Beyond  /  Retrieval

New Orleans as a Nexus of Power

American empire, bananas, and the Crescent City.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the banana industry may not have existed without New Orleans. The city, due to location and historical ties, was the main port through which bananas were first distributed in the United States and served as the site for home offices of all the major fruit companies in Honduras at one time or another. In 1897 Albert Morlan, an independent traveler from Indiana to Honduras, noted in his diary that many of the local Honduran fruit developers fought tirelessly, and unscrupulously, to monopolize control over the Honduran banana industry and maintain their contracts with New Orleans– and New York–based importers. The stakes were high; the Honduran government at the time was seeking to modernize the nation and felt that agriculture offered the best conduit for economic development. Initially, coffee was the chosen crop in Honduras. However, lack of infrastructure to transport the crop from the mountainous interior to the coast, along with a series of military coups d’état and a lack of international investment, made it impossible for Honduras to compete with other coffee markets. The Honduran government decided to shift focus to bananas, which had already garnered some foreign investment. 

US State Department records from 1891 estimate that some ten to twelve American steamships called at the Port of La Ceiba every month from New Orleans and New York. These merchants connected Honduras to an emerging North American market for “exotic” tropical fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and citrus. La Ceiba thus became the center of a large district devoted to the production of tropical fruits for export to the United States. Meanwhile the large ports of the northeastern and southern United States, combined with the US transcontinental railroad system, enabled sale of the fruit throughout the country.  

Samuel Zemurray and his Cuyamel Fruit Company (later acquired by United Fruit Company, now Chiquita) were the first to take advantage of this new market on a large scale, establishing the blueprint for how US capital could influence—and control—the economic and political landscape of Central America. Zemurray, a Russian Jewish immigrant from Bessarabia (now Moldova), began his banana merchant career in Mobile, Alabama, buying surplus bananas in railroad cart loads and selling them to local dealers. In 1905 he moved to New Orleans and contracted himself out to the United Fruit Company to sell bananas that had ripened aboard ship and needed to be disposed of quickly. In 1910 Zemurray and his partner Ashbell Hubbard purchased five thousand acres of plantation land in Honduras near the Cuyamel River, in the vicinity of Omoa. Their Cuyamel Fruit Company, headquartered in New Orleans, built railroads in Omoa to transport its product to sea-faring vessels; constructed canals to maximize agricultural development on its lands; developed a company town; and built shops, similar to a military PX, selling US consumer goods.