United Fruit Company: the Great White Fleet


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.


Puerto Armuelles is one of the ports.

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:

Great White Fleet 1933“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.


www.visitpuertoarmuelles.comAfter 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

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  1. K. Cuthbertson

    Can you tell me if the United Fruit Company’s Great White Fleet has an archive? I am interested in information on the first officer aboard a ship called the Turrialba back in 1918. The ship ran between Jamaica and New York City.

    Ideally, I would like to find a photo of the first officer — F.E. Wyatt. Is there a photographic archive of Great White Fleet images?

    Any information you can provide will be much appreciated. Thank you.

  2. Anne Maddox

    I have some scanned copies of the cruise schedules and the name lists of a few cruises my great grandparents went on. I can email them to you if you want.

    1. admin (Post author)

      That would be amazing Anne! Please email them to Editor@visitPuertoArmuelles.com Thanks so Much! Debbie

  3. Reidar Bornholdt

    My father (Eivind Bornholdt) was a shipmaster with the Fruit Company from 1924 through 1960.
    He was captain of the (in no particular order) the Limon, Quirigua, Heredia, Comayagua, others before I was born(1940). I spent a wonderful summer vacation in 1953 in Puerto Armuelles with Maurice and Emily Bostick. Can youhelp me with any information about my father, the Bosticks, The Davis family, or any of my father’s ships? Anything would be gratefully received.

    1. admin (Post author)

      I will ask a few of the old timers and email you if I hear anything.

      Do you have any old photos you’d like to share from the summer visit?

      1. Reidar Bornholdt

        Alas, I didn’t have a camera.

  4. Mike MacCrae

    I am interested in finding out if there are any records of two of my relatives (and possibly three) who were captains of any of the Great White Fleet ships of the united Fruit Company. Their names were:

    1. Captain George Bingay McCrae/McCray who captained between 1899 and 1905
    2. Captain Alexander McCrae who captained somewhere between 1915 and 1945
    3. Captain Clare McCrae who captained between 1935 and 1960

    1. admin (Post author)

      Hola Mike,

      Hopefully, someone who knows something will see this post and respond. I will ask a few old folks in town also and send you any info I come across.

  5. Steve Rebelowski

    My father was 1st engineer on the Talamanka after WWII until around 1960, then Ship Test Organization for submarines, then nuclear engineer on the N.S. Savannah for many years. Then retired from NRC as power plant inspector.

    1. admin (Post author)

      We’d love to hear any stories he remembers about Puerto, or photos 🙂

      Contact me at Debbie@visitPuertoArmuelles.com

  6. Helen Brohl

    You may want to talk with the historian with the Maritime Administration who may have records of the ships wich were U.S. flagged and, perhaps, the crews. https://www.maritime.dot.gov/outreach/history/united-states-merchant-marine-research-guide

    1. admin (Post author)

      Thank you for the information!

  7. Bonnie Pearson

    My father George Zahniser, was captain of the USS Metapan which was one of the smaller ships doing tourist bookings as well as refrigerated shipping of bananas. The army charted the ship as refrigerated storage during the Vietnam war and he sat in Cam Ran (sp?) Bay around 1963 for about 13 months. He retired shortly after that. He had served the company since about 1946.

    1. admin (Post author)

      That’s interesting. Do you happen to have any old photos you could scan and send me? Editor@visitPuertoArmuelles.com

  8. Brian Jones

    Hello – Landed on this page while trying to clarify confusing information on a passenger list for the ship Jamaica from 1951.
    This particular list shows that all the passengers on this list embarked from New York on 6-25-1951 and arrived back to New York 14 days later on 07-09-1951. I am pretty sure the person I am tracking went to Cuba and back because he had regularly been working there as a piano teacher since 1928. What I find interesting about this is the passenger list almost makes it look like the passenger didn’t leave the USA at all – having embarked and disembarked from the same port. I reality the passengers most likely disembarked in Havana, spent some time there and then returned to NYC. Makes me wonder if the some of the passengers slept on board the ship during their visit to Havana while the ship was being loaded up with fruit. Do you have any insight into this?
    Here’s the link to the passenger list in question: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L94K-V99J-W?view=index&action=view

    1. admin (Post author)

      I really don’t know about this, but one of my readers might possibly.

    2. admin (Post author)

      I don’t know the answer to that, but possibly one of my readers does.


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