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Originally published Sunday, July 15, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'The Fish That Ate the Whale': biography of a banana king

In the "Fish That Ate the Whale," author Rich Cohen writes the story of Sam Zemurray, a poor young Russian Jew who parlayed his knowledge of bananas into an enormous business that influenced U.S. policy in Central America.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King'

by Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

272 pp., $27

If the American Century is defined by the unprecedented growth and projection of U.S. power worldwide — and all that that implies — a most unlikely emblem of that power might be the Central American banana.

Long a mere curiosity here, bananas were introduced to the U.S. mainstream by the slice, wrapped in tin foil, at the 1876 Pennsylvania Centennial Exposition. Advances in steamship technology enabled improved transportation of the product to U.S. tables, and rough-and-tumble entrepreneurs converged on Central America to "help" where they could.

While the largest player to emerge in the multinational banana business was United Fruit, whose story has been well-covered, author Rich Cohen's focus in "The Fish That Ate the Whale" is on Sam Zemurray, a poor young Russian Jew who landed in New Orleans in 1905 and began at the lowest rung, a fruit jobber selling "ripes," still-edible bananas that the big boys discarded because of their inability to sell them before they spoiled.

Zemurray cleverly rented a boxcar, filled it with low-cost ripes, then traveled with them to regional train stations, where he'd meet buyers with money in hand for the ready-to-eat product.

Leveraging the good name of a business partner and whatever money they'd accumulated, Zemurray soon traveled to Honduras to buy up as many thousands of acres as he could, knowing that land locally associated with swamp and disease was ideal for growing bananas.

It was Zemurray's willingness, even delight, in tramping through his fields that gave him the insights to advance meteorically in the banana trade. "He was deep in the muck, sweat-covered, slinging a blade," Cohen writes. "Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business, from the executive suite, where the stock was manipulated, to the ripening room where the green fruit turned yellow."

Zemurray became so powerful so quickly in the Honduran banana trade that when the sweetheart deals he'd arranged with officials there, including President Miguel Dávila, were threatened by the U.S. government, Zemurray responded by hiring his own militia, overthrowing the Dávila regime, and installing one more favorable to his interests.

Meanwhile, Zemurray's success so threatened United Fruit that their resulting banana wars forced the U.S. government to arrange a merger of the two, the result being that Zemurray's company was folded into United Fruit. However, Zemurray, unhappy with the way United Fruit conducted its banana business from its remote East Coast offices, engineered a takeover and ran the company himself for 25 more years.

Zemurray was in charge of United Fruit when that company, along with the U.S. State Department, engineered the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, who advocated a redistribution of unused land owned by United Fruit. Zemurray would retire later that year, but the damage was already done both to the region and to the U.S.-Central American relationship.

This is a great yarn, the events and personalities leaping off the page, but the reader might wish Cohen had further explored the working conditions and political environment under which local populations throughout Central America toiled for Zemurray and United Fruit.

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