Tracy Lassiter
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in The entangled legacies of empire

It’s an innocuous enough image: two men standing before a wooden structure with another group of (white) men in the background. The two men, Edwin Drake and Peter Wilson, actually stand before the Drake Well, the first oil well, drilled on 27 August 1859 in present-day Titusville, Pennsylvania. But in the intervening centuries, the oil industry has turned into a global economic juggernaut, causing rampant worldwide political, economic and racial exploitation. Nations fight wars over oil and, on local scales, protests and resistance movements challenge the industry’s power. It meets resistance in Nigeria, the Amazonian rainforest, Standing Rock, North Dakota and elsewhere. Leaking pipelines and toxic refineries usually are built where marginalized communities live. ‘Boom!’ would connect this historical image to the global force the oil industry has become. Where the industry ‘booms’, it generates billion-dollar profits and creates economic benefit for employees and regional governments. Yet it does so at the cost of lives, health and the environment. We can expect more frequent resistance to ‘boom’, too, as exploited peoples and concerned activities fight for our planet’s future.

It's an innocuous enough image: two men standing before a wooden structure with another group of (white) men in the background. The two men in the foreground, Peter Wilson and Edwin Drake, in fact stand before the first oil well, drilled on 27 August 1859 in present-day Titusville, Pennsylvania. In the century and a half since this well was drilled, the oil industry has turned into a global economic juggernaut, causing rampant worldwide political, economic and racial exploitation – but it almost didn't happen. The oil industry's history, and what it has become, is vastly complicated. It is an economic boon for some people, an exploitative totality for others. Leaders worldwide today consider warnings regarding climate change, social activism related to equity, the costs of war and other socio-political concerns; they should place a critical lens on resource extraction, namely the oil industry, for its central position in these issues.

Figure 2.1 Edwin L. Drake, right, stands with friend Peter Wilson of Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the drilling site – but not the original derrick – of America's first commercial oil well of 1859 (Mather 1861).

Throughout history, different civilizations – ancient Mesopotamia and China, the European Middle Ages, the indigenous peoples in North America – used oil that bubbled from rocks for various purposes: as medicine, in warfare, for fire. But in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, this resource became a commodity. Originally, European settlers didn't think much of this ‘rock oil’ until a Seneca leader, namely Chief Red Jacket, told them of its reputed medicinal value. Later, the residents considered petroleum and its by-products (such as the waxy substance that coated their salt-well drilling equipment) to be an impediment. But, in time, some of them capitalized on those by-products and on petroleum's reputation as a medicine. In the 1850s, a druggist named Samuel Kier was one of the more infamous entrepreneurs to bottle ‘rock oil’. He called it ‘Kier's Medicinal Petroleum’ and sold it as a cure for maladies ranging from toothaches to rheumatism, stomach upset, even deafness. Of course, his panacea didn't deliver the remedies to desperate customers, and soon ‘Seneca oil’ became known as ‘snake oil’, or what we call a quack remedy (Yergin 2008: 4; Miller 2008 17–18). This inauspicious start to oil's history is metaphoric; once it was commodified, falsely advertised and widely distributed, its demerits became all too obvious.

Petroleum's value, though, stemmed not from its medicinal uses but from its energy value. Entrepreneurs like Kier and, later, George Bissell realized petroleum's potential as an illuminant. Bissell and a consortium of New York-based investors commissioned Professor Benjamin Silliman to study petroleum's potential uses in lighting and as an industrial lubricant; when Silliman's report confirmed oil's commercial viability, the results became ‘nothing less than a turning point in the establishment of the petroleum business’ (Yergin 2008: 6). From there, Bissell and his cohort needed to know whether oil was in an abundant-enough supply to make larger-scale drilling a worthwhile undertaking. They hired Edwin Drake to look for oil in Pennsylvania. At first Drake attempted to dig wells by hand, but after about a year of fruitless searching using this method, Drake hired a blacksmith by the name of William Smith to make the tools and other equipment they would need to build a salt-well-style derrick and drill. They established an operating drill in the spring of 1859, but by early August it hadn't produced any oil. The investors felt the search was taking too long; their funds were quickly running out. By August, even Drake's personal bank account was nearly empty. As noted, the photograph above shows Peter Wilson and Edwin Drake; it's significant because Wilson loaned Drake money, gambling that his cash infusion would pay off. Meanwhile, the investors sent a letter to Drake telling him to halt his enterprise; their money was depleted. On Friday 26 August Drake and Smith left the pump working on a hole they had dug, and on Saturday, Smith saw oil bubbling from the pipe. He and his sons stored the oil in tubs, basins and barrels, guarding it until Drake returned that Monday. Drake used a hand pump to help them collect the surging oil. As Fate would have it, that same day he received the New York investors’ letter, enclosing his ‘final’ payment and telling him to quit the venture (Yergin 2008: 11).

As these events demonstrate, the oil industry almost didn't happen; the zero-hour oil discovery from the Drake Well seems like a Hollywood movie script. Perhaps petroleum would have become the global commodity it is today anyway, discovered by a different driller at a different time. Nonetheless, what had at first been called ‘Drake's Folly’ quickly turned into a ‘boom’, a sound that echoes into today's energy discussions. ‘Boom’ is onomatopoeic, referring to the sound of a gusher when drillers strike a deposit; thereafter, it describes the flush of activity occurring upon an oil strike. The 1859 ‘boom’ meant an influx of people moving to the Titusville area, all to capitalize somehow on oil. Boom towns like Titusville needed surveyors, drillers, barrel-makers, and teamsters to haul the oil to trains; they needed housing, food and other supplies. Soon, other boom towns like Pithole and Oil City (formerly known as ‘Corn Planter’ for another Seneca chief) burgeoned in Pennsylvania, practically overnight. The problem with a boom cycle, though, is that it's later followed by a ‘bust’; once a resource – like coal, like oil – is depleted from a region, the town empties, leaving economic loss, environmental damage and other devastation in its wake.

The industry begins

The Drake Well kicked off what over time became a global search for oil, a geopolitical and economic phenomenon so vast that it inspired a neologism, petrocapitalism, for ‘a form of capital accumulation founded on the extraction, distribution, and consumption of petroleum’ ( With the booming oil towns in Pennsylvania, a host of other industries, such as refineries, subsequently arose. One of the most famous names in this regard was John D. Rockefeller, who became notable – and notorious – as the first oil ‘baron’ through his Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller's father, William, was infamously known as ‘Devil Bill’ for his reputation as a schemer and ‘flim-flam man’; like Kier, he was a ‘snake-oil’ salesman who tried to profit from petroleum's curative reputation (Juhasz 2008: 25). While John Rockefeller in some respects was more reputable than his father, in other ways he wasn't. He established Standard Oil initially as a refinery, but over time he expanded his company ‘vertically’, meaning that he controlled every aspect of the oil production, refining and selling process, from buying timberland so that Standard could build its own barrels to buying railroad tank cars, warehouses and boats. It became such an enormous company that it could negotiate discounts on railway freight charges and buy smaller, competing refiners and producers. It even became a controlling interest in the pipelines throughout Pennsylvania's Oil Region. A famous journalist at the time, Ida Tarbell, grew up in the Oil Region and her family members worked in the industry; nonetheless, the exposés she and Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote for the Chicago Tribune brought to light Standard's monopolistic control and shady dealings to maintain its dominance. Antitrust authorities began investigating Standard Oil, and in 1911 the Supreme Court ordered Standard Oil to dissolve. It was divided into seven different companies established in different regions around the US, at last bringing ‘competition back into the transportation, refining, and marketing of oil’ (Yergin 2008: 94).

These companies, plus the remaining smaller producers, soon had a great deal of competition as other countries began discovering their own deposits. Oil fields in Baku, Russia, in Persia (modern-day Iran) and other locations started to produce and affect the nascent global oil market. Furthermore, by the early twentieth century, tensions between Germany and England had increased, namely around who had a superior navy. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty for the Royal Navy, appointed a committee to look into converting Britain's naval ships to burn oil instead of coal. Churchill was concerned about whether it was wise to do so. He had the same question that Drake's investors had asked about sixty years earlier: was there a large enough worldwide supply of oil to fuel the ships? If so, Churchill noted, Britain would have the better ships, and with better ships came ‘better crews, higher economies, more intense forms of war power’ (Yergin 2008: 140). After his investigations revealed that vast deposits existed, namely in the Middle East, Churchill successfully argued before Parliament that the Royal Navy should commission with the Anglo-Persian Oil company; doing so, he argued, would mean that Britain would not have to rely on any institution beyond the government for its fuel. The House of Commons voted to commission with Anglo-Persian; good timing, as eleven days later the First World War began.


This short account oversimplifies a complex system and past, which is detailed at length in places such as Daniel Yergin's book, The Prize. Nonetheless, even this short summation reveals what we should learn from history in order to create a more equitable and climate-friendly future.

Today, oil is a dominant force in the global economy. The consortium of Middle Eastern oil companies known as OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) alone were estimated to have earned $595 billion in 2019 (EIA 2021). Reliable sources like the US government's Energy Information Administration or the international collaborative Worldometer reveal that every continent has some oil reserves. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada have the world's largest reserves. A country's oil reserves translate into political power. As energy author Yergin says, after the Saudi Arabian oil embargoes occurring in 1967 and 1973, ‘Petroleum had become the province of presidents and premiers, of foreign and finance and energy ministers, of congressmen and parliamentarians, of regulators and “czars”, of activists and pundits …’ (Yergin 2008: 595).

Indeed, since Churchill successfully argued for working with a British-based oil company so that Britain wouldn't be reliant on outsiders for its fuel supply, the rhetorics of ‘national security’ and oil drilling have become intertwined. Today in the US, it appears in calls to ‘Drill, baby, drill’ and it serves as justification for ongoing wars, such as its Iraq war. As oil industry author Antonia Juhasz notes, ‘Oil is also about more than oil company profits. Control over the world's oil is an unparalleled source of regional and global hegemony’ (Juhasz 2008: 325). Obtaining and maintaining that power is an impetus for many governments’ political and militaristic actions. One agency reports that ‘between one-quarter and one-half of all interstate wars since 1973 have been linked to oil, and oil-producing countries are 50% more likely to have civil war’ (Oil Change International n.d.).

Yet, over time it has become more difficult for companies to access oil deposits. While many deposits remain, they are located deeper in the ground and farther below the sea. Companies must drill in hitherto nearly inaccessible areas, bringing great risk to employees, residents and ecosystems. For example, in 2010, BP's offshore Deepwater Horizon drilling platform experienced a massive blowout and leak. The initial explosion – a massive boom – killed eleven platform workers and subsequently released millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon blowout, and the political consequences of livestreaming various attempts to cap the well, are the focus of Kushinski (Chapter 3). It took roughly two and half months for BP and subcontractors Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton to cap the well. A subsequent US governmental investigation discovered that the profit-seeking companies had ignored warning signs of the wellhead blowout. The spill caused lasting damage to the Gulf of Mexico's wildlife and ecosystem and wiped out the livelihoods of fishermen and other residents who relied upon the waterway. Despite this devastation and loss of human life, one year after, BP posted first-quarter earnings of $5.48 billion. Worse, Transocean Ltd. awarded its top executives with bonuses for attaining the ‘best year in safety performance in [the] company's history’ (Robertson 2011: B1).

The spills, leaking pipes, gas flaring, untreated waste and runoff, and many other industry-related hazards depicted in fictional texts often go unresolved in real life, leaving residents to face environmental and health-related consequences, such as respiratory illnesses.

These risks will increase as countries permit farther and deeper searches for the oil that will allow them political influence, national security, economic power or all three. Yet pushback on Big Oil's influence, incursion and destruction is underway – in fact, it has been for decades. In many cases, the places where oil companies wish to drill for, refine or pipe oil happen to be where historically marginalized populations live. Nigeria is an oil-rich nation, yet it is rife with petro-problems, not the least of which is the roughly 1.5 million tons of oil spilled in the Niger Delta. Abuses have long been documented by its domestic and international agencies. One writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was particularly outspoken against Shell Oil's destructive practices in his home area, Ogoniland. Yet members of Nigeria's larger and more dominant tribes, in places of political leadership, allied with Shell. Saro-Wiwa and other members of his activist group, MOSOP, were brought up on false charges, tried in a rigged trial and subsequently found guilty. All members of the ‘Ogoni Nine’ were hanged in a case that brought international rebuke (Kahn 2009: 7). Even so, pollution, lawlessness, corruption and fighting persist. The historical colonialism that occurred in West Africa exists in Nigeria today as collusion between multinational corporations and local elites (see Dickson et al., Chapter 8 this volume).

In South America, the lawsuit Aguinda v. Chevron, depicted in the 2009 Crude documentary, describes the nearly thirty years of struggle and legal action taken by the Cofán, Huaorani and other Amazonian tribes against Chevron for the rampant pollution caused by the company (and its predecessor company, Texaco). The destruction caused in the Amazon has been called ‘one of the greatest oil-related disasters in history’ (Juhasz 2008: 251). However, the case continues today, due to the company's challenges to the $19 billion judgment against it.

In North America, various Indigenous groups likewise have begun acting against drilling and pipeline installation on their lands. As Szeman shows (Chapter 1), oil infrastructure has become a banal, comforting presence in settler-colonial landscapes, even as First Nations and Indigenous people resist the violence of extraction on their lands. In the Arctic, across both the US and Canadian borders, First Nations groups like the Gwich'in are fighting oil developers to keep areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge intact for hunting, fishing and other aspects of their culture. Other activist groups like Canada's Idle No More challenge certain types of resource extraction, particularly those on indigenous peoples’ lands, when the extraction won't benefit those peoples. Similarly, various US Native American tribes banded at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. One argument against it is that it violates the Fort Laramie Treaty, which was meant to guarantee ‘undisturbed use and occupation’ of the land for the Sioux. The pipeline still operates, despite lawsuits filed by the tribe; in April 2021, US President Joseph Biden allowed the pipeline to carry oil while the government reviews its environmental impact.

The Drake Well photo depicts an innocuous enough scene, but from that location a vast geopolitical, economic force emerged that impacts worldwide on communities 150 years later. Who could have predicted the profiteering and exploitation that this small Pennsylvania patch would unleash? From the Drake Well we can trace out manifold oil-based legacies. In the chapter by Ferrini (Chapter 13), oil extraction is shown to be entangled with abortive attempts at postcolonial reparation between Italy and Libya. In Schubert's work (Chapter 11), we see how the promise of future oil production gets entangled with Angola's new debts to China. Even Drake didn't know, that August weekend in 1859, that the first well had produced oil. It probably came in quietly, with something that sounded like a gurgle, but which has grown over time into an alert, a warning, a sounding boom.

Further resources

Estes, N. (2019) Our History Is the Future. London: Verso.

Juhasz, A. (2008) The Tyranny of Oil. New York: HarperCollins.

Miller, D. (2010) Current Controversies: Oil. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

Miller, S. (2008) Pennsylvania's Oil Heritage: Stories from the Headache Post. Charleston, SC: History Press.

Yergin, D. (2008) The Prize. New York: Free Press.

Works cited

Juhasz, A. (2008) The Tyranny of Oil. New York: HarperCollins.

EIA (2021) ‘OPEC Revenues Fact Sheet.’ US Energy Information Administration. 14 January. (accessed 30 May 2021).

Kahn, C. (2009) ‘Shell settles human rights lawsuit’. Indiana Gazette, 9 June, p. 7.

Mather, J. (1861) ‘The original Drake Oil well in 1861’. Library of Congress, (accessed 27 May 2021).

Miller, S. (2008) Pennsylvania's Oil Heritage: Stories from the Headache Post. Charleston, SC: History Press.

Oil Change International (n.d.) ‘War and militarization.’ (accessed 30 May 2021).

Robertson, J. (2011) ‘Transocean gives safety bonuses despite deaths’. Indiana Gazette, 3 April 2011, p. B1.

Yergin, D. (2008) The Prize. New York: Free Press.

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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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