The Fish that Ate the Whale

Have you ever read a biography of someone you have never heard of? I think this may be my first. I’ve often thought it was the whole point of a biography; to see someone or something that you admire, and want to know how it happened to be. The tales of Adam SmithCornelius Vanderbilt and Facebook come to mind. But the life of Sam Zemurray, the proverbial fish of this book’s title, is incredible even without prior knowledge. If not for his stunning role in bringing bananas to all of our diets, or his outsized impact on South America, his story of rags to riches deserves to be told for the other lessons. And one in particular.


“Zemurray’s life is a parable of the American dream – not history as recorded in textbooks, but the authentic cask-strength version, a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works.”


The story starts with Sam Zemurray, a penniless Russian immigrant, and his discovery of bananas – posited in numerous fantastical ways. It may sound strange to a modern reader, but bananas weren’t always common, they weren’t destined for smoothies. As a penniless Russian immigrant he had never seen or tasted a banana. And even in the new world, they were hardly a staple. He started small, buying the “waste” bananas of bigger companies, transporting and selling them for a small profit. His bunches became thousands, hundreds of thousands and then millions. Soon there were ships and plantations, railroads and soldiers. He funded a coup and took on the US Government, ran weapons and hired famous mercenaries. Along the way Zemurray and his business grew from something like a fruit-based arbitrage to a vertically integrated behemoth, and he brought the lowly banana along for the ride.


“It was the worldview of the immigrant: understanding how so-called garbage might be valued under a different name, seeing nutrition where others saw only waste.”


Reading some of the other reviews of this book, a lot of the emphasis is placed on these, more fantastic aspects of Zemurray’s story. How he once owned most of Guatemala and fantastically took the helm of United Fruit – the proverbial whale – in a thrilling boardroom coup. But for me the big lesson is the fundamental aspect of Zemurray’s business: it was built on controlling waste and cost. Nowadays we like to glorify the people who think big and loud, want to fashion their world through grand visions, think Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Zemurray offers a competing path to success, one that is less flashy but also less flash in the pan. He picked the low hanging fruit, literally. His secret sauce wasn’t a new boat that could carry more bananas or carry them faster, it was good old fashioned stinginess.


“Selling hundreds of thousands of bananas a year, he’d become one of the biggest traffickers in the trade. And he’d done it without having to incur the traditional costs. His fruit was grown for him, harvested, and shipped for free.”


Seizing the value of ripe fruit is an amazing innovation. It’s what allowed him not only to profit from, but compete with and eventually subsume his competition. The larger, less nimble corporations were not able to recognise what was laying in their laps. And it’s something we can all learn from: most of us don’t have the skills to create a killer app, the nous to build a rocket or the eye to demand design perfection, but we can all take a look around us to see what’s been wasted. Four stars.
Title – The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
Author: Rich Cohen
Pages: 269 (Hardback)
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link – The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King