Over the last 100 years or so, the role of the port of Gulfport has moved from the export of yellow pine lumber to the import of green stalk bananas, with the port now ranking only behind Wilmington, Delaware, in total tonnage brought ashore each year. I’ve read a spate of interesting books lately about the provenance of basic commodities that we take for granted: salt, sugar, coffee, pepper, etc.; to this list I would add the banana, although I’m sure that book has also already been written.
When I was a kid, I used to buy bananas off the bum boats tied along the sea wall in Guantanamo City, Cuba, before Castro isolated the naval base from the town. To be clear, there were no “bums” on the boats – it’s just a term for the hardworking, itinerate waterborne traders that you saw all over the world, hawking their wares to sailors with time on their hands and money in their pockets. Looking around the spare bedroom that my wife graciously lets me call my “office,” I can see several such purchases from long ago: a small statue of Nefertiti from Alexandria, Egypt; a boomerang from Perth, Australia; a family of gilded, nesting ducks from Hong Kong, etc.
A few years after that stop in Gitmo, when my destroyer was deployed to the Mediterranean, I remember being on a working party that was unloading bananas during an underway replenishment. Carried on Navy refrigerated reefer ships, fresh foods are sometimes transferred to other ships by helicopter, slung beneath them in cargo nets and deposited on the receiving ship’s helo deck, or more often in the case of “small boys” like destroyers, transferred ship to ship via high line. Normally, sailors tried to avoid working parties, because they were just extra duty; but one unloading fresh foods, especially fruit, was an exception. Everybody wanted in on the fun. We had been underway for several weeks, and anything fresh to eat was at a premium. Several of my shipmates and I almost got sick, eating so many filched bananas and guzzling carton after carton of frozen, reconstituted dried milk that was procured in Germany. It sounds disgusting, but you had to be there.
One of my first published poems, printed in a literary magazine put out by the University of South Dakota, was entitled “Gulfport 1942.” I thought it was a wonderful poem at the time, but now, sixty years later, it seems shallow but pretentious, and I wonder what kind of nightmare I was having to come up with some of the imagery.
sand ashore in
between the hotels
marinas and forty
foot pools of the
red philistine despots
to the ten
Beside the blue
water they piled
a bazaar to
suits to the
thieves who stripped
freighters and brought
spiders ashore in
Me and Lenny
ditches for a
dollar a day but
machine pukes them
up for six bits
a yard and
dances the mystery
for the black slag
hump the cross
ties together for a
path through the
marshes and Lenny’s
left where he fell
by the fire
in his eyes.
Obviously, I needed an intervention, but I was on to something regarding the bananas. While some political naysayers would claim that America is being turned into a “banana republic,” we are a republic that consumes a lot of bananas. More than 100 billion bananas are eaten each year worldwide, and Americans do their part by eating an average of 27 pounds per person every year. That’s equivalent to about 90 bananas. Bananas are popular because they are good for you, filling, and cheap. While you can expect to pay at least a dollar for a single large apple in the supermarket today, the price of bananas has remained relatively stable. In 2021, as the current inflationary price spiral began, the retail price of one pound of bananas in the United States increased slightly compared to the year before and registered at 62 cents. Prices have hovered around 58 cents per pound for the past 7 years, although you often seen them advertised cheaper as “loss leaders” to lure you into the grocery store. Bananas are one of the top sellers in American produce, comprising about 10% of produce department sales and about 1% of overall grocery sales.
While the present Port of Gulfport was officially established in 1902, the city was already considered a boom town in 1898 with the construction of the railroad and the deepening of the port. It was founded by William Hardy, the president of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad and considered to be the founder of Hattiesburg, as a site to export South Mississippi’s lumber products. Because of its strategic location, mariners had already seen this area of the Gulf of Mexico as an important destination for more than 300 years. For example, as far back as 1699, the French explorer, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, the founder of Biloxi, used the natural basin on the lee (downwind) side of Ship Island as a safe anchorage. Within its first decade of operation, the port of Gulfport became the world’s largest exporter of yellow pine, although this trade had been going on since Civil War days.
With the clear-cutting of the virgin pines, the lumber industry played out and the port began to look for another “raison d’etre.” Forward thinkers had long thought, because of its proximity to the tropical fruit growing areas of Central America and access to deep water, Gulfport would make an ideal fruit port. At the time, in the early 1920s, New Orleans was the imaginary U.S. “Banana Capital,” but some Gulfport businessmen formed a company, the Gulfport Fruit and Steam Co., to import bananas from Mexico, and the competition was on. New Orleans based Standard Fruit, however, had such a monopoly on the business that not much success was achieved. There was some banana activity at the port during the Depression, but it wasn’t until 1963 when Governor Ross “Over My Dead Body” Barnett dedicated a $2.5 million banana terminal, declaring: “This is an investment that will pay for itself many times.”
A year later, the German freighter, SS Angelburg, arrived with 80,000 boxes of bananas, the largest shipment up to that time. Soon afterward, Standard Fruit, with its “Dole” brand, and United Fruit, with its “Chiquita” brand, left New Orleans for Gulfport. Although there have been a few hiccups since then, primarily because of hurricane damage and/or economic downturns, the port is now the second largest importer of green fruit in the nation, including bananas and pineapples, the third largest container port on the Gulf, and among the top 20 U.S. container ports overall. Today, if you stood by the intersection of Highway 49 North and Interstate 59 and knew what to look for, you would see many trailer trucks heading north to distribute their cargo of bananas and other fruits throughout the Mississippi Valley and points beyond.
When I got out of the Navy and moved to Lake Serene, I learned that my next-door neighbor was a retired banana executive who had spent his career in the importation and distribution of the fruit. He was an older man, somewhat of a curmudgeon, who didn’t suffer fools lightly, but he was always happy to talk about bananas. I learned a lot from him. Did you know, for example: there are more than 400 kinds of bananas in existence; that bananas were first introduced to the Western world when Alexander the Great discovered them during his conquest of India in 327 B.C.; or that bananas were first brought to the United States in 1876, for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition?
How about this? The original bananas from south-east Asia were small, about as long as an adult’s finger. This led to traders giving them the Arabic name for finger, “banan.” A banana is also a member of the herb family, related to palms, lilies, and orchids; and did you know that your banana has been “gassed?” It has. If you eat a banana in a so-called “developed” country, it has normally been picked green and then placed in a “ripening room” and subjected to ethylene gas for at least 12 hours before being shipped to the consumer. I remember Harry Belafonte’s song from 1956, “Banana Boat (Day O),” where he sang about the plight of field workers in Jamaica:
Lift six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch
(Daylight come and we want to go home)
A beautiful bunch of ripe banana
(Daylight come and we want to go home)
Hide the deadly black tarantula
(Daylight come and we want to go home)
I was thinking about tarantulas in the bananas in my poem, “Gulfport 1942,” above, but you wouldn’t have to worry today because the bananas (and the spiders) have been gassed before they get to your table. As far as that goes, tarantulas get a bad name. They give some people the creeps because of their large, hairy bodies and legs. They will bite you, but they are generally harmless to humans, and their mild venom is weaker than that of a typical honeybee. They are nasty looking, though, and they naturally don’t like each other. When I was in the Marines, we used to catch them at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, when they came out of their holes at night. They also like to crawl into your boots, but if I had to choose, I’d rather have one in my shoe than a scorpion.
Some experts say that bananas face a more existential threat than spiders who might hitch a ride. Just like humans, bananas are facing a pandemic and could go extinct within 10 years. Nearly all the bananas sold globally are of just one variety – the Cavendish, so named because it was developed on the estate of William Cavendish, 6th Earl of Devonshire, who in 1834 received a shipment of bananas from Mauritius. His head gardener genetically cultivated them in the Earl’s English greenhouse. They became popular in the 1950s when disease decimated the then commercially dominant banana, the “Gros Michel,” or the Big Mike. Unfortunately, the Cavendish has now become susceptible to the same deadly fungus which brought down the better tasting Big Mike - “Tropical Race 4 (TR4),” or the “Panama Disease.” If the spread of this disease is not stopped, or if a “cure” is not found soon, TR4 could wipe out the entire $25 billion banana industry. After many years of attempting to keep it out of the Americas, in the middle of 2021, the TR4 fungus was discovered on banana farms in the coastal Caribbean region. With no fungicide effective against TR4, the Cavendish may meet the same fate as the Gros Michel. And then – yes, we have no bananas.
Wrapping up, I now have this yellow imagery regarding Gulfport bouncing around in my brain: yellow pine, yellow bananas, its neighboring Ship Island’s role as a turn of the century yellow fever quarantine station – the power of suggestion. I think I’ll go and eat a banana before it’s too late.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.