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UFCo Images

Words were not sufficient to convey the marvelous deeds of the United Fruit Company. Pictures were used to make the point more forcefully, as the truth-producing authority of the photographic medium was harnessed on behalf of U.S. business. With unrelenting visual force, these images construct the “tropics” and “backwardness” as coterminous. The UFCo, in contrast, is represented as the epitome of modernity, industry, scientific achievement, and benevolence.

Photograph from "Conquest of the Tropics," by Frederick Upham Adams (1914).

“On the edge of a tropical jungle.” Photograph from “Conquest of the Tropics,” by Frederick Upham Adams (1914).


Photograph from "Conquest of the Tropics," by Frederick Upham Adams.

“Glimpse of the interior of the S.S. Sixaola. Photograph from “Conquest of the Tropics,” by Frederick Upham Adams.


After the completion of what a cruise line brochure dubbed “Uncle Sam’s New Ten Mile Strip of Empire,” the Panama Canal Zone was marketed as having undergone a process of full Americanization.[1] Similarly, in a twenty-four page booklet created by the United Fruit Company Passenger Service, the cruise ship was shown as if it were a floating U.S. suburban country club, headed to exotic but carefully managed “tropical” locales. The brochure was organized around the tourist, featuring “Cruise Close-ups” with passengers photographing other attractive white North Americans: playing shuffle board on the deck, walking hand-in-hand in bathing suits, dancing to the music of a live band, drinking martinis and smoking cigarettes. The image above is part of a beautiful six-page spread that superimposed camera-wielding tourists shooting “the natives” shoveling coffee beans, burdened by cargo, and tying up a donkey, along with views of colonial-era churches and volcanoes. The caption read: “‘CLOSE-UP’ travel is the keynote today. And on a Great White Fleet Cruise you will see the charms and beauties of the Caribbean. Consider the scenes pictured here: A flash of the old-and-new in Havana—a grim turret on the historic sea wall of Cartagena—the velvety lawns of the Myrtle Bank Hotel, Kingston, Jamaica—agricultural scene in sunny Costa Rica—stunning cathedrals and devout Indian worshipers constitute a picturesque background for Guatemala’s famed Lake Atitlán—donkeys and youngsters are always lively subjects for your camera—the Ruins of old Panama. Rich in human interest, beauty and history—these are the lands you will visit on the Great White Fleet.” On my copy of the brochure, the map of the “Ports of the Great White Fleet” has the pencil marks of the brochure’s original owner—lines are drawn from New Orleans to Havana to Tela to Puerto Limón to the Panama Canal and back through Havana. United Fruit had not only made the tropics safe, it offered a growing North American white middle-class new ways to flaunt their spending power by jaunting through “exotic” landscapes. Kodak enabled them to return home with pictures to demonstrate how they spent their leisure time, gawking, posing next to ruins, drinking and dancing. The cruise ship and the camera, North America and the “tropics” of the Caribbean and Central America, the “natural” and the national: each became perilously intertwined as recreational space and time expanded with the racial nationalism of the United States.

[1] A brochure made by the Panama Pacific Line, cited by Paul S. Sutter, “Tropical Conquest and the Rise of the Environmental Management State: The Case of U.S. Sanitary Efforts in Panama,” in Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, ed. Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano (Madison Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 317.