Miri is a major city in Sarawak, located on northwestern coast of Borneo. Its growth from a small fishery village in the late nineteenth century to a modern town with an airport and a population of over a quarter million is largely related to the oil industry.
Indeed, it was in Miri in 1910 that the first oil field on Borneo (the world’s third largest island) was discovered, and the following year (now one hundred years ago) 1,950 barrels of oil were produced from the discovery well, Miri No. 1.
Looking for Seeps
Human settlement in the Miri area is thousands of years old. The modern history of Sarawak, began in the mid-nineteenth century when an Englishman, James Brooke, gradually but steadily brought the region under his control.
During the rule of the so-called White Rajahs of Sarawak, European scientists began to map the region. Thus, in 1892 Dr. T. Posewitz published “Borneo: Its Geology and Mineral Resources.”
As in the world’s other oil regions, oil seeps first attracted oilmen to explore and drill in Sarawak. Indeed, local inhabitants had extracted oil from hand-dug wells for centuries and used what they called minyak tanah (“earth oil”) as medicine or for waterproofing boats and lighting lamps.
In the 1880s, Claude Champion de Crespigny, an officer working for the White Rajah Charles Brooke, listed 18 hand-dug oil wells in the Miri area and recommended “the oil district near the mouth of the Miri River should be thoroughly searched and reported on.”
This task was pursued by de Crespigny’s successor, Charles Hose (1863-1929), an Englishman who rose to be an eminent author and authority on the natural history of Sarawak.
Hose prepared a map of 30 oil seeps around Miri, and to do so, he even offered awards to the locals who would show him an oil seep.
After retiring from service and returning to England in 1907, Hose contacted the aging Charles Brooke, who happened to be living in England that year. Hose requested the Rajah’s permission to show his map and samples of oil seeps from Miri to an oil company in London.
The Rajah gave his permission, and the oil company that Hose contacted was Royal Dutch Shell Company, which had just merged.
H.N. Benjamin, a branch manager in the company, was enthusiastic about exploring for oil in Miri, and the Rajah personally came to London to sign the first Sarawak Oil Mining Lease in 1909.
Royal Dutch Shell dispatched its senior geologist Josef Theodor Erb (1888?-1934) along with Charles Hose to Miri. From August 1909 to July 1910 (except for a leave in December-January), Erb mapped the Miri area and identified the Miri Hill (about 150 meters above sea level) as an anticline and a favorable site for drilling.
This surprised the local people, who had anticipated the well to be drilled in an oil seep like the hand-dug wells before. Before the drilling could begin, Erb and Hose had to convince the people that the well would not open the underground cave that was, according to a local legend, home for two evil tigers.
The well was spudded in on August 10, 1910, using a rig composed of wooden derricks and cable tool drilling.
The rig was engineered by a Canadian named “Mr. McAlpine”; therefore, the hill has been historically called the “Canada Hill.”
On Dec. 22, 1910, the well struck light crude at 425 feet (130 meters) depth in the Upper Miocene deltaic sandstone. The discovery must have been a Christmas present for Hose and Erb.
Royal Dutch Shell then founded a subsidiary in Miri, the Sarawak Oil Field Ltd., which still operates today as Sarawak Shell Berhard.
Incidentally, the Miri field has so far been the only onshore oil field in Sarawak – exploration and production went offshore in the late 1950s, and that is where oil operations still are.
On Oct. 31, 1972, the Miri field was closed in.
‘The Grand Old Lady’
During the six decades of operation, 624 wells had been drilled in the field and about 80 million barrels of oil had been produced. Miri No. 1 had faithfully produced over 0.65 million barrels and was still yielding several barrels a day in October 1972. But it was probably time for retirement.
Although oil seeps are still notable in and around Miri, urbanization has discouraged further drilling.
Today, the 30-meter high Miri Well No. 1 derrick, affectionately called “The Grand Old Lady,” sits on top of the Canada Hill (renamed Bukit Telaga Minyak in Malay in 2005), next to the Petroleum Museum that was opened in 2005.
If you happen to be in Miri, a visit to this museum is worth the effort.