What's the sitch with Banana Republic?
Yes, we will get to the upscale clothing retailer of the same name. But before that discussion we need to go back, way back, to how it all started…
Henry Meiggs was born in 1811 in Catskill, NY. He failed to find financial success in the lumber industry out east, so travelled to San Francisco on a boat full of lumber during the peak of the 1849 gold rush, selling it there for 20x its cost. He used these profits to get into real estate speculation on the north shore of the city, where he built warehouses, piers, and sawmills. After overextending his resources to the point of near ruin, he illicitly obtained a book full of warrants to withdraw money from a city fund, forging additional documents as he needed. By some accounts he raised half of a million dollars on this scheme and, before the fraud was discovered, he left San Francisco for Chile, in 1854. Let the shady meddling in Latin America commence.
On arrival, he transitioned to building railroads, few of which existed in the South America at the time. He developed the second railroad in Chile, connecting Santiago and Valparaiso. He then moved on to Peru, where he crisscrossed the country with train tracks, getting into other profitable ventures along the way, silver mining in particular. For a time he was known as “Don Enrique,” as his influence in Peru was so widespread.
In 1871, Meiggs and his nephew Minor Keith signed a contract with the government of Costa Rica to connect the capital city of San José to the port city of Limón by train. Henry Meiggs passed away in 1877, leaving Keith to manage the completion of the railroad. It was around this time he began experimenting with planting bananas as a cheap source of food for workers.
The Costa Rican government defaulted on its payments in 1882, forcing Mr. Keith to borrow from London banks and private investors in order to continue the railroad project. In exchange for finding this additional funding, and for renegotiating the debts owed him by the Costa Rican government, in 1884 President Próspero Fernández Oreamuno gave Keith 800,000 acres of tax-free land along the railroad, as well as a 99-year lease on the operation of the train route.
That’s when Keith got deep into the banana game. Passengers were not flocking to the new railroad in the numbers needed to finance his debt, but the banana plantations flanking thetracks proved very lucrative. Bananas had only been introduced as an import to the United States in 1870, and so were still a weird fruit from exotic lands that tasted pretty good between two pieces of bread with honey and peanut butter. Keith shipped tons of bananas along his railroad to the port at Limón for easy transportation to the Southeastern United States, quickly making Keith’s Tropical Trading and Transport Company the dominant banana firm in Central America.
The primary rival to Keith in the U.S. banana import business was the Boston Fruit Company, who had plantations in Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies. They were based out of Boston and controlled sales in the much of the Northeast. In 1899 the two firms merged, consolidating their power to become the United Fruit Company (U.F.C.). The partnership ensured a near monopoly on banana growing in Central America and the Caribbean, as well as on banana selling all over the U.S.
By this point things were getting a little weird. United Fruit Company owned much of the infrastructure for transportation in a number of Central American countries. In 1901, the government of Guatemala hired them to manage the postal service, as the company’s trains, roads and ships were needed to facilitate. A decade later, UFC created a radio and telegraph branch of the company to provide those services to countries they were in “business,” with. Often, as payment, governments would give arable land over to United Fruit, disenfranchising local subsistence farmers, who, cruelly, were then forced to turn to United Fruit for low-paying jobs as plantation laborers. By 1930, United Fruit was the largest employer in Central America.
Despite the shadow of U.F.C. casting a pall on the banana trade, others kept trying to get involved in the booming industry. Sam Zemurray, a Jewish-Russian immigrant to the Alabama, got his start selling bananas from the side of a train. By way of a steamship company in New Orleans, he ended up cultivating bananas on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, calling it the Cuyamel Fruit Company after a town located near the plantations.
President Miguel Dávila had granted United Fruit Company a banana-trade monopoly in Honduras in exchange for the company brokering U.S. Government loans for the Honduran government, which were hard to come by at the time because of the country’s tremendous outstanding international debts. Zemurray didn’t like this arrangement, so he flexed his guns and entered into an alliance with Manuel Bonilla, the previous President of Honduras, and General Lee Christmas, an American mercenary soldier with a small army for hire. Together, in 1911, the three of them carried out a coup d’etat, deposing President Dávila and installing Bonilla as his replacement. Of course, the U.S. government didn’t care to comment on aprivate army ousting a democratically elected leader, preferring to stay out of the way of the banana-oligarchs.
With the completion of the coup, Honduras was largely controlled by the Cuyamel Fruit Company, with Bonilla as President and General Lee Christmas as the Commander-in-Chief of the country’s army. Guatemala, meanwhile, was still United Fruit Company’s territory. This tension nearly led to war between the two nations, when Cuyamel developed a previously empty strip of land along the border.
A period of relatively stability followed, culminating in the two companies merging in 1929, as the stock market crashed the world into the Great Depression. Zemurray was given a seat on the U.F.C. board of directors as part of the deal, but he wasn't satisfied with this position. He bought discounted United Fruit stocks and seized control of the company as the majority shareholder, naming himself CEO in 1933. He then remained at the helm of his once vicious rival for 20 years… the guy was ruthless.
The Vaccaro brothers from Sicily also bare mention. They began by importing coconuts from Honduras, before getting into the banana trade a little later. In a cold-blooded move, they systematically bought out all of the ice houses in New Orleans, thereby controlling access to refrigeration. Joseph Vaccaro even became known as the “Ice King,” which is objectively a pretty sweet nickname. By buying surplus ships at a discount after World War I they were able to expand quickly, and called themselves the Standard Fruit Company starting in 1926. Decades later, they merged with a pineapple company started by James Dole, whose cousin Sanford Dole had overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy.
The coups and dictators and banana companies and American involvement (and lack there of) continued in Central and South America for decades. In 1928 the United Fruit Company was involved in the “Matanza de las bananeras" (the Banana Massacre) when workers went on strike at their plantations in Colombia. The Colombian government, under pressure from the U.S. officials and United Fruit representatives, sent the army to break up the demonstrators, killing many in the process. (Estimates widely differ depending on who you ask, but there were between 50 and 2,000 casualties, women and children included.)
Another infamous example is the 1954 Guatemalan coup, carried out by the C.I.A. The previous U.S.-backed dictator had been ousted in a popular revolution, and Guatemala’s first democratically elected president Juan José Arévalo took office in 1944. He hoped to turn Guatemala into a liberal capitalist society. His defense minister Jacobo Árbenz was elected in 1950, and continued progressive policies such as land redistribution and improved labor laws. This was too close to communism in the Cold War era for the C.I.A. to ignore. There was alsosignificant influence from the United Fruit Company to get rid of Árbenz, as the company stood to lose a lot if the reforms were instituted.
To round out the shadiness, John Foster Dulles, as Secretary of State of the United States (i.e. John Kerry, Hilary, Condoleezza, etc.), lobbied on behalf of United Fruit Company to President Eisenhower. Dulles had worked at United Fruit as a lawyer and was still on the payroll. His brother Allen Dulles, the actual friggin’ director of the C.I.A., was on the company’s board of directors. I shit you not. Some relatively shady stuff.
During the week long coup in June of 1954, there were real guns and death and American airplanes dropping napalm. A couple days into it, the Guatemalan foreign minister asked the United Nations Security Council to, “put a stop to the aggression.” Eventually, Britain, France and the U.S.S.R. all supported an investigation, but the U.S. exercised its Security Council veto for the first time in United Nations history, and held off other attempts at mediating the conflict until after the coup was complete. Nine years after the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust, we (the United States) was wading into some seriously dark, stinky shit, all for bunches of this phallic yellow fruit.
After Árbenz was forced out, he was exiled to Mexico (followed by several other countries), where he struggled with alcoholism, and his daughter committed suicide. Jesus Christ. The new “president” Castillo Armas arrested his political opponents, repealed the constitution and appointed himself dictator. As he undid popular social policies, leftist insurgents started fighting back, eventually sparking a Guatemalan Civil War that lasted for 36 YEARS. 200,000 civilians died. For bananas? Holy shit.
Around this part of the story it's clear where the term, “Banana Republic,” comes from. It is used to describe countries operated as commercial enterprise for private profit. Most often this is made possible through a servile dictatorship that supports exploitation of public lands by favored monopolies. This is uniformly terrible for the countries involved, spiraling them into debt, disenfranchising local populations, depleting natural resources, and generally hijacking the nation’s freedom to determine its own course.
Dole Food Company, the modern designation for the combination of James Dole’s Hawaiian Pineapple Company and the Vaccaro brothers’ Standard Fruit Company, is now the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, with almost 75,000 employees and revenue of over seven billion dollars per year.United Fruit Company became Chiquita Brands International after their C.E.O. committed suicide in 1975, following mismanagement of the companies finances and an exposed attempt to bribe the Honduran President. They are now the leading distributor of bananas in the United States.
I walked into the kitchen to clear my head following this frenzy of Wikipedia worm-holing; I should have stayed put on the couch. Between my three roommates and I, there were two bunches of bananas on the counter. One had Dole labels, the other had Chiquita, both identified Guatemalan origins. There is no escaping United Fruit. There is no avoiding the “Ice King.”
When I foolishly started into this winding tale, those long hours past, I suspected it would primarily be about the American clothing retailer Banana Republic. The company was founded in 1978 with an upscale safari apparel theme. When looking through some of their vintage catalogue covers, it’s apparent that they were going for an African continent-type image, as evidenced by the inclusion of almost exclusively African megafauna on the covers.
Whole lot of zebras. They eventually branched out somewhat with their magazine themes, including tags such as, “Into the Amazon,” and “Notes from the Outback,” and “Soviet Safari,” and “On the Inca Trail,” and “Rambles & Scrambles Around the English Lakes,” and “On the Road to Mandalay”… etc. I didn’t make any of those up. I guess when you have clothes to sell, you don’t restrict the romanticizing of colonial ideals to one continent.
The most confusing aspect of the brand’s origin is still how they chose their name. They had heard the term before, so likely knew at least vaguely what it referred to. When they created the clothing company, Guatemala was still in a civil war, largely instigated by United Fruit and the C.I.A. Honduras was still a few years away from civilian rule, and the U.S. had a continuing military presence there. Hawaii had been a state for less then 20 years, and had only recently begun to institute better working conditions for plantation laborers, as the majority were finally United States citizens. It was the tail end of the true Latin American Banana Republics, but only just. And yet, in the company’s initial years, they had a clearly African slant to their products.
Were the founders of the clothing line being sarcastic? Were they progressives taking a very subtle dig at the U.S. government, accidentally striking it rich in the process? Was it a smirk at their neo-colonial buddies, who they knew had money to spend on high-end safari themed clothing? Were they actually ignorant enough to have heard the term, but not understand the cruel, arrogant, greed-fueled behavior behind it? There are a number of possibilities, each of them relatively hard to understand. I know the late 1970’s probably weren’t a politically correct time period, in almost every way imaginable, and so, while I won’t forgive them for the name, I can wrap my head around the fact that they chose it, despite being obviously offensive. In 1983, Gap bought Banana Republic, eventually rebranding it into the mainstream, upscale clothing retailer it is today. More than 30 years later, they are still called Banana Republic. They make nice clothes, which they sell out of their more than 500 stores internationally. A total of 17 of their stores are in Latin America, ten of which are in Chile. They don’t have any stores in Guatemala or Honduras.
I’m not advocating that they change the name of their stores; that’s on them. It’s an established brand that would be complicated and costly to change, and at this point, more people associate the term with clothing than with hostile private corporations backing puppet dictators. If some white millionaires continue to ignore the racially charged historical context of their current moneymaking venture, it wouldn’t be a big surprise.
I do, however, think it should be illegal to eat Dole or Chiquita brand fruit inside of Banana Republic stores. That’s too much. That’s where a line needs to be drawn. This world can (and does) tolerate greed and exploitation on fantastic scales, but to eat a fruit product from the company that originated the term associated with said greed and exploitation, in a store ignorantly branded to represent the same greed and exploitation for the purpose of selling clothes to those who indirectly benefited from the original greed and exploitation… It’s sort of rubbing salt in an old infected wound, a wound that smells of fruit. And I bet it happens more often than we’d think. Who can resist popping open a can of pineapple while browsing the sale rack?
Not only should it be illegal to eat the fruit in their stores, it should carry serious punishments. I’m thinking a minimum sentence of one year working on a banana plantation. There would likely be a lot of resistance to the new law initially, but the controversy would help spread the real story of Banana Republics and America’s involvement. Also, I think people would eventually realize it’s not that big of an ask to avoid eating tropical fruits while inside a specific clothing store. Hopefully there would be a few high profile arrests early on, with coverage of the subsequent forced labor at a Guatemalan banana plantation, and after that people would adjust.
Maybe Banana Republic would even decide to change their name, so that customers could legally enjoy a nice, ripe, yellow Chiquita banana while picking out a new cardigan. Willful ignorance of past atrocities so as to not feel guilty about consumer decisions should only take place one brand at a time.
A few extra fun facts:
*Dulles International Airport outside of Washington D.C. is named after John Foster Dulles, the combo Secretary of State/United Fruit lobbyist.
*Dik Browne, the artist who created the “Miss Chiquita” mascot for United Fruit in 1944, is best known for having also created the “Hägar the Horrible” comic strip in the early 1970’s.
*A depiction of the Banana Massacre is part of Gabriel García Márquez’s widely acclaimed 1967 novel, Cien amos de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude].)
*Sam Zemurray’s early 1900’s mansion in New Orleans is now the residence of Tulane University’s president. (For more on his story check out Drunk History Episode 3 of Season 3 on Comedy Central’s website, it’s very funny.)
*The historical Banana Republic magazine covers displayed in the article above are owned by Gap Inc., and the Miss Chiquita cartoon is owned by Chiquita Brands International. These depictions were not authorized by, sponsored by or associated with their respective trademark owners.