Digboi – How Asia’s First Oil Refinery got its Name

It was the late 19th century. India had recovered from its loss in the First War of Independence (1857 AD). The reign of India had passed from the British East India Company to the British Crown of Queen Victoria. Modernization was gradually gaining momentum in the soil of India. Roads, railways, postal services etc. were being established throughout the country at a rapid rate.

It is believed that in 1882, a group of British engineers were trying to build a railway line in upper Assam for the convenience of the Assam Railway & Trading Company (AR&TC).  Legend says these engineers were traveling on elephants in the dense malaria-infested jungles of upper Assam. One engineer named Mr. W.L. Lake, incidentally found oil stains on the foot of the elephants.

Mr. Lake got down from his elephant. He motioned to his Assamese male-servant who was accompanying the voyage. He asked the boy to dig up the ground and see where the oily liquid was coming from. “Dig boy, dig”, ordered Mr. Lake.

The boy dug up the ground. To their utter amazement, the British officers noticed that the ground was a source of fossil oil, also called petroleum. They were one of the first few people to discover petroleum in the earth. This rare discovery of crude oil delighted them even more that the British colony of India contained petroleum beneath it. They knew this would make them and the Crown extremely rich.

The place where the officer had ordered “Dig boy, dig” became famous as Digboia small remote place in India, which all of a sudden became a landmark place in mankind’s history. Digboi, the first place where the mighty British Empire would discover fossil fuels.

Soon Mr. Lake procured boilers, kettles and distillation columns in Digboi to build an oil-well and one of the world’s first refineries. Systematic drilling began in 1891. This refinery, commissioned in 1901 and operated under the aegis of the Assam Oil Company Ltd, still exists and at present it is the world’s oldest operating refinery. Barrels of oils were being transported in boats across the Brahmaputra. The jungles of upper Assam gave way to modern townships. Houses were built in the British style. Digboi became the home-town for many top engineers from across the world.

The Digboi refinery was the only refinery in India until 1954 when M/s Esso commissioned a refinery in Bombay. In 1962, Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. (IOCL) established the country’s first public sector refinery in Guwahati. As per an Act of Parliament on 13th of October 1981, the control of Digboi refinery was handed over to IOCL. Since then this refinery is being run by the Assam Oil Division of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. The capacity of the refinery was upgraded in 1981 from 0.5 Million Metric Tonnes Per Annum (MMTPA) to 0.62 MMTPA.

Digboi War Cemetery ( Commonwealth War Grievance) was established on May 21st 1917. The cemetery contains 200 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. By Mandeep Baruah

After independence, Digboi became a part of undivided Lakhimpur district in upper Assam. In 1976, the district of Dibrugarh was carved out from  parts of Lakhimpur district, located on the southern banks of the Brahmaputra. Digboi then became a part of Dibrugarh district. In 1989 Tinisukia district was split from Dibrugarh and since then Digboi has remained a part of Tinisukia district.

Today Digboi has developed to be a major tourist attraction in Assam. People visit this town to see the infrastructure built during the British period. Digboi also has an 18-hole golf course which was built for the officers of British India. The town also hosts a memorial of Indian soldiers who had laid down their lives for the British army during the Second World War. The old Stillwell Road  will be developed to link Assam with Myanmar and China and would be passing through Digboi.

As Assam moves towards a new dawn with the abatement of terrorism and development of better roads and communication facilities, Digboi might very soon develop to be a major industrial and tourist destination in north-east India.

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