Tabaquite, a sleepy cocoa belt village, in the early 1900s was to have a unique place in Trinidad's oil history as well as British military history.
A report forwarded to British industrialist Alexander Duckham from his geologist in Trinidad confirmed the presence of extensive oil deposits. This document gave Duckham the confidence he needed to capitalise a new company to the tune of 50,000 pounds sterling.
Trinidad Central Oilfields was the result in 1911 and leases were obtained for a large parcel of Crown lands in the Tabaquite area. The presence of the Brasso-Caparo line of the Trinidad Government Railway gave an added motivation to the oilmen.
Initial returns were positive and based on the reports sent, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided to convert the British Navy's fleet from coal fuel to oil. There was no pipeline system at the Tabaquite operations and oil was directed from the wells through earthen drains into a large pit or sump.
Tabaquite wells produced much natural gas as well as light crude and in 1912, one of the wells ignited sending a flash flood of burning oil downhill. Five men who were monitoring the flow to the sump we killed when the flaming tide overtook them. Crude was initially exported in barrels using railway flatcars to Port-of-Spain where they were shipped to the Duckham's plant in London for refining.
In 1914 applications were made for a refinery at Tabaquite which was completed a year later. The plant distilled several grades of fuel for local consumption. Kerosene (also called 'pitch oil' since it was first distilled near the Pitch Lake) was made and this was an important product since, at the time, there was no electric power in the island outside of Port-of-Spain.
The kerosene was packaged at a small cannery near the refinery and thus the commonly known "pitch-oil tin" came into use. A high grade of petrol was also manufactured which was retailed in metal drums in Port-of-Spain under the brand TRICENTROL. It was preferred by motorists since it left fewer carbon deposits on vehicle engine parts and thus reduced the need for cleaning of valves and cylinder heads.
Problems began to crop up with the railway authorities regarding the requests from oilfield management for the use of large American 40-tonne tankers on its lines as opposed to the smaller ten-ton British ones that had been in service up to 1915. This combined with increased output led Trinidad Central Oilfields to pursue the shipping of oil from its own coastal port via a pipeline. Claxton Bay, over 20 miles to the southwest, was selected as the terminus and a series of massive iron tanks capable of storing more than 14 thousand tonnes of oil were constructed there.
Even in the Unites States, there were no pipelines at the time of this length for transit of light crude which made the Tabaquite-Claxton Bay trajectory a world first. Over hills and flat lands it went and a portion rested on the sea bed at the terminus since there was not enough deep water to permit oil tankers to draw near the shore.
A long iron jetty, constructed in the 1880s for use of sugar estates, became the loading point for oil. The crude exported from Claxton Bay made its way to London where Alexander Duckham produced a superior grade of motor lubricant, as well as aviation spirit for the newly-formed Royal Air force which was formed near the end of World War I (1914-18). Such had been the importance of marine and aviation fuel from Duckham's, that several visits from Admiralty officials were made to Trinidad in order to hasten supplies.
Duckham himself was a keen pilot and one of the pioneers of aviation in Britain.
Output at Tabaquite fell steeply in the years following 1919. This had been feared since the early days since the geological reports indicated the deposits were shallow in depth and easily drilled but not nearly as extensive as those in the southwest. Trinidad Central Oilfields had incorporated smaller oil leases in Guapo, Barrackpore and even Mayaro, but the pending exhaustion of the main Tabaquite field was imminent.
In 1939 Trinidad Central Oilfields ceased to exist, with its remaining assets being acquired by United British Oilfelds Trinidad (UBOT). Alexander Duckham died in 1945 and the company he founded in 1899 managed to soldier on as a maker of lubricants until 1968 under his son Jack, when it was assimilated by BP and the Duckham's brand vanished into history.