The Birth of a Banana Republic.

Yes, I know, the term Banana Republic can have a negative connotation that many Hondurans are not proud of. I am not using it to denigrate any country or national pride. Quite the contrary, I see is as an interesting facet of Latin American history. The transnational Fruit Companies established in Honduras helped develop the Caribbean Coast of Honduras. At a time when Belize, AKA British Honduras was a sleepy British Colony, the Caribbean Coast of Honduras was in growth mode. The Caribbean Coast of Mexico was inaccessible and undeveloped. In Honduras the ports of Omoa, Tela, La Ceiba, and Trujillo where teeming with economic activity.

US Writer William Sydney Porter Coined the Term Banana Republic!

The birth of a banana republic
Author William Sydney Porter, who used the pen name O Henry, first used the expression “Banana Republic”

The term, Banana Republic was coined in Trujillo, Honduras. It was first used by US writer “O Henry” during his exile in Honduras. O. Henry’s real name was William Sydney Porter. He was born in Greensboro, North Carolina on September 11, 1862. Porter was indicted in 1896 for embezzlement and escaped to Honduras. He chose Honduras because at the time he was working as a reporter for the Houston Post. He was a reporter in New Orleans. The Honduras fruit companies had regular shipping routes from New Orleans to Honduras. It was the fastest, easiest way to get away from the USA!

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It was during his time in Trujillo on the North Coast of Honduras, that O Henry wrote Cabbages and Kings. This is a story about life in the imaginary Central America country of Anchuria (Honduras).  The Story takes place in the fictitious coastal town of Coralio, reputedly, Trujillo. The story is an accurate picture of life in Honduras at the end of the XIX Century. It coincides with the time of the birth of a Banana Republic.

The Dream: A Trans Continental Railroad

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By the early XXth Century, steam locomotives could be seen along the Caribbean Coast of Honduras.

Honduras was a poor country with few resources. The central government did not have many funds. The dream to build an inter oceanic railroad was expensive indeed. There was a general belief that this infrastructure would catapult Honduras into the world. Regardless of the political party or current “caudillo” running the country, this was a shared dream. They all agreed that this was the one way to insure the future of Honduras.

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Back at the end of the XIXth century, the North Coast of Honduras was uninhabited.  Trujillo was one of the few existing cities on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Christopher Columbus himself had the city built during his fourth and last voyage in 1502. The natural deep bay is the perfect site for a port with a railroad terminal.

Along the western side of Honduras’ Caribbean coast is the town of Omoa. This is close to Puerto Cortes, the main Caribbean port in Honduras in modern times.  There was a vast territory between these two ports that was sparsely populated. Over 120 miles of coast that was no more that an inhospitable tropical jungle. Honduras needed to develop this territory.

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An Aereal View of the Caribbean Coast of Honduras between Trujillo and La Ceiba

Between these two cities there were several Garifuna Villages along the coast. These were all small, isolated and self-sufficient. To the east of Trujillo is the “Miskito Coast”. A vast land under the self governance of the Miskito Indians. The Brits turned it over to Honduras and Nicaragua by the Brits in 1860, when the treaties of Managua and Comayagua where signed. In short, if the Government of Honduras was to build an inter oceanic railroad, it first had to develop the Caribbean Coast.

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North American entrepreneurs living in Honduras saw this opportunity. They worked hard to use it in their benefit to facilitate the birth of a Banana Republic.  This was the time when O. Henry was living in Trujillo!

The “Big Players” in the Days of the Birth of a Banana Republic

The Honduras government issued huge land grants to promote the construction of a railroad network. Different companies all owned by US investors were the main beneficiaries. They got these huge land concessions for up to 99 years in exchange to a commitment to build a railroad. Most of them actually had a name that identified them more as a railroad company that as a fruit company. Such is the case of the Truxillo Railroad Company, the Tela Railroad Company and the Cuyamel Railroad Company.

the birth of a banana republic
Huge Mahogany logs on railroad cars ready to be sent to port and exported.

Soon the banana companies built a railroad along the north coast of Honduras.  They would clear the land that they had in their concessions. Valuable timber was within their land. They harvested and exported some of the best quality mahogany logs in the World. Mahogany from Honduras is World famous and the companies made a handsome profit with it! Once the land was clear, they started planting bananas. The plantations where not limited to banana. They also planted coconut and citrus like orange, grapefruit and lemon groves. Besides, they experimented with many different exotic tropical fruits.

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The Birth of the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela

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Exploring Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela, Photo Jafeth Zablah

The Tela Railroad Company established an experimental botanical garden near Tela. The Lancetilla Botanical Garden became the largest tropical botanical garden in the Americas. Under the expert leadership of Dr. Wilson Popenoe, many species where brought to Lancetilla. Here they tested their adaptability to the tropical climate and earth in Honduras. Mangosteen, pulasan and rambutan are but a few of the most successful transplants. African palm trees are another success story as far as adaptability to Honduras is concerned.

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The Railroad Dream Becomes a Reality in the Caribbean Coast of Honduras

Soon, the railroad tracks that the different companies built began to interconnect with each other. The tracks built by the Cuyamel Railroad Company and the Tela Railroad Company connected in San Pedro Sula. Those of the Standard Fruit Company and the Truxillo Railroad Company did so in Saba, in the lower Aguan Valley. Finally the Standard Fruit Company Railroad connected with the Tela Railroad Company in Tela. Each company built their tracks based on their needs and interests, and this became a problem.

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The Number 9 Steam Locomotive was the first locomotive at the service of the Standard Fruit Company Railroad

The Standard Fruit Railroad was a narrow gauge track. The Tela Railroad Company was a regular gauge track. This meant that you needed to change trains at the different connecting points to continue your journey. Despite this detail, the Caribbean Coast of Honduras became the most solid, dynamic link of the Honduras economy. Ships would come in and out of the ports of Puerto Cortes, Tela, La Ceiba and Truxillo. Imported goods from the US came on these freight ships, which in return, took the fruit exports back to the USA. To this day and age, a siren sounds regularly at different hours in La Ceiba. It is like a clock, and locals operate at the sound of the siren. It sounds regularly at specific times and you can set your clock upon its sound!

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Bananagate: The End of an Era

The Honduran economy came to be dependent on the banana exports. Honduras became the largest exporter of bananas in the World. The banana companies had the power to make a president fall if their government did not promote their specific interests. Honduras had blossomed into a Banana Republic. Perhaps the most notable example of the influence and power that banana companies had in Honduras is the famous “Bananagate Scandal”

The United Fruit Brands supported the coup in which General Osvaldo Lopez Arellano took power in Honduras. Lopez Arellano received a bribe to support a reduction in the banana export tax in Honduras. The leaked scandal had a serious effect on both the country and the banana company. Lopez Arellano had to step down from the presidency. The President of the United Fruit Brands committed suicide in the middle of the crisis. It became a high profile case when he committed suicide by jumping out of the window of his corporate office in a skyscraper in New York City.

Without doubt, the US fruit companies gave place to the birth of a Banana Republic in Honduras in the early days of XIXth Century. Honduras has overcome the days when it was a Banana Republic. Today, it continues to produce many bananas. These fruits are no longer the most important Honduran export. Coffee has long overtaken bananas as the most important agricultural export. African Palm oil is on the rise, and getting closer to the sales volume generated by bananas. Tourism is another important “export product” for the Honduras Economy.

The Demise of the Honduras Railroad System

A trip to Cuero y Salado
The rickety train into Cuero y Salado

Unfortunately, much of the heritage from the days when the original Banana Republic was born is gone. Most of the railroad tracks no longer exist. Many of the bridges over the rivers along the north coast where damaged or destroyed either by Hurricane Fifi or Mitch. The government of Honduras decided that they did not need the railroad because they now had a highway. Once abandoned, the railroad tracks were sold as scrap metal. The Chinese bought most of the scrap when they were building the Three Gorges Dam in the past decade.

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Today, only a small section of the Standard Fruit Railroad Company still operates. You can see it at the town of La Union, about 25 km. west of La Ceiba. A funky little train takes tourists from there into the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Reserve.

Likewise, a section of the Tela Railroad Company in San Pedro Sula now operates as a public transport service. It does so between the community of El Bufalo and downtown San Pedro Sula. You can usually see the train at the old railroad station downtown in San Pedro Sula.

The Honduras Railroad Heritage can Only be Found in Parks

Few icons remain from this era. One of them, the Tela Railroad Company accounting building in Tela. This iconic landmark is currently under a restoration process. Another site worth visiting is the Swinford Park in La Ceiba. The Standard Fruit Company in La Ceiba maintains this park, which is a sort of outdoor museum that you can visit and enjoy.

Finally, the Honduras Railroad Museum in El Progreso is another site worth visiting. There you can learn more about the birth of a Banana Republic. Honduras has come a long way in the last 120 years. The cities of Tela, La Ceiba and Trujillo all grew and developed thanks to the fruit companies that established themselves in the area.  San Pedro Sula would have never become the metropolis that it is today if it weren’t for the Tela Railroad Company and its investments in the Sula Valley.