Zemurray, Samuel (1877–1961)

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Zemurray, Samuel (1877–1961)

Samuel Zemurray (b. 18 January 1877; d. 30 November 1961), Bessarabian immigrant who arrived impoverished in the United States in 1892 and amassed a $30 million fortune in the banana industry. From 1911, when he financed a revolution in Honduras in order to gain valuable concessions for his Cuyamel Fruit Company on the Honduran north coast, until his retirement as president of United Fruit Company in 1951, he was one of the most powerful North Americans in Central America.

Zemurray began modestly, selling overripe bananas he acquired from United Fruit to upcountry Alabama towns. Later, he acquired a steamship to ferry bananas from the north Honduran coast to Gulf coast ports. Cuyamel began as a small company of minor annoyance to United Fruit, but Zemurray (who recognized that knowledge of local conditions was critical in the industry) expanded his business rapidly, especially after the 1911 Honduran revolution. By the 1920s, Cuyamel became more and more a threat to United Fruit's interests, especially in the banana lands along the Honduran-Guatemalan border.

Zemurray anticipated that United would try to absorb Cuyamel, so he secretly began acquiring United stock. In 1929, he accepted United's offer of 300,000 shares of stock for his interest in Cuyamel. With a $30 million account in his ledger, he retired to an estate outside New Orleans and became involved in various philanthropic projects, among them the Middle American Institute at Tulane University. But when the worth of United stock fell to $10 a share during the Great Depression legend has it that Zemurray stormed into United offices, threw his shares on the table, and declared he was taking over. He became managing director of the company in 1933. Zemurray then went back to Central America, fought the Sigatoka disease that was devastating the banana plantations, and in a few years returned United to profitability. He became president of the company in 1938.

See alsoBanana Industry; United States-Latin American Relations.


Thomas P. Mc Cann, An American Company (1976).

Thomas L. Karnes, Tropical Enterprise (1978).

Walter La Feber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Argueta, Mario. Bananos y política: Samuel Zemurray y la Cuyamel Fruit Company en Honduras. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Editorial Universitaria, 1989.

Dosal, Paul J. Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala, 1899–1944. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Research Books, 1993.

Euraque, Darío A. Reinterpreting the Banana Republic: Region and State in Honduras, 1870–1972. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Langley, Lester D., and Thomas David Schoonover. The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880–1930. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

                                 Lester D. Langley