’, the ‘great one’. When the first world war started in 1914, he and his wife, who were by then into their seventies, lived on the Fyzabad-Guapo road.
Their peaceful cocoa planter lives were to change forever, though. During the war, the British fleet changed its machines from coal to fuel, making mineral oil exploration all of a sudden very viable. In Trinidad, feverish attempts to find more of the ‘Black Gold’ were made, and one success followed another. In 1917, oil was found in Fyzabad, and the British Apex Oilfields Company soon had acquired drilling rights on the lands surrounding the Partaps’ estate.
Bunsee, however, did not want to even negotiate with the oil pioneers. The noise of the machinery closeby was annoying enough, the dirt of the trucks and the endless stream of foreign workers - he definitely did not want that on his land!
In the end, however, he was coaxed into cooperation by Bobby Wade, a young Trinidadian driller of English creole parentage, and Ralph Sammy, a businessman from San Fernando. They formed the Fyzabad Dome Oil Company, and in 1928, nine drilling sites were mapped out on the eleven acres of Bunsee’s estate.
Two of the wells struck oil, and a third one was drilled. This one was to prove fatal, though: on the evening of December 7, 1928, the pressure of oil and gas in the well got out of control, and the well exploded. The Great Blast killed sixteen people who at that time had been in its vicinity, trying to stop the precious oil from gushing and flowing into the river.
Amongst the dead were Bobby Wade, Ralph Sammy and old Bunsee Partap.
“All that remained of Bunsee Partap was an insignificant heap of ash and calcined bone, a belt-buckle, a bunch of five keys and the ramins of a watch in an initialled metal fob, by means of which he was identified.” writes Anthony de Verteuil in his book ‘Eight East Indian Immigrants’.
However, Bunsee’s sudden death did not stop the Partap fortune. His main inheritor was his grandson Sobran, who with the help of his lawyer Mikey Hamel-Smith, took charge of the complex business of Dome Oil Fields. He fared extremely well. When cocoa and sugar prices dropped into nothingness in the 1930s, Sobran acquired the Belle Vue Estate (1,100 acres) for the dumping price of $ 10,000! But the most successful oil field was still the original 11 acres his grandfather had purchased, bringing in a huge profit for the otherwise stingy Sobran. He built fabulous residences in Oropouche and in Scotland Bay, bought the latest Buick models, and lived a generally opulent life. On the other hand, he paid his staff little and was stingy with his relatives.
Maybe through the combination of great wealth with a mistrustful and ungenerous attitude, Sobran attracted a lot of envy. He was threatened and blackmailed, and on 25th March, 1939, he was shot in his bedroom. The crime to this day remains unsolved; the killers were never found. As de Verteuil relates,
“For many, many years, his palatial mansion was uncared for and uninhabited and avoided, as a house that was haunted.” For the Oropouchians, the curse of the exploding well and the shooting still hovered over the Partap property.