RUSTED: The remains of the old rum still.

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Aripero, home of T&T's first oil well

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

FOR the people living in the villages of Aripero and Otaheite along Trinidad's gulf coast, it would be hard to imagine fields of sugarcane in the areas that are now homes and businesses. But in the 19th century, the plantations ruled. That is, until the discovery of hydrocarbons.

The finds caused the decline of agriculture in the area, as owners leased land for lucrative sums to oil explorers.

Sugarcane estates gradually moved from the production of sugar.

Molasses, a by-product of sugar, became an important ingredient in the production of rum, and facilities at Otaheite were established to convert molasses to rum.

The pitch at nearby La Brea, although known for more than two centuries, directed explorers to the existence of crude in the area.

Seepages of oil in and around the lake attracted considerable commercial and scientific attention, and Aripero and Otaheite became important industry players.

Two men were largely responsible for the changes—Walter Darwent and Solomon Colingwood Boodoosingh.

Darwent drilled the first successful oil well at Aripero in 1866 and Boodoosingh was the first to establish a rum still at Otaheite in 1931.

Darwent's oil well has become a heritage site.

Boodoosingh's rum still equipment remains idle near the home of Taranpersad Sagoonanan who lives at Rumstil Avenue, Otaheite.

Historians record that Darwent, a retired army captain, who fought in the American Civil War (1861-1865,) came to Trinidad in 1865 to find oil.

He was born in Norfolk, England, in 1821. and knew little about oil exploration.

As a young man, he was trained in some aspects of mechanical engineering, including the construction of bridges, railway tunnels and roads.

His mission was to find oil in Trinidad at all costs, the story goes.

George Higgins, in the book A History of Trinidad Oil, states: "Darwent's search for crude began in San Fernando in March 1866 where he drilled two wells.

"The first was in the vicinity of St James and Chacon Streets (San Fernando).

"The first well reached 150 feet, but no oil was found.

"The second was drilled to a depth of 160 feet, and some oil with non-commercial value was found.

"Both wells were abandoned, and Darwent then shifted his operations to Aripero Estate on lands owned by Paul Lange."

There he struck good quality oil in May 1866.

The discovery, however, sparked little interest among residents of Aripero.

The villagers were bent on ensuring their crabs and iguanas were not affected.

The Trinidad Petroleum Co Ltd (TPCL) that was formed to finance the exploration was doubtful of the success.

After the discovery, the company brought to Trinidad a Mr Ludovinci to dispose of the company's assets, or offer investors the company shares under favourable terms.

After visiting the site where oil was found, a meeting was called by TPCL to transfer the assets to "Paria Petroleum Co Ltd".

That move marked the beginning of further oil exploration in Trinidad, which was later to seal the change from agriculture to energy.

At the time of the discovery, the Port of Spain Gazette carried an article encouraging investors to drill for oil, pointing out that such activity would increase local trade and employment opportunities.

"Successful results would attract other venturers who would spend their dollars in renting our houses, buying our horses, patronising our hardware stores and buying up waste lands," the Gazette stated.

Darwent remained hopeful about the prospect of finding oil in commercial quantities.

He was commissioned by the company to travel to New York to buy more equipment. But in the mist of making preparations to sail to New York, he got yellow fever a few days before he was due to sail and died in La Brea on September 28, 1868.

Before his death, Darwent was an architect and civil engineer in Port of Spain and was manufacturing a fuel from asphalt found at La Brea. After his death, oil exploration waned for 33 years.

In 1901, Randolph Rust took up the challenge to find oil. It is reported in the History of Oil that, "Rust was attending a meeting in the Crown Lands Office, when a man by the name of Fretiney Pantin mentioned that a local hunter had come into his office with a sample of pitch oil (crude) which he found bubbling from a pipe at Aripero."

Rust then set out to visit the place where the oil was bubbling. When they cleared the trees and leaves in the area they were amazed to see a pipe sticking out of the ground, and a liquid flowing from it.

In fact it was Darwent's well of 1866 in Otaheite.

Otaheite's neighbour, Aripero, had one of the early rum stills in Trinidad.

The company had its beginnings in 1931. Owned and operated by Boodoosingh, it distilled rum from molasses purchased from the Ste Madeleine Sugar Company.

Deo Rampersad, 85, a former employee of the company, said "Boodoosingh's father, Roopnarine, owned a sugarcane estate in Sobo called Sobo Sugar Estates Ltd.

In addition to the distillation of rum, the company manufactured soft drinks by the name of Yankee Cola and Pecup, said Rampersad.

He was stationed at the head office of the company on Charlotte Street, Port of Spain.

Those premises were destroyed by fire during the 1990 attempted coup.

Rampersad said: "The brand names of the rum manufactured at Otaheite was Sobo Rum, Blue Seal and Coronation."

The rum was sent to Port of Spain in 40-gallon casks under the supervision of the Customs Department.

Production of rum ceased in the 1950s and Boodoosingh died in 1958.

Taranpersad Sagoonanan, on whose property the remains of the idle rum still equipment are located, said: "Most of the equipment was sent to the steel mill at Point Lisas, but what is left on my property will be protected and remain as a symbol of the past era."

Areas of Aripero and Otaheite were designated as wetland sites, following the signing of the Ramsar agreement in 1971.

The site, which is one of the homes of the Scarlet Ibis and other exotic birds, is frequented by visitors as a tourist attraction.

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