On December 6, 1928, in the town of Cienaga, Colombia, thousands of families gathered in the town square for Sunday Mass. Most of the men in the area had been on strike against the banana plantations for nearly a month. They were demanding written contracts, six-day weeks, and to get paid in cash rather than company script.
The Columbian government responded by sending out the army, which set up machine guns on the roofs and at the corners of the square. After giving a five minute warning, the troops opened fire despite a lack of any provocation from the strikers.
Banana strike leaders
No one knows how many families died that day as no official count was ever made. General Cortés Vargas claims that 47 civilians were killed. However, a dispatch from the U.S. Embassy on January 16, 1929, said:
"I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand."
The United Fruit Company was in a unique position to know. It was their plantations that the strikers were from. What's more, General Vargas justified his orders to fire because U.S. warships were waiting off the coast ready to land troops if the strike wasn't broken.
Just two days before, the State Department sent a telegram explaining how the American government didn't want to send warships to protect the property of the United Fruit Company (with the implied threat of "don't make us").
How did the United Fruit Company get so strong that the American military and Latin American government did its bidding, even if it meant killing hundreds of their own citizens?
To answer that we must go back in time about two decades, to a bordello in New Orleans on a cold December night.
Of mercenaries and warlords
In 1910 four men strolled down a New Orleans street and into a whorehouse. They were being tailed by two Secret Service men. It was an open secret that these men were plotting a revolution in Honduras and the government wanted to make sure that the invasion wasn't launched from American soil.
Since the days of William Walker, more than half a century earlier, New Orleans had been the great launching point against central america for mercenaries and wanna-be warlords. It was so well known for this that the New York Times ran an in-depth article on June 18, 1911, called "New Orleans, Where The Revolutions Come From."
Plenty of official invasions of central america came from the New Orleans area during this period as well. From 1903 to this December night in 1910, American troops had been sent to Nicaragua twice, Cuba once, Dominican Republic once, Panama once, and Honduras twice. What's more, the age of Yanqui Imperialism had only just begun.
It was the most recent invasion of Honduras, in 1907, that concerned the four men in the bordello.
One of the men was legendary by this time. His name is Lee Christmas, and he was a mercenary.
he had been a railroad engineer in Louisiana who had fallen asleep at the wheel and wrecked his train. Unable to get work, abandoned by his family, he traveled to Honduras where he found employment with a small fruit company, driving trains on a narrow gauge railway between San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortez. In 1897, a Guatemalan-sponsored revolution took Puerto Cortez with thirteen men and commandeered Christmas' train. Offered a choice between joining the revolution or being executed, he taught his captors how to armor the flatcars with the scrap iron left along the tracks and, thus protected, they gained control of the entire north coast of the country in less than a week. For his service, having in that brief time secured a reputation for extreme heroism and a disdainful attitude toward physical danger, Christmas was awarded the rank of captain. When the revolution was defeated, he fled to Guatemala. There, the government entrusted him with funds and sent him to New Orleans to buy guns for a new revolution, but Christmas spent the money gambling and whoring.
In 1898, under an amnesty, he returned to Honduras and was employed by the president, Terencio Sierra, who had hired a small army of thugs with the idea of forestalling the election process and maintaining his power--he believed that Christmas' charismatic presence would serve to keep them in line. But Christmas, whom Sierra elevated to the rank of Colonel and made head of the National Police, had developed a relationship with Sierra's political rival, Manuel Bonilla, himself an ally--if not a pawn--of various men involved with United Fruit. In 1903 Christmas swung the National Police over to Bonilla's side and marched on Tegucigalpa, seizing control of the city after laying seige to it with Krupps guns, thus earning the rank of general under Bonilla.
Manual Bonilla was the second man in that whorehouse with Lee Christmas on that New Orleans night. Why Bonilla was in a whorehouse in 1910 rather than running Honduras had to do with the 1907 invasion. Nicaragua's leader, President Zelaya, had allied himself with exiled liberals from Honduras. In 1907 the exiles invaded Honduras from Nicaragua in order to topple the dictator Bonilla. On March 26, 1907, a battle that involved 10,000 men was fought near the capital of Honduras. More than 1,000 were killed, and the combined Honduran and Salvadoran armies were defeated. Lee Christmas, at the head of the Honduran army, was taken prisoner.
As legend tells it, Christmas was scheduled to be executed. The executioner asked Christmas if he had any last request. Christmas responded, "Yes. I do not want my body buried." When asked why, Christmas reponded, "Because I want the buzzards to eat me and scatter my remains all over every one of you." What happened next depends on who is telling the story, but somehow Christmas survived.
The American military then stepped in to prevent the Honduran exiles from completing the conquest.
The Americans forced a compromise on the belligerent parties to accept General Miguel Dávila as the new president of Honduras. Davila was a liberal reformist, and he made the fatal mistake of actually wanting to do something good for the people he governed. It didn't matter than Davilla granted new, expanded concessions to the American banana companies. The fact that he wanted limits on the amount of foreign ownership, and had the audacity to tax the American banana companies was unacceptable.
Another problem was the huge foreign debt that Davila inherited. An agreement was hammered out with JP Morgan Bank in which America would oversee the Honduran railroads and customs house, but in a rare display of independence the Honduran legislature rejected the agreement that Davilla presented them. On top of that, an American invasion toppled President Zelaya in Nicaragua, thus isolating Davilla.
The Honduran government was now in economic crisis and that presented an opening.
The third member of our group in the bordello, and the ringleader, was Samuel Zemurray. He had earned the nickname "Sam the Banana Man."
Zemurray wasn't associated with the United Fruit Company as of yet. He was the owner of the Cuyamel Fruit Company, and he was a recent banana plantation owner in Honduras. The plantation, plus other expenses had left him deeply in debt. He didn't like the idea of JP Morgan taxing his exports through the American agreement, nor Davila taxing him for using Honduran land.
Zemurray fronted the whole operation $100,000 up front to purchase weapons and explosives.
The last member of our party was Guy "Machine Gun" Molony. He was a mobster, stood 6'6", and had fought in the Boer Wars as a teenager.
He once blew up an armory atop which he was standing in order to prevent it from falling into counter-revolutionary hands. Yet his motives were, apparently, less redemptive than mercenary. Though he returned to New Orleans often, at one point serving there as Chief of Police, he remained active in Central American politics throughout the 195Os, assisting Zemurray in various aggressions.
As the Secret Service agents waited out on the street in the cold, our conspirators partied inside the bordello. Around 2 o'clock in the morning the agents gave up. "It's nothing but a drunken brawl in the district," they reported to their supervisor on their way home.
Christmas and the rest of the conspirators knew the agents had left almost immediately. They sped out of the bordello towards the harbor where Zemurray's private yacht was docked. Christmas was noted to say to Bonilla:
"Well, compadre. This is the first time I've ever heard of anyone going from a whorehouse to a White House!"
The Invasion of Honduras
Before dawn the four conspirators, plus dozens of hired mercenaries, had made it out to a surplus navy ship called the Hornet, that was loaded with weapons, and had set sail for Honduras.
By December 29, the conspirators had landed in Honduras and had met up with 1,600 mercenaries.
Lee Christmas, an American adventurer, assisted by two more of our fellow citizens, Guy Maloney and Joe Reed, seems to be making headway against the established government, would be less disconcerting if it were not for the near certainty that arms, ammunition, money, and encouragement had been sent to the rebels from the United States.
- New York Times, January 28, 1911
The Battle of Le Ceiba was fought on January 25, 1911. It was bloody, and General Guerrero of the Honduran Army was shot dead in the process. The mercenaries took the day.
'Boys, you done break your mothers' hearts, but you no be breaking mine. We gonna come down on de Sponnish like a buzzard on a sick steer.'
- Christmas' speech to his men before the Battle of Le Ceiba
At this point the American government sent in the marines again to enforce a cease fire. The fate of President Davilla was now sealed.
Christmas and an American diplomat worked out a plan for the future of Honduras in which Davilla would resign, a provisional government would take over for a year, at the end of which Bonilla would assume the presidency.
After Bonilla assumed the presidency in 1912, he awarded Zemmuray about 50,000 acres of land, and gave him the ability to import anything duty-free. Also, Zemurray was exempt from paying taxes for 25 years. Finally, Zemmuray was allowed to raise a $500,000 loan in the name the Honduran government as reimbursement for the revolution he funded.
Christmas became a general in the Honduran Army.
Bonilla died the very next year, but Zemurray's influence remained through a string of puppet presidents. By 1925 he had become a lumber baron in Honduras as well. Later, when he merged his banana business with the United Fruit Company, he became their largest stockholder and president.
Christmas died in January 1924, of a tropical disease he had picked up during his adventures. The New York Times article remembering him was titled, "Gen. Lee Christmas, A Dumas Hero In Real Life."