Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

For over half a century Honduras was the biggest exporter of bananas to the United States, shipping over 12 million stems per year. The peak production decades for Roatan and The Bay Islands were the 1920s and 1930s, but it all started in 1876. At the turn of the last century, before the advent of refrigerated seafood and 80 years before tourism started, the export of citrus fruits, coconuts, and bananas was vital to the economic survival of the islanders.

Oranges and lemons were first introduced to Central America by the Spanish around 1550, then came coconuts in 1559 by way of the Cape Verde islands. The Paya name for coconuts is “koko ka” borrowed from the Spanish word “cocos”. Although plantains were indigenous to the New World, the much prized sweet version, the Gros Michel, or Big Mike, was first brought to the islands in 1835 from Martinique, where it was first propagated.

Both the United Fruit Company, and the Vacarro Brothers Fruit Company (renamed Standard Fruit in 1924), were founded in 1899 in Boston and New Orleans respectively .While United decided to start business in Tela and Trujillo on the mainland, the Vacarros chose Roatan, buying shipments of coconuts that also included mixed citrus fruits and bananas with between 100,000 and 200,000 coconuts being shipped per voyage. In September 1899, the Vaccaros sent their cousin, Salvador D’Antoni, on their first boat, a creaky, two mast sailing schooner called the Santo Oteri, to Roatan. Its namesake had been the first banana man in Honduras, before being bought out by United.

Islanders knew nothing about soil rotation and the need of large quantities of nitrogen

The fledgling banana industry reaped huge profits of up to 1000% for those involved. Despite being ravaged by a major hurricane in 1877, Roatan’s banana production was in full bloom when the visiting US Consul, Richard Burchard, wrote in 1884 that almost every hectare of cultivable soil on the island was planted with bananas. He noted that a four hectare parcel of land could be purchased for $250. The only equipment needed was a machete for clearing brush, weeding, and cutting the fruit, and a sharpened stick for planting the seeds. A small farm of 3,000 plants could expect a profit of $1,500 the first year and from $3,000 to $5,000 in successive years. This was big money at the time.

D’Antoni’s chief contact on the island was an Englishman called Bill Collins, who taught him the rudiments of banana selection and grading. The main collection and purchasing agents were Sam and Bessie Warren of Coxen Hole. Everything ran well for five years and for faster deliveries the Vacarros started chartering Norwegian flagged steamers. Unfortunately, the islanders knew nothing about soil rotation and the need of large quantities of nitrogen to fertilize the plants. The quality and size of the fruit started to decline, and in1904 Collins persuaded D’Antoni to shift the entire operation to the mainland.

It was first proposed to build the company headquarters at El Porvenir, but when the teetotal mayor of the town heard that it would be the hub for a railway, he vetoed the idea on account of the fact that it would bring alcohol and other vices to the town. Instead of El Porvenir becoming “La Bella Novia de Honduras,” (the beautiful bride of Honduras) the honor went to La Ceiba. Things progressed well, until 1910, when President Davilla imposed a 5 cent per stem tax on bananas and a 2 cent tax on imported railway equipment. This incensed the United Fruit Company who, in cahoots with former President Manuel Bonilla, devised a plot backed by $500,000 to overthrow Davilla. Over one hundred mercenaries assembled in New Orleans and sailed in the steamboat ‘The Hornet’ in December 1910 in order to topple the government. Their first target was Coxen Hole, Roatan. [To Be Continued…]

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