By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 07, 2018
PART 1 — PART 2
It goes without saying that human beings are complex people; none more so than Conrad Stollmeyer who came to Trinidad in 1844 under strange circumstances. He arrived after apprenticeship ended (1838), at a time when the ex-slaves were desperately trying to find plots of land to house themselves and their families, to cultivate their crops and tend to their animals.
Were William Gladstone, the secretary of state for the colonies, so inclined, he might have considered a proposal that Stollmeyer, a German, made to him via a letter to Lord Harris, the governor of the island, about the possibility of organizing and encouraging “small farms and the cultivation of provision by the emancipated laborers in the British West Indian colonies.”
Stollmeyer, an executive member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, was born in Ulm in 1813. It is the same town in which Albert Einstein was born. Stollmeyer studied agriculture and the cultivation of tropical crops at Tubingen and Gottingen, two famous universities in Germany.
A follower of the French utopian thinker Charles Fourier, Stollmeyer moved to the United States in 1836 and edited the German National Gazette, a German newspaper in Philadelphia that advocated the freedom of the slaves. This brought him into conflict with the proslavery forces in Philadelphia who promised to destroy his printing press “and to hang me up on the entrance of the German Zion Church” after he published an article against “an ignorant and prejudiced mob” that burned down Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. (Stollmeyer, The Sugar Question Made Easy).
Stollmeyer brought his antislavery zeal to Trinidad (at least he began that way) and his scientific proposals to solve the sugar problem of the island. The Trinidad problem, he said, was a shortage of energy rather than a shortage of labor. He believed the solution to the problem depended “entirely upon the vivifying power of the sun, the productiveness of the soil, and the energies and knowledge of present and future proprietors of sugar plantations.”
To him “ONE IRON SLAVE, at a purchase of less than five hundred pounds, if driven either by steam or waterpower, will do the work of three hundred human slaves.” Listening to him, one might have thought he was crazy. He possessed unbounded optimism and a fertile imagination.
The implementation of Stollmeyer’s suggestions would have reduced the export bill tremendously and encourage blacks to work in factories. Once Blacks had the freedom to cultivate their provision grounds, they would be able to organize their time so as to work for the large sugar planters with whom they would not be in conflict. Neither Harris nor Gladstone saw the value of Stollmeyer’s proposals. They rejected what they considered his utopian schemes.
Harris had every reason to be skeptical of Stollmeyer’s proposal. He had made a mess of things in a scheme he had set up in Venezuela where nine persons died because of the lack of planning and preparation. Those who survived sought refuge in Trinidad where five additional immigrants died at the Colonial Hospital, Port of Spain.
Harris and Stollmeyer patched up their differences after a while. Harris introduced Stollmeyer to Thomas Cochrane, a semi-retired naval officer, who had acquired a concession to extract natural bitumen from the Pitch Lake. In the early 1860s, they produced “the first form of combustible petroleum” and developed a process to distill kerosene from asphalt (David Hughes, “Paradise Without Labor”).
Kerosene soon replaced whale oil as a fuel for illumination. According to Hughes, “‘Pitch lamps’ soon cast their wan, flickering glow over nighttime in Port of Spain.” Up until the 1960s “pitch oil” lamps under which I studied lighted up most homes in the country districts.
Stollmeyer had even proposed and planned a utopian colony that would be powered by “the sun, wind, and other tropical forces.” God given powers, he hoped “would replace not only plantation slavery but all forms of hard, manual labor.” (Hughes, Energy without Conscience). He failed in this endeavor but these are the dreams that change our world.
During the last five years of his governorship (1846-1854), Harris enjoyed a close relationship with Stollmeyer. Harris gave him a horse so that they could ride together and converse about events in the colony. He also gave him a contract to do the laundry work and to supply firewood for the soldiers stationed at St. James Barrack. When Harris left the country, Stollmeyer bought one of Harris’s chairs to remind him of his friend. It remained within the Stollmeyer family for over one hundred years.
By 1854 Stollmeyer began to malign the black laboring population. He complained to his mother: “The former conditions under slavery have spoilt the laborers here and they hate to work.” In 1855, he wrote to an American utopian thinker: “The Blacks are as lazy as possible, ignorant rum drinkers with few exceptions, they are worse off than in the time of slavery.”
By then, he had become a capitalist entrepreneur who resented the freedom of the ex-slaves.
Stollmeyer had his faults, but we should remember his achievement. He was the first person to burn petroleum and give us kerosene, which lit up the country for more than a hundred years.