The Browser Review Daily Letter 155

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Bananas And Diplomacy


From The North American Review,  August 1913

To those in world trade, names of countries and regions suggest their products. It has always been so. The East Indies four hundred years ago meant spice; two hundred years ago China meant silks and tea; Canada meant fur. The Caribbean to Queen Elizabeth meant gold — it was the route of the treasure-ships of Spain; to Washington it meant sugar and molasses; and to our children it will mean bananas.

The Panama Canal has so occupied our attention for the last decade that we have overlooked a significant economic change taking place independently of the forces which promise so radically to change the transportation routes of world commerce.

Economists tell us that the trend of diplomacy, like the trend of all other things human, is determined by the food supply. If this be true, Caribbean diplomacy will be determined by the banana crop.

This side of the Isthmus at the beginning of the twentieth century there are growing up food products which will exercise an influence upon international politics unconnected with the Panama Canal and of an importance which can he measured only in prophecy.

New foods often make their way slowly, especially among older nations. The English are still behind the Scotch in their appreciation of the value of oats for human food; the potato came into its own in Germany only in the second half of the nineteenth century; and Europe still looks upon maize as fit nourishment only for the lower animals and the poor.

But even prejudice yields to proof. The development of the banana market illustrates both conservatism and its overthrow.

America alone among the civilized portions of the globe realizes the value of this new food. Location rather than adaptiveness till recently explained the fact. When refrigeration was unknown and fast steamships for freight service still a thing of the future, bananas could he marketed only within areas easily accessible from the regions in which the fruit was produced. Large quantities grew wild, enormous amounts were consumed locally, but the surplus either went to waste or was used to fatten pigs, as is still the case with the inferior product.

Even in the United States until a generation ago the banana was a fruit counted a luxury rather than a valuable food. The market for bananas in the United States was developed largely through the efforts of one man. Forty years ago Captain L.D. Baker was engaged in trade between the Orinoco River and Boston. On one trip he called at Port Morant, Jamaica, for a cargo of bamboo for paper-making and carried back a few bunches of bananas, then a curiosity in the New England markets. The venture proved profitable and the captain thereafter made several trips a year to Port Antonio, Jamaica, to take cargoes of bananas to Boston. Later he was a member of a firm formed to prosecute the trade, which in time became one of the great fruit companies.

How important the trade has become is illustrated by the figures of exports. In 1912 the continental United States alone consumed 44,520,539 bunches, or over sixty bananas for each man, woman and child in the Union. The increased production of the banana in its natural state and the diversification of its uses promise to introduce a new and hitherto neglected factor in our food-supply.

If present development continues, it will raise the Caribbean region from its dependence on foreign markets for food to one of the regions from which an important part. of the world’s food-supply will he drawn. The wheat-fields of the Dakotas and Manitoba will meet as one of their competitors in feeding the world, the banana plantations of the American Mediterranean.

But the development will have consequences not alone economic. Plantations represent capital which will demand protection from disorder. Their introduction will emphasize, for the countries of Central America and Northern South America, the importance of protecting life and property if they expect to avoid international complications that may threaten their independence. The world is becoming impatient of the nations which insist on the divine right to misrule themselves.

The introduction of capital, however, besides increasing their duties in the keeping of order, contributes to the solution of that problem. It increases the national wealth, furnishing a larger basis for the creation of national income by which orderly progress can be assured.

Further, with steady work and larger, stabler income, the wants of the people will expand, giving them greater interest in the maintenance of the order which makes the satisfaction of those wants possible. Greater wants in turn promote local industrial development and greater international trade. The cheap gaudy calico which forms the largest item in the imports of Central America will no longer satisfy, once the population reaches a higher level of subsistence.

International trade will increase the importance of tariff agreements will grow and the international competition for the market will become more keen. The banana trade will increase appreciably the importance of international relations in the Caribbean. An immediate consequence of the development of the direct trade with Europe now just beginning is to threaten the supremacy of the United States in some of the Central American markets.

People buy their goods, other things being equal, in the countries where their own products find their best sale. If improved transportation facilities for the banana trade develop between the Caribbean and European ports, it is but natural that European manufactured goods will be carried on the return voyage. Already our Central American consuls have warned us of the coming competition which we must expect in that region from the new direct outlets for French, German and English trade.

On the north Honduras coast for example, all transportation facilities until recently served American ports alone, but still thirty per cent of the imports were of European goods. The direct communication cannot but increase the keenness of the competition.

We have been fortunate heretofore because, especially in some of the regions of Central America and in Jamaica, we have been practically the only great buyer of the most important product of the country. If present developments continue this advantage along with our favoured conditions of transportation, will disappear.

Great as the blessings of the Panama Canal will be to the trade of the world and to that of the United States in particular, we must not let the new markets which it will develop beyond the Isthmus make us forget that region so rich in possibilities which lies this side of the continental divide and so much nearer our own markets. Friendship with our near neighbours is no less important than the good will of people over wide seas. One of the most important, and from our past experience let us remember, one of the most delicate problems with which our men of state have to deal, is the diplomacy of the Caribbean.

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