Legend of Trinidad's Pitch Lake
By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
Legend says that a local Trinidadian tribe was celebrating a victory against a rival tribe. However, in the midst of their celebrations, they began to cook and eat the sacred hummingbird. God allegedly punished the group by opening the Earth and creating the Pitch Lake to swallow their souls. God left the Pitch Lake as a reminder to others of the tribe’s terrible sin. Local villages believed this legend because Amerindian artifacts and bones were found preserved (due to the asphalt) near the lake.
The Amerindian word for asphalt was “piche.” Pitch Lake is located at the intersection of two faults. When the oil at the intersection rises, and the sun evaporates the lighter elements in the oil, the heavier elements remain and form the asphalt. Kerosene and oil also have been harvested from the Pitch Lake.
Trinidad’s Pitch Lake is a world wonder. It is the largest and richest source of natural asphalt. The lake contains approximately 10 million tons of asphalt, spans 100 acres, and is approximately 250 feet deep. For reference, that is about 2 times larger than Grand Central Station and deeper than the height of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World.
The Europeans first learned of the Pitch Lake when Sir Walter Raleigh visited the island in 1595, when he was looking for El Dorado. The natives took Raleigh to the lake and he used the asphalt to caulk his ship. The asphalt was “most excellent,” in his opinion, because it did not melt in the sun like the Norwegian asphalt.
In 1887, Amzi Barber, an American businessman, secured a 42-year monopoly on the lake. Barber married Mark Twain’s cousin, taught at Howard University, and developed the famous LeDroit Park neighborhood. Many of the first asphalt roads in New York City, Washington D.C., and other eastern U.S. cities were paved using the asphalt from Trinidad’s Pitch Lake. Barber became known as the “Asphalt King.”
Much of the Pitch Lake’s profits went abroad to a foreign investor and not to the local Trinidadian population. Like Trinidad's Pitch Lake, recent oil finds in the Caribbean warrant heightened scrutiny from Caribbean nations to ensure that foreign investors (1) engage in corporate social responsibility, and (2) avoid taking advantage of the developing nations. This can be achieved with increased education of history, diplomatic relations, and legal rights.
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Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a trial-winning business and trademark attorney. She primarily helps new and small businesses with trademarks, formation, and name clearance searches.
She writes articles on the importance of trademarks, trademark law updates, and also West Indian history (with an emphasis on India, Trinidad, Guyana, and the United States).
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