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

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

"The Fish That Ate The Whale - The Life and Times of America's Banana King" is an unabashedly sensationalist account of the life of Samuel Zemurray.

To be fair, it is a sensational story. Rising from his impoverished Jewish immigrant background to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the United States, Sam Zemurray overthrew governments in Honduras and Guatemala and was (allegedly) instrumental in the creation of the Israeli state. His tactics were a model for the CIA's overthrow of other governments around the world. A mixed legacy, but impressive nonetheless.

But it's hard not to root for Sam the Banana Man throughout the book. Particularly at the beginning of his career, he was the ultimate outsider. But man did he hustle. From selling overripe bananas out of a boxcar to sticking it to JP Morgan by loading up a boat of firearms and overthrowing the Honduran government to derail an unfavorable trade deal, you have to admire the guy's force of will.

I do have a couple of complaints with the book though. The author, Rich Cohen, writes in an overenthusiastic, borderline reckless style. He tries to add color to the story, but does so without sources. He tries to be too cute, with the result that the reader doesn't actually know which of his claims can be trusted. For example, re. Huey Long:

So no, I’m not saying Zemurray was behind the assassination of Huey Long, knew about it in advance, or did anything other than mourn when he got the news. But the fact is, the few men stupid enough to outrage Sam Zemurray, to challenge him, or disrespect him, or get in his way, from Miguel Davila to Huey Long, had a habit of coming to a bad end.

What am I supposed to do with this?! Cohen also has an abiding obsession with Zemurray's Jewishness, despite Zemurray's demonstrated detachment from the faith (none of his children were raised Jewish or married Jews). Cohen speculates about what Zemurray thought about his religious identity (based on what evidence?) and really plays up his support of the Israeli state based on little but his friendship with Chaim Weizmann. Maybe there were a bunch of anonymous donations and smoky backroom deals? Cohen is clearly pushing an agenda here - which would be fine if there was evidence to support it, but I couldn't see any.

But overall, this was a quick, fun read. Certainly an aspect of American history that doesn't receive much play in the history books.

Some of my favorite quotes below:


It’s what people mean when they speak of American exceptionalism: unlike the Europeans, we do not yet know you can’t be both powerful and righteous. So we set out again and again, convinced that this time we’ll avoid the mistakes of the previous generations. It’s this kind of confidence that gives a people the strength to rule aboard; the moment that confidence goes, the empire is doomed.


Over time, Sam would develop a philosophy best expressed in a handful of phrases: You’re there, we’re here; Go see for yourself; Don’t trust the report.

Brown to Green

Such partnerships were the way of United Fruit, the style that earned the company the nickname El Pulpo, the Octopus. They wrapped their tentacles around every start-up in the industry. In those days, U.F. either owned a piece of you or was intent on your destruction. United Fruit took a 25 percent stake in Hubbard-Zemurray but remained a silent partner.

Bananas Don’t Grow on Trees

It’s not a tree. It’s an herb, the world’s tallest grass. Reaching, in perfect conditions, thirty feet, it’s the largest plant in the world without a woody trunk… Because the plant is an herb, not a tree, the banana is properly classified as a berry.

The banana's great strength as a crop is also its weakness: it does not grow from a seed but from a cutting… each fruit is a clone, a replica of all the others of its species. Which means nice corporate uniformity but also poses a terrific danger - if a parasite or a disease mutates to kill one banana, it will eventually kill all members of that species. That’s what happened to the Big Mike and is happening now to the Cavendish.

According to Charles Morrow Wilson, author of Empire in Green and Gold, “Perhaps not one Norteamericano in ten thousand had ever seen or tasted a banana in 1870.”

There had been a heatwave, a flood, a drought, a hurricane… Dozens of firms went under. The handful that did survive came away smarter, having learned basic lessons that would dictate how the business was organized in the future:
Get big - A banana company needs to be fat enough, with enough capital in reserve, to weather inevitable freak occurrences such as an earthquake or a hurricane.
Grow your own - A banana company needs its own fields so it can control planting and harvesting, thus avoiding ruinous competition in the event of a down season
Diversify - A banana company needs plantations scattered across a vast terrain, stems growing in far-flung countries so that a disaster that wipes out the crop of a particular region will not destroy the firm’s entire supply

The Octopus

The Big Mike had the advantage of being tough - stack it and it will not bruise. Its skin was moister when peeled than the skin of other bananas, which is why people stopped slipping on banana peels when Big Mike went extinct.

When the worst happened in 1899, the Year Without Bananas, Preston went back to the banks… We must grow so many bananas in so many places that no single storm can ever put us in such dire straits again. In other words, United Fruit was born of disaster.

[Minor Keith] sent for his little brother Charlie, as he had been sent for. When that brother died, he sent for his youngest brother, John. When John died, he continued alone. This made him a hero in Costa Rica, a man whose commitment could not be questioned, who fed his own brothers to the jungle.

[In regards to American Banana Company vs. United Fruit on violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act] The Supreme Court instead decided - it was a huge decision, rife with unintended consequences - that it did not have the authority to judge, as most of the actions under review had occurred overseas… By growing its product there and selling it here, U.F. had stumbled on the greatest tax-saving, law-avoiding scheme of all time. With this decision, Justice Holmes cleared the way for that crucial player of the modern age: the global corporation that exists both inside and outside American law, that is everywhere and nowhere, and never dies.

The Isthmus

William Sydney Porter arrived in Puerto Cortes a few years before Zemurray. A part-time Texas newspaperman, he stole several thousand dollars from a bank in Austin, where he was a teller, then hid out in the bars on Primera Avenue, soaking up the talk of revolutionaries and banana cowboys, which he turned into the book Cabbages and Kings published in 1913 under the name O. Henry. It was O. Henry who coined the term “banana republic”.

He kept quiet as he tasted because talking only drives up the price

To the Collins

Though the Davila government was not the most pliable, Zemurray did eventually secure his concessions (by kickback, by bribe). In Honduras, Cuyamel would be exempted from import duties on all equipment… exempted, too, from paying property, labor, and export tax. Zemurray’s bananas would arrive in the United States unencumbered by such fees - this meant he could sell his product just as cheaply as United Fruit.

The most popular machete, made in Connecticut, was a six-inch crescent-shaped blade embossed near the wood handle with the name of the maker: COLLINS. Now and then, when two or more workers got into a fight, someone would flash a machete and say, “I’ll stick you all the way to the Collins.” Over time, this phrase “to the Collins” came to stand for every kind of death that awaited a man in the Torrid Zone.

Zemurray imported boa constrictors to keep violence in check, believing the presence of the snakes would force his men to stay sober.

It’s one of the great things about bananas - unlike corn or cotton or tobacco, they have no season, or one season that lasts forever, an endless summer broken now and then by hurricane or drought… Planted correctly, a banana plantation is a never-ending bounty.


President William Howard Taft was concerned. Anything that resulted in European military action in the Western Hemisphere challenged the Monroe Doctrine. Philander Knox, the secretary of state, devised a plan. He recruited J. Pierpont Morgan, the most powerful banker in America, to buy all of the outstanding Honduran railroad bonds, satisfying the British banks. Morgan would then refinance the debt, issuing $5 million in new loans to the government of President Miguel Davila. Morgan agreed under the following condition: in return for money and services, officials from the Morgan bank would be seated in the customs house in Puerto Cortes, where they would collect a duty on all imports. After taking the bank’s percentage, the officers would forward the balance to the Honduran government. Morgan insisted that these terms be written in a treaty and ratified by the congress in Tegucigalpa. This infuriated many Hondurans, who considered the terms a forfeit of national sovereignty… The Knox plan was good for everyone, in fact, except the people of Honduras and Samuel Zemurray, whose business could not function without the concessions and sweetheart deals that would be forbidden by Morgan. The Knox plan, in fact, depended on men like Zemurray paying in every way possible. If enacted, it would add as much as a penny per bunch to cost, driving Cuyamel out of business.

You made a deal with the president of Honduras, Miguel Davila? Well, what if Senor Davila wasn’t president no more? Consider the audacity! In defying Philander Knox and J. Pierpont Morgan, Sam Zemurray was challenging two of the most powerful men in America.

In the summer of 1910, Lee Christmas began recruiting Bonilla’s army of liberation, tapping men in the bordellos and dives of the French Quarter, importing others from the port cities on the Gulf.

“Shoot me and be done with me but don’t bury me. Leave me on the ground to rot.” “Don’t bury you? But why Senor General?” Then came out the words that Christmas either wrote in advance, made up afterward, or actually spoke - words that attached themselves to his story like a tagline… “Because I want the buzzards to eat me, and fly over you afterward, and scatter white shit all over your God-damned black faces.” Christmas said he expected this to infuriate the soldiers: he was trying to provoke them into killing him, but it only made them laugh. “You’re a brave man, Jefe,” the enemy commander told Christmas. “For this, you will not be executed at all”

Zemurray’s settlement included permission to import any and all equipment duty-free; to build any and all railroads, highways, and other infrastructure he might need; a $500,000 loan to repay “all expenses incurred while funding the revolution”; as well as an additional 24,700 acres on the north coast of Honduras to be claimed at a later date. No taxes, no duties, free land - these were the conditions that would let Sam Zemurray take on United Fruit.

To the Isthmus and Back

Speaking of Nicaragua, he notoriously said, “A mule costs more than a deputy”...When balancing the books, you could not miss the fact: a mule did indeed cost more than a deputy.

I think of Zemurray was a transitional figure, a bridge between the world of the privateer and the world of high finance. Cuyamel was not faceless in the way of many modern corporations - Sam’s face was, if anything, too much in evidence. The culture of Cuyamel was his personality. That was the company’s great achievement and its great failing. Its triumphs and overreaching were the triumphs and overreaching of a single human will. It’s why his company was less sinful than many of the other banana companies. Unlike other bosses, Zemurray lived in the jungle with his workers, spoke their language, knew what they wanted and what’ scare them. It’s why he was hated and why he was loved.

He innovated banana farming, which had not changed since the first days of the trade, in the following ways:

  • Selective pruning
  • Drainage
  • Silting
  • Staking
  • Overhead irrigation

The Banana War

Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.

King Fish

No. 2 Audubon remains perhaps the most fashionable address in New Orleans. In this city, people tell you it’s the most beautiful house in America. When Zemurray died, he left it to Tulane. It’s been the official residence of the university president since the 1970s.

Among the highest forms of tzedakah is to give anonymously, in a way that does not disgrace the person in need. Whenever possible, Sam gave without affixing his signature: neither press conference nor public announcement nor strings attached.

Perhaps most significant, he helped create the Middle American Research Institute (MARI) at Tulane, a center with origins in Omoa, where a plantation manager set a grinning little idol on Zemurray’s desk. “What the fuck is it?” asked Zemurray. “I don’t know”, said the manager, “but we keep finding them in the fields.” “Tell you what,” said Sam. “I’ll give you a dollar for every one you bring in here.” In this way, Zemurray amassed one of the most important collections of Mayan artifacts in the world.

It’s not just what Long said, but also how he said it. His face was expressive in a way unimaginable in the pallid politics of today. He spoke with his hands, got his whole body into it. Goofy yet strong, he seemed like he was having a great time. Here’s the crucial quality often overlooked by historians of the era: Huey Long was funny; comedy was a big part of his appeal from the beginning. He delivered his kickers not to shouts but to laughter. The man who wanted to make the bastards pay was the scariest thing of all: an evil clown.

So no, I’m not saying Zemurray was behind the assassination of Huey Long, knew about it in advance, or did anything other than mourn when he got the news. But the fact is, the few men stupid enough to outrage Sam Zemurray, to challenge him, or disrespect him, or get in his way, from Miguel Davila to Huey Long, had a habit of coming to a bad end.

Los Pericos

Zemurray devised a simple solution, rife with unintended consequences. He began buying as much virgin jungle as possible. Not thousands of acres, but hundreds of thousands, most of it left uncultivated, laid in like canned goods. When a plantation fell to diseased, he simply reached up for one of the case on the shelf… U.F. came to possess tremendous stretches of wilderness as a result. By 1940, the company owned 50 percent of all private land in Honduras, but cultivated less than 10 percent of what it owned.

More than a hundred thousand people worked for the company at the peak, with alumni scattered across the world: H. L. Mencken, who toiled on a U.F. dock in Baltimore; Lee Harvey Oswald, who unloaded its cargo in New Orleans; Fidel Castro, whose father grew sugarcane for the company in Cuba… John Wayne often visited the company’s Central American plantations.

Israel is Real

Zemurray did not have a strong sense of Jewish identity… The fact that neither of his children married Jews, raised Jewish children, or much cared about Jewish causes tells you that Sam did not dwell on the subject at home.

The British Mandate of Palestine was terminated in May 1948. According to The Jew’s Secret Fleet by Joseph Hochstein and Murray Greenfield, the Bricha had by then carried thirty-seven thousand Jewish refugees to Palestine - many of them on American ships procured or sped along by Sam Zemurray.

Walking through 2 Audubon Place, Marjorie Cowen, the wife of the president of Tulane, stopped in the window-filled room on the third floor. “This is where Mr. Zemurray made the calls,” she told me. “He sat in a chair right here, calling every leader in Central and South America, talking and explaining until he got enough of them to change their vote to make modern Israel a reality.”

In the first days of the war, the majority of these boxes arrived from only the places… [including] New York and New Jersey, where, at the urging of Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman, dock bosses like Socks Lanza looked the other way as ships bound for Haifa or Tel Aviv were filled with weapons…

Operation Success

By 1942, the company owned 70 percent of all private land in Guatemala, controlled 75 percent of all trade, and owned most of the roads, power stations, and phone lines, the only Pacific seaport, and every mile of railroad. The contract that drove people especially crazy, perhaps the most lopsided deal in the history of Guatemala - it gave U.F. unprecedented rights on the Pacific - had been negotiated by John Foster Dulles, then a lawyer with the white-shoe law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

By 1954, the network of connections had grown so extensive it was hard to tell where the government ended and the company began. John Moors Cabot, the American assistant secretary of state in charge of Guatemala, was the brother of Thomas Cabot, who had been the president of UNited Fruit. John Foster Dulles, who represented United Fruit while he was a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell was secretary of state under Eisenhower; his brother Allen, who did legal work for the company and sat on its board of directors, was the head of the CIA under Eisenhower; Henry Cabot Lodge, who was America's’ ambassador to the UN, was a large owner of United Fruit stock; Ed Whitman, the United Fruit PR man, was married to Ann Whitman, Dwight Eisenhower’s personal secretary. You could not see these connections until you could - then you could not stop seeing them.

Zemurray’s most important hire was Edward Bernays, the man who invented modern public relations.

By the 1930s, Bernays was a leading media figure in the United States… He described his grand strategy as indirection.

Bernays devised a strategy built on his trademark tricks. By 1952, Jacobo Arbenz was the issue, yet the solution was not direct confrontation. That would only increase Arbenz’s standing, threatening United Fruit. But if the company could turn its corporate challenge (Arbenz is confiscating land) into a problem for the UNited States (Communists are infiltrating the isthmus), the U.S. government would take care of the rest. Never mind that Arbenz claimed no allegiance to the Communist party; never mind that Arbenz cited Franklin Roosevelt as among his heroes; never mind that many of the Arbenz policies that United Fruit found so offensive were patterned on the New Deal - the signs were evident for those who knew where to look… Bernays would’ make the world better for bananas, he would make the world better for American politicians, who would make the world better for the CIA, which would make the world better for bananas. Indirection.

Some experts consider Zemurray’s overthrow of the Honduran government a model for almost all the CIA missions that followed. In 1911, Sam deployed many tactics that would become standard procedure for clandestine operations: the hired guerrilla band, the phony popular leader, the subterfuge that convinces the elected politician he is surrounded when there are really no more than a few hundred guys out there.

It was, in fact, hard to distinguish United Fruit from the CIA in those years. The organizations shared personnel as well as equipment and intelligence. Throughout the Guatemalan affair, the CIA used United Fruit ships to smuggle money, men, and guns. When the CIA’s funding fell short of its budget, U.F. made up the difference.

By then, there was a perfect model for the overthrow of Arbenz: Operation Ajax, in which CIA agents deposed the prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, after Mossadegh nationalized oil fields belonging to British corporations, specifically British Petroleum. Approved by Eisenhower at the urging of John Foster Dulles, Operation Ajax returned the shah of Iran to power.

Backroom control of Operation Success was given to Tracy Barnes (Yale ‘34), who tapped a number of other agents to participate, including E. Howard Hunt.

What Remains

Sam Stone’s [Zemurray’s grandson] most interesting theory regards the political dynamics of the region. Having traced the genealogies of powerful local leaders, he showed that the countries of Central America have always been ruled by a handful of families, each of which can trace its roots back to a conquistador who traveled with Cortes. Starting around 1910, these families, who long ruled in partnership with the military, began to be replaced by banana men, who used their wealth and influence to strike their own deals with the generals, overthrowing the aristocrats, becoming aristocrats themselves. Unlike the old families, the banana royalty had no roots in the region. In this way, the ancient regime was superseded by a band of capitalists, who got rich and got out and whose only obligation was to the shareholders back in Boston or New Orleans.