Nearly a century ago, shipping fresh bananas and preventing them from ripening en route was a real challenge. The first banana shippers, relying on favorable winds could only hope that their cargo would not ripen before they reached port. When Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker sailed the fishing schooner Telegraph from Jamaica to Jersey City in 1870, with a load of 160 bunches on speculation, he stowed them on deck and waited for fair winds. His luck held, and he arrived in New Jersey 11 days later, where he sold them for a profit of $2.00 per bunch. This was the beginning of what is now known as Chiquita Brands International. Two other men who also had a dream were brought together by the banana. In 1871, Andrew Preston, a 21-year old produce dealer in Boston, bought part of Baker’s banana cargo. He quickly realized the potential of this new and exotic fruit in the United States, and began advertising through handbills. About the same time, Costa Rica wanted to build a national railway. Minor Cooper Keith, who undertook the project of building it, realized that bananas would be the perfect year-round crop to transport by rail to the port cities. He imported banana plants from Panama, which were then planted, matured and sold in New Orleans for a profit. Bananas were the answer to both cargo for the railroad and money for its completion.
In 1885, Baker and Preston set up the Boston Fruit Company, which in 1899 became the United Fruit Company. Boston Fruit signed an agreement in 1894 with Keith to sell his bananas in the United States north of Cape Hatteras, not only putting Boston Fruit in a remarkably strong marketing position but ensuring that their ships would be full.
By the turn of the century, steamships were beginning to replace sailing vessels. This meant more trips per season, and more profits. Equally important as increased speed was the introduction of mechanical refrigeration. Now fruit could be kept green until it arrived at market. Finally, market arrivals could be planned, volumes sold on a regular basis, and the market regularized.
The Great White Fleet name can be traced back to 1907, when President Teddy Roosevelt sent a fleet of warships on a worldwide tour. These ships were painted white instead of the now customary gray, and became known as the Great White Fleet. At the same time, Captain Baker also painted his ships white to reflect the tropical sunlight and allow banana temperatures to be more easily maintained. As the United Fruit Company fleet of big, fast, white-painted reefer vessels grew, they too became known as the Great White Fleet. Through peacetime and four wars, the reefer ships of United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita Brands International have sailed back and forth from the tropics to the United States, the Far East, the Middle East and Europe carrying the world’s most popular fruit out and bringing general cargo back. Today, cargo shippers to and from Central America only have to call the Great White Fleet to get the same superior service they have enjoyed for almost a century.