What were the most crucial social and cultural practices that West Indian workers in Central America drew upon to maintain their identity?
The fruit companies developed company towns with housing for their workers. In Honduras, communities such as Barrio Ingles in La Ceiba and Watertank in Tela were designed to accommodate West Indians. In these communities, there were schools modeled on the British system, Protestant churches, and gathering halls for social functions. The companies also sponsored cricket (and later baseball) leagues and other sporting events. West Indians used all of these outlets as means to reinforce their distinct identity as Caribbean subjects of the British Empire. Some West Indians also sent their children back to the Caribbean or to nearby British Honduras (Belize) for education after primary school in order to have them live in the British Caribbean. One thing that stands out in some of the oral histories collected in Honduras is that during the school year, West Indian children began each morning with singing “God Save the King/Queen.” They also learned the geography of the British Empire. In looking back on their experiences, many West Indians in Honduras who grew up in the company towns felt more connected to London, Canada, or even the United States than they did to the rest of Honduras. In terms of the mentality of many West Indians along the Caribbean coast, London was much closer than the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa.
“The UFCo ensured that its leadership remained white while bringing in intermediary groups, such as West Indians, that served as a buffer between management and manual labor.”
Could you give us a sense of the relationships between black West Indians and non-West Indians of African descent in the banana-growing regions of Central America?
The relationships between the two groups were not overwhelmingly positive. There are always exceptions, but most West Indians viewed non-West Indians as outsiders and their culture as inferior. This was especially the case with the Garifuna population. West Indians adopted similar local narratives about the Garifuna as a “savage and inferior” culture. The Garifuna were black and indigenous, Spanish-speaking, practitioners of Catholicism and/or traditional spiritual beliefs, and lived largely in coastal villages in what was deemed “primitive” conditions. West Indians were of African descent, but saw themselves as British, Christian, and “civilized.” I would argue that being West Indian or British superseded racial identity. Organizations such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had a very difficult time establishing a foothold in places like Honduras. West Indian dependence on the fruit companies and their over-association with a British identity made organizing around blackness difficult. Of course, West Indians were aware that they were of African descent, but their cultural and national origins were most important. Unfortunately, this often meant that West Indians were not often aligned with African-descent populations, or other workers in general.
How did the United Fruit Company use race and ethnicity as an instrument to maximize profits?
I think it is difficult to point to a specific UFCo policy or action that the company used race and ethnicity in a calculated way to maximize profits. By designing a labor force that placed most of the local population in unskilled, lower-paying positions, using West Indians as middlemen (making them targets of local worker discord), and maintaining white Americans or Latin American elites in upper-level positions of power, the UFCo in many ways employed a business model that predated its founding. Many models of European colonialism, particularly in Africa and Asia, employed similar tactics, in which racial and ethnic discord were used to create a class of people that managed or governed subject populations as proxies for empire. The UFCo ensured that its leadership remained white while bringing in intermediary groups, such as West Indians, that served as a buffer between management and manual labor. However, I do think that UFCo was able to maximize profits by buying influence with local governments and ensuring that economic policy and legislation in the various countries in which they operated benefitted UFCo.
The UFCo did not pay taxes. Because the UFCo owned the plantations, railroads, shipping lines, and other transportation infrastructure to move their products, almost all of the profits from their Latin American operations were going back to headquarters in the United States. The company towns were built largely based on plans by U.S.-based designers. All of the food, clothing, entertainment, and leisure items purchased by workers in the banana enclaves were produced in the United States, arrived on UFCo steamers, and were sold in UFCo-supplied and -operated stores. If anything, the UFCo was good at practicing welfare capitalism in its enclaves. However, very little of the profits ended up in local hands.