Book Reveiw: The Fish That Ate the Whale

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen is about building a business empire. His empire includes banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents, and American statesmen. Below is an excerpt from the book.


United Fruit CompanyFish that ate the whale.jpg

Zemurray employed hundreds of workers on the north coast. In the first weeks, they lived in tents, then moved into cabins, barrack, and bungalows. They worked from four a.m. till noon, after which It was too hot to linger outdoors. They wore sandals when they worked, shirts opened to the belly, straw hats, and pants with a machete hooked to the waist. The most popular machete, made in Connecticut, was a six-inch crescent-shaped blade embossed near the wood handle with the name of the maker: COLLINS. Now and then, when two or more workers got into a fight someone would flash a machete and say, “I’ll stick you all the way to the Collins.” Over time, this phrase “to the Collins” came stand for every kind of death that awaited a man in the Torrid Zone.

Three weeks after sowing, the shoots would break through the soil. A few days later, the fields were covered with banana plants. The machete men went through the rows, cutting away the weeds that were forever returning. On a banana plantation, clearing weeds are breathing. Without it, the plantation dies.

Once the plants had reached the height of small children-fourth graders, say, green and promising-the engineers would go back to work, mapping out the train tracks that would wander through the rows, so the fruit, when harvested, could be carried to the warehouse, selected, counted, and stacked into boxcars. The railroads were simple, with grass growing between the ties. (“From the day I was born I had heard it said, over and over again, that the rail lines and camps of the United Fruit Company had been built at night because during the day the sun made the tools too hot to pick up,” Garda Marquez wrote in Living to Tell the Tale.) The tracks were indeed laid in the cool before dawn. It took a few weeks, no more. The rails were torn up and reused if a particular field went feral or fallow. You can still see the remnants of many such lines in Honduras: an overgrown field in the Sula Valley, a storybook jungle of snakes and macaws, a glint of iron beneath the tall grass.

Zemurray worked in the fields beside his engineers, planters, and machete men. He was deep in the muck, sweat covered, swinging a blade. He helped map the plantations, plant the rhizomes, clear the weeds, lay the track. He was a proficient snake killer. Taller than most of his workers, as strong and thin as a railroad spike, he shouted orders in dog Spanish. He believed in the transcendent power of physical labor-that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body. A life in an office, deskbound, was for the feeble and weak who cut themselves off from the actual. He ate outside-shark’s fin soup, plantains, crab gumbo, sour wine. His years in the jungle gave him experience rare in the trade. Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business, from the executive suite where the stock was manipulated to the ripening room where the green fruit turned yellow. He was contemptuous of banana men who spent their lives in the North, far from the plantations. Those schmucks, what do they know? They’re there, we’re here!


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