Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

Plans for an inter-oceanic railway in Honduras started in 1857, but the project was mired in corruption and embezzlement. By 1910 only 57 miles of track had been laid between Puerto Cortes and San Pedro Sula. The government of Miguel Davila found itself in debt to the tune of $120 million to overseas banks. The three fruit companies that did business in Honduras: United, Vacarro Brothers, and Cuyamel, had laid out plans for what would eventually become over 600 kilometers of railways along the north coast. They received lucrative governmental concessions of 250 hectares for every kilometer of rail laid down. However, to pay back the initial railway loan, Davila imposed a tax of 5 cents on every banana stem exported, and 2 cents on every pound of imported railway equipment. The fruit companies paid 10 million dollars per year.

These tax levies provoked the banana men into staging a full-scale military invasion of Honduras. They decided to reinstate former president Manuel Bonilla, known to his enemies as El Mono – the monkey. Their “fixer” behind the plot, was the shadowy Russian, Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray. He was the founder of Cuyamel Fruit Co., and arrived in New Orleans in November 1910. He carried half a million dollars in cash – enough to hire muscle for the coup. These soldiers of fortune were led by Lee Christmas, a former Mississippi railway man who had fought in earlier Honduran campaigns, and who had a propensity of chewing broken glass to impress his recruits. Other tough guys ready to invade Honduras were “Machine Gun” Malony, Victor Gordon, and William Pittman. All were mercenaries who had fought for the British in the Boer War and Sam Dreben.

With the assurance that Bonilla’s allies would simultaneously invade Honduras from Guatemala and El Salvador, Christmas set out with 100 mercenaries carrying 200 rifles and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. On Dec 23rd, after a night of heavy partying at Madam May Evans’ infamous bordello on Basin Street. Christmas quipped, “This is the first time I’ve gone from a whorehouse to the White House!” The heavily laden, 180ft long Hornet made headway for Honduras but found the ports of Puerto Cortez and La Ceiba to be blocked by US Navy boats.

Christmas decided to invade Roatan instead.

So Christmas decided to invade Roatan instead. He and his mercenaries arrived on New Year’s Eve and took the surprised Honduran garrison with only one shot. Utila was next with a shore party led by Christmas and Maloney landing there on January 2. The drunk invaders forced the island’s commander to to cheer “Viva Bonilla” and dance a jig in the main street, clad only in his underwear.

In Trujillo 200 Honduran soldiers, equipped with 39 heavy cannons, waited nervously in the fort while Bonilla maneuvered back and forth, just out of range of the cannons, gleefully blowing the steam whistle every time a shot missed The Hornet. Eventually Christmas landed two raiding parties and surrounded the town, taking it without a shot being fired.

Two days later the Hornet was confiscated by the US Navy and the revolutionaries had to march 80 miles down the coast. The caravan was accompanied by hundreds of Bonilla’s supporters, while the garrison at La Ceiba waited, ready to put up stiff resistance. The Battle of La Ceiba was fought along the estuary of the Cangrejal river on January 25, 1911.

Guy Maloney’s twin 7mm Colt machine guns proved too much for the defenders. 400 were killed and La Ceiba taken. Puerto Cortes raised the white flag as well. The US consul noted that the American soldiers of fortune could be distinguished from the Hondurans by the fact that they were wearing shoes.

To the great joy of the fruit companies, Davila resigned on March 11. Bonilla was reinstated and immediately repealed the banana taxes. Sam Zemurray was repaid $500,000 for the coup and awarded a massive 34,000 acres of land. Lee Christmas was promoted to Commander of the Honduran army and Maloney was made Chief of Police. For the banana men business was back to normal.

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