The ousting of the president of Honduras, 1911

Honduras banana workers, circa 1920s

An account of the removal of President Davila of Honduras by US banana interests - creating the original “banana republic” - written by Stephen Kinzer.

On a December evening in 1910, barely a year after Zelaya fell, four dapper figures stepped out of their New Orleans hotel to sample the fleshy delights of Storyville, one of the world’s most celebrated concentrations of bordellos, jazz clubs, and gambling halls. Music spilled onto the streets. Women flashed meretricious smiles and more at men wearing silk suits and diamond stickpins. It was a fine place for four adventurers to spend their last night in the United States before setting out to overthrow a government.

As the four strolled through Storyville, United States Secret Service agents followed at a respectful distance. The agents had been watching them for days. It was common knowledge that these four men were plotting a revolution in Honduras, and the Secret Service, which was responsible for enforcing neutrality laws, wanted to make sure they did not launch it from American soil.

The best known of the four conspirators was Lee Christmas, a flamboyant soldier of fortune who had fought in almost every Central American war and revolution of the past quarter century. Christmas, who styled himself a general, wore a tasseled uniform made especially for him by a Paris tailor. He was as famous in the United States as he was in Central America. Sunday supplements competed to publish breathless accounts of his exploits. One of them, in the New York Times, called him “a Dumas hero in real life” and “the most spectacular figure in Central America today.”

Business, specifically the business of revolution, brought Christmas to New Orleans at the end of 1910. The most ambitious and successful banana planter in Central America, Sam Zemurray, had hired him to overthrow the Honduran government, and he had come to New Orleans to organize the plot. This he had done. Now he needed to slip away from the Secret Service so he could sail off to Honduras and start fighting.

That night in Storyville, Christmas was accompanied by his three most important coconspirators. One was a notorious New Orleans gangster, George “Machine Gun” Molony, whom Christmas trusted to shoot his way into or out of any situation they might encounter in Honduras. The other two were Hondurans: Manuel Bonilla, the man Zemurray had chosen to be the country’s next president, and Bonilla’s chief aide, Florian Dávadi. Trapped in New Orleans as they were, these four decided to make the best of their situation. That led them to the sumptuous May Evans bordello on Basin Street.

As the four conspirators disappeared into the warm embrace for which May Evans was famous, Secret Service agents took up posts nearby. It must have been frustrating duty. The agents huddled against the raw wind that chills New Orleans in midwinter, while the men they were watching caroused the night away inside. Finally, at two o’clock in the morning, they called it a night.

“It’s nothing but a drunken brawl in the District,” they reported to their supervisor before heading home.

Christmas was immediately told that the agents had walked away from their posts. He jumped from his bed, quickly dressed, grabbed Bonilla and their two companions, and raced toward their car.

“Well, compadre,” he told Bonilla as they sped away, “this is the first time I’ve ever heard of anybody going from a whorehouse to a White House!”

The four men raced to Bayou St. John, where Sam Zemurray’s private yacht was docked, climbed aboard, and then sailed across Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi Sound to his hideaway on Ship Island. Their patron was waiting for them. He had cases of rifles and ammunition hidden on the island, and under cover of the winter darkness, the men ferried them to the Hornet, a surplus navy ship they had bought for the operation. Before dawn they set sail for Honduras.

Deposing Zelaya’s government in Nicaragua had required the combined efforts of the State Department, the navy, the marines, and President Taft. In Honduras, Zemurray set out to do the job himself. No American businessman ever held a foreign nation’s destiny so completely in his hands.

“Sam the Banana Man” was one of the most colorful figures in the history of American capitalism. In New Orleans he is remembered as a philanthropist who donated $1 million to Tulane University and paid to build a hospital for black women. Agronomists still admire his contributions to the science of banana cultivation. Some Jews consider him an exemplary figure of their Diaspora, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who arrived at Ellis Island as a penniless youth and rose to great wealth and power. In Honduras, people know him as the man who overthrew their government and took over their country.

It is safe to presume that no one in Kishinev, today the capital of Moldova, had ever seen a banana when Samuel Zmuri was born there in 1877. Nor had most people in Alabama, where the renamed Sam Zemurray landed with relatives when he was fifteen years old. He found work as a dock laborer in Mobile. There he watched sailors dump bunches of overripe bananas into the sea. He came up with the idea of buying them and sending them quickly to inland towns. Business boomed. By the time Zemurray was twenty-one, he was worth more than $100,000.

After selling other people’s bananas for more than a decade, Zemurray decided to try growing his own. He borrowed half a million dollars, some of it at usurious interest rates of up to 50 percent, and bought fifteen thousand acres of land in Honduras. Once again he was brilliantly successful, easily paying off his loans and becoming a major force in the banana trade. His only problem was the Honduran government.

Like many other American businessmen in Central America, Zemurray considered his land a private fiefdom. He resented having to pay taxes and abide by Honduran laws and regulations. That put him in conflict with President Miguel Dávila, who not only insisted that foreign businesses submit to taxation but was campaigning to limit the amount of land foreigners could own in Honduras.

Dávila was a Liberal who had been a protege of the deposed Nicaraguan leader José Santos Zelaya. When Zelaya fell, he lost a vital political and military ally. Among those who realized this was Sam Zemurray. He decided that Dávila was now ripe to be overthrown, and with typical resolve set out to do the overthrowing himself.

The first thing Zemurray needed was a pretender, someone who could take over the Honduran presidency and run the country on his behalf. Bonilla, a conspiracy-minded former general who had once before seized the presidency, was an ideal candidate. Since being overthrown, Bonilla had been living in British Honduras (present-day Belize) and dreaming of a return to power. He had the ambition, but not the means. In the spring of 1910, he described his situation quite simply.

“I am in need of the indispensable elements,” he wrote to a friend. “Without the decided assistance of El Amigo, I do not rise in arms against General Dávila.”

El Amigo was, of course, the most powerful man in Honduras, Sam Zemurray. It was inevitable that he and Bonilla would join forces. “El Amigo had no other Honduran politico who, once installed in power, would be so understanding about the banana men’s problems,” according to one history of the period. “Zemurray would unlikely stop his intrigues until the effective exercise of power in Honduras was in the hands of a leader or faction sympathetic to his banana business.”

Although Zemurray and Bonilla made a fine pair, they could not launch a revolution on their own. Zemurray had the money, and Bonilla made a reasonable front man, but neither had the skills to assemble and lead a reliable fighting force. Both knew who could. Lee Christmas, who had served as director of the Honduran police during Bonilla’s presidency, was the hemisphere’s most famous soldier of fortune. No one was better suited to the job of overthrowing a Central American government. Zemurray approached him with a generous offer, and he quickly accepted.

At the end of 1910, Christmas, Bonilla, and Zemurray met in New Orleans to make their plan. They made no attempt to hide what they were doing. Christmas set about recruiting among the eager crowd of ne’er-do-wells who hung around New Orleans waiting for just such a chance. Zemurray, meanwhile, arranged to buy the Hornet.

Secret Service agents realized full well that the Hornet was to be used in an attempt to overthrow the Honduran government. They told her new owners that she would be forbidden to sail unless federal inspectors certified that she was transporting no weaponry. Zemurray invited inspectors aboard, and they found her to be carrying only large amounts of food, two hundred tons of coal, and twenty men. That meant they could not detain her, and on December 22, the conspirators set sail from Algiers Point.

Rather than head for Honduras, though, the Hornet hovered just outside the American three-mile limit. The plan was for her to wait there until Christmas and the other conspirators could shake off their Secret Service detail. On the night of December 23 in Storyville, they did. Early the next morning, the Hornet, newly laden with rifles, ammunition, and George Molony’s cherished Hotchkiss machine gun, sailed into action.

On New Year’s Eve the Hornet approached the Honduran island of Roatán and quickly captured it, with the defending government force surrendering after firing just one shot. Christmas and Molony left their men there to celebrate. They took a launch to the nearby island of Utila, dragged the local commander out of bed, and told him he was deposed. Then they forced him to run in circles around his cabin, dressed only in underwear, and shout “Viva Bonilla!”

Two American gunboats, the Tacoma and the Marietta, were cruising nearby. Their commanders were uncertain whether to seize the Hornet. They knew they should act according to Washington’s wishes, and were awaiting orders.

The United States had a special interest in Honduras at this moment. Under a series of Liberal presidents, Honduras had fallen into the habit of borrowing money from European banks. President Taft and Secretary of State Knox disapproved of this practice, just as they had disapproved of Zelaya’s railroad loan in 1909. They asked President Dávila to transfer his debt by accepting a $30 million loan from the American banking firm of J. P. Morgan, most of which would be used to pay off the European creditors. To guarantee repayment, J. P. Morgan would take over the Honduran customs service and oversee its Treasury, in effect turning the country into a protectorate.

This proposal put President Dávila in an impossible position. He knew that if he accepted the loan, many of his fellow Liberals would erupt in anger. If he rejected it, the Americans were certain to punish him.

As Dávila wrestled with his dilemma, rebels aboard the Hornet sailed to the port of Trujillo and seized it. When news of this reached the Honduran minister in Washington, he decided that it was time for him to sign the treaty authorizing the Morgan loan. He marched to the State Department and did so. That confused matters, and the news led Captain George Cooper, commander of the Marietta, to place the Hornet under military guard. He warned the insurgents on board not to launch further attacks, and when a group of them did anyway, he ordered the vessel seized for violating American neutrality laws.

Despite this apparent unpleasantness, Christmas remained on friendly terms with Captain Cooper. On January 17, the two men met aboard the Marietta. “He informed me,” Cooper reported in a dispatch to Washington, “that the State Department was well aware of all the plans of the revolutionists before they began, and that they were practically encouraged.”

This was clear diplomatic code. Cooper was asking the State Department if it did indeed support the revolution. When he received no reply contradicting Christmas’s claim, he logically came to accept it as true. He was correct.

Officials in Washington were ambivalent when the Honduran revolution broke out, but they soon concluded that its success would benefit the United States. They considered Dávila untrustworthy because of his well-known Liberal sympathies and feared that, if allowed to remain in office, he would become a dangerous symbol of independence who might inspire nationalists elsewhere in Central America. His doubts about the Morgan loan confirmed his lack of deference to American power. Bonilla, on the other hand, was eager to lead Honduras into what would necessarily be a highly unequal partnership with the United States. It was an easy call.

Christmas brought his men ashore from their confiscated ship and led them toward La Ceiba, the main town on the coast. When they arrived there, they found that Captain Cooper had done them a great favor. He had sent a message to the local army commander, General Francisco Guerrero, declaring La Ceiba a “neutral zone” that was “off limits” to any fighting. Guerrero, forbidden to defend his positions, resolved to attack the insurgents outside town.

The battle of La Ceiba, fought on January 25, 1911, was one of the fiercest of that era. Hundreds of men fought on each side. “Machine Gun” Molony lived up to his name by proving highly adept with his Hotchkiss, even using it to capture the defenders’ single Krupp artillery piece. In the end, the insurgents triumphed. Among the dead was General Guerrero, who was shot off his horse while urging his men to the front.

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, President Dávila knew that the fall of La Ceiba was very bad news. Hoping to salvage something from the disaster, he called the American minister to his office and said he was “ready to deliver the presidency to any person designated by the United States.” To prove his good faith, he asked the National Assembly to approve the Morgan loan treaty. By a vote of thirty-two to four, it indignantly refused and instead passed a resolution declaring the treaty unconstitutional and “an offense against Honduras.”

“Honduras had escaped the grasp of bankers,” one historian later wrote, “only to fall into the clutches of the banana men.”

The vote against the Morgan loan sealed President Dávila’s fate. A few days later, the United States issued an order forbidding any more fighting in Honduras, meaning that Dávila could no longer use his army. Stripped of the most elemental power of self-defense, he resigned the presidency. He was defeated not by Lee Christmas but by a fiat issued in Washington.

Over the next few weeks, Christmas and an American diplomat, Thomas Dawson, met several times aboard the Marietta to decide the future of Honduras. They came up with a formula under which a provisional president would hold office for a year and then resign in favor of Bonilla. It worked as planned, and Bonilla assumed the presidency in February 1912. As he took the oath of office in Tegucigalpa, seventy-five United States Marines guarded the wharf that American fruit companies used in Puerto Cortés, to ensure that nationalists would not destroy it in protest.

An American prosecutor in New Orleans later indicted both Bonilla and Christmas for violating neutrality laws, but the cases never came to trial. President Taft personally ordered the charges against Bonilla dropped. The prosecutor, understanding this message, soon did the same for Christmas.

President Bonilla handsomely rewarded the man who had placed him in power. Soon after taking office, he awarded Zemurray 10,000 hectares of banana land—about 24,700 acres—near the north coast. Later he added 10,000 hectares near the Guatemalan border. Then he gave Zemurray a unique permit allowing his businesses to import whatever they needed duty-free. Finally, he authorized Zemurray to raise a $500,000 loan in the name of the Honduran government, and use the money to repay himself for what he claimed to have spent organizing the revolution.

With assets like these, it is no wonder that Zemurray soon became known as “the uncrowned king of Central America.” He was certainly the king of Honduras. After Bonilla’s death in 1913, he controlled a string of presidents. In 1925 he secured exclusive lumbering rights to a region covering one-tenth of Honduran territory. Later he merged his enterprises with United Fruit and took over as the firm’s managing director. Under his leadership, United Fruit became inextricably interwoven with the fabric of Central American life. According to one study, it “throttled competitors, dominated governments, manacled railroads, ruined planters, choked cooperatives, domineered over workers, fought organized labor and exploited consumers.” Four decades later, this uniquely powerful company would help overthrow another Central American government.

Excerpted from: Overthrow: America's century of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq - Stephen Kinzer. We recommend you buy this book: