How Oil Missed Its Utopian Moment
Oil could have developed differently. Absent some contingencies, the substance might have entered history as a moral category—at least, in Trinidad. The man who tipped the scales was the island’s most influential German immigrant. Born in Ulm in 1813, Conrad Friedrich Stollmeyer emigrated to the United States, where he became an outspoken abolitionist. To harness the human body at all, Stollmeyer came to believe, was deeply immoral. The utopian established what he called a “paradise without labor” opposite Trinidad, across the Gulf of Paria in Guinimita. On that Venezuelan coast, gullible working-class migrants from Britain died rapidly, and the colony collapsed in disaster. Stollmeyer remained in Port of Spain and gained a position as manager of an asphalt deposit in South Trinidad. He found a method to distill that heavy hydrocarbon into a light oil that would burn and generate heat. He had at last found a reliable substitute for human bodies and a means to the paradise without labor. Yet, as Stollmeyer observed freed slaves in Trinidad, his sentiments grew racist and flipped entirely: work, he now felt, did not enslave men but improved and invigorated them. His oil alleviated no toil in the plantations. Instead of sending it there, he sold it for illumination. As an emancipator, Stollmeyer failed because of he no longer wished to succeed. And petroleum failed too: it never attached itself to that signal Caribbean virtue, freedom. An interesting man then and now, Stollmeyer made oil boring.