An Autodidactic Corner Selection.
Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman is a classic autodidactic corner work, teaching us what we never learned at school.
1899 - United Fruit Company Formed from the merger of two companies involved in the banana trade
1930 - Sam Zemurray sold his banana company, headquartered in New Orleans to United fruit for 31 million in cash and stock. In 1892, as a young child in the company of his parents he immigrated from Kishinev, Russia to escape antiSemitism to Mobile, Alabama where they had relatives. In 1903 a terrible internationally reported pogram took place in Kishinev in which many Jews were killed, home and businesses burned and women raped in a series of riots probably organised by the Tsar’s Secret Police, the Okhranka. Recently I posted on Pogram:Kishinev and The Tilt of History by Steven Zapperstein, an Autodidactic Corner Selection, and I found it fascinating to learn of the quite significant impact an immigrant from Kishinev would have on 20th century history, becoming a great power in Central America. Chapman shows us Zemurray starting out in his teens buying and selling stalks of bananas on the docks of New Orleans to president for twenty one years of a giant Multi national company.
In 1933 , Zemurray thinking with good reason that United Fruit was not being well run, took back the company by buying the majority of the stock. By then the stock had dropped ninety percent in value. He would remain as president until 1951.
Chapman goes into lots of very interesting details about the operations of the company in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras, bribing officials from top down to get what they needed. The company owned at one time 3.5 million acres in Central America, much of it devoted to cultivating bananas on huge plantations. The conceded by all view, as detailed by Chapman was that the company was very explotive of their workers, paying them in company script that could be used only as company owned stores. Armies were called in to quell strikes.
Chapman explains how United Fruit tried to solve their labor problems by importing workers from Jamaica and as far away as China. The company executives felt they were better than locals. Of course there was racism in this.
United Fruit inadvertenly educated a child, his father was a company supplier of bananas from his own plantation. That child would grow up to be companies worst nightmare, Fidel Castro. ( I flashed to the scene in The Godfather Part Two at the birthday party for the Cuban
President Juan Batista at which a United Fruit executive was a guest.)
Chapman goes into a lot of detail about how United Fruit used highly placed and expensive American lawyers to convince American politicians that United Fruit was a bulkwork against Communism in Latin America. Boats from United Fruit were involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Of course the hope was Castro will be overthrown and the company given back their plantations.
Champman explains a lot about hazzards of the banana business, from strikes to banana diseaese, trade wars, labor troubles, hurricanes
He takes us from retirement of Zemurray, who was a very good manager up to the suicide in 1975 of a company president unable to cope with the decline of the company on to the final disappearance of the company in 1984.
There is a lot more in this fascinating book including the story of Chicquita Banana! I recalled long ago my mother would serve my brother and I breakfast cereal with a chopped banana. I learned from Bananas How United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman that she got this idea, in fact a very smart one, from an advertising campaign sponsered by United Fruit.
All teachers of history should read this book. Anyone into Latin American history will love it.