A great amount of controversy has surrounded the banana trade in Honduras, as well as many other countries. Some have accused “foreigners” of raping the native Honduran land for personal gain, others see it as having been a benefit to Honduras, bringing much needed funds to an impoverished land. Whatever your viewpoint, you will find the unfolding story an education. It has been written over several years, was completed in 1996, and has been made available to Honduras.com exclusively.
Follow along to learn of this interesting facet of the banana business, and how it affected Honduras. This is one person’s historical viewpoint of what they experienced living through the beginning of “the banana trade” in Honduras. We sincerely thank J.P. Sanchez for his generosity in sharing with our followers, this unpublished history.
HONDURAS’ BANANA TRADE HISTORY
The following history of Standard Fruit Company, Honduras Division, concentrates primarily on what has taken place in the banana trade since the turn of the century. The history of the banana goes back much further.
Rumphius, who was called the greatest botanist before Linnaeus, in his Herbarium Amboinese, written thousands of years ago, mentions the banana even then as being of venerable lineage. It is a recognized fact that man has used the banana as a food staple for more than 25 centuries. It was on the first fruits grown by primitive agricultural people.
The banana is often referred to in ancient Hindu, Chinese, Greek and Roman literature, and many oriental texts. Two important Hindu epics are: The Mahabharate, a work of an unknown author, and The Ramayana, by the poet Valmiki. References are also found in several sacred Buddhist manuscripts. These chronicles describe a beverage made from bananas which monks are permitted to drink.
U.Yang Fu, a Chinese official in the second century A.D., wrote an Encyclopedia of Rare Things wherein he describes the banana plant which is possibly the first mention of the banana in Chinese texts. the Greek naturalist/philosopher, Theophrastus, wrote a book on plants in the fourth century B.C. in which he describes the banana. His book is considered the first scientific botanical work in existence. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, describes the banana plant in his Historia Naturalis written in 77 A.D. He mentions Theophrastus as his source of information.
Modern archaeologists have found the banana depicted in ancient ruins such as the Buddhist temple of Bharhut, dating from the second century, B.C., and the Javanese monument to Buddha erected in Borobodur in the year 850 A.D. The banana’s exact origin is not entirely clear. Dr. Herbert Spinden (1), anthropologist, wrote: “The first home of the edible banana was in all probability the humid tropical region of Southern Asia, which includes Southeast China, as well as the large islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, the Philippines and Formosa. Here the seedless varieties of the true domestic banana are commonly found growing wild, although perhaps they have merely escaped from cultivation.” From the East, the banana was most likely introduced to Egypt and Africa by early Eastern traders.
The banana variety that predominated for many years in the contemporary world trade, the Gros Michel, (Big Mike) was probably first brought to the New World by a French botanist, Francois Pouat, around 1836. The predominant variety today, and ever since the late fifties or early sixties, is the Giant Cavendish.
The old Spanish chroniclers state that upon arrival of the Conquistadors in the New World tropics, they encountered ‘platanos’, or cooking bananas, as early as 1504, the date of the founding of the city of Santo Domingo, the first capital in Spanish America, on the island of Hispaniola.
Oviedo, in his Historia General e Natural de Indias, assigns to Friar Tomás de Berlanga, Bishop of Panamá, and discoverer of the Galápagos Islands, credit for introducing the first plantings of true fruit banana types from the Canary Islands to Santo Domingo in 1516: “There is a fruit here called ‘platano’ but in truth they are not…nor did they used to be. One hears on all sides that this special kind was brought from the Islands of Grand Canaria in the year 1516 by the Rev. Friar Tomás de Berlanga of the order of ‘Predicadores’ to this city of Santo Domingo, where they spread to the other settlements of the islands, and to all other islands inhabited by Christians and they have been carried to the mainland and in every port they have flourished …”
Prior to the year 1866, the banana was virtually unknown in Western Europe and North America. The first bananas were brought to the United States in the early 19th century by sea captains who, on returning from voyages to tropical America, had loaded as extraordinary cargo, bunches of the strange, yellow tropical fruit. Carl B. Frank started importing bananas from Colon, Panama to New York City in 1866 from plantations near the present Canal Zone.
At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of American Independence in 1876, bananas wrapped in tinfoil were sold to intrigued buyers at $.10 each. Today, just over a century later, the banana is a staple in almost every home.
The banana trade, in its infancy, was hazardous and unpredictable. Pioneering in the pestilent jungle lowlands, where bananas grow, was backbreaking to say the least. The jungle fought to reclaim its territory and only the stout hearted survived.
If we cold visualize what the North Coast of the Honduras mainland was like at the turn of the century, our admiration for the founders of the Standard Fruit Company would be unlimited. The lack of means of travel and of communication, other than by boat, horseback or on foot; the scarcity, not to say total absence of adequate medical and sanitation facilities; the need to provide for most, if not all, of what was required to keep body and soul together, combined with an environment that at times was more than hostile, all made enormous demands of their efforts, their stamina and their perseverance.
I contend that such men as the Standard Fruit Company founders deserve to be called Great, for as put forth in Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life:
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
and, departing, leave behind us
footprints on the sands of time…”
They left behind them not only their footprints, but also a whole new way of life, with schools, hospitals, railroads, power plants, potable water, sewage disposal, radio and telephone communication, plus a considerable number of trained persons to administer and to operate all of these facilities. They were more than willing to share their knowledge and their profits, the latter being their main motivation.
Standard Fruit Company’s history is not a simple success story from the beginning; it is much more than that. It is a story of dreams and ambitions, of struggle and of despair, of misunderstandings and even of hatred, of trial and error; all of these against a background of sodden humidity, heat nightmares, tropical rains, hurricanes and murderous yellow fever, dysentery and malaria.
It is also the story of improvement through experience; it is the saga of strong men, big in their achievements. Perhaps it could be written as a romance, its pages bathed in the clean salt spray of tropical seas, but the task which we have undertaken is the more prosaic one of recording facts as we come upon them.
(1) Quoted in Empire in Green and Gold, Henry Holt and Co., Inc. NY 1947, Page 13.
Written by J.P. Sanchez, La Ceiba, Honduras. This online book is copyrighted and property of Honduras.com. Any reproduction in whole or in part is strictly prohibited. This perspective of the Honduras banana trade is the author’s. The opinions therein do not necessarily reflect those of Honduras.com management.