Where We Got the Term “Banana Republic”

Hint: it’s not a great moment in American history

Samuel Zemurray was sometimes called "The Banana Man." Pixabay

On this day in 1877, a banana magnate was born. 

Samuel Zemurray and the Cuyamel Fruit Company shaped the original "banana republic" and launched the American banana craze.  Never heard of Cuyamel? It was one of the ancestors of Chiquita Brands International, which still sells bananas today. Zemurray, its founder, was later the head of the United Fruit Company. "He was a calm, handsomely dressed gentleman who enjoyed the arts and hunting almost as much as he delighted in managing all aspects of the banana business," writes historian Paul J. Dosal. But though Zemurray profited greatly from the banana, the people of banana-growing countries did less well. Those two companies shaped the tropical fruit craze that resulted in mass destabilization in tropical-fruit-growing Central American countries.

The first country to be described as a "banana republic," albeit in a roundabout way, was Honduras, writes T.W. for The Economist, which traditionally does not publish full bylines. In 1904, American writer O. Henry wrote “The Admiral,” a short story published in his book Cabbages and Kings. It’s set in Anchuria,  a fictional ‘small, maritime banana republic,’ that T.W. writes was clearly based on Honduras, where Henry was at the time. T.W. writes:

His phrase neatly conjures up the image of  a tropical, agrarian country. But its real meaning is sharper: it refers to the fruit companies from the United States that came to exert extraordinary influence over the politics of Honduras and its neighbors. By the end of the 19th century, Americans had grown sick of trying to grow fruit in their own chilly country. It was sweeter and cheaper by far to import it instead from the warmer climes of Central America, where bananas and other fruit grow quickly.

Huge companies like United Fruit moved in and built infrastructure in exchange for land. With close ties to a country’s railways and ports came ties to government. In Honduras, Zemurray was deeply involved in politics, as he had been since the Zemurray-Hubbard Steam Ship Company first started working in the country in 1903. Zemurray's company Cuyamel even supplied weapons to the 1911 coup that brought in a more Cuyamel-friendly president, T.W. writes.

Bananas only became popular in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, writes NPR, and it was in large part thanks to Zemurray, who went from a pushcart fruit peddler to the banana king in his lifetime. His big innovations were related to shipping and selling bananas before they went bad. After fighting United Fruit for years, Cuyamel was bought by the rival for $32 million. But it was just the start for Zemurray, who became the largest shareholder in the company. In 1932, as the company struggled, Zemurray became its head. 

“In the end, he would live in the grandest house in New Orleans, the mansion on St. Charles that is now the official residence of the Tulane president,” writes Rich Cohen in an excerpt from his book on Zemurray published by Slate. “He continued to wield tremendous influence into the mid-’50s, a powerful old man who threatened, cajoled, explained, a mysterious Citizen Kane-like figure to the people in his city.” When Zemurray died in 1961, he writes, The New York Times described him as “The Fish That Swallowed the Whale.” Zemurray's small company swallowed United Fruit, which for him was a personal success. Like many early-twentieth century American businessmen, though, his success came at a great cost for others: in this case, the people of Honduras. 

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