Quick one today.
Recently, I've taken it upon myself to research some lesser-known figures in the fabric of Latin America.
And, man, Sam Zemurray is definitely one such figure.
Here's the tale of how a poor immigrant came to become one of the most influential men in the history of Central America.
The Most Interesting Man You’ve Never Heard Of: Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray
The following is the story of how a Russian Jew - who arrived to America at age 14 without a dime to his name - became one of the most powerful men in the world; a man who could change history with a phone call.
It’s also a story about bananas.
And a story about the American dream.
A young Sam Zemurray saw his first banana in 1893 and devised a plan: he would travel to Mobile, Alabama - where the boats brought them from Central America - buy a supply and cart them back to Selma, Alabama to go into business.
Little did he know at the time his little business venture would lead to him overthrowing a Central American government and a level of power and influence larger than that of world leaders.
He bought his first batch of overripe bananas from the Boston Fruit company, who deemed them unfit to sell.
But ol’ Sam hustled. Sold ‘em, netting himself $40 profit in 6 days.
By the time he was 18 years old, he’d made $100,000 doing this.
That’s when he caught the attention of the United Fruit Company.
The UFCO respected his hustle - they wanted to work with Sam. They worked out a contract where any banana that had more than 1 freckle (i.e. ripe, Sam’s speciality) became the property of Samuel Zemurray.
Imagine that: legally owning any banana that gets old enough. Such were Zemurray’s negotiating skills.
Sam moved down to Honduras. He wanted to learn every aspect of the business. Know the terrain. Work in the fields. Be among the labourers. He worked every single part of the trade. He knew bananas inside out.
Although working with the UFCO, Sam owned his own banana company: Cuyamel Fruit Company. In order to make his business profitable while still selling bananas for cheap, Sam had to bribe officials in Honduras to avoid taxes
But, there was a problem: Honduras owed huge amounts of tax to Britain. And this debt kept adding up. The USA feared that Britain would come in an occupy Honduras and collect tax by force. USA didn’t want to give up their influence in the country.
So the US Secretary of State made a deal with JP Morgan to buy out the debt, pay off the bond holders and take bank officers to collect tax. This would have screwed Zemurray because they’d cancel all his deals.
Sam appealed to congress. The Secretary of State found out he was doing this, so they hired a group of secret service agents to follow Sam around to make sure he wouldn’t compromise the deal
What did Sam do? Did he give up?
Nah, he didn’t give up.
He found a group of mercenaries and the ex-president of Honduras, bought an old war ship from the Spanish American war, went to a whorehouse with them, waited until the secret service agents left, snuck out, went to Honduras and overthrew the government.
Sam was now - effectively - running Honduras.
He continued to grow his business, now in direct competition with the United Fruit Company. He did it better. Eventually, the UFCO decided the best option was to buy Sam’s company in exchange for 300,000 shares.
That made Sam the biggest shareholder in the company: He now owned the UFCO.
His first course of action was to fix the flailing company. He famously remarked: "You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I'm going to straighten it out.”
He became managing director, fired most of the employees and expanded the UFCO into other tropical products. He made the company successful again, operating the largest private fleet of steamships in the world.
Zemurray retired in 1951, but remained chairman of the United Fruit Company. In 1954 the Guatemalan president began expropriating the UFCO's plantations.
In response, Sam overthrew the Guatemalan government.
And there you have it!
Just a brief summary of an incredible book about one of the most interesting men ever to walk God's green earth.
What I've outlined here is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the life of Sam Zemurray.
If you'd like to learn more, I highly recommend the book
"The Fish That Ate The Whale' by Rich Cohen.
It may just be the best $7.00 you ever spend.
Until next time,