St Helena musings: on diversification


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In the 1850s, St Helena's capital, Jamestown, was one of the busiest ports in the world with 1,000-1,500 ships passing through each year. East Indiamen stopping on their journey home to England, American whalers revictualling after hunting sperm whales in the Southern Ocean, and Royal Navy ships intercepting slavers making the run between West Africa and the Caribbean - and dropping the freed slaves off in St Helena to recover - all meant that Jamestown was well known in shipping circles. St Helena's private sector flourished, as a full range of services were provided to the visiting seamen and passengers.

Thirty years later, nearly all of the ships had disappeared. The island was in crisis. Large numbers of people emigrated to the Cape to find work. What happened? Several disruptive technologies hit at once. The Suez canal opened in 1869. Steam replaced sail, and quicker journey times meant that ships didn't need to stop for water. The whale population fell dramatically and gas began to replace whale oil for lighting. The slave trade ended. St Helena effectively disappeared off the map.

Lesson: while the sun is shining, by all means make hay, but build a barn and think about diversifying.


Laurence Carter

Senior Director, Public-Private Partnerships Group

Join the Conversation

Lars Uldall-Jessen
August 30, 2006

Your anecdotes on St. Helena are enjoyable reading!

I've however been wondering whether you believe St. Helena _could_ actually have prospered!? What on earth could the people of St. Helena have done to turn the tide: what barn should they have built? :-)

My own speculation: I guess one could try to make St. Helena into the Mauritius of the Atlantic if it was possible to induce large scale immigration. But I doubt any of the current St. Helenians would like the economy to grow that much, if at all?

Best wishes


Peter McB.
September 02, 2006

Like so much World Bank advice, your "lesson" is both trivially obvious and yet completely unimplementable. I think if you offer advice to people, you also have a moral responsibility to ensure it is feasible. As the previous commentator asked, Exactly what should the St. Helenans have done? If you can't provide feasible examples, then you should quit the advice-giving business.

Lars Uldall-Jessen
September 05, 2006

Peter, I don't think this blog is the right place to throw dirt at the World Bank. Particularly when it's just a n unsubstantiated claim.

Besides the fact that bank staff are presumably under strict orders not to engage in any public discussion of official bank policies, it's really your own politicians you should address. Your country probably has a substantial share of votes on the board of the World Bank, which I don't think bank employees do.

Finally, this is a blog, not even an unofficial research or policy paper, so give the man a break!

Best wishes


Per Kurowski
September 08, 2006

Please remember the golden rule… Do no harm!

Are you crazy? St Helena looks like the best place on earth. They probably never had it as good, now they do not even have to smell decomposing whale fat old day or having their ladies courted by strange sailors. These guys must now be living bliss and here you want to send them some “developers”?

I invite you to check out the only cloud on their horizon is that they seem to be getting an airport in 2010. Please don’t tell me you are helping to finance it?

Best wishes


February 20, 2007

I enjoy reading St.Helena series so much. In a way, it reminds me of Bandar Aceh (Port of Aceh), or now known as Banda Aceh. It was once also the busiest port in Indonesia, perhaps SE Asia, but what remains now is just a name. But, hopefully it will not follow St.Helena as the most aid dependent place on earth :). I believe, there are some lessons from St Helena that might be useful for other regions/countries. So, keep posting Laurence.