Black gold: finders, keepers

In the late nineteenth century in Timor, Portuguese administrators and foreign visitors began to become curious about stories of mina rai (literally, earth oil or earth fat) in various parts of Portuguese Timor. Oil prospecting began in earnest in Portuguese Timor in 1906, when a group from an Australian firm called Timor Oil Limited got the rights to prospect from then Governor Celestino da Silva. The company set up a small operation at Aliambata (Viqueque) in 1910, partly aided by the access to the site on the south coast. The company sent staff for other shorter prospecting stays in Laclubar and Allas.

In Lisbon, I stumbled across the following report submitted in 1911 by Mr Staughton, an Australia-based geologist in charge of an assessment of possibilites for commercial extraction of petroleum in the Portuguese book Informações relativas aos jazigos de petróleo e à agricultura edited by the Ministry of the Colonies, published in Lisbon by the Sociedade de Geografia (1915). I highly recommend a look at this for those who can access a copy. Most is in Portuguese but the reports by Australian geologists are in English.

I wonder if Oceanic Exploration, which is suing ConnocoPhillips and certain Timorese government officials for stripping its colonial oil rights, has its researchers combing through colonial archives! (Oceanic seemingly got in late in the game, but had links with Timor Oil Limited. More here.)

I think the parts worth noting are the company’s eagerness to exploit both the land and its people, the colonial government’s seeming unbridled joy at the developments, and the Timorese silent attempts to keep the resources hidden. I took the liberty to highlight some of the most salient passages. Note Tualo is near present-day Uatocarbau on the south coast. Also note that the kingdom of Vessoro had been decimated in a conflict with Luca/Viqueque in the early 1900s.

Mr Staughton’s report


Inspecting the station, we were most favourably impressed with the way it has been maintained by Baros under his charge.

The huts are as follows: Three living huts, of four rooms each; one dining room; one bath-room, with water laid on: one store-room, detached: and three huts for natives: the whole being artistically laid out with a garden and pebble paths just above high tide on the sea shore… (173)

On returning home, as before mentioned I immediately sent a messenger away to the Local Commandant at Tualo to engage carriers to enable us to shift camp to the new field, so that we could give it a thorough inspection, living on the ground. Again, as usual, getting away before daylight, we arrived at our destination, and after picking a site for a camp and giving our ponies an hour’s feed, we all split up and rode away in different directions, to enable us to get a lay of the country, and if possible to procure some sort of game for food for us and our men. On getting back to our proposed camp at dark we were pleased to see our carriers just coming in.

The position of this find is situated about three miles east of Tualo, some ten miles from Vessoro, and as it is practically level all the way, with a little expense, a motorcar could run from one concession to the other.

The name of this kingdom is Irabin, so in future these concessions will be referred to by that name. They are situated practically in a basin, with the hills on three sides and the sea on the other. The formation of the country is much the same for about two miles square — all undulating country, the highest point being in the centre known as “Kohoda,” a native village, which is 450 ft. above sea level.

On hunting round for some time, I found, in the middle of a maize cultivation, a similar indication of the extinct gas as we found at Vessoro. Getting a couple of natives, we immediately set to work with sticks to dig a hole, and getting down about 18in I held a match down to the hole, and as expected, it immediately lit up, which of course, explained our nightly fire; and getting hold of the local chief, he confessed that it was lit every night to do the cooking, etc. and then extinguished with dry dirt in the morning, so we should not find it. (175 – 177)

After this discovery it naturally gave us a fresh impetus to look further afield. Although the natives one and all assuring us that there were not other indications of gas or mineral anywhere else in the district, not being satisfied, Mr. Affleck and I decided to travel east into the adjoining country across the River Irraberri.

We put in the grater part of the day without any indications whatever, strangely meeting on the top of a 500ft hill densely covered with bamboos, etc, about 5 oclock in the afternoon. Having decided to examine the opposite side of the hill, we again separated, he taking one face and I the other. I had only proceeded about half a mile when, wounding a deer which ran past me, crawling after him on my hands and knees through some bamboos along a deer track, I was greatly surprised ot see in the centre of one of the thickets with a track right through it, the ground all disturbed in places with limestone boulders on the surface, and something similar to our other fields, covering an area of nearly a chain long by half wide. On coming closer I immediately saw that the far side was well alight, some of the fire in places covering up two and three feet from down in the cracks. Of course, I immediately put up a peg with my name and date of discovery, as we did on the previous finds, which I ascertained was sufficient to conserve all rights for our Company and prevent any person from jumping these claims. (177)

[…] On the Governor arriving at Vessoro with six of his administrators, he first informed us that he intended to push on to Tualo the same night, and after having breakfasted at 11 oclock we started to show him around our works, etc, and I am pleased to say that if took very little persuading on our part to induce him to stay on with us that night, it not being till late the next evening, after thoroughly inspecting all our shows, etc, that he was able to leave. I might mention that this was the first time he had ever been on our side of the island, and having previously visited all of the other oil concessions, he was most favourably impressed with what we had to show him in the way of surface shows, and more especially with the work done and being done at present. (179)


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