Samuel Zemurray, known variously as the Russian, the Gringo and Sam the Banana Man, is the story of the American century -- the best and the worst -- collapsed to the scale of a single life. When Sam emigrated from Russia in 1891, he was tall, intelligent, ambitious and poor. Within a few years, he’d seen his first banana, and that made all the difference.
By 1899, Sam was a familiar figure on wharves in Mobile and New Orleans, where he bought the freckled bananas other traders dumped as too ripe. For Zemurray, a huge man who could swear in five languages, hustle was the name of the game. Who says you can’t get 'em to market in time? Schmucks! When Sam died in the grandest house in New Orleans in 1961, he was among the most powerful men in the country, the longtime head of United Fruit, the global behemoth that ruled in Central and South America for 50 years. In between, he lived and fought in cities and jungles, cleared fields, planted stems, smuggled weapons, fomented revolutions, advised presidents, built towns. When thwarted by the government of Honduras in 1911, he recruited a mercenary army in the dives of New Orleans’ French Quarter and went to war, replacing the Honduran president with one more to his liking. United Fruit repeated the trick in Guatemala in 1954, this time working with the CIA.
Sam’s life was an epic first to last, a movie that starts as a Western and ends as a spy thriller. (What begins as John Ford ends as John le Carré.) But it’s a story that really begins in Honduras, where Sam bought the great swaths of jungle that would form the backbone of his first company, Cuyamel Fruit. Honduras was filled with gringos back then, banana cowboys chasing a last glimmer of the old frontier. The isthmus is where the old America died, and a great empire was born. --Rich Cohen
Sam Zemurray traveled to Honduras in the early weeks of 1910. He’d been there previously, but it was his first extensive tour of the country that would become his home. He went with partners. He was looking to buy land. He learned to speak Spanish imperfectly in the cantinas and dives. No matter how long he lived in the South, Zemurray could never rise above street Spanish overlaid by his American accent, overlaid by his Russian accent. He was all overlay -- identity stacked on identity, life stacked on life.
They landed in Puerto Cortés, a low-slung cinder-block town on the sea. The streets followed the curve of the bay, then vanished into hills where colonial mansions commanded the horizon. The mountains were green in the distance, but terrible wilderness up close. Everything -- the stores, the palm-choked alleys -- felt insubstantial. Though Puerto Cortés is one of the old places of the hemisphere -- inhabited for 600 years -- it seems provisional. When Zemurray arrived, it was a kind of frontier town, untouched by government or law, less Bogotá or Quito than Dodge City or Tombstone. There was gunplay every night, the streets awash in liquor and gold. Ten feet from the dance hall, the music faded and there was only the ridgeline, the sound of the waves, the stars. It was a wicked place, small and large, unimportant and critical.
Because Honduras had no extradition treaty with the United States, Puerto Cortés had become a criminal refuge, filled with Americans on the lam. Frank Brown, known as “Cashier Brown,” who absconded from a bank in Newport, Ky., with $195,000 in 1900, turned up in Puerto Cortés. Alex Odendahl, a New Orleans grain merchant who lit out with $200,000 around the same time, turned up in Puerto Cortés with a full beard and a suit of white duck, calling himself Señor Harris. Alcee Leblanc, an ex-deputy U.S. marshal from New Orleans, absconded, lit out, turned up. Ditto Edward Burke, who had been state treasurer of Louisiana. (He became a mining tycoon, trailed by mercenaries.) According to an article that ran in the New York Times under the headline “A Colony of Defaulters,” “no less than seven bank wreckers, some of them of national fame, are secreted and exiled in that tiny little republic. In fact, the country has become the home of a picturesque population of voluntary exiles who do not return to their native soil, and watch each outgoing steamer with wistful eyes until it rounds the point.”
William Sydney Porter arrived in Puerto Cortés 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.” These pages, which remind me of watercolor paintings on the walls of Florida motels, capture the country as it was first experienced by Zemurray. “That segment of the continent washed by the tempestuous Caribbean, and presenting to the sea a formidable border of tropical jungle topped by the overweening Cordilleras, is still begirt by mystery and romance,” O. Henry wrote. “In past times buccaneers and revolutionists roused the echoes of its cliffs, and the condor wheeled perpetually above where, in the green groves, they made food for him with their matchlocks and toledos. Taken and retaken by sea rovers, by adverse powers and by sudden uprising of rebellious factions, this historic 300 miles of adventurous coast has scarcely known for hundreds of years whom to rightly call its master. Pissarro, Balboa, Sir Francis Drake, and Bolivar did what they could to make it part of Christendom. Sir John Morgan, Lafitte and other eminent swashbucklers bombarded and pounded it ... The game still goes on.”
Zemurray and his companions stayed in the city a few nights, taking rooms in the only hotel, then rode out. It was winter, the best season on the Isthmus -- after the rains and before the rains. They visited the banana lands along the North Coast, stopping in tiny Caribbean villages, each different, each the same. The world reverted to wilderness between the towns, the swamps east of Eden. The trees were teeming with parakeets, the underbrush filled with monkeys and tapirs. They heard stories of Oso Caballo, the Central American bigfoot. They slept in hotels, in the guest rooms of local traders, or wrapped in blankets on the beach. Now and then, they traveled by car, but this was the horse-powered age and the men crossed most of the county by mule. The mules of Honduras were notorious buck-toothed animals with twitchy ears and black eyes, in constant battle with their riders. His first time on, Zemurray was thrown to the ground. The second time, the animal bit his toe. The third time, the mule dropped and rolled. The fourth time, the mule carried Zemurray to the middle of a river and left him. It remained a point of pride for Zemurray -- he eventually licked the famously sour mules of Honduras. As the old banana cowboys liked to say, “You will never understand the banana business until you understand the banana mule, and you can never understand a banana mule.”
Zemurray was a habitual limit-crasher. He loved feats of endurance and proving himself by watching companions flag, throw up their hands and say, “Cerveza, Senõr, it’s time for Cerveza.” He crossed Honduras on mule-back so he could learn the country, meet its people, scout its property but also so, years later, a person like me would sit and write, “the gringo who crossed the country on a mule.”
Honduras is the size of Pennsylvania, with Guatemala on its northern border, El Salvador to the west and Nicaragua to the south. It’s 200 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the narrowest point. When Zemurray arrived, there were a half-million people in the country, the majority of them poor mestizos, that is, half-breeds. It was a divided nation, with the Atlantic lowlands more properly Caribbean than Central American -- sea-side, frond-filled, populated by the descendants of African slaves -- and the highlands reminiscent of the ancient Mayan landscape known to the Conquistadors.
The country was visited by Columbus in 1502. Following the coast, he sailed past the future sites of Omoa (Cuyamel Fruit), Tela (United Fruit), and La Ceiba (Standard Fruit). He named the country Honduras, which means the depths, though the coastal bays are quite shallow, which is why, in the early days of the banana trade, before the piers had been built, the cargo ships had to sit a half mile off shore waiting for rafts to ferry out the stems. In other words, the name “Honduras” was false advertising.
Columbus landed at the future site of Trujillo. In a letter to Queen Isabella of Spain, he described it as a “verdant and beautiful [land with] many pines, oaks, seven kinds of palms, and myrobalans like those in Hispaniola called hobi. They have an abundance of pumas, deer and gazelles.” He came across Jicaque Indians, who wore quilted jerkins. He was a man reaching out to touch a picture ever so gently. When he asked about cities of gold, the Indians motioned south, just beyond the next hill, just beyond the horizon. (El Dorado recedes before you.) He continued down the coast to the torrid zone, believing he was in the Far East, in the country described by Marco Polo, a 10-day walk from the Ganges River. Most European officials had already realized Columbus was not in Japan or India, but somewhere strange and new; Columbus, however, was confused.
He spent two months in Honduras, then set sail. A dozen miles off shore, he was caught in a storm, the tempest that sits at the bottom of our hemispheric memory. “Rain, thunder and lightning were so continuous that it seemed the end of the world,” Columbus wrote. “This intolerable storm continued in such a way that we saw was neither the sun nor the stars as a guide. The ships were lying open to the skies, the sails broken, the anchors and shrouds lost, as were the cables ... and many supplies went overboard; the crews were all sick and all were repenting their sins and turning to God. Everyone made vows and promised to make pilgrimages if they were saved from death, and, very often, men went so far as to confess to each other.” Historians say the storm lasted 28 days, but Columbus said it lasted 100, which might be his way of saying it seemed to last forever. This is a wild country -- that was the message of the storm -- ringed by sea serpents and monsters.
Honduras was settled 20 years after Columbus by Hernando Cortés and the Conquistadors from Spain, fresh from their conquest of Mexico. Cortés was born in western Spain, in Extremadura, where so many of the Spanish explorers came from. My Honduran guide Mike Valledares, said, “Cortés was a pig farmer. His father raised pigs, and so did he.”
Neither Cortés nor his father raised pigs, but Mike’s point seemed clear: The men who destroyed the Aztec empire were not fit for decent company.
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The Central American Isthmus is 350 miles wide at its widest point and 34 miles at its narrowest in Panama. It’s cleaved by the Cordillera, a narrow range of mountains, rocky heights, waterfalls, cliffs and canyons. If I use this word a lot, it’s because I think it’s the most beautiful word in the language, summoning images of one-lane roads, switchbacks and coffee plantations at the top of the world. The highest peak on the Isthmus is approximately 14,000 feet. This is less landmass than hallway, bottleneck, clover leaf onto the highway, passage from here to there, forever in-between, forever on the way. If you want to drive the Isthmus lengthwise, down the gullet, Mexico to Colombia, where the land broadens and South America begins, your best bet is the Pan American highway, which starts in Alaska and continues 30,000 miles to the bottom of the world. It’s a network of roads each charted by a Conquistador or strongman. It’s disappointing in many places, rutted and small, climbing and descending, battling the jungle and mountains, then ending abruptly in the rain forest of Panama. It’s as if the road itself, defeated by nature, walked away muttering. It starts again sixty-five miles hence, on the other side of a chasm. This is called the Darién Gap. It symbolizes the incomplete nature of Central America, the “in-progress” sign that seems to hang over everything. Russia is the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Germany is the Autobahn. The United States is Route 66. Central America is the Darién Gap.
It’s always been that way on the Isthmus, many projects started, few brought to completion; many beginnings, few endings; each boom followed by a tremendous bust. The first came with the Conquistadors: all that killing had a trickle-down effect of money and jobs. But the big bonanza came with the European discovery of Peru a generation after Cortés, palaces and mines, ribbons of silver and gold. When the jackpot was gathered up and carried off, the Isthmus served as the transit point, the cut-through, the shortest walk from Pacific to Atlantic. Every doubloon was humped across that narrow neck of land. It took three weeks to haul a treasure from Veracruz on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, to Porto Bello on the Atlantic, where the sailors drank rum as pirates watched and waited. Witnesses described the port towns as a delirium of hustlers and con men, brass bands, horn players barefoot in the dust. In "A Brief History of Central America," Hector Perez-Brignoli called the Isthmus of those years “a scene of chimerical fantasy.”
The boom lasted for 200 years, from the age of Balboa to the rise of North America, when the mines of Peru were finally exhausted. After the last Spanish fleet sailed from Porto Bello in 1739, the Isthmus fell into a deep slumber, a sleep of centuries. With the silver went the pirates and their dreams of El Dorado. The region fell off the map, forgotten and forlorn. The population dwindled, villages were abandoned. Now and then, an entire year went by without a ship arriving from Europe. More than a century elapsed between the departure of that last silver fleet and the arrival of the first banana man. By then, the nations of Central America had broken away from Spain. Mexico, Guatemala, the others. Honduras declared independence in 1821.
In "A Hundred Years of Solitude," Gabriel García Márquez describes the coming of the new age as the arrival of a single entrepreneur from the North:
There arrived in Macondo on one of so many Wednesdays, the chubby and smiling Mr. Herbert, who ate at the house.
No one had noticed him at the table until the first bunch of bananas had been eaten. Aureliano had come across him by chance as he protested in broken Spanish because there were no rooms at the Hotel Jacob, and as he frequently did with strangers, took him home. He was in the captive-balloon business, which had taken him halfway around the world with excellent profits, but he had not succeeded in taking anyone up in Macondo because they considered that invention backwards after having seen the gypsies’ flying carpets. He was leaving, therefore, on the next train. When they brought to the table the tiger-striped bunch of bananas that they were accustomed to hang in the dining room during lunch, he picked the first piece of fruit without great enthusiasm. But he kept on eating as he spoke, tasting, chewing, more with the distraction of a wise man than with the delight of a good eater, and when he finished the first bunch he asked them to bring him another. Then he took a small case with optical instruments out of the tool box he carried with him. With the suspicious attention of a diamond merchant he examined the banana meticulously, dissecting it with a special scalpel, weighing the pieces on a pharmacist’s scale, and calculating its breadth with a gunsmith's calipers. Then he took a series of instruments out of the chest with which he measured the temperature, the level of humidity in the atmosphere, and the intensity of the light. It was such an intriguing ceremony that no one could eat in peace as everybody waited for Mr. Herbert to pass a final and revealing judgment, but he did not say anything that allowed anyone to guess his intentions.
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Mr. Herbert was Samuel Zemurray, a fruit jobber, a hustler, a man who sees not a nation with a history but a mine ribboned with silver and gold. He arrived with schemes and a bag filled with the tools of the diamond trade. (He kept quiet as he tasted because talking only drives up the price.) The original sin of the industry touched everyone: the way the Banana men viewed the people and the land of the Isthmus as no more than a resource, not very different from the rhizomes, soil, sun, or rain. A source of cheap labor, local color. One definition of evil is to fail to recognize the humanity in the other: to see a person as an object or tool, something to be put to use.
Zemurray bought his first parcel of land on the edge of Omoa, an old colonial town on the North Coast of Honduras. Much of the property ran along the southern bank of the Cuyamel river, where the country is hilly and fine, a thousand shades of green. This was long considered junk land, neither valued nor tended. For two thousand dollars, all of it borrowed, he got five thousand acres. He was soon back in New Orleans, wondering if five thousand was enough. Would it give him the supply he needed to compete with his great rival, United Fruit? It does not matter if you think it’s enough, his partner told him. We’re out of money. There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure -- a great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to.
For Sam Zemurray, it was time to gamble everything, make that one big play. This is what historians mean when they say character is destiny. If you want to succeed, you must be willing to fail spectacularly. In this way, in the course of a few months early in the century, Sam the Banana Man started on the road that would make him the Banana King, a man who could change history with a few curt orders shouted from out the side of his mouth.
From The Fish That Ate The Whale by Rich Cohen. Copyright 2012 by Rich Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.