An Unlikely Oil Baron
Peter Doran tells the story of Marcus Samuel Jr. a Jewish 19th century trader who rises from the hard scrabble neighborhood of Houndsditch, London to the heights of the global oil business and a high peerage in the Court of Saint James. Doran’s book is in the tradition of Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize” and Anthony Sampson’s “The Seven Sisters” and is filled with the high drama of the early years of the oil industry. The oil business of 1900 was far different than today. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil dominated the industry like no other and kerosene, not gasoline was its main product.
However change was in the wind. The oil production capital was moving from the depleted oilfields of the United States to the booming Baku oil fields of Russia. There the Nobel Brothers and the Rothschild’s were beginning to upset Rockefeller’s hold on the global oil market. Into this milieu comes Marcus Samuel. He has the strategic vision to move Russian oil through the Suez Canal to the Asian markets he knew so well.
The one problem was that the Suez Canal, for safety reasons, refused to allow oil tankers to enter the canal. It here where Samuel has designed and built a double-hulled tanker that convinces the canal officials to allow passage. Of a sudden, Standard Oil was threatened with cheap Russian oil in Asia under the name of Shell Transport and Trading, the Shell Oil name of today.
Competing with Samuel in Asia was Henri Deterding’s Rothschild backed Royal Dutch. Using geological science Deterding discovers a gusher in Sumatra that underprices Shell. After several years of competing with each other Deterding gains the upper hand by forcing a merger with Shell that forms Royal Dutch/Shell Group of today based on a 60/40 split favoring Royal Dutch.
This combination along with the anti-trust beak-up of Standard Oil in 1911 ends Rockefeller’s grip over the global oil business. Doran’s theme throughout is as his title suggests is breaking Rockefeller and the monopoly he represented. He ends his story with the death of Samuel in 1928, but in the same year Royal Dutch/Shell joins up with Standard Oil and other oil majors with Achnacarry and Red Line Agreements which effectively cartelizes the global oil industry, so much for competitive markets.
Doran is a good story teller whose work was handicapped by the burning of most of Samuel’s files at his death. Although he takes a few side trips away from his basic story, he holds the reader’s interest throughout.
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