By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. | MDGR LAW | Trademark & Business Law Firm
Photo: Amusing Planet.
Trinidad’s Pitch Lake is a world wonder. It is the largest and richest source of natural asphalt. The lake contains approximately 10 million tons of asphalt, spans 100 acres, and is approximately 250 feet deep. For reference, that is about 2 times bigger than Grand Central Station and deeper than the height of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World.
Legend says that a local tribe was celebrating a victory against a rival tribe. However, in the midst of their celebrations, they began to cook and eat the sacred hummingbird. God allegedly punished the group by opening the Earth and creating the Pitch Lake to swallow their souls. God left the Pitch Lake as a reminder to others of the tribe’s terrible sin. Local villages believe this legend because Amerindian artifacts and bones were found preserved (due to the asphalt) near the lake. The Amerindian word for asphalt was “piche.”
The Europeans first learned of the Pitch Lake when Sir Walter Raleigh visited the island in 1595, around the time he was looking for El Dorado. The natives took Raleigh to the lake and he used the asphalt to caulk his ship. The asphalt was “most excellent,” in his opinion, because it did not melt in the sun like the Norway asphalt.
In 1887, an American businessman secured a 42-year monopoly on the lake. As a result, many of the first asphalt roads in New York City, Washington D.C., and other eastern U.S. cities were paved using the asphalt from Trinidad’s Pitch Lake. In conjunction, much of the Pitch Lake’s profits went abroad to a foreign investor and not to the local Trinidadian population.
Scientifically speaking, it is believed that the Pitch Lake is located at the intersection of two faults. The oil at the intersection rises and the sun evaporates the lighter elements in the oil, and leaves behind the heavier elements creating the asphalt. Kerosene and oil also have been harvested from the Pitch Lake.
The Pitch Lake is not Trinidad’s only treasure. It’s people and their culture are equally as valuable to the rest of the world.
Trinidad and Tobago were taken by Spain following Columbus' discovery. Spain spent many years at war trying to conquer the natives and convert them to Catholicism. In 1699, Spain’s continued forceful conversion caused a violent uprising that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Amerindians, members of the Church, and members of the local government. After this, the tension between the two groups was generally settled for the next hundred years.
Spain then enslaved Africans to work on the plantations. At one point, the enslaved Africans outnumbered the plantation owners and free workers. The Africans did their best to preserve their African traditions despite severe oppression, and despite being thousands of miles away from home. This perseverance would eventually spawn the gift of Trinidad Carnival-- a celebration that many around the world look forward to annually.
In 1777, Spain offered free land to those willing to pledge allegiance to the King in order to populate the islands. Many French planters during the French Revolution took advantage of the land proposal. The mass French exodus to Trinidad had a greater cultural impact on Trinidad compared to the minimal impact of the Spanish.
In 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and Spain surrendered without a fight. Britain began importing Indian indentured servants in 1845, with the first ship being the Fatel-Razak. The indentureship period lasted from 1845 to 1917 and involved approximately 147,000 Indians working on sugarcane and cocoa plantations. Many of these Indians would remain in Trinidad and form the majority of the country’s population.
When Britain colonized Trinidad and Tobago, sugar was the dominant industry. The sugar industry boomed because of slave labor, indentured servant labor, and later factories. In the 1880s, several small estates struggled to profit and sold their estates to the large sugar plantations. (The large sugar factories were also referred to as “usines.”) Other British companies abandoned sugar altogether. The remaining sugar plantations and factories were mainly in central Trinidad and around San Fernando. The large factories would grind the sugar canes from local estates and farms, often run by Indians. By the 1960s, nearly all of Trinidad’s sugar was produced by the British company, Caroni Ltd. The government eventually bought this company and it still remains operational today. As for Tobago, “King Sugar” died there in the 1880s and has not been resurrected since.
The cocoa industry came next. Records indicate that cocoa was cultivated on Trinidad and Tobago since the Spaniards first arrived. Cocoa became Trinidad’s successful export around the 1880s. It was grown all throughout Trinidad. The cocoa industry afforded Tobagonians an opportunity to work after the fall of the sugar industry in Tobago. The cocoa industry’s dominance ended in the 1920s for two reasons. First, crop prices around the world dropped. Second, the “witchbroom” disease afflicted the cocoa trees and the trees never fully recovered.
With sugar and cocoa at the wayside, small farmers contributed to Trinidad and Tobago’s economy and sustenance by growing food to eat and food to feed the animals. For example, they grew fruits and vegetables including beans and provisions. Farming did not often elevate the economic status of the farmer. Many farmers remained in poverty. However, owning their own land fostered a sense of fulfillment and nationality.
In the 1920s, the agricultural market was surpassed by the modern oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry still reigns today. The three major oil pioneers were Walter Darwent, John Lee Lum, and Randolph Rust. Darwent, a former soldier in the American Civil War, drilled the first successful oil well at Aripero in 1865. He died of yellow fever in 1868 and the oil industry was on hold for 30 years until Lee Lum arrived in Trinidad. The successful Chinese businessman acquired land and partnered with Rust to form a company to prospect the area. Rust’s efforts paid off and, in 1913, large-scale oil production began in Trinidad. Rust’s Guayaguayare oil site is still maintained by Trinidad’s national oil company Petrotrin, and has been designated as a historic site.
Petroleum would later become Trinidad’s main export in the 1950s. The early oil discoveries and production were spearheaded and controlled by American companies and American businessmen. Thus, Trinidad and Tobago’s proximity to Guyana should raise caution concerning outside influence in Trinidad’s politics, and a power struggle to control potential oil profits from future discoveries.
In 1962, Trinidad & Tobago gained independence from Britain. Eric Williams, who was of African descent, served as the first prime minister until his death in 1981. He is often regarded as the “Father of the Nation.”
Last year, the Minister of Energy announced that the Broadside well in TTDAA3 will be the deepest drill depth in Trinidad. The announcement is important because it highlights progress in Trinidad’s hydrocarbon exploration.
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a trademark and business attorney who helps new businesses throughout the world. She writes articles on the importance of trademarks, trademark law updates, and also West Indian history (with an emphasis on India, Trinidad, Guyana, and the United States).
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