Hey, Mister Tally-Man, tally me bananas!

In 1870, Lorenzo Dow Baker, a Cape Cod sea captain, anchored his schooner in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and came across some bananas when he was shopping for food. He bought 160 unripe bunches of bananas in Jamaica for a shilling a bunch and, after ten days sailing, sold them in Jersey City for $2 each.

Bananas were popular in the Northeast in the days before refrigeration since, aside from oranges, they were the only fresh fruit available during the winter months. One of Captain Baker's first customers, in 1871, was a 21 year old produce dealer named Andrew Preston. Preston had handbills printed up extolling the virtues of the new fruit and explaining how to eat it. In 1885, Captain Baker started a partnership with Andrew Preston and some investors and called it Boston Fruit Company. Preston managed production in the West Indies and Baker managed distribution in Boston.

Minor C. Keith: King of Central America

Minor Cooper Keith (1848-1929) was the son of a successful lumber merchant, born in Brooklyn, New York. At the the age of 16, Keith's father set him up with a cattle ranch in Texas, but after a couple years of ranching, in 1871 Keith joined his brothers and his uncle, Henry Meiggs, in a railroad building project in Costa Rica. Meiggs had built railroads in Peru, and had obtained a contract with the Costa Rican government to build a railroad from the Caribbean port of Limón to the capital at San José in the central mountains. The first twenty-five miles of the railroad had to be constructed in jungle conditions, and the project's workers died by the thousands from accidents and tropical diseases (malaria and dengue fever). The dead included Minor Keith's Uncle Meiggs and Keith's brothers, leaving Keith in chrage of the project. The railroad's reputation for killing its workers made it impossible to hire enough local labor, so Keith recruited convicts from New Orleans. Only 25 of the seven hundred convicts hired survived the construction and returned to New Orleans.

Around 1873, Keith planted banana trees in the railroad's right of way in the province of Limón, in order to cut food costs for his workers. Midway through the project Keith realized that passenger revenue would never pay off the railroad's debt. He began exporting bananas. By the time the railroad was finished in 1890, its principal use was transporting bananas.

In the 1890's, Keith became a major figure in Costa Rican society: he married Cristina Castro, the daughter of a national President, and worked as the main negotiator of the Costa Rican foreign debt with English banks. He expanded his banana business into Columbia (which then included Panama).

United Fruit Company

In 1898, the United States commenced direct military control of the Caribbean and Central America by taking Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish American War.

In 1899, Keith's bank in the United States went bankrupt, and he was forced to negotiate a deal with his principal competitors in the banana trade: Andrew Preston and Lorenzo Baker's Boston Fruit Company. At this point, Keith was the dominant fruit importer to the southeastern United States through the port of New Orleans, with extensive railroads and plantations in Central America. Boston Fruit Company had plantations in the Caribbean, and a steamship fleet of 42 ships, painted white to reflect the tropical sun (the "Great White Fleet"). Boston Fruit was the dominant importer in the Northeastern United States. Together, Kieth, Preston and Baker's firms would control 75% of the fresh fruit market, and would be poised to immediately gobble up several smaller firms as well. The merger on March 30th, 1899 created the United Fruit Company, with Preston as President and Keith as Vice-president.

Keith continued with his railroad projects in Central America. The nation of Guatemala contracted its postal system to the United Fruit Company in 1901.

In 1903, United Fruit commenced the first refrigerated steamship service, and the United State became very active in Central American affairs when the Colombian state of Panama declared independence. The United States government provided military support for the Panamanian separatists, and in return is granted sovereignty of a strip of land on which the United States planned to build a canal allowing shipping between the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Also in 1903, United States troops intervened in Honduras and in the Dominican Republic.

In 1904, Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera granted United Fruit a ninety-nine year tax-free concession to construct and maintain the country's main rail line from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios. By 1908, Keith's railway connected Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City, allowing United Fruit to develop banana plantations in the Guatemalan lowlands, and eventually built roads connecting to the Pacific and to Mexico's railway system in 1911. At that time, Keith conceived a new company called the International Railways of Central America (IRCA). By the time of his death in 1929, IRCA was a unified rail system in Guatemala and El Salvador, 800 miles (1,287 km) in length, and Keith was the most influential person in the region, the "uncrowned King of Central America".

Sam the Banana Man Takes Over Honduras

Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961) was born in Bessarabia, Russia. In 1892 his family moved to the United States, he changed his name from Zmurri to "Zemurray" and settled in Selina, Alabama. In 1899, Zemurray became a banana dealer operating out of Mobile, Alabama. Shortly thereafter he moved to New Orleans and became a contractor for United Fruit, rapidly disposing of bananas which had ripened in shipment to local retailers. In this way he met another United Fruit contractor, Ashbell Hubbard. In 1900, Hubbard and Zemurray joined forces and began importing bananas from independent producers in Honduras. Hubbard and Zemurray began purchasing land in Honduras, and into 1910, created the Cuyamel Fruit Company.

At this point, Zemurray came into conflict with Morgan Bank, which, with the assistance of the United States government, had been appointed to collect customs taxes in Central America to pay off Central American debts to European banks. Zemurray wanted to reach his own deal with Honduras, without interference form the State Department or Morgan Bank. He hired two mercenaries, Guy "Machine Gun" Molony and Lee Christmas, and along with Zemurray's friend Manuel Bonilla, a former President of Honduras, engineered a coup de etat. Molony and Christmas brought rifles, ammunition, and a powerful machine-gun, with which they swiftly defeated official Honduran resistance. The local government was overthrown in six weeks. A new election was held, and Bonilla was elected president. With Bonilla in power, the Honduras Congress approved a concession that guaranteed Zemurray a large tract of land and waived his obligations to pay taxes for the next 25 years.

Sam the Banana Man Takes Over United Fruit

Cuyamel Fruit Company expanded until it became a serious threat to United Fruit Company. To put an end to a price war, in 1930, United Fruit acquired Zemurray's controlling interest in Cuyamel in exchange for 300,000 shares of United Fruit, making him the largest shareholder.

United Fruit's share prices had been devasted by the 1929 crash, and kept dropping after Zemurray bought in: from $158 a share to $10 a share in 1932. With his original $30 million fortune reduced to $2 million, Zemurray had to come out of retirement and kick some butt.

At this point Zemurray stormed into to the board of directors meeting. The company had long been a preserve of the Boston elite and Daniel G. Wing, chairman of the First National Bank of Boston, displayed his disdain by replying to Zemurray that he could not understand his Russian accent ("Unfortunately, Mr. Zemurray, I can't understand a word of what you say" -Wing said while smiling thinly). Zemurray was infuriated and quickly he went out and gathered up proxies, allowing him to take control of the company. He famously remarked: "You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I'm going to straighten it out." 1

Zemurray cleaned house, especially in the tropical divisions. The company's stock rose. He was now the world's largest grower, shipper, and seller of bananas. United Fruit also began producing and shipping sugar and cacao, and the Great White Fleet became the largest private fleet in the world. The fleet played a part in the Battle of the Atlantic, keeping Britain provisioned during the early part of World War II.

In 1948, Samuel Zemurray sent one of the company's ships to participate in the settlement of Jews in Palestine after the war. The ship was re-baptized with the name of Exodus and carried the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the Middle East.

Miss Chiquita

In 1944, the company laid the groundwork for its post-war boom with a new marketing gimmick: Miss Chiquita.

The first Miss Chiquita was an animated banana with a face and frilly dress drawn by cartoonist Dik Browne (who also created the Campbell Soup kids and "Hagar the Horrible"). She was introduced in an intensive radio commercial campaign, featuring the Chiquita Banana Song.

Live models were hired to represent "Miss Chiquita", beginning with Patty Clayton in 1944. Puerto Rico-born Elsa Miranda (no relation to Carmen) was the most famous Miss Chiquita, making numerous appearances in a campaign in 1945 and 1946. The cartoon Miss Chiquita went on the distinctive blue and yellow label in 1963, and the banana cartoon was changed into a female figure in the late 1980's. More recently, the character has also been brought to life by Elizabeth Testa (1994) and Angela Lanza (2000).

United Fruit itself changed its name in the 1970's to "United Brands", and then in 1990 assumed the persona of its own marketing construct, dubbing itself Chiquita Brands International, Inc.

Sam the Banana Man rescues Guatemala from itself

After Zemurray retired in 1951, he remained as chairman of the executive committee of United Fruit. He had an important role in engineering the overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 1954.

In 1950, the people of Guatemala had elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzman their President. Arbenz favored a Agrarian Reform Act to re-distribute uncultivated lands to the poor peasants. The Act was approved in 1952. Landowners, including particularly the United Fruit Company, were offered compensation based on the valuations of the land for tax purposes. Since United Fruit Company's land was grossly undervalued for tax purposes, the company deemed this grossly unfair.

Zemurray funded a public relations campaign to portray Arbenz as a dangerous Communist. United Fruit could count on the support of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother CIA Director Allen Dulles: both had investments in firms with heavy investments in United Fruit. The American ambassador to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, was a shareholder. Anne Whitman, the wife of the United Fruit's public relations director, was President Eisenhower's personal secretary. The Dulles brothers convinced Eisenhower that Arbenz was a real threat to American national security and got his approval for a CIA campaign to remove him.

United Fruit supplied boats to transport troops and ammunition. Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza leased his country out as a base for an army of Guatemalan rebels and mercenaries, backed by a CIA air force. CIA aircraft dropped anti-communist leaflets and strafed and bombed government targets. CIA leaflets were supplemented by anti-communist pastoral letters, read in Catholic churches to the largely illiterate but very religious Guatemalan peasantry, which had been supplied by the CIA through their Church contact, the rabidly anti-communist Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York.

In 1954, the legally elected government was overthrown, and power was assumed by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who had at one time received military training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Armas gave United Fruit its land back, banned banana workers unions, abolished the tax on interest and dividends to foreign investors, and jailed thousands. The CIA provided lists of alleged "communists", including union leaders, who were promptly executed. Castillo Arma's brutal crackdown touched off the civil war in 1960 which dragged on for 36 years and killed over one hundred thousand (100,000) people --in a country with a current population of only 13 million.

Witness to the events in Guatemala was a 25 year old doctor from Argentina named Ernesto Guevara. Young Guevara (later known as el "Che") was living in Guatemala at the time of the CIA-backed coup, working as a doctor and book-seller. Guevara organized resistance militias against Castillo's CIA-backed mercenary army. Facing capture, he escaped to Mexico where he met another political refugee who would become one of his closest friends: Cuban Fidel Castro.

In 1961, United Fruit also provided two ships for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Eli Black

In 1966, AMK, originally a producer of milk-bottle caps, acquired the John Morrell Company, a meat producer. AMK's President, Eli Black, thus began his campaign to dominate the American food market. In 1969, Eli Black bought 733,000 shares of United Fruit in a single day, and became the largest shareholder. In 1970, Black effected the merger of AMK and United Fruit, and renamed the company "United Brands". The company, beset by unions, taxation and hurricanes in its Central American strongholds, suffered horrendous losses, and its share of the fruit market fell behind the Dole company for the first time.

In February, 1975, Eli Black committed suicide by jumping from his office window in the Pan-Am building in New York. Later that year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission exposed a scheme by United Brands to bribe Honduran President Osvaldo Lopez Arellano with $1.25 million, with the promise of another $1.25 million upon the reduction of certain export taxes. Trading in United Brands stock was halted and Lopez was ousted in a military coup.

Pesticides and Eurotariffs

Since 1975, the old United Fruit company has struggled to shed its past, including the use of harmful pesticides, become a responsible and profitable corporate citizen, and take back market share from Dole. Currently the company is known as Chiquita Brands International and its most controversial activities are its ongoing fight with the European Union over restrictive tariffs favoring African over American fruit production.

1 United Fruit Historical Society, Samuel Zemurray Biography, www.unitedfruit.org/zemurray.html


  • Chiquita Brands, Inc. f/k/a "United Brands" f/k/a "United Fruit": http://www.chiquita.com/
  • The United Fruit Historical Society: http://www.unitedfruit.org/
  • The Great White Fleet: http://www.greatwhitefleet.com/liner/about/
  • CIA documents of the 1954 coup in Guatemala: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/

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