Subtitled, The Life and Times of America’s Banana King. There really were banana “kings” and banana “wars” and banana “republics”. The term banana wars was coined by O. Henry, who fled to Central America after stealing a large sum of money in Texas.
This book now joins my top five list of the best non-fiction works I ever read. It’s short…242 pages. But it is jam-packed with fascinating information. It’s like reading a history of the U.S. from a certain perspective. Primarily, the robber baron perspective. But it is also a fascinating journey into the life of…the banana.
The title refers to one Samuel Zemurray and his takeover of United Fruit. Now owned by Del Monte. But that is another story. In its heyday, United Fruit was the 800 pound gorilla. One day, Sam and the President of UF were called to a meeting at the State Department. Sam’s company (Cuyamel) and UF were about to have their own little war in Honduras. The State department ordered them to merge, because they said they absolutely were not going to be forced to commit American troops to bail them out. (My how things change, and yet remain the same.) This was not an easy negotiation on either side. Both companies were afraid that if they agreed, they would be sued by the government for violation of the anti-trust law. Together, they would own 62% of the banana trade. But they were assured by the Secretary of State that that would not happen.
Since Sam’s company was the smaller of the two, it was logical that he had to give up his company. In return, he was paid in UF shares…enough so that he became the majority shareholder. How stupid were the people from UF? That’s like saying, I’m going to keep a Cobra in the bedroom but I will insist that it confine itself to one corner.
UF managed to survive the Great Depression, but not well. Sam’s stock, and everyone else’s, had lost major value. And UF was continuing policies that guaranteed that progression would continue. One day Sam attended a meeting of the Board of Directors, and was treated with the utmost contempt. Sam had a rather thick Russian accent. He ranted at them, and a member of the Board said, I didn’t understand a word you said. All the rest of the Boston Brahmins were smirking.
So Sam, having done his homework in secret, whips out all the proxies other shareholders have entrusted to him and says, “Mr. Wing, you’re fired. Do you understand that?” Then he fired the President.
Now to the bananas. Prior to 1965, the variety sold in the U.S. was the Big Mike (Gros Michel). But it went almost extinct, though not quite yet. Probably none of us have ever eaten a Big Mike. The variety we eat is the Cavendish. (Who knew there were so many varieties of bananas?) Big Mikes are reportedly both larger but sweeter. But they don’t travel well.
From the time you harvest a stem of bananas, it is a race against time to get them to market. Bananas don’t ripen until you take them off the plant. Then you have two weeks.
Banana people have four categories for bananas: green, yellow, ripe, and brown. Ripe means a banana’s skin has become freckled. The dockworkers would throw away any banana that was at the ripe stage. Because at that stage, you have maybe a day before it becomes a brown. Sam started picking up the discarded bananas and selling them from a cart. How smart is that? It’s like selling garbage. No overhead.
From that, Sam built an empire.
One of the things I couldn’t believe about this book is that Sam lived most of his life in New Orleans. When I lived there, I took pride in learning NOLA history, but still never heard of him. He built an incredible house at 2 Audobon Place, which is next door to Tulane U. and across the street from the Audobon Park and Zoo. When he died, he left the house to Tulane, and it still serves as the home of whoever is the President of Tulane. How did I miss that?
So what finally happens? Once Sam is in charge of UF, the government sues it for a violation of the anti-trust law. Ha! Couldn’t you just have predicted that?The State Department and the CIA tend to forget who their friends are.
Sam’s best friend was the CIA, and prevented him from having the expense of raising his own private army. The whole Bay of Pigs really was a CIA operation, with some Cuban patriots whipped up by propaganda. It was never going to work. The book proposes that the main impetus was to protect United Fruit. Castro had just nationalized something like 60.000 acres of UF land.
In the end though, it’s very unclear as to who used who. Sam had one agenda, the CIA had another.
But while it doesn’t exist any more per se, United Fruit was once a major player in North and South American politics. You should read this book!