The cutthroat banana business

Jonathan Rainey, Staff Writer

“The Fish That Ate the Whale:  The Life and Times of America’s Banana King” by Rich Cohen, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux tells the tale of Samuel Zemurray, master of the banana.  The book is historical nonfiction, but Cohen’s talent for weaving narrative explores the many aspects of Zemurray’s fascinating life in gripping detail.

Zemurray made his first foray into the banana trade by purchasing from the United Fruit Company bananas which, freshly shipped from Central America, were bruised or were ripening too early to get to the market in time.

Zemurray spent what little money he had accumulated on a gamble that he could sell the bananas that the largest fruit distributor in the world could not.  He loaded the quickly ripening fruit onto boxcars and sold to markets and stores directly from the boxcar to cut wasted time in shipment.  The gamble paid off and Zemurray amassed a small fortune which he only spent on getting into the fruit industry for real.

Next, all he needed was fertile, Central American land to grow his crops.  Honduras is among the best soil in the world for bananas. Zemurray and his new company, Cuyamel Fruit, owned a small tract of land in Honduras, but to expand, Cuyamel needed land which it wasn’t able to get due to government restrictions. Zemurray’s solution: overthrow the government.

In 1911, Zemurray hired a band of infamous mercenaries to oust the president and install a more pliable leader.  The whole “revolution,” if it can be called that, reads more like a historical inspiration for The Expendables.  Larger than life mercenary war heroes sail to Central America in the name of the almighty dollar to take out a corrupt political leader. The coup resulted in massive expansion by Cuyamel and their eventual buyout by United Fruit, but Zemurray had not finished yet.

The book’s title comes from Zemurray’s eventual return to power as the CEO of United Fruit when he ousted the board of directors by storming into the boardroom, flinging a bag of shareholder proxies on the table saying, “You’ve been f–ing up this business long enough.  I’m going to straighten it out.”  The New York Times dubbed Zemurray as “the fish that ate the whale” because of his rise from poverty and insignificance to controlling the largest fruit distributor in the world.

Although a historical account, Rich Cohen’s writing is more fluent than most historical nonfiction I have read. He occasionally expounds on Zemurray’s personality and makes speculations on why he made his decisions rather than relying on the bare facts. All of this conjecture Cohen clearly outlines as his personal opinion, but it adds a lot to the narrative and ultimately makes for a better book.

Cohen’s ample descriptions of the supporting characters in Zemurray’s life also highlight how brilliant and instrumental the man was in shaping not only his business but North American history in the early and mid-20 century.  He recruited only the best and Cohen’s description of each individual’s background, as well as their interaction with Zemurray, indicate the Banana King’s prowess in the field of business.

“The Fish that Ate the Whale” gives a unique glimpse into a lesser known, but important, figure of American history.  Zemurray practically defined Central American economics and politics for almost 50 years and United Fruit held more than 75% of all privately owned land in some countries like Honduras and Guatemala for a time.  Rich Cohen’s blend of history with an engaging, almost novel-like read made this book the best I’ve read in recent memory.