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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Be fruitful and multiply | On this day

March brings the 180th birthday of the man who singlehandedly created the Caribbean banana industry. James Ferguson looks back at the life and times of Lorenzo Dow Baker, Yankee entrepreneur

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell
  • Industrial-scale banana production changed the economies of several Caribbean islands in the late nineteenth century. Photo by Mazur Travel/Shutterstock.com

Bananas really are a strange fruit. They once symbolised luxury and exoticism, but nowadays they’re cheap and widely available throughout areas of the world like Europe and North America that don’t grow them. Oddly, the world’s two biggest producers — India and China — export none, while Belgium is improbably listed as the fifth biggest exporter (it buys them from South America for resale in Europe). The most popular fruit in Britain and the United States, and worth nearly US$15 billion in global export sales, bananas are everywhere, from supermarkets to modest street stalls, all year round.

Any visitor to the Caribbean can hardly fail to notice the distinctive banana plant (“tattered, green, photosynthetic machines,” according to US poet Joseph Stanton), which grows in every rural yard, up hillsides, and in fertile valleys. Most of the fruit is eaten locally, but for a few countries the crop is still an important export. The Dominican Republic has big, modernised plantations, but the smaller Windward Islands send bananas to Europe that are mostly cultivated on small family-owned farms. In recent years, though, the Caribbean banana industry has been outmuscled by big Latin American producers such as Ecuador and Colombia, where multinational firms dominate market access to the US and Europe. And one of these firms is the friendly-sounding Chiquita, with its familiar blue sticker. 

This giant Swiss-based corporation operates plantations in eight Central and South American countries and has annual revenues of some US$3 billion. In contrast, Jamaica, ravaged by hurricanes and underinvestment, abandoned the export market in 2008. Much of the infrastructure that once brought the island’s bananas to be sold overseas — railways, wharves, warehouses — is now decaying. But go to any one of Port Antonio’s teeming street markets, and you’ll see a profusion of bananas and their plantain cousins, large and small, green and gold, piled high among an array of colourful produce. Why Port Antonio? Because this northeastern Jamaican town, now an ecotourism hub, is where the international banana trade — and Chiquita itself — was born.

Yellow bananas caught the eye of an American sea captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker one day in June 1870, as he wandered through Port Antonio’s market. He was on his way back to the US from Venezuela, where he had transported mining equipment, and had stopped in Jamaica to pick up bamboo and other exotic commodities. He added bananas to his cargo, waited for a fair wind, and set sail in his newly purchased schooner Telegraph. On arrival in New Jersey, the hold was opened — to reveal a load of blackened, overripe fruit.

But Baker, who was born in the Massachusetts peninsula of Cape Cod on 15 March, 1840, was convinced that bananas would make his fortune. The following year, he returned to Jamaica, sold a cargo of codfish and textiles, and bought 450 bunches of green bananas at ten cents each. Eleven days later, the now ripe fruit was landed at Jersey City, and sold for $2 a bunch. Baker, a man raised in the tough whaling and fishing culture of Cape Cod, had instinctively understood that American consumers would quickly embrace the tropical delights of the banana.

Baker’s trips to Jamaica then became more frequent, and he and his associates invested in more ships to carry bananas safely to the eastern US. He also encouraged Jamaican smallholders to grow the crop, proclaiming, “the first man who has ten acres of bananas will be rich.” A mini-boom took place, a godsend to the island’s depressed post-plantation economy. “It was said that on Banana Day (which was any day a ship was loading) carousing planters would light their cigars with five-dollar bills,” writes Margaret Morris in Tour Jamaica. Baker meanwhile bought run-down former sugar estates for banana production as well as investing in roads and warehouses. Such was his enthusiasm for Jamaica that he moved with his family to Port Antonio in 1881, returning to his hometown of Wellfleet each summer.

Despite his success, Baker could only go so far without more investment, and in 1885 he and Bostonian businessman Andrew Preston formed the Boston Fruit Company. With Baker busy in Jamaica, the ambitious Preston had free rein in Boston, and in 1899, unbeknownst to Baker, negotiated with the splendidly named Minor C. Keith, who had interests in Costa Rica, to create the United Fruit Company. This powerful business imported bananas on an industrial scale from Central America via its own railways and a shipping fleet, which also transported tourists to Jamaica. Baker, the founding father, was soon pushed out and forced into retirement. He continued to divide his time between Jamaica and Cape Cod until he died in Boston in June 1908.

United Fruit was merged with another firm to become United Brands in 1970, then morphing into Chiquita Brands in 1984. At its peak, it controlled huge areas of land in South and Central America, often intervening in the politics of impoverished states such as Honduras that were derided as “banana republics.” The company was not known for an exemplary human rights record.

The practices of the United Fruit Company were far removed from the paternalism of the stoutly Methodist Lorenzo Dow Baker, who even today is viewed by Jamaicans in a favourable light. According to the website jamaicaportantonio.com, “He believed that his financial success was only a fulfilment of God’s will, and that it was his duty and obligation to help those who lived in his winter and summer hometowns. In Jamaica, he built a hospital and many schools; paid decent wages and provided better living conditions for his local workers and their families.” He was also a benefactor, as well as an entrepreneur, in Wellfleet, rebuilding the lightning-damaged Methodist church and opening a hotel that in summer he staffed with Jamaicans.

The golden age of Port Antonio is now a distant memory, but traces of Baker’s legacy are still visible. With the profits from the banana business, he opened one of Jamaica’s first purpose-built tourist facilities, the luxurious four-hundred-room Titchfield Hotel, famed for its sophisticated amenities and stellar guest list. It eventually fell into the hands of the Hollywood icon Errol Flynn after years of decline, and enjoyed a brief period of notoriety in the 1950s before it succumbed to a fire in 1969, leaving only a few ghostly ruins. 

Perhaps in a reference to Baker’s Cape Cod childhood, Boundbrook wharf is to be found by Port Antonio’s sheltered natural harbour, looking across to the Titchfield peninsula where the hilltop hotel stood. Baker renamed this district Boundbrook, formerly Bog estate, when he bought it in the 1880s. In its heyday, the wharf, which was owned by United Fruit, was the scene of frenetic activity when the banana boats moored. Now it is disused, though locals hope it may be resurrected by the cruise ship industry. 

Meanwhile, some 1,700 miles north, close to the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet, is an idyllically deserted expanse of dunes and beach called Bound Brook Island. Now connected to the mainland, this wild spot is where Baker was born and raised in a cottage before he went to sea aged ten. Did he name his Jamaican property after this, his first home? He eventually returned here. He, his wife, and daughter are buried nearby.