The United Fruit Company

The more one studies Panama and its resources the more one is convinced that all that is necessary to make the country a rich and prosperous one, or at any rate to cause it to create riches and prosperity for investors, is the application of capital,labor and systematic management to the resources it already possesses.  In its 400 years of Spanish and mestizo control these three factors have been continuously lacing.  There are men in Panama, of native birth and of Spanish origin, who have undertaken to develop certain of the land's resources and have moderately enriched themselves.  But the most striking evidence of the success to be obtained from attacking the industrial problem in Panama systematically end in a big way is that furnished by the operations of the United Fruit Company, the biggest business fact in the tropics.

Panama is, of course, only one link in the colossal chain of the operations of this company in the tropics.  The rapidly increasing prosperity of many of the Central Republics is due largely to the sweeping scope of the United Fruit Company, and its impress is in evidence all along the north coast of South America and throughout the West Indies.  Its interests in Jamaica are enormous.  Cuba put Jamaica off the sugar map, but the United Fruit Company came to her rescue with an offer to purchase all the bananas her planters could furnish, and Jamaica now leads the American tropics with 17,000,000 bunches annually, of which the United Fruit Company obtains nearly half, the balance being handled by its competitors.  The company also owns the famous Titchfield Hotel of Port Antonio, and operates the Myrtle Bank Hotel of Kingston.  In Cuba the company owns 60,000 acres of sugar plantations and its two great sugar mills will this year add to the world's product an amount with a market value in excess of $10,000,000.  Its scores of white steamships,amazingly well contrived and fitted for tropical service, constitute one of the pleasantest features of travel on these sunlit seas.]

The United Fruit Company is by far the greatest agricultural enterprise the world has ever known.  Its fruit plantations constitute a farm half a mile wide and more than seven hundred miles long.  All of its farm lands exceed in area the 1,332 square miles which constitute the sovereign State of Rhode Island.  On these farms are more than 25,000 head of live stock.  This agricultural empire is traversed by nearly 1,000 miles of railroad.  To carry the fruits from the plantations to the seaports there are employed 100 locomotives and 3,000 freight cars.  An army of nearly 40,000 men is employed in this new and mammoth industry.  The republics of Central America were inland nations before the United Fruit Company made gardens of the low Caribbean coast lands and created from the virgin wilderness such ports as Barrios, Cortez, Limon and Bocos del Toro.

This Yankee enterprise has erected and maintains of its own expense many of the lighthouses which serve its won great fleet and the ships of al the world.  It has dredged new channels and marked them with buoys.  It has installed along the Central and South American coasts a wireless telegraph service of the highest power and efficiency.  It has constructed hundreds of miles of public roads, maintains public schools, and in other ways renders at its own expense the services which are presumed to fall on governments.  The American financiers associated with it are now pushing to completion of the Pan-American railroad which soon will connect New York with Panama by an all-rail route, and thus realize what once was esteemed an impractical dream.

But it is the United Fruit Company's activities in Panama only that are pertinent to this book.  They demonstrate strikingly how readily one natural opportunity afforded by this land responded to the call of systematic effort, and there are a dozen products beside the banana which might thus be exploited.

On the Atlantic coast, only a night's sail from Colon, is the port of Bocos del Toro (The Mouths of the Bull), a town of about 9,000 inhabitants, built and largely maintained by the banana trade.  Here is the largest and most beautiful natural harbor in the American tropics, and here some day will be established a winter resort to which will flock people from all parts of the world.  Almirante Bay and the Chiriqui Lagoon extend thirty or forty miles, dotted with thousands of islands decked with tropical verdure, and flanked to the north and west by superb mountain ranges with peaks of from seven to ten thousand feet in height.

The towns of Bocas del Toro and Almirante are maintained almost entirely by the banana trade.  Other companies than the United Fruit raise and buy bananas here, but it was the initiative of the leading company which by systematic work put the prosperity of this section on a fir basis.  Lands that a few years ago were miasmatic swamps are now improved and planted with bananas.  Over 4,000,000 bunches were exported from this plantation in 1911, and 34,000 acres are under cultivation there.  A narrow gauge railway carries bananas exclusively.  The great white steamships sail almost daily carrying away little except bananas.  The money spent over the counters of the stores in Bocas del Toro comes from natives who have no way of getting money except by raising bananas and selling them, mostly to the United Fruit Company.  It has its competitors, but it invented the business and has brought it to its highest development.   At this Panama town, and for that matter in the territories it controls, the company has established and enforces the sanitary reforms which Col. Gorgas applied so effectively in Colon and Panama.  Its officials proudly claim that they were the pioneers in inventing and applying the methods which have conquered tropical diseases.   At Bocas del Toro the company maintains a hospital which lacks nothing of the equipment of the Ancon Hospital, though of course not so large.  It has successfully adopted the commissary system established on the Canal Zone.  Labor has always been the troublesome factor in industrial enterprises in Central America.  The Fruit Company has joined with the Isthmian Commission in the systematic endeavor to keep labor contented and therefore efficient.

To my mind the United Fruit Company, next to the Panama Canal, is the great phenomenon of the Caribbean world today.  Some day some one with knowledge will write a book about it as men have written the history of the British East India Company, or the Worshipful Company of Hudson Bay Adventurers, for this distinctly American enterprise has accomplished a creative work so wonderful and so romantic as to entitle it to equal literary consideration.  Its cooperation with the republic of Panama and the manner in which it has followed the plans formulated by the Isthmian Commission entitles it to attention in a book treating of Panama.

The banana business is the great trade of the tropics, and one that cannot be reduced in volume by new competition, as cane sugar was checked by beet sugar.  But it is a business which requires special machinery of distribution for its success.  From the time the banana is picked until it is in the stomach of the ultimate consumer should not exceed three weeks.  The fruit must be picked green, as, if allowed to ripen on the trees, it splits open and the tropical insects infect it.  This same condition, by the way, affects all tropical fruits.  All must be gathered while still unripe.   The nearest wholesale market for bananas is New Orleans, five days' steaming.   New York is seven days away.  That means that once landed the fruit must be distributed to commission houses and agents all over the United States with the utmost expedition lest it spoil in transit.  There can be no holding it in storage, cold or otherwise, for a stronger demand or a higher market.  This means that the corporation must deal with agents who can be relied upon to absorb the cargoes of the ships as regularly as they arrive.  From its budding near the Panama Canal to its finish in the alimentary canal of its final purchaser the banana has to be handled systematically and swiftly.

To establish this machinery the United Fruit Company has invested more that $190,000,000 in the tropics— doubtless the greatest investment next to the Panama Canal made in that Zone.  How much of this is properly a Panama investment can hardly be told, since for example the Fruit Company's ships which ply to Colon and Bocas del Toro call at other banana ports as well.  These ships are peculiarly attractive in design and in their clothing of snowy white, and I do not think there is any American who, seeing them in a Caribbean port, fails to resent the sight of the British flag flying at the stern.  His discontent is not allayed when he learns that the company has in all more than 100 ships of various sizes, and nearly all of British registry.  The transfer of the fleet alone to American registry would be a notable and most desirable step.

From officials of the company I learned that they would welcome the opportunity to transfer their ships to American registry, except for certain requirements of the navigation laws which make such a change hazardous.   Practically all the ownership of the ships is vested in Americans and to fly the British flag is to them an offensive necessity.  Chief among the objections is the clause which would give the United States authority to seize the vessels in the time of war.  It is quite evident that this power might be employed to the complete destruction the Fruit Company's trade; in fact to its practical extinction as a business concern.  A like power existing in England or Germany would not be of equal menace to any single company flying the flag of that nation, for there the government's needs could be fully supplied by a proper apportionment of requisitions for ships among the many companies.  But with the exceedingly restricted merchant marine of the United States,the danger of the enforcement of this right would be an ever-present menace.   It is for this reason that the Fruit Company steamers fly the British flag, and the American in Colon ,may see, as I did one day, nine great ocean ships in the port with only one flying the stars and stripes.  The opening of the canal will not wholly remedy this.

In all respects save the registry of its ships, however, the Fruit Company is a thoroughly American concern and to its operations in the Caribbean is due much of the good feeling toward the United States which is observable there.  In 1912 it carried 1,11,741 tons of freight, of which 359,686 was general freight, carried for the public in addition to company freight.  This is a notable public service, profitable no doubt but vital to the interests of the American tropics.   It owns or holds under leases 852,650 acres, and in 1912 carried to the United States about 25,000,000 bunches of bananas, and 16,000,000 bunches to Great Britain and the Continent.  Viewed from the standpoint of the consumer its work certainly has operated to cheapen bananas and to place them on sale at points where they were never before seen.  The banana has  not participated in the high cost of living nor has one company monopolized the market, for the trade statistics show 17,000,000 bunches of bananas imported by rival companies in 1912.  As for its stimulation of the business of the ports of New Orleans, Galveston and Mobile, and its revivifying of trade along the Caribbean, both are matters of common knowledge.

The banana thrives best in the rich soil covered with alluvial deposits and in a climate of great humidity where the temperature never falls below 75 degrees Fahrenheit.  Once established the plantation needs little attention, the plant being self-propagating from suckers which shoot off from the "mat," the tangled roots of the mother plant.  It begins to bear fruit at the age of ten or eleven months, and with the maturing of one bunch of fruit the parent plant is at once cut down so the the strength of the soil may go into the suckers that succeed it.  Perhaps the most technical work of the cultivator is to select the suckers so that the plantation will not bring all its fruit to maturity in one season,but rather yield a regular succession of crops, month after month.  It was interesting to learn from a representative of the United Fruit Company at Bocas del Tory, that the banana has its dull season—not in production but in the demand for it which falls off heavily in the winter, though one would suppose that summer, when our own fruits are in the market, would be the period of its eclipse.

While most of the fruit gathered in the neighborhood of Bocas del Toro is grown on land owned and tilled by the Company, there are hundreds of small individual growers with plantations of from half an acre to fifty acres or even more.  All fruit is delivered along the railway lines, and the larger growers have tramways, the cars drawn by oxen or mules, to carry their fruit to the stipulated point.   Notice is given the growers of the date of which the fruit will be called for, and within twelve to eighteen hours after it has been cut it is in the hold of the vessel.   It is subjected to a rigid inspection at the docks, and the flaws for which whole bunches are rejected would often be quite undiscernible to the ordinary observer.

The banana is one of the few fruits which are free from insect pests, being protected by hits thick, bitter skin.  If allowed to ripen in the open, however, it speedily falls a prey to a multitude of egg-laying insects.   The tree itself is not so immune.  Lately a small rodent, something like a gopher of our American states, has discovered that banana roots are good to eat.   From time immemorial he lived in the jungle, burrowing and nibbling the roots of the plants there, but in an unlucky moment for the fruit companies he discovered that tunneling in soil that had been worked was easier and the roots of the cultivated banana more succulent than his normal diet.  Therefore a large importation of scientists from Europe and the United States to find some way of eradicating the industrious pest that has attacked the chief industry of the tropics at the root, so to speak.

Baron Humboldt is said to have first called the attention of civilized people to the food value of the banana, but it was one of the founders of the United Fruit Company, a New England sea captain trading to Colon, who first introduced it to the general market in the Untied States.  For a time he carried home a few bunches in the cabin of his schooner for his family and friends, but, finding a certain demand for the fruit, later began to import it systematically.   From this casual start the United Fruit Company and its hustling competitors have grown.  The whole business is the development of a few decades and people still young can remember when bananas were sold, each wrapped in tissue paper, for five or ten cents, while today ten or fifteen cents a dozen is a fair price.  The fruit can be prepared in a multitude of fashions, particularly the coarser varieties of plantains, and the Fruit Company has compiled a banana cook book but has taken little pains to circulate it, the demand for the fruit being at times still in excess of the supply.  There seems every indication that the demand is constant and new banana territory is being steadily developed.

Several companies share with the United Fruit Company the Panama market.  The methods of gathering and marketing the crop employed by all are practically the same, but the United Fruit Company is used as an illustration here because its business is the largest and because it has so closely followed the Isthmian Canal Commission in its welfare work.

Excerpt from:  Panama And The Canal by Willis J. Abbot, Syndicate Publishing Company, New York, 1913.

Editor's Note:  Mr. Abbot's prophecy has come true.  A check of shows ten different books about the United Fruit Company.  Also the Bocas del Toro area, while huge resorts have not been built, is a popular vacation spot.  It seems to be a favorite destination for Argentineans and many Europeans.  It is now being discovered by Americanscan big hotels be far behind?

Read more about the history of United Fruit and find some banana recipes at:


August 28, 2001