Thanks to Joseph Conrad‘s Kayerts and Carlier the entirety of the western interaction with the third world has been mistakenly portrayed as a litany of exploitation and injustice. Never mind that Makola was the native serpent in the garden and that his predecessors and heirs had borne the mark of Cain long before Kayerts killed Carlier and long after he hanged himself in desperate remorse. Cultural commentators have found it too simple to place the blame on fictional characters and perpetuate the lie and today’s world gives a sad perspective of public policy based on fiction.
When I was a boy my father had a bookcase that was filled with things like Smolley’s Tables on top of which sat a loving cup that he had won in a golf tournament while working in Venezuela. One of the few non technical volumes on the bookcase was a biography in a lurid red cover with the title in black on a gilt field on both the spine and cover that read, GOMEZ – TYRANT OF THE ANDES. Too young to get any enjoyment out of an old Handbook of Physics and Chemistry I fixed on this account of any early Chavez who built a prison that had tidal cells where chained inmates had to struggle to keep their heads above water at high tide or drown. From 1908 until his death in 1935 Juan Vicente Gomez ruled Venezuela absolutely, as did his successors, pretensions to democracy notwithstanding.From the discovery of massive oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo during World War I with the western reserves in and around Lake Maracaibo developed by Royal Dutch Shell and the eastern reserves developed by Standard Oil for which both companies received purchasing concessions Venezuela leapfrogged its Central and South American neighbors with petrowealth. By 1943 the government was demanding a 50/50 split of the profits with the oil companies, in 1960 it was the new Hydrocarbons Minister, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, who led the creation of OPEC – not the arabs! – and by 1973 the Venezuelan government nationalized the oil industry completely expropriating all private interests. Our posts are only going to follow the adventures of Bill Leach during the late 1930’s when, as a newly minted Bachelor of Science in Mining Engineering, he worked for Standard Oil in Eastern Venezuela.
Although our contemplations on Conrad could fill a blog of their own as could a cautionary discourse on the path from strongman to dictator or from price-fixing to expropriation we have as little a desire to write such a thing as our followers do in reading it. What we are going to do is follow Bill Leach and share some of his photographs of the Venezuela that he saw in the late 1930’s. Fifty years later we would have our own adventures down there but by the time we got there it had gone from the genuine outpost of progress that he helped build into the backwater of socialism and corruption that it remains today.
A little bit of geography first. Caripito is near the headwaters of the San Juan River that drains into the Gulf of Paria that is a sheltered body of water between Venezuela and Trinidad. The land is part marsh, all jungle and no mountains. Maturín, the capital of the State of Monagas, is the nearest city of any size but from its founding as a mission in 1722 through nearly being wiped out by civil war, malaria and yellow fever during the nineteenth century it was just one more populated mud hole until oil turned it into a boomtown. Much of this area is still populated by the indigenous peoples who greeted Christopher Columbus in 1498.
The Standard Oil Village was just outside Caripito. Villagers worked there, in the oilfields, building the terminal and received treatment for the workers and their families at the clinic. A miniature Anytown, USA the Village contained everything that the expatriate workers could need including a commissary, a school and recreational facilities. The expats lived in company housing to prevent any unnecessary friction from fraternization by any of the young men tempted to go native but the longer the village remained the bigger it grew and the more interaction there was. For the most part it was beneficial – Bill taught his friend, Yo No Se, English and learned Spanish in the bargain, children were educated in the school and the swamp village of Caripito is now a city of 50,000 that incorporates all of the improvements of the old Standard Oil Village. The generation of Americans that built everything to 125% of specification has left the monuments of peace and commerce all over the world.
Not only did Standard oil employ engineers, drillers, geologists and laborers there were managers, accountants and all sorts of office personnel in the village and in the following photograph we have two such looking at we are not quite sure what. From personal experience we understand the field glasses. When we were at Puerto La Cruz in Venezuela in the 1980’s on a loss control trip we found that measurements were being taken in the control room off of gauges probably originally installed in the 1930’s. We asked if we could go to the tank in the storage farm and observe a physical measurement ourselves. We piled into the bed of a pickup truck, drove to the tank and observed a Venezuelan crocodile sunning himself at the foot of the tank staircase. Not wishing to disturb an endangered species we merely made a note on the survey report and returned to the control room – wiser if not better informed.
One of the things you have to be aware of is that these pictures were taken during the Depression in the United States. FDR’s quick fix of 1933-34 had failed and by 1937 economic conditions were worse than they had been before he took office. One of the reactions to a lack of opportunity at home is that talented people vote with their feet – the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were built to keep people in – and the jobs offered in Venezuela offered premium pay, no taxes and living conditions that met or exceeded the standards at home. The following three scenes show the swimming pool at the Village.
In the last photo we have some of the members of management – they may have had specific times when the pool was reserved for their use [probably just after fresh water had been added!] – but they would be both seen and seen to be seen, benignly approving the enjoyment of their lessors. Standard Oil would have encouraged the presence of wives and children for management as a means of not only contributing to productivity but also as another means of keeping employees from going native. With Standard Oil you may have been a member of management but unless you were one of THE members of management you were still an employee but in order to maintain the home from home feeling and possibilities for professional employees Standard recruited the necessary complement of unmarried ladies to complete their society.
Lest we get too distracted with the social arrangements the reason the Village was there in the first place was for the exploration and production of oil. That means crude oil had to be found, drilled for, gathered and shipped someplace where it could be turned into refined petroleum products like fuel oil, heating oil, diesel and gasoline. The village was built far enough off the river that it would not be swamped in the rainy season and graded roads were maintained to the oil fields, the tank farm and the ship’s dock.
The reader may need a little more information to appreciate the tank. The very small figure barely visible at the bottom of the tank is a man so the tank is probably about forty-two feet tall. You can see that the tank is fabricated of steel plates each of which weighs about 2,000 pounds and they are all riveted together and a roof is built on the top of the tank and so it must have the structural integrity to support the its own weight – PLUS – about 50,000 barrels of crude oil that the tank can hold [about 16,800,000 pounds] and the ground beneath must be able to support all of it (plus sometimes the weight of one Venezuelan crocodile). Pipelines ran from individual rigs to the gathering station where the oil was pumped to the tank and from the tank it would be delivered on to a ship or barge possibly be gravity feed and possibly be another pump.
One of the things that you have to remember is that there is a production stream. You don’t just go poke a hole in the ground unless you have someplace to store the oil – oil wells can not be turned on and off like a water faucet. You don’t build a storage tank unless you have someplace to ship the oil and some means of shipping it there. You don’t build a refinery to ship the oil to unless you have a customer to buy the refined product. It is one of the most complex logistical calculations in the world and these fellows did it mostly using slide rules while today multinational corporations using super computers still seem to be wrong as often as they are right.
The tankers that ran up and down the San Juan River necessarily small – they probably drew about 9 feet of water fully laden which, for purposes of comparison, is about as deep as you can load a barge on the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway – they used the steep rake of the bow to run into the bank, put the rudder hard over and turn the ship before docking so they would be head out loaded. This taker, the REGULUS, could probably hold about the capacity of the shore tank pictured in the last section. With a single cargo hose and gravity feed loading it must have taken at least 24 hours to load a cargo and if it was going to Trinidad it probably took the best part of 24 hours to get there – if it was going to the then largest refinery in the world at Standard Oil’s refinery on Aruba – it probably took 72 hours to get there. We know the captain and crew had to think very little of Caripito. If it was a company ship maybe the old man and the chief engineer got to come to the Village for a meal and a few hours shore side but everybody else spent time swatting mosquitos and cursing their decision to see the world through a porthole. The other purpose these tankers served was carrying workers in and out and Bill Leach shows up on several passenger lists as he would complete one contract, return to the United States, and the come back to serve out another contract.
The San Juan River was the only reliable highway to or from the Village. You might have made it north overland to the Caribbean coast at Carúpano near the only spot where Christopher Columbus ever set foot on either American continent but it would have been through miles of swamp and jungle, there was – and still is – almost nothing east except swamp and jungle and while south and west may be possible on questionable highways today in the 1930’s such a trek would have been out of the question. The only quick alternative to the water was the air – and even that sometimes involved the water.
In this golden age of flight Pan-Am owned the flying boat business in the Caribbean and South America. Although aerodynamically less efficient than streamlined airliners, flying boats could provide service to any destination with sheltered water, which made them the ideal international airliner at a time when runways capable of handling large aircraft were scarce and runways in the jungle almost nonexistent.The plane pictured is probably a twin engined Sikorsky S-43 which could carry up to 19 passengers or about 6,000 pounds of cargo using two Pratt & Whitney 750 hp engines and an effective range of just under 800 miles. With only a pilot and a co-pilot on board this was bare bones flying for those used to the s-42 that could carry 32 passengers up to 1,200 miles and had a crew of 2 pilots, a radio operator, an engineer and a steward. The Sikorskys were work horse planes and never came any where close to the Martin M-130 – the trans Pacific China Clipper – or the Boeing 314 – the Dixie Clipper – that offered around-the-world service with a crew of 10 and even had a honeymoon suite in the tail of the aircraft.
One of the great advantages of working for the oil companies used to be that they had the money – and the willingness to spend it – to have the best equipment available. In a business where time really is money this included having their own fleet of planes so that critical spare parts and critical people could be moved at will without depending on commercial services. Standard chose the Lockheed Model 10 [the Electra] which had captured the market after the United States government banned single-engined aircraft for use in carrying passengers or in night flying – giving rise to the idea that the advantage of twin engine flight was that if one engine gave out the second had enough power to get you to the crash site. It was probably the most popular airplane in Latin America to serve locations with landing facilities but ironically it was a Model 10 E that Amelia Earhardt was flying when she disappeared over the Pacific.