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Sam the Banana Man

The lyrical title of this post refers to Samuel, or Sam, Zemurray who lived in New Orleans for many years.  Who was Sam Zemurray?  Obviously given his moniker, his business was bananas.  At one time he was president of United Fruit and his story is about more than just bananas.

Zemurray was born in the Russian Empire in 1877 and emigrated first to Alabama, and then New Orleans. While working as a peddler in the U.S., he saw a way to profit from the discarded, less than perfect bananas and in the end, bananas are how he made his fortune.

After moving to New Orleans and working for United Fruit for a number of years, Zemurray bought land in Honduras along the Cuyamel River and founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company.  However, official U.S. trade policy toward Honduras was not to his company’s benefit to Zemurray’s way of thinking and he felt it necessary to secure and increase his business interests.  The brief and much less colorful version of the next part of Zemurray’s story goes something like this:

United Fruit Co., N.O., La. A.L. Barnett, 1910. //www.loc.gov/item/2007662185/

In 1911 Zemurray proposed a plan to reinstate deposed Honduran president Manuel Bonilla who was then living in exile in New Orleans. The plan was to smuggle Bonilla back to Honduras on a boat with weapons and mercenaries, including Lee Christmas (whom Bonilla already knew) and Guy “Machine Gun” Molony, in order depose the president and reinstall Bonilla as president.  The plan was successful, and in 1912, after Bonilla was reinstalled, he rewarded Zemurray with land concessions and low taxes.

Unloading bananas, New Orleans between 1920 and 1926, Arnold Genthe.
//www.loc.gov/item/agc1996002003/PP/

Unloading bananas, New Orleans, La., Detroit Publishing Co., c1903.
//www.loc.gov/item/2016803156/

After running Cuyamel Fruit for many years, Zemurray sold the company to competitor United Fruit Company of Boston in 1930.  But the Depression hit United Fruit hard and he was brought on as president in 1938. By then, United Fruit didn’t just operate in Honduras – they were also active in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Colombia.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Terrell.

Zemurray retired from United Fruit in 1951 and died on November 30, 1961. His Audubon Place mansion was donated to Tulane University and now serves as the University President’s official residence. The company’s building in New Orleans is still downtown on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Union Street.

This history of the United States fruit and banana trade cannot be told without Zemurray and United Fruit. Beyond even that, the economic and political histories of many Latin American countries intersect with the activities of United Fruit.  That brings me to one more curiosity of note — I don’t know that a blog post about United Fruit, Honduras, and the banana trade would be complete without mentioning the phrase banana republic. The phrase was coined by O. Henry in “The Admiral” from his Cabbages and Kings.  It describes a politically unstable country whose economy is dependent upon the exportation of one or just a few products like bananas, and whose countries were exploited by U.S. corporations like United Fruit.

A blog post is just too short to do justice to the subject of Zemurray, United Fruit, the banana/fruit trade, and Honduran economic history.  All of the links to books, articles, and other material in this post should be a good start, but if you want to explore more, use these subject headings in an online catalog:

Photo courtesy of Ellen Terrell.

Zemurray, Samuel, 1877-1961.

United Fruit Company.

Banana trade–Louisiana–New Orleans–History.

Banana trade–Honduras–History.

Cuyamel Fruit Company.

Lastly, the idea for this post came to me when I saw photographs in the Library’s collection, some of which I included in this post. Bananas were a major item that came through the Port of New Orleans, so if you are interested in some wonderful photographs, search on united fruit, unloading bananas, or banana new orleans on the Library’s homepage.

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