Mirroring the American South: The White Supremacist Hierarchies of United Fruit’s Banana Enclave

United Fruit’s employment policy reinforced racial boundaries, constructing a racial capitalist plantation economy that mirrored the American South.

On July 15, 1924, Willard Beaulac, the American consul to Honduras stationed in Trujillo, faced a dire situation. A band of several hundred Hondurans was making its way to the barracks of black migrant banana workers, aiming to forcibly remove them from the country or murder them if they remained. On the Caribbean coast of Honduras, the United Fruit Company had established several plantation enclaves that exported millions of bunches of bananas each year to American consumers, but now Hondurans were taking up arms to protest the presence of thousands of black migrant laborers in plantation communities such as Tela and Trujillo. Facing a potential massacre, Beaulac quickly radioed United Fruit officials, who agreed to board as many West Indians as possible onto a company steamship waiting in the harbor, thereby preventing further attacks.

To understand what drove Hondurans to consider attacking West Indians, it is helpful to understand the system of racial capitalism that the United Fruit Company introduced to Central America in the early twentieth century.[efn_note] Racialism is at the very heart of capitalism in the racial capitalist framework. In Cedric J. Robinson’s expansive history of capitalism published in 1983, he explores the many instances of racialization throughout European history, which culminated in the violent exploitation of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent creation of the slave labor economic system of the New World. He holds that race predates capitalism, and that the two have developed simultaneously. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).[/efn_note] The abolition of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean did not bring about the end of the economy slavery had created. The plantation form created by slavery survived; the racial capitalism it yielded evolved. In a new, postemancipation form, conducted outside US borders, the cash crop par excellence was no longer cotton but bananas. The laborers were no longer African slaves but their descendants, who circulated throughout the Caribbean as nominally free wage laborers. The architects of the racial capitalist system were no longer individual landholders, but the leaders of a corporate behemoth that stretched across the Caribbean, earning the nickname el pulpo,the octopus.” The United Fruit Company is well studied as an immensely successful corporate project in the same era that icons of American industrial capitalism such as the Ford Motor Company and Standard Oil evolved. United Fruit indeed mastered the art of vertical and horizontal integration, utilized plantation agriculture outside of the United States to alter a global fruit market, and developed massive infrastructure and transportation projects that advanced technological and scientific innovation. However, United Fruit should also be studied as a major player in the remaking of a racial capitalist plantation system in the postemancipation world. This system revolved around black migrant labor.

United Fruit recruited thousands of black West Indian migrant laborers to cultivate its banana plantations when the company began developing the land concessions it received from Honduras in 1912. Seeking a workforce that it could control, the company denigrated Hondurans as lazy, incompetent, and unwilling to relocate, and instead utilized willing black labor from the Caribbean.[efn_note]Frederick Upham Adams, Conquest of the Tropics (Garden City: Doubleday, 1914) 161. Adams berates the “average native” of Central America but praises the labor of the Jamaicans. Adams’s language is typical of the period and of UFCO-sponsored histories.[/efn_note] As a result of an economic downturn in Jamaica, many young Jamaicans recognized an opportunity in United Fruit’s policy. West Indians had previous experience harvesting bananas, so fruit companies relied on West Indian expertise to know when to harvest, how to handle the crop, and how to maximize yields.[efn_note]Many sources reiterate that the West Indians were the most knowledgeable about banana agriculture. Samuel Crowther, The Romance and Rise of the American Tropics (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, 1929), 155, 232.[/efn_note] West Indians were also perceived to be stronger, more docile, and better workers in tropical climates.[efn_note]Charles David Kepner, Jr. “Social Aspects of the Banana Industry” (PhD diss., Columbia University Press, 1936), 158.[/efn_note] As former British subjects, West Indians held another crucial skill that Americans appreciated: they spoke English. This essential communication connection privileged West Indian hiring throughout the banana enclaves. White American women in Honduras often employed West Indian women in domestic positions in their homes because they would not be required to learn Spanish and felt more comfortable with the West Indian workers.[efn_note] Ronald Harpelle, “American Enclave Communities of Central America,” in Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place, ed. Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 323.[/efn_note] Americans regarded West Indians as having greater cultural compatibility with Americans due to their socialization within the British plantation system.[efn_note]Philippe I. Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989),76.[/efn_note] In the new migrant labor system that resulted, West Indians fit the racial script inherited from slavery, now recharged to advance plantation imperialism.

Photograph from 1922 of standard six room labor camp at Tela Railroad Company.  The structure’s small size and poor quality suggest it was occupied by Black workers. Image from Harvard University Baker Business School Library Special Collections.

United Fruit’s employment policy reinforced racial boundaries, constructing a racial capitalist plantation economy that mirrored the American South. Managers and officials were usually white Americans, while the plantation laborers were usually black West Indians. As the white United Fruit employees constructed communities in strictly controlled Honduran enclaves, they propagated white racial fantasies, some inherited from slavery and others from Jim Crow, all revolving around the polarity of intermixture and separation. As a result, a company based in Boston expanded Jim Crow ideology beyond US borders, globalizing American practices of racial segregation that instituted difference through the regimentation and domination of space.

Photograph from 1922 of standard “B” Overseers house camp at Tela Railroad Company. Considering that white Americans were routinely given upper level positions, the building was likely occupied by a white supervisor.  Image from Harvard University Baker Business School Library Special Collections

Social spaces across the enclaves in Central America, including housing, schools, and medical facilities, were segregated. Company photos show that in the headquarters of the Tela Railroad Company, a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, the size, quality, and degree of privacy afforded in housing depended on the employee’s job and level of power or prestige.[efn_note]All photographs referenced and included here are from the Harvard University Baker Business School Archives and Special Collections. Harvard University holds over ten thousand photographs from the United Fruit Company. United Fruit Company Photograph Collection, 1891–1962, MSS:1 1891–1962 U860. Many of the photographs were not explicitly labeled in racial terms, so there is an element of inference involved in the analysis and categorization of the company photographs.[/efn_note] Such distinctions based on employment boiled down to race: though the specific employment demographics changed over time, upper-level positions were held by white Americans. The smaller six-room labor camp used for lower-level workers cost one thousand dollars to construct, whereas a single foreman’s house cost six hundred dollars to construct and an overseer’s house cost four thousand dollars.[efn_note] See Images. The prices were included in captions of such photographs.[/efn_note]

Photograph from 1924 of a superintendent’s office, living quarters and garden at Tela Railroad Company. This complex underscores the unequal living conditions, with white Americans occupying large, comfortable homes.  Image from Harvard University Baker Business School Library Special Collections.

The superintendent’s home was far larger, including personal grounds for a garden. In a Tela Railroad Company community called Tela Nuevo, there was a sprawling network of buildings and structures: a wharf, railway yard, commissary, over six hundred houses and barracks for Hispanic and West Indian employees, schools, a hospital, and a baseball field.[efn_note]Ronald Harpelle, “American Enclave Communities of Central America,” 313.[/efn_note] United Fruit divided the facilities in Tela Nuevo to separate the employees spatially according to their position and rank. The most exclusive neighborhood for upper management was called the “White Zone,” and had additional separation from lower level employees, a guarded entrance, and a private beach.[efn_note] Harpelle, “American Enclave Communities of Central America,” 313–14.[/efn_note] While rarely complete, the community layout plans, construction models, and services were intended to achieve a predictable, if not total, segregation between white and nonwhite employees, allowing the white Americans to cultivate a sense of mastery. The reproduction of racial rule in an exotic land cemented the appeal of the tropical experience that United Fruit drew upon in its advertisements and recruitment articles.[efn_note]Frank A. Busico, “Selling the Tropics,” Unifruitco 3, no. 10 (May 1928): 637. Also see, e.g., “The Call of the Caribbean,” Great White Fleet: United Fruit Company Steamship Service advertisement, Scribner’s Magazine, Nov. 1916, 80; “There the Pirates Hid their Gold,” Great White Fleet: United Fruit Company Steamship Service advertisement, Hearst’s Magazine, March–Dec. 1915, 376.[/efn_note]

 Photograph from 1923, labeled in the archive as “Hospital Ward—Second Class”, implies that the health facilities themselves were segregated at employee level. The hospital wards provided effective but segregated health services Image from Harvard University Baker Business School Library Special Collections

Other essential services provided by the company varied by employee type as well. In the Medical Department’s Annual Report, United Fruit described the level of pest control available in each class of residence structure, an essential requirement in malarial environments.[efn_note]United Fruit Company Medical Department Annual Report 1915 (Boston: Press of Geo. H. Ellis, 1916), 96. The number of homes built or repaired was a standard metric reported in each year’s medical report for each division. See reports 1912–20 for examples.[/efn_note] Referring to the specter of mosquitos and mosquito-borne illnesses, the report states that “the buildings of the better class of employees have been screened, and any defects in same have been repaired promptly.”[efn_note] United Fruit Company Medical Department Annual Report 1915, 81.[/efn_note] However, the report also outlines the many efforts to eliminate vermin and to combat the mosquito population throughout the laborers’ encampments. One Tela photograph labeled “Hospital Ward—Second Class” implies that the health facilities themselves were segregated by employee level.[efn_note] See Image below, “Hospital Ward—Second Class, Tela (1923).”[/efn_note]

The 1913 Annual Report of the Bocas Del Toro Division in Panama features photographs of one hospital for white patients and another for “colored” patients.[efn_note] United Fruit Company Medical Department Annual Report 1913 (Boston: Press of Geo. H. Ellis, 1914), 12–13.[/efn_note] Despite such distinctions, the report assured officials that “[r]egular inspections of the laborers’ quarters and the white employees’ quarters have been made, and any insanitary conditions found have been reported and corrected.”[efn_note] United Fruit Company Medical Department Annual Report 1915, 81.[/efn_note] Indeed, the Medical Reports show a relatively low number of deaths due to illness or injury, and the hospitals across Honduras treated thousands of employees, and hundreds of noncompany employees as well.[efn_note] Across the Annual Reports there were consistently more deaths of the “colored” or “black” employees than of white employees, and significantly more deaths in the male population than in the female population, but the hospitals and dispensaries seem to have effectively prevented thousands of deaths per year.[/efn_note] Both maintaining effective health services and segregating those health services served the racial capitalist system. United Fruit needed to maintain a productive labor force, and it also needed to recruit white management from the United States. If educated young Americans and their wives were to relocate to Central America, the enclaves had to be sanitary and appealing. Ultimately, United Fruit scientists and doctors made phenomenal strides in the treatment and prevention of tropical ailments and diseases, and even poisonous snakebites—all to serve corporate interests.

The reverberations of United Fruit’s racial rule flowed far beyond the enclaves, ultimately destabilizing the state itself. United Fruit had exported a binary framework of black and white that conflicted with the existing racial hierarchy of Honduras, which valued a mestizo identity. The same discrimination that benefited white Americans spread disquiet among mestizo Hondurans, who neither wished to be relegated to the category of blackness nor to be placed beneath it. As the company expanded, the same racial bias that had led to the hiring of an entire generation of West Indian workers allowed for those black workers to rise into skilled positions, provided they accepted a lower wage than the white North Americans.[efn_note] Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 75.[/efn_note] The divergent pay rates thus elevated the West Indian workers above the Central American workers, fomenting animosity as Hondurans moved to the coast only to realize that black migrants had taken the highest-paying jobs.[efn_note] Jason Colby, “Progressive Empire? Race and Tropicality in United Fruit’s Central America,” in Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism, ed. Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 300.[/efn_note] It was this combustible relation between conflicting systems of domination that suddenly exploded into mass violence, pitting Honduran citizens against Jamaican migrants.

It is essential to analyze the processes of spatial racialization in banana enclaves and the effects of these processes through the lens of racial capitalism. Among the many critical insights of this analytical frame is the principle that capitalism cannot be thought of as existing prior to or apart from race. Labor regimes built upon unequal race relations did not end with the end of slavery in the Americas. Rather, multinational corporations built similar systems based on free labor. By the 1930s, the racial capitalist system in Central American states like Honduras had prompted unforeseen circumstances. As Honduran nationalists drew upon the idea of the “cosmic race,” they embraced a mestizo nationalism to guide the future identity of the country, an identity that did not include black Hondurans.[efn_note] José Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher who famously wrote of la raza cósmica, was one prominent contributor to elite Honduran discussions of the future of a Latin identity. Richard V. Salisbury, Anti-Imperialism and International Competition in Central America, 1920–1929 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1989), 157.[/efn_note] The consequent deportation of black West Indians altered the racial capitalist system in banana enclaves. Although racial capitalism was built on the bodies of migrant black laborers recruited in the Caribbean by the white American leaders of the United Fruit Company, the subsequent version of racial capitalism that largely exists today continues to rely instead upon migrant Central American labor.

Lauren Cantacessi is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on racial dynamics in Honduras after the development of the banana plantation economy by the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century. She is also a high school history teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.


One thought on “Mirroring the American South: The White Supremacist Hierarchies of United Fruit’s Banana Enclave

  1. This article really has me thinking about racial capitalism and the global plantation complex. You show how the plantation as a “race making institution” (as theorized by Edgar Thompson nearly 100 years ago) is nuanced and messy. The concept of “the (global) plantation complex,” (first used by Philip Curtin and then more recently made “global” by Kris Manjapra) we sometimes overlook nuance, but this piece brings those into better focus. Specifically, your discussion of a US racial binary colliding with existing notions of racial difference that had been incubating for centuries on Caribbean plantations reminds us how the plantation complex is not static or modular, but deeply entangled.

    The “unintended” consequences (nationalism” excluding black Hondurans) also has me thinking about how by viewing the plantation complex through the lens of racial capitalism, we are better able to see these unintended consequences. Systems of bondage (like debt peonage), the carceral state, and racial categories; these are all rooted in the plantation, but maybe we there should be more work on what might be called “political reverberations”? For example, in Liberia beginning in the 1920s, Firestone established its massive rubber plantations, leading to expropriation of labor from indigenous peoples, and more importantly the dispossession of indigenous land. At the time, it was the largest rubber plantation in the world. The Liberian civil war later in the 20th century was fought largely over land. Firestone’s operations had exacerbated existing tensions between indigenous peoples (who lived in the interior of the country) and “Libero-Americans,” the formerly enslaved African Americans who settled along the coast. Perhaps these civil wars can also be a kind of “unintended circumstance” of the plantation made visible through the lens of racial capitalism? Your essay has me thinking, “yes.”

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