Our Creole soul gives way to a Caribbean reality
In the early 17th century (circa 1630), Dutch explorers had already made note of the viability of the exportation of Trinidad’s petroleum products. One such wrote: “The Governor with Don Diego Ruiz went down the river to Cedros Bay, to Punta La Brea, where pitch was cut with hatchets and crowbars to serve for patching the pearl fishing canoes at Margarita.”
Despite the interest shown by several early pioneers, some of whom virtually invented their methods of exploration as they went along, the most remarkable event in the development of Trinidad’s oil industry took place some 280 years later. The headline in the Port-of-Spain Gazette: “Brighton could become one of the fuel depots of the Caribbean” was prompted by no other than Winston Churchill, who announced in 1910 that the Royal Navy would convert from coal to oil fuel, and that this source of energy was to come primarily from within the Empire. Great Britain would be able to maintain an oceangoing battle fleet on the high seas and in so doing ‘Rule the Waves’.
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, coffe, tonca beans and other locally grown products, and of course asphalt from the Pitch Lake.
This new economy based on the exploration, drilling, refining and exporting of fossil fuel impacted upon the collective life of these islands for all time. Significant changes were made in the education system, in the development of new townships, in the road system, in the supply of electricity, water and communications. New jobs, in fact new careers, opened. Professional people, educated and highly trained, came to these islands. Our own young men and women would be remembered among this rich new technically trained intelligentsia that would serve to develop the overall population.
Randolph Rust sought to service his company, ‘General Petroleum Properties of Trinidad Ltd.’, and travelled to London in 1910 to raise capital. Speaking at the Victoria Institute before his departure he remarked:
“In the light of my discoveries, I felt that Trinidad, England’s most valuable possession in the West Indies, being as it is one of 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.
Wild speculation was the order of the day with the selling of land and oil rights all over southern Trinidad. Some sixty companies were ... between 1909 and 1912. Money changed hands. The sleepy agricultural economy experienced a dramatic uplift: fortunes were made. However, twenty-eight 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 couls be readily obtained.
Compensation was also paid for loss of agricultural land which was now put to other uses. Roads were developed to hitherto unknown parts of the island, “behind .... 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 Ltd., 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 syndicats that accomodated a umber of smaller interest, including Randolph Rust’s G.P.P. of Trinidad. This consolidation produced Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd.
New and contenious issues emerged for the first time. 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.
By the start of the first world war, Trinidad’s production had risen to one million barrels per year. This was achieved through tremendous hard and dangerous work. 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 mapapie and coral snakes, scorpions and foot-long centipedes.
Another problem was the nature of the equipment, which was often not suitable. Drilling riggs were huge, wooden contraptions. Roads through the forsest were made of slippery hardwood logs, the so-called corduroy roads. Manpower was supplemented by steam enginges, by oxen power, as the internal combustion engine was still in its infancy. It is ironical that the most voracious drinker of fossil fuels today could hardly survive a good Trinidad rainy season 75 year ago!
The price of oil displaced discussions of the price of cocoa in the hotel bars and gentlemen’s clubs ot Trinidad. 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, 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 wharfs capable of taking vessels eight metres in draught. Oil was used to fight mosquitoes in their breeding places and kerosene, 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. Amongst 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.
The advent of Trinidad Oil made itself felt in other Caribbean territories. West Indian coaling stations, once the centre piece 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. The development of, on the one hand, an oilfield camp life, generating new and negative forms of racist attitudes and elitism with institutionalised ‘separatism’. On the other hand vibrant trade unions emerged, together with an ambitious and educated middle class creating small businesses. A professional class emerged, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and supply and service companies, shipping agents and the importers of heavy machinery.
During the first world war, thousands of men from Trinidad and Tobago 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. They returned to what for all intent and purpose was and old way, a degrading way of life. These men would soon group themselves into even stronger unions, seeking not only a fair day’s pay, but also social justice for all. Rienzi, Butler, Rojas and othera stood up for the cause of the oilworker in what was to be one of the great industries of the world.
The Bup Bup
Amongst the many small businesses emerging in those formative years of the second world war was the Bermudez Biscuit & Cigarette Manufacturing Company. There was great poverty in the island in the 1930s. Flour like rice was a staple as it is today. Bermudez’ soda biscuit, cheap, several for one cent, was everyone’s friend. The soda biscuits were sold in black drums, the same sort of drum into which the southern oil companies filled their oil. Increasingly available to one and all, the biscuit drum became assimilated into the island’s basic cultural musical instrument, the drum. The biscuit tin drum, the Crix drum, the ‘Bup Bup’, which may be older than the ‘Ping Pong’.
Another drum which was used in Trinidad Carnival - and particularly so in J’ouvert - was the square ‘Crix’ tin. These tins had originally come to the island as containers for salted butter, and Bermudez re-used the washed-out tins for the distribution of ‘Crix’, lending a slight buttery flavour to their biscuits.
The development of the steelband came directly from the creation of Trinidad Oil as a national institution. Driven to express themselves in art and music, Trinidadians turned disused oil drums into finely tuned musical insturments.