United Fruit Company's Veragua as USS Merak

Banana boat is a descriptive nickname that was given to fast ships, also called banana carriers, engaged in the banana trade. They were designed to transport easily spoiled bananas rapidly from tropical growing areas to North America and Europe. They often carried passengers as well as fruit.[1][2]


Doris Turnbull in coveralls, as a passenger enjoying life on a banana boat, May 1926, Barbados to Avonmouth, England after working in Barbados. Her handwritten note at bottom reads After visit round Banana holds.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the refrigerated ships, such as SS Antigua and SS Contessa, engaged in the Central America to United States trade also operated as luxurious passenger vessels. Surplus naval vessels were converted in some cases in the search for speed with Standard Fruit converting four U.S. Navy destroyer hulls, without machinery, to the banana carriers Masaya, Matagalpa, Tabasco and Teapa in 1932.[3][4] Transfers to naval service served as transports and particularly chilled stores ships such as USS Mizar, the United Fruit passenger and banana carrier Quirigua, and the lead ship of a group that were known as the Mizar class of stores ships. Modern banana boats tend to be reefer ships or other refrigerated ships that carry cooled bananas on one leg of a voyage, then general cargo on the return leg.

1916 advertisement for the United Fruit Company Steamship Service

The large fruit companies such as Standard Fruit Company, United Fruit Company in the United States and Elders & Fyffes Shipping, which itself came under control of the United Fruit Company in 1910, in the banana trade acquired or built ships for the purpose, some strictly banana carriers and others with passenger accommodations.[3][5][6]

United Fruit operated a large fleet, advertised as The Great White Fleet, for over a century until its successor Chiquita Brands International sold the last ships in a sale with leaseback in 2007 of eight refrigerated and four container ships that transported approximately 70% of the company's bananas to North America and Europe.[7][8] At one time the fleet consisted of 100 refrigerated ships and was the world's largest private fleet with some being lent to the Central Intelligence Agency to support the attempted overthrow of the Castro regime in the Bay of Pigs landing.[9]

Travelers to and from the West Indies also used the banana boats as a form of transportation. The English cricket team that toured the West Indies in 1959–1960 used banana boats to travel across the Atlantic and between the islands.[citation needed] They were better known for bringing West Indian immigrants to Great Britain, and to say that someone came off a banana boat was a derogatory phrase used by those who objected to their arrival. It fell out of use in the 1970s, as by then most of the British African-Caribbean community had been born in the UK.

In popular culture

The term "banana boat" is perhaps best known today in the context of Harry Belafonte's 1956 hit recording "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)".


See also


  1. ^ S. Swiggum and M. Kohli (September 21, 2009). "Fruit Shipping Companies / Banana Boats". TheShipList. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  2. ^ Naval History And Heritage Command. "Recollections of Ensign Leonard W. Tate Recounting His Service in the US Navy Including the Invasion of Southern France and with SACO [Sino-American Cooperative Association] in China During World War II". Naval History And Heritage Command. Retrieved 14 September 2014.
  3. ^ a b S. Swiggum and M. Kohli (August 28, 2013). "Standard Fruit Co / Vaccaro Brothers". TheShipList. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  4. ^ Naval History and Heritage Command. "Osborne". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  5. ^ S. Swiggum and M. Kohli (November 23, 2006). "United Fruit Company". TheShipList. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  6. ^ S. Swiggum and M. Kohli (November 9, 2007). "Elders & Fyffes Shipping, Limited—Fyffes Group, Limited / Fyffes PLC—Geest Line". TheShipList. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  7. ^ Baker Library—Historical Collections. "United Fruit Company Photograph Collection, 1891–1962". Harvard University—Baker Library. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
  8. ^ TMC News (May 2, 2007). "Chiquita sells remaining Great White Fleet". Informa Maritime Trade and Transport. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
  9. ^ Chapman, Peter (May 15, 2007). "Rotten fruit". Financial Times. Retrieved 16 September 2014.