|(published in Uncle John’s “AHH INSPIRING” Bathroom Reader)
According to one legend the fruit that Eve found irresistible in the Garden of Eden was not the apple, but the banana. Whether true or not, for thousands of years since the banana has been the source of pleasure, and occasionally trouble.
•Bananas are believed to have originated in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, where a wide variety of species still grow.
•They may have been cultivated as early as 1000 B.C.
• Alexander the Great found bananas in India in 327 B.C.
•The Roman historian Pliny reported in the first century A. D. that the sages of India shaded themselves under banana trees.
•Arabs traders brought the banana to the Middle East and Africa in the 7th century.
•By the late 1400s bananas were a staple food along the western coast of Africa where Portuguese sailors collected plants and brought them to the Canary Islands, between Africa and Spain. The bananas the Arab traders found in Africa were not the large fruit we are familiar with today, but just a few inches in length. Historians believe “banana” comes from banan, the Arabic word meaning “finger.”
•In 1516 Tomás de Berlanga, a Spanish priest, brought banana stalks to the New World, to the island of Hispañola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He took plants with him to the mainland when he was made Bishop of Panama in 1534.
•Another priest, Vasco de Quiroga, brought banana plants from Hispañola to Mexico in the mid 16th century. Bananas spread and flourished throughout the Caribbean basin, leading many to later believe that they were native to the region.
The Luxury Fruit
Despite of the banana’s popularity in the tropics, it remained virtually unknown in the U.S. until the late 1800s. Bananas were formally introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia which included a 40-acre display of tropical plants. A local grocer sold individual bananas, wrapped neatly in tinfoil, for ten cents— an hours wage at the time. But bananas remained an expensive luxury, available only in port cities, for a number of years after the Exposition.
Bananas in Boston
The first merchant to successfully capitalize on the banana was Cape Cod sea captain Lorenzo Baker, who discovered the curious fruit in Jamaica and brought his first load to New Jersey in 1870. He sold the bananas for a substantial profit and soon began shipping them back to the East Coast on a regular basis. In 1885 he and Boston businessman Andrew Preston formed the Boston Fruit Company. But Baker wasn’t alone in the banana business for long.
Getting on track
At about the same time, an ambitious young man from Brooklyn named Minor Keith was building a railroad in Costa Rica.. Keith and two of his brothers were brought down to Costa Rica in 1871, when Keith was only 23, by Keith’s uncle who had won a government contract to build a line from the capitol of San José to the port of Limón. It was a treacherous project over miles of dense mountainous jungle which claimed the lives of some 5000 workers, including Keith’s two brothers and his uncle.
In spite of the hardship Keith persisted. As the railroad construction proceeded he planted banana plants on nearby land. The quick-growing fruit was a cheap way to feed his workers.
The railroad was completed in 1890, but Keith was in financial trouble. The Costa Rican government failed to pay him, and there weren’t enough passengers to support the line. Forced to find another source of revenue Keith decided to experiment with the bananas he had planted. With his railroad he could transport them to Limón cheaply, where they could be shipped to markets in the U.S. The experiment was a success—his banana business quickly overshadowed his meager passenger service.
The Banana Boom
In spite of a decade of success, in 1899 Keith once again found himself in difficulty. A financial partner went bankrupt, leaving Keith without enough money to run his railroad. As a way to preserve his business he went to Boston and arranged with Lorenzo Baker and Andrew Preston to merge their two companies, forming the United Fruit Company (which exists today as part of United Brands, following another merger in 1970).
By the end of the century advancements in refrigerated steamship and rail transportation made it possible to ship bananas to all parts of North America and the United Fruit Company was ready for a banana boom. With the addition of Keith’s banana business the newly formed company had a virtual monopoly— Keith, Baker and Preston controlled more than 75% of the U.S. market. Aggressive marketing campaigns taught Americans how to eat the exotic fruit. Newly affordable, the banana became a hit. At the source, banana production shifted into high gear— but there was a dark side that the American public new little about.
Over the next several decades the banana business played a large part in the economy and politics of Central America. The United Fruit Company, and other banana companies such as Standard Fruit (today part of Dole), gained favorable concessions from Central American dictators, buying or leasing vast tracts of land at bargain prices and paying little, if any, taxes.
While bananas accounted for a major part of the exports in Central America, little of the money benefited the common people—the deals made with the governments enriched mostly government officials. In his 1904 book “Cabbages and Kings” American author O. Henry described the fictional Central American country of Anchuria as a “banana republic”. The term became synonymous for corrupt countries controlled by banana companies.
American businesses in Central America, primarily the banana companies, were supported by U.S. foreign policy. The government figured that what was good for big business, at home and abroad, was good for America. Under President Taft (1909-1913) the goal of diplomacy was to support, or create, stable governments favorable to U.S. interests, and whenever possible do it with the investment capital of American companies. But harsh economic conditions led to grass roots rebellions. When “dollar diplomacy” failed the U.S. government resorted to “gunboat diplomacy,” sending in troops to ensure the favorable outcome of political contests in Honduras, Nicaragua and other countries.
In 1954 the CIA orchestrated a military coup against Jacobo Arbenz, a progressive Guatemalan president who had proposed buying uncultivated lands owned by the United Fruit Company and other large landowners, and distributing them to landless peasants. Under Arbenz’ agrarian reform plan the Guatemalan government would pay the landowner the declared tax valuation.
To keep taxes low, the United Fruit Company had undervalued the land it owned— $2.99 per acre. Faced with the expropriation, the United Fruit Company, backed by the U.S. Government, claimed the land was really worth $75 per acre. Citing the threat of Communism the U.S. backed the coup which ousted Arbenz and led to a military dictatorship …and ended the threat of land reform and other progressive measures.
But times were changing for the banana companies. Worker strikes led to labor reforms. The monopoly of United Fruit Company was broken by an anti-trust suit in 1958 which forced it to sell parts of the company to competitors and Guatemalan entrepreneurs.
In 1962, the United Fruit Company began marketing its bananas under the Chiquita brand name— the first attempt by a fruit or vegetable producer to create “brand loyalty.” They were trying to convince the public that Chiquita bananas were better than bananas from other companies. Result: The marketing campaign boosted the popularity of bananas, but not brand loyalty.
Today imperialist politics have taken a back seat to more modern business practices. But bananas are still big business, and remain America’s most popular fruit.
copyright©Jim McCluskey 2002-2012