HONDURAS’ BANANA TRADE HISTORY
CHAPTER II: ENTERING THE BANANA TRADE
The decision to enter the banana trade was made, in traditional Sicilian fashion, by the head of the family, Joseph Vaccaro. The men well knew the risks involved – plant disease, shipping losses in the stormy Gulf, and rugged competition. Any of these would wipe out a modest investment, but their options were limited and they decided to gamble. Joseph concluded that they should follow the example of earlier immigrants and begin the import of fruit from lands where the dangers of freezing were minimized; and so they turned to Honduras.
Importing and selling of tropical foods could scarcely be considered as a virgin field. Bananas were known to some colonial Americans, and as early as 1850, clipper ships delivered occasional small bunches that were readily sold in the port cities of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. For the most part, these bananas were imported from Cuba and Panama and sold for as much as twenty five cents each, sometimes individually wrapped. As far as can be established, imports of the fruit on a regular basis began in the 1870’s, when the plantation system was introduced in Panama.
In 1899, United Fruit was implementing a policy of purchasing or investing in other banana sellers. Most of the remaining firms found the going too difficult ad simply disappeared from the business. A few, however, decided to fight “the trust”, as they called United fruit, and aligned themselves in a loose association called “The Anti-Trust Company”. The leader in this arrangement was the Bluefields Steamship Company which had not sold out to United because the two could not agree upon terms.
Moving directly into the center of this struggle between the giant of the industry and a vigorous, lusty rival fighting for its life, the Vaccaro-D’Antoni family naively placed its hopes. The Bay Islands and the Honduran north coast not only provided fertile banana farm land most of it still virgin – but they were several shipping days closer than most of Central America to the ports of New Orleans and Mobile, the cities expected to provide the developing Middle West with its fruit. (Most men in the trade assumed that United’s control of Jamaica would satisfy East Coast demands).
The family’s first step into this trade was the acquisition of a ship, a two masted schooner, the Santo Oteri, named for its former owner. United Fruit had taken over Oteri’s holdings, that particular ship had evidently not been considered worth the purchase, and it lay idle at a New Orleans dock, badly in need of repairs. Th “battered old” schooner cost twenty-five hundred dollars, raised from combined family savings and the first profits accrued in 1899 from the sale of coconuts sent from Roatan, largest of the Bay Islands. D’Antoni refitted the Santo Oteri and sailed for the Bay Islands.
Bits of contradictory evidence obscured the precise date that Salvador D’Antoni made the partnership’s first true entrance into Honduras and the Banana business. The earliest date suggested by a letter to Blaise D’Antoni, Salvador’s son, from one William Collins, many years after the event. Collins wrote that on Good Friday, 1898, D’Antoni attempted to dock the Santo Oteri at Utila. The commandant at the harbor was ill and asked Collins to examine D’Antoni’s papers for him. Collins explained that the port suffered from smuggling problems and could accept manifests of no more than five hundred dollars, and D’Antoni had miscellaneous merchandise on board worth some three times that amount. He solved the young man’s dilemma by taking him to Roatan where the cargo could be legally and easily sold the next morning. A permanent business relationship of nearly a half century was cemented that day between the two men.
Although it is an eyewitness account, there are certain doubts about Collin’s story, which must be examined. Obviously, the year is incorrect and should read 1899. Less clear is the question concerning the exact date. One is inclined to believe a recollection that says an event took place on a particular day such as Good Friday, but such acceptance would place Salvador in Honduran waters for the first time on March 24, 1899 – conceivable, but very early. six weeks seems too brief a period for the family to assess the freeze damage, reconsider their position, purchase a ship, refit it, then make a two week voyage to Honduras.
New Orleans shipping news suggests a different time. The first officially recorded arrival of the Santo Oteri with a cargo for Joseph Vaccaro bears the date of September 25, 1899. It indicates that the ship, under the command of Captain J.B. Traverso, left Roatan September 16th, with a cargo of mixed tropical items. From that date forward, the Santo Oteri was regularly reported sailing under the Vaccaro name. The third possible date comes from family tradition and is the most conservative estimate. This recollection is that Salvador reached Roatan on Christmas Day, 1899, after an 18 day long voyage.
The family version simply cannot be made to jibe with the port records, which indicate that the Santo Oteri, captained by a Nickerson, left Utila November 24th, and reached New Orleans December 8, 1899, with 200,000 coconuts and 15,000 plantains, then turned around for Honduras again on December 16th, with a cargo of meat, flour and beer. Quite possible it reached Roatan or Utila on Christmas Day, but it was the third voyage at least, and not the first, for the little sloop under the Vaccaro name. So, the reader must remain uncertain; some time in the year 1899, Salvador D’Antoni began the purchase of tropical fruit in Honduras and established regular shipments of these items to his father-in-law in New Orleans.
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.