Sometimes, the origins of things we consume take some of the most ridiculous twists and turn to which you aren’t quite sure how to react. For example, the humble banana. It’s a delicious fruit enjoyed by many around the world. For Americans, it’s a popular food by itself and even helped create an iconic sample of a Harry Belafonte tune used by producer Bangladesh for Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” rap anthem. But the way in which tons of bananas made their way into the United States has a ridiculous past involving multiple military coups, massacres, shady dealings by the American Armed Forces, and the exploitation of labor. The United Fruit Company brought Americans one of its most popular fruits, but it did so at an unethical price.
The Not-So-Humble Beginnings of the United Fruit Company
As a result of a merger between the Boston Fruit Company and Minor C. Keith’s banana trading business, the United Fruit Company was formed in 1899. In addition to Minor Cooper Keith, founders Andrew Preston, Lorenzo Dow Baker, and several others would help bring operations to life.
The idea was a noble one. The United Fruit Company was going to get produce from South America and deliver it to North America and Europe. A simple but necessary service for “exotic” foods.
What ended up happening, however, was monopolies known as “banana republics” that hurt locals. These banana republics exploited land and labor as well as influenced government policy for favorable actions that helped the United Fruit Company beat its rivals.
Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala were the main areas affected by these banana republics, but many other countries in South America felt their effects. Most notably Colombia. As operations progressed, this would lead to disputes with workers and dark times that involved capitalism, imperialism, and too many deaths.
Why Hundreds Were Killed Over Fruit in the “Banana Massacre”
The official number may never be known, and it could’ve very well reached thousands of people, but either way, a lot of people were killed over bananas. To make matters worse, the U.S. had a role in it.
Workers began striking on November 12, 1928. They wanted better working conditions, which would create a work stoppage for several weeks due to the United Fruit Company’s refusal to negotiate.
Miguel Abadía Méndez sent the Colombian Army to quell the strikers. This would lead to hundreds if not thousands of people being killed. On December 5 and 6, 1928, in the town of Ciénaga, Colombia, the Banana Massacre would take place.
The American influence here is due to the fact that U.S. officials in Colombia worked with United Fruit Company to paint the narrative that the strike was being performed by Communists. Telegrams sent to Frank B. Kellogg, the United States Secretary of State, and assistance from the Colombian government helped facilitate a disgusting display of human rights violations and mass murder.
Sam Zemurray Becomes President of the United Fruit Company
So, you’ve come to the conclusion that you need someone to run your international produce business. You’ve already inspired violence in South America, and you’re in need of a leader to get the ship back on course.
Why not hire someone who also has experience in selling bananas while arranging military coups in South America!?
As bat$#!t crazy as all this is, it makes sense to me, and it made sense to the United Fruit Company because that’s exactly what they did. Sam Zemurray would become the company’s president in 1938, but it’s what he did before being dragged out of retirement that helps connect these insane dots.
Zemurray, a.k.a. “Sam the Banana Man,” started his operation known as the Cuyamel Fruit Company after discovering how amazing bananas taste. In the beginning, his company was harmless, helpful even. Taking ripe bananas that wouldn’t survive the long trip to America and selling them by railroad to nearby vendors.
After earning enough money, Sam the Banana Man and his partner Ashbell Hubbard signed a deal in 1903 to work with the United Fruit Company. Bolstering his operations yet again, two years later, Zemurray moved from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans, Louisiana.
After purchasing a steamboat company and the Cuyamel Fruit Company, they began importing bananas, as well. This ultimately led to the Cuyamel Fruit Company in Honduras using capital to grow and harvest bananas. Thanks to Zemurray’s business prowess (bribes), he was able to secure special deals and lower taxation, which made operations run smoothly.
But this would not last long and was when $#!t really hit the fan… wait no, this is when things went bananas… much better.
Anyways, in the same year, 1910, the U.K. started wanting to collect on its debt from Honduras. This meant Sam’s kickbacks were in trouble. He even tried to persuade the man helping the two nations to settle things, United States Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, to which Knox refused and told him to stay out of it.
He. Did. Not.
Remember, Zemurray was living in New Orleans at the time. Which just so happened to be the same time that Manuel Bonilla, the exiled ex-president of Honduras, was also living in the city. The plan was simple: Get men from NOLA to create a group of guerilla fighters and reinstall Bonilla as the leader of Honduras.
Now, how Zemurray got his weapons and a vessel previously used by the U.S. Navy is as clear as the Mississippi River pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, where they likely set course from. Come to your own conclusions, but this ain’t exactly the best story involving the U.S. military.
By 1912, the coup was a success. The fighters who, again, somehow were well armed for the occasion, installed Bonilla as leader once again. This would lead to the Cuyamel Fruit Company getting great tax breaks and land.
Years would go by, and Zemurray was wildly successful. This would lead to direct clashes with the United Fruit Company that would lean toward violence. Eventually, the U.S. government would step in, leading Zemurray to become one of the richest men in America after selling his company to the United Fruit Company in 1929.
But he couldn’t just enjoy his wealth and local influence. Sam Zemurray would find his way back to the banana trade, among various other crops, and return as the president of the United Fruit Company during a hostile takeover.
He would serve at the company until retiring in 1951, but the United Fruit Company in Guatemala didn’t need him for what was to happen next. This was when the United Fruit Company tried to buy Guatemala in 1952, but in 1954, the CIA would use forces from Honduras to overtake the Guatemalan government in a military coup.
What Is the United Fruit Company Called Today?
Today, Chiquita Brands International, you know, the people with blue stickers on the bananas, yeah, that’s who United Fruit Company is today. This is why the Banana Massacre of 1928 is also known as the Chiquita Banana Massacre.
If you dig deep enough and long enough, I’m sure you can find something wrong with most, if not every, enterprise. Nobody is perfect, but that doesn’t give this a pass.
We didn’t even mention the Great Banana Strike of 1934 in Costa Rica or the possible involvement by the United Fruit Company and the CIA in Cuba during the 1960s, but there’s more than enough here. The bottom line is that our government and leaders in the military do us no favors when such evils are not only allowed but assisted in order to help American interests profit.
Sam Zemurray Image: Eliot Elisofon/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; Chiquita Bananas Image: Sundry Photography – stock.adobe.com