Earth Oil - the discovery

The story begins with a Mr. C.C. (Claude Champion) de Crespigny, then the Resident of Baram, who was the first to record the presence of oil in Sarawak. The entry in his diary, dated 31st July 1882, refers to oil discovered in some 18 wells dug by hand by the local inhabitants.

'Earth Oil' was their name for it. Ever since this strange substance appeared in seepages, its possibilities had begun to be realised. They used the oil mixed with resin for chaulking boats. They also tried to use it for lighting, employing an open wick, but it invariably caught fire, usually with disastrous results to their homes. 'Earth Oil' soon earned a reputation of being possessed by a 'hantu' (ghost/spirit) with an inconvenient and insatiable desire to burn down houses.

But now officialdom had recognised its existance. De Crespigny recommended, in his report to the Rajah of Sarawak, Sir Charles Brooke, that an investigation be made. The Rajah presumably never gave this a second thought, since nothing was done. After all, the year was 1882 and the demand for petroleum in Sarawak was nil.

The persistent de Crespigny, however, obviously saw more of a future oil than the Rajah did. In 1884, we find him again suggesting that the whole area be "thoroughly searched and reported on."

The man who was to take him seriously and who was to do just this was de Crespigny's successor, a Dr. Charles Hose, who became the Resident in 1888. Sarawak's oil industry owes much to him.

Charles Hose was born in October 1863. He was at Jesus College, Cambridge, when his uncle, the Bishop of Singapore, obtained for him a cadetship in the Sarawak civil service; his first post was at Claudetown, (now Marudi) a small settlement then some two day's journey up the Baram River. His predecessor's notes prompted him to explore and map the seepages in the Baram District. His journeys were numerous during which, part from building up an invaluable collection of data on Sarawak's natural history, he discovered a number of oil shows. These he reported to the Government, who duly secured the services of an English geologist. The latter registered a very adverse opinion of the oil prospects, no doubt assessing any value that the oil had, against the engineering and transportation problems which, at that time, must have appeared insurmountable.

Hose was certain however that, with proper management and skill, the oil could be worked commercially. Whatever time allowed, he visited the area and made a map of the district, carefully marking in all seepages. He encouraged the local inhabitants to help him search offering small rewards for any seepages they discovered.

In 1907, Hose returned to England on pension. The Rajah was living in Cirencester at the time and Hose wrote to him asking permission to show his map of the oil seepages and samples of the oil to "an oil company." After some correspondence, the Rajah invited him to discuss the matter with him. Hose's task was no easy one. Sir Charles was then approaching 80 years of age, and was strongly opposed to anything "new-fangled". He even refused to have electric light installed in his Istana. But he gave way.

Hose travelled immediately to London. The "Oil Company" he had in mind happened to be Anglo-Saxon Petroleum, one of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies. He sa Mr. H.N. Benjamin. Benjamin and his collegues showed interest in Hose's map and in the samples which they analysed. Following negotiations, the Rajah was informed and agreed to come to London to sign the concession and lease.

Hose was invited to return to Sarawak with Dr. Erb, the petroleum company' petroleum expert. They returned by way of the Trans-Siberian railway. On arriving at Kuching, they called on the Rajah, then back in residence, before proceeding to Miri. Dr. Erb seems to have been impressed but cautious regarding prospects of oil. He carried out a general geological survey of a large part of the northern Sarawak and reported back in person to the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company confirming the existence at Miri of a dome-shaped, unsymmetrical anticline with a steep eastern flank and numerous oil shows.

Predatory Tigers
In due course, Dr. Erb located the first exploratory well on top of a hill. This completely mystified the local population who had expected the drilling to take place in the swamps where the seepages were occuring. It also caused them no little consternation. Local legend had it that a cave ran from Tanjong Lobang to Pujut, inhabited in the former days by two ferocious tigers so predatory that, from time to time, a young girl had to be thrown to them to appease their wrath. The Miri populace now feared that the well would penetrate the cave and resuscitate the tigers. Their representatives met on site with Dr. Erb who was well able to demonstrate - with measurements - that the well would just miss the cave.

It was thus that on August 10, 1910, a group of curious local inhabitants gathered on top of the hill overlooking the town and watched with interest as a small party of oil men began the slow and laborious task of drilling into the ground. It was almost certain that none of the onlookers could have realised what tremendous consequences the event would have for Sarawak. They watched the strange goings on no doubt with the same avid interest with which their grandchildren were later to greet the spectacle of the first offshore rig.

Back in 1910, wooden derricks were the order of the day. The well was spudded in on August 10. Drilling by the old cable tool method - a system used by the Chinese in AD421 for drilling salt - was slow. But on 22nd December 1910, oil was struck at 425 feet brought into production. The oil was pumped up by means of a beam with a large revolving bull wheel driven by engine.

Soon the landscape below was dotted with similar derricks plotting the Miri Field. Initial production was 83 barrels daily. When the 11,322 barrels had been produced, it was decided to deepen the well, and further drilling took the depth to 1,096 feet. Production, which then came from several layers of sand, increased to 132 barrels daily.

Hose must have been well pleased with the result of all those years of careful exploration and mapping. In his book "Fifty Years of Romance and Research", he describes the development of the oil resources of Sarawak as one of the most satisfactory enterprises of the many which he was concerned during his life in Sarawak.

Ernest Hose, his brother, was to recall in later years that the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company had offered Charles a considerable sum of money for his services, but the latter refused it saying he would rather have a royalty on the production. This gave him a source of income he enjoyed for many years.

Charles Hose died in November 1929. Apart from his invaluable work on oil in the State, he distingiushed himself while in Sarawak as a geographer, anthropologist and collector of natural history specimens. His journeys into the interior of the Baram District brought him into contact with the tribes who knew very little of the 20th century civilisation. His ingenuity, shrewdness and understanding of the native character enabled him, with only a small armed force, to keep the peace for twenty between the local tribesmen over a large stretch of the Baram River. He carefully studied and recorded the ways and customs of the river folk and wrote numerous works on the subject. This knowledge almost certainly saved his life on one occasion when he fell seriously ill with beri-beri, one of the worst scourges in the East. He put to good use his observation that natives using unpolished rice were inmune. It was a most useful contribution to the medical history, since not only did Hose cure himself but countless others who came after have made use of this simple means of avoiding the disease.

He was the member of the Council Negri 1894 - 1906 and even after his retirement in 1907, found time and energy to serve on the Sarawak State Advisory Council in England. He also supported a project to restore Nelson's flagship. There appears to be something coincidental in his interest in the British NAvy's proudest possession, since one of the reasons for his enthusiasm for oil was the realisation that it must eventually replace coal as a fuel for warships. It might well be that Rajah caught some of this enthusiasm when he insisted that a clause should be inserted into his agreement with the oil company by which 10,000 tons of Sarawak oil should always be kept in storage fir the use of the British Navy. It is believed to have been the first political clause ever inserted into a commercial contract in the history of the British Empire.

Well No.1's ricketty wooden structure came to be known affectionately as the Grand Old Lady of Miri and was to survive into the next century.

Next: The Early Days