The United Fruit Company was an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit (primarily bananas), grown on Central and South American plantations, and sold in the United States and Europe. The company was formed in 1899 and flourished in the mid twentieth century. Later becoming Chiquita, a great deal of the history of Puerto Armuelles revolves around the Banana Company’s presence here. This will be one of several articles about that history.
The United Fruit Company Steamship Service provided passenger and cargo ship services under the name of the “Great White Fleet” for over 100 years. The ships were painted white to reflect the tropical sun and help keep the temperature of the bananas lower, hence the name.
These ships were originally intended only for carrying cargo. United Fruit soon discovered that it could make more profit by adding passengers. Each ship carried an average of 35,000 bunches of bananas and 50-100 passengers. These cargo-liners, known today as the “banana boats”, were instrumental in helping to establish what is popularly known today as the Banana Republics throughout the Caribbean, and Central and South America. They had a huge impact on the beginning of tourism to these areas.
United Fruit claimed their ships were built especially for luxurious tropical travel. Most cruises were 2 – 4 weeks and went from the U.S. to the Caribbean and Panama Canal, then Central and South America. Their cruise tagline was, “Where the Pirates Hid their Gold” and they promised romance at sea as you explored the coasts where pirates buried their treasures and performed adventurous deeds centuries ago.
Here is a description of passenger accommodations, from the book: A Short History of the Banana and a Few Recipes for its Use:
“The “Admiral” steamships operated by this company are American built twin-screw vessels, and are especially adapted to tropical travel. They have commodious promenade decks, cool and airy, well-ventilated staterooms situated on the main and hurricane decks amidships, thus insuring a minimum of sea motion. The dining saloon is located on the main deck well forward of the engine room, and removed from all disagreeable odors incident. Bathrooms are supplied with fresh or sea water and are at the disposal of passengers at all times.
The table is made an especial feature of these boats, and is supplied with every delicacy the northern and tropical markets afford.
The ships are furnished throughout with a perfect system of electric lighting and steam heating.
The stewards and waiters are unremitting in their duties and everything is done for the comfort and convenience of the passengers.”
From January 1933 to June1936, Puerto Armuelles was a port of call on the cruise ships from the California Coast. I was unable to verify any dates later than these, so I don’t know if the ships continued to come to Puerto Armuelles after 1936. The vessels that came here were: Antigua, Talamanca, and Chiriqui. The Ports of Call: Start San Francisco, Balboa. Return voyages: Balboa, Puerto Armuelles, Los Angeles, San Francisco.
After 108 years of operation, in 2007 Chiquita Brands International (the successor to United Fruit Company) sold the last 12 vessels of the famous Great White Fleet to Eastwind Maritime for $227 million, posting a profit of $100 million on the sale. Under the sale agreement, Chiquita has chartered 11 of the vessels back.
Now the Chiquita Brands shipping service is called Great White Fleet Liner Services Ltd. They still operate passenger cruises, with ports in Panama. Maybe Puerto Armuelles one day again?
To see more photos of the Great White Fleet on our Historical Photos page, click HERE
Read about potential plans to build a new cruise ship port in Puerto Armuelles HERE