The Business of Empire

The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America

Jason M. Colby
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Business of Empire
    Book Description:

    The link between private corporations and U.S. world power has a much longer history than most people realize. Transnational firms such as the United Fruit Company represent an earlier stage of the economic and cultural globalization now taking place throughout the world. Drawing on a wide range of archival sources in the United States, Great Britain, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, Colby combines "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches to provide new insight into the role of transnational capital, labor migration, and racial nationalism in shaping U.S. expansion into Central America and the greater Caribbean. The Business of Empire places corporate power and local context at the heart of U.S. imperial history.

    In the early twentieth century, U.S. influence in Central America came primarily in the form of private enterprise, above all United Fruit. Founded amid the U.S. leap into overseas empire, the company initially depended upon British West Indian laborers. When its black workforce resisted white American authority, the firm adopted a strategy of labor division by recruiting Hispanic migrants. This labor system drew the company into increased conflict with its host nations, as Central American nationalists denounced not only U.S. military interventions in the region but also American employment of black immigrants. By the 1930s, just as Washington renounced military intervention in Latin America, United Fruit pursued its own Good Neighbor Policy, which brought a reduction in its corporate colonial power and a ban on the hiring of black immigrants. The end of the company's system of labor division in turn pointed the way to the transformation of United Fruit as well as the broader U.S. empire.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6271-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In December 1909, black workers in the United Fruit Company’s Guatemala Division rose up against their American supervisors. The trouble began on 7 December with a surprise pay cut on the Cayuga plantation. In response to protests from laborers, nearly all of whom were British West Indians, the farm’s white timekeeper declared, “You damned niggers! Mr. Smith says you are all getting too much pay. He says $30 a month is enough for any nigger.” News of the racial slur and pay reduction spread quickly among the laborers, who were already simmering over their poor treatment in the enclave. When...

  5. Part I. Foundations of Empire

    • Chapter 1 Enterprise and Expansion, 1848–1885
      (pp. 19-46)

      In February 1855, the Panama Railroad Company announced the official opening of the world’s first transcontinental railway. Located within what would become the Panama Canal Zone a half century later, the line connected Aspinwall (present-day Colón) on the Caribbean to Panama City on the Pacific. At the time, it represented the largest American investment outside the borders of the United States. In the weeks following its opening, stockholders of the New York–based company, including William Aspinwall himself, gathered in Panama, then a province of New Granada (Colombia), to celebrate. They drank toasts to the late John L. Stephens, a...

    • Chapter 2 Joining the Imperial World, 1885–1904
      (pp. 47-76)

      In late 1874, seventeen-year-old Konrad Korzeniowski stepped off a Marseilles pier and boarded the merchant ship Mont-Blanc. After living with an uncle in Krakow for five years, he had decided to try life at sea. This first voyage, to the French colony of Martinique, convinced him he had found his calling, and he returned aboard another vessel in July 1876. After stopping in Martinique, this ship spent a month along the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, likely running guns to local rebels. It next sailed to the Danish West Indies, then on to Haiti, reaching Port-au-Prince in late October. There,...

  6. Part II. Race and Labor

    • Chapter 3 Corporate Colonialism, 1904–1912
      (pp. 79-117)

      In early 1912, twenty-six-year-old Hugh Wilson learned of his appointment as U.S. chargé d’affaires in Guatemala City. A Yale classmate of Secretary of State Philander C. Knox’s son, Wilson welcomed the news and boarded a New Orleans steamer for Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s busy banana port. There he was met by the general manager of United Fruit’s Guatemala Division, Dartmouth-educated Victor M. Cutter. With “a broad grin on a rugged clean-shaved face,” Wilson recalled, Cutter was “picturesque . . . a huge figure in tropic white [that] O. Henry would have cherished.” As the young diplomat followed Cutter down the gangway,...

    • Chapter 4 Divided Workers, 1912–1921
      (pp. 118-146)

      On the evening of Saturday, 9 May 1914, Nathan Gordon and Alfred Esson, two Jamaican workers in the Quiriguá District of United Fruit’s Guatemala Division, were walking on the outskirts of the company’s Tehuana farm when they were attacked by four Hispanic men. Gordon escaped by diving into the Motagua River. Esson wasn’t so lucky: after receiving machete wounds to the hands and face, he was shot to death. The following day, an enraged group of Jamaicans marched to a Hispanic workers’ camp near Tehuana to settle the score. After failing to locate the murderers, they killed two Guatemalan men...

  7. Part III. Imperial Transitions

    • Chapter 5 The Rise of Hispanic Nationalism, 1921–1929
      (pp. 149-174)

      On 13 July 1924, a local doctor and politician named Girón Aguilar rose before a gathering of Central American workers in Trujillo, Honduras, to denounce the presence of black immigrants in the surrounding banana enclave. Trouble had been brewing for some time. Beginning in 1923, the Truxillo Railroad Company, United Fruit’s local subsidiary, had offered West Indians free passage to the nearby company town of Puerto Castilla, and over the following months hundreds had arrived, many of them fleeing state harassment in neighboring Guatemala. According to U.S. Vice Consul Willard Beaulac, several weeks before Girón Aguilar’s speech, a Jamaican watchman...

    • Chapter 6 Reframing the Empire, 1929–1940
      (pp. 175-198)

      Long before she departed for Guatemala, Frances Emery-Waterhouse thought she knew what to expect. When the 35-year-old Maine journalist met and married United Fruit engineer Russell Waterhouse in 1937, she already had well-formed notions of life in colonial enclaves. “A hearty diet of tropical literature taught me that gringos live in low, rambling houses . . . where a white-robed servant is always gliding in with gin fizzes,” she recalled. Her first glimpse of Puerto Barrios offered little promise of such leisure, but it did arouse her sense of the exotic, and the erotic. Observing stevedores loading bananas on the...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 199-210)

    On 17 May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregated schools “inherently unequal.” The result of a long legal battle waged by the NAACP, the ruling opened the door for the modern Civil Rights Movement and the eventual defeat of white supremacy in the U.S. South. On its face, the Court’s decision had little to do with the U.S. empire in Central America, except for the role played by Dr. Kenneth Clark. A psychologist active in racial issues, Clark had conducted the famous research known as...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 211-238)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-264)
  11. Index
    (pp. 265-274)