The Ancient History of Petroleum

oil, industry, baku, time, springs, century and persia

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A hollow cane thrust into the ground a few inches and touched with a live coal at the top would give a steady flame, three or four of them affording heat enough to boil water and cook food. Nearly two centuries ago, the natives of the region were de scribed as using this method, both for heat and for light in their earthen-floored houses.

The earliest stories of Baku all refer to these burning gas springs, with the strange rites of the fire worshipers, but it is not until the time of Marco Polo that the use of petroleum itself is di rectly mentioned. That famous explorer, visiting the Baku region in the latter part of the thirteenth century reported a great fountain of oil from which "a hundred shiploads might be taken at one time." He also says that the oil was not good to eat but was good to burn, and was used to cure diseased camels, the people coming from great dis tances to secure it, because there was no other oil in any of the countries round about. Polo's brief account thus implies that the oil trade must have been thoroughly established at the time of his visit, hence there is every reason to suppose that it ranks along with the Burman fields in antiquity. Polo, it is true, is often accused of telling too highly col ored tales about his adventures, but fortunately, in this particular case, his statements are sup ported by other accounts in the succeeding cen turies, wherein Baku is described as the source of oil which is "burned throughout all Persia." Baku first came into the hands of Russia when it was annexed from Persia by Peter the Great, some two hundred years ago. The Russians were then evidently well acquainted with the character and value of the petroleum springs, since Peter made arrangements for its regular collection and transportation to Russian towns by way of the Volga River, apparently with the intention of de veloping an important industry. Before anything was accomplished in this direction the region was restored to Persia, and the modern period of Rus sian development did not begin until the early part of the last century.

The intervening years, however, were not a pe riod of stagnation. About the middle of the eigh teenth century, England sent a representative, one John Hanway, to report on the condition of Brit ish trade in the Levant, and among his accounts there appears a very complete description of the Baku district, with the petroleum industry as it existed at that time. According to Ilanway, the

Persians were then securing oil in great abundance from the springs, carrying it by means of troughs into pits or reservoirs, where it was allowed to set tle. Afterwards, by drawing the oil into a second reservoir, it was separated from the water and other heavy impurities with which it had issued from the springs. In its important details, there fore, this industry was exactly like that described at Ardericca, by Herodotus, two thousand years before. A regular practice was made of loading the oil in bulk in the Persian sailing craft, carry ing it thus to the surrounding districts, where it was used for fuel and light.

The supply was so abundant that every family, even to the poorest, could afford to use it. Besides the ordinary petroleum, or "black naphtha," as it was called, there was also a waterlike oil occur ring in certain places. This purer oil was put to a variety of purposes, chief among them being its use as a cordial ; as a medicine for both external and internal application ; and to remove greasy spots from silk and wool, though the remedy was said to be regarded as worse than the disease on account of the abominable odor. It was also car ried to India to be used in the manufacture of varnishes of "very beautiful and lasting quality." This account by Hanway, written a little more than a century before the first well was drilled in the United States, forms one of the most interest ing of all the early records of petroleum, because it suggests in one way or another the whole skele ton of the important industry existing to-day. The two chief facts which are especially significant, prophetic even, are the practice of shipment in bulk, on which the success of the modern industry largely depends, and the ability of everyone, down to the very poorest, to take advantage of its numer ous uses. More curious still is the fact that the Khan of Baku enjoyed a practical monopoly of this important Caspian industry over a hundred years before the idea of a Standard Oil Company was conceived.

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