Standard’s grip on what was rapidly becoming a global market triggered a response from European colonial powers, which saw the dangers of becoming reliant on imports from America or Russia.
With no less violence or ruthlessness than their American counterparts, they set about exploiting existing and newly acquired colonies to correct the imbalance.
The British turned to the Indian subcontinent and then to Persia, the Dutch to the East Indies.
The most intense competition was between Standard, as it sought concessions in the Far East, and the emerging behemoth, Royal Dutch Shell.
Nowhere was the pursuit of oil bloodier than in Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra.
In 1896 Dutch forces were sent to open up the area for exploitation through “merciless chastisement” of the local population.
Atrocities in Aceh became routine.
Over the next 40 years up to 100,000 Acehnese would be slaughtered for the sake of oil.
Hendrikus Colijn, an officer with a well-earned reputation for brutality, described his approach to his work in a letter home to his wife:
I saw a woman, with a child about half a year old in her left arm and a long lance in her right hand, charging towards us.
One of our bullets killed both mother and child.
From then on we could grant no more mercy.
I had to gather together 9 women and 3 children, who were begging for mercy, and they were all shot.
It was unpleasant work, but there was no alternative.
These horrors did not harm Colijn’s career.
He became head of Royal Dutch Shell and prime minister of the Netherlands.
By the beginning of the 20th century, with both the refinement of the internal-combustion engine and the realisation by the navies of the great powers that their ships could go farther and faster with boilers fuelled by oil rather than coal, reliable access to oil in times of war became a major security concern.
Mr Fisher writes especially well about the maniacal drive of Admiral “Jackie” Fisher (no relation) to shift the Royal Navy from coal to oil propulsion with the backing of Winston Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty.
To ensure that the great Dreadnought battleships could still rule the waves, in 1914 the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for the “socialist” solution of nationalising the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which would later become BP).
It was in the nick of time.
A few weeks later Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo.
More than a century on, and despite faltering attempts to stall climate change through decarbonisation, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of the world’s continuing dependence on oil.
This book has its faults.
At times the narrative is overloaded with detail, and the author seems reluctant to flesh out the many extraordinary (and rapacious) characters who populate the story of oil.
But it is nevertheless a compelling read, crammed with eyewitness accounts, and an immensely valuable guide to a great and terrible industry.