Historical perspective: banana tarriffs

In June, I had the opportunity to hear author Rich Cohen speak about his new book, “The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King.”Cohen shared fascinating anecdotes from his research for the book and displayed such unbridled enthusiasm for all history trade-, banana-, and Samuel Zemurray (the king himself)-related, it was difficult not to see this yellow fruit–at one point a major commodity that spoiled so quickly, the man who managed to import one still yellow would become a titan–in a new light.

So when we were to read up on a historical event in a newspaper from the time period, I decided to dig up something from the days when banana importing was a pirate’s game. This search yielded a lot of whimsical-sounding headlines, including “United Fruit Yields in Suit; To End Banana Monopoly,” “Banana Talks with Europe Turn Nasty,” and “Deadlock in Jury Ends Banana Case.”

But the most interesting was “The Banana Trust,” an article from the September 1, 1888 edition of the San Francisco chronicle that I chose randomly from search results.  The item has been clipped out of the paper and the image is grainy, but it delivers an emotional response to the creation of the New Orleans banana trust that made Cohen’s subject, Samuel Zemurray, a wealthy man.

“Down with the import duty on bananas!”

“Strike down the import tariff on bananas, which makes it possible for bloated capitalists to control the banana market and to rob the working man!”


The item goes on to condemn the inclusion of bananas in a blanket provision for fruits on published tariff lists. Initially, I was struck by what seemed like a very odd coincidence, having chosen this article with no idea that it was almost definitely source material for Cohen’s book. But the very fact that I have now, in passing, come across this issue twice reinforces its position as an occurrance of both historical significance, and lasting resonance:

  1. Food prices are still important today; the prices of bananas, in particular, fluctuates everywhere except Trader Joe’s and New York City produce stands
  2. The most significant trade issues often affect the most pedestrian of products–it’s unlikely anyone has ever written a newspaper column this evocative about uranium
  3. Trade issues–trusts, tariffs, commodities–always have and likely always will affect people’s daily lives in tangible ways, and awareness of these issues allows for consumer advocacy and calls for increased transparency from governing bodies (“It certainly looks, incredulous it may seem, as though an exception has been found to Mr. Cleveland’s dictum about tariff and trusts!”)

After nearly 125 years, some things–trade, trust, and the pursuit of a fairly-priced banana–haven’t changed.

Source: ProQuest


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