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The Fish That Ate the Whale

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United Fruit’s march to prominence – and monopoly – was due to the efforts of three men: New Englander Lorenzo Baker, who developed banana fields in Central and South America; Boston Fruit’s Andrew Preston; and Brooklyn-born Minor Keith, who constructed the first cross-Panama railroad and planted the first banana “rhizomes” in the region. In 1899, Baker, Preston, and Keith sealed a partnership that created United Fruit. Zemurray, as he moved into the business, joined forces with Mobile native Ashbell Hubbard, who had his own contract with United Fruit. Together, with Zemurray’s $20,000 investment, the two men acquired two smaller companies, Cuyamel Fruit Co., and Thatcher Brothers, the latter of which provided the new enterprise with steamships. This put the young company squarely in United Fruit’s crosshairs, and, as Cohen makes clear, the emerging colossus dealt with competitors in only two ways: “absorb or crush.” Zemurray was not about to be crushed.

Having moved to New Orleans in 1905, four years before United Fruit would win a Supreme Court case alleging that they had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, Zemurray met Jake “The Parrot King” Weinberger, an itinerant merchant who had extensive knowledge of Central America. (Zemurray would later marry Jake’s daughter Sarah). In 1910, Zemurray traveled to Honduras, where he bought 5,000 acres of land and met “characters” such as fugitive Texas embezzler William Sidney Porter (the author O. Henry). Zemurray found he was easily able to “grease the skids” of his enterprise by bribing officials of the heavily indebted Dávila government and by paying for Washington lobbyists to kill a plan by US Secretary of State Philander Knox to place a duty on all imports, bananas included.

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