Sam, the Banana Man

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Before there were Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil, there was United Fruit.

I’ve been spending a lot of my spare time over the last several months reading up on U.S. history, and one of the astonishing things that I’ve found is that before America allegedly/really (it’s not my place to say here) started to intervene in other countries on behalf of the oil industry, it in fact did do so on behalf of the fruit industry.

One of the best sources I’ve come across for info on this rather startling historical phenomenon is Stephen Kinzer‘s recently-released book, Overthrow.

One Russian-American Jew, Samuel Zemurray, played a significant part:

Samuel Zemurray (January 18, 1877-November 30, 1961) was a U.S. businessman. He made his fortune in the banana trade and founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company, which played a significant and controversial role in the history of Honduras. Zemurray later became head of the United Fruit Company.

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Zemurray’s original name was Schmuel Zmurri. He was born in Kishinev, Bessarabia, Russia (present-day ChiÅŸinău, Moldova) to a poor Jewish family that emigrated to America when he was fourteen years old. Zemurray had no formal education. He entered the banana trade in Mobile, Alabama in 1895, at the age of eighteen. His early wealth was largely due to a very successful venture in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he bought the bananas that had ripened in the transport ships and then sold them locally. His success earned him the nickname “Sam the Banana Man.” By age twenty-one he had banked $100,000. He later bought a steamship and went to Honduras. (MORE)

Which, according to Kinzer, is where Sam first immersed himself into geopolitics:

Like many other American businessmen in Central America, Zemurray considered his land a private fiefdom. He resented having to pay taxes and abide by Honduran laws and regulations. That put him in conflict with President Miguel Dávila, who not only insisted that foreign businesses submit to taxation but was campaigning to limit the amount of land foreigners could own in Honduras … Zemurray decided that Dávila was now ripe to be overthrown, and with typical resolve set out to do the overthrowing himself.

Posted on July 20, 2007
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