Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Great White Fleet and the United Fruit Company Steamship Service

Today as part of our Summer Vacation series we embark on the Great White Fleet of the United Fruit Company Steamship Line. "What's this?" you ask. "A Fruit Company running a fleet of ocean liners?" Your confusion is forgivable, but United Fruit Company isn't just known for introducing Americans to the saucy Ms. Chiquita Banana. They traded in tropical fruit, political dissonance that still plagues Central America today, and first-class holidays for Anglo wasps who wanted to see the Caribbean.

United Fruit was formed in 1899 when Minor C. Keith merged his banana trading company with Andrew W. Preston's Boston Fruit Company. The company controlled vast plantations and transportation networks in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies (regions that would become known as Banana Republics due to the importance of their one commodity, the Cavendish). United Fruit would continue its exploitation and neocolonialistic interference in the countries where it operated until 1970 when it merged with Eli M. Black's AMK, becoming United Brands Company (though I doubt this made the company any fairer to those it historically exploited). But I digress from the point of this post, the enjoyment of warm, tropical breezes and fresh sea air!

United Fruit Lines' Great White Fleet was a fleet of cargo ships which transported bananas and other tropical fruits from the company's South and Central American plantations and ports to the United States. The name harkens back to 1907 and President Teddy Roosevelt's  fleet of touring warships. Teddy's ships bore a fresh, white paint job instead of the customary gray, becoming known as the Great White Fleet. United Fruit Company borrowed the idea, supposedly painting their ships white to reflect the tropical sunlight and allow banana temperatures to be more easily maintained, but just as likely reminding would-be rebels of Teddy's "big stick".

At some point, United Fruit added a luxury passenger service to their ship line. Probably to help defray the cost of sending empty ships south. The ad comes from a July 1914 issue of Life Magazine. It's a little unimaginative, the typical jazz age couple at the railing staring out on the bounding main. It took me three viewings before I caught the second steamship on the horizon. Personally, I like to think that the guy with his hands folded behind his back is a spy, heading for a meeting with his handler on the fore deck. At dinner someone will ask, "Say, what happened to that fellow with the pencil mustache? Wasn't he seated at our table?" To which the gentleman with the baritone voice and German accent will answer, "I believe the gentleman you speak of disembarked in Santa Marta, Frau Smith. Disreputable fellow, I'm sure the remainder of the journey will be much pleasanter without him. Care for more champagne?"

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