blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]


It’s the economy, stupid

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

Industry was encouraged, lime burnt, Munden’s Battery erected, sugar-canes planted, bricks and tiles made, with many such undertakings which gave employment to the islanders.
John Melliss{1}, talking about the time of Governor John Roberts

St Helena has never been economically self-sufficient; but it wasn’t for the want of trying.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island People, Island Detail

Industries [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

From the first settlement of St Helena in 1659 right up to the time of writing{2} St Helena has never ‘paid its way’. The East India Company largely accepted this, seeing the strategic advantages of posession as outweighing the costs, though they still encouraged the island to support itself as much as possible. However by the time the Crown took over, in 1834, the strategic advantage was waning and in the intervening years many attempts have been made to generate self-sufficiency. We look below at many of these industries; successful and not so…

Go to: 1690: Vin de St Helena1691: Tobacco1774: Whaling1774: Dolphin Fishing1824: Silk Production1867: Cinchona1907: Lace1908: Fish Canning1914: Flax1922: Postage Stamps1984: Coins1994: Coffee Production2000: Fish ProcessingOthers21st Century: Tourism

1690: Vin de St Helena

Vin de St Helena, 1690 [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

In January 1690 several French Huguenots (Protestants), fleeing persecution at home under Louis XIV, arrived and were encorage to attempt the creation of a St Helena wine industry. The East India Company had been told tales of success in France, albeit with a little caution:

All the Vineroons that goe with him are likewise French protestants, but we must tell you the French are excellent servants if you keep them under and hold them sharply to their duty, but are apt to grow insolent and negligent if they be not held to their work as they are in France - and if you give them ear, they will not leave craving and asking, against which troublesome humour you must arm yourselves irresistibly if you expect to have any quietness with them.{a}

Their leader was a man by the name of Stephen Poirier, who was given the rank of Captain. The area chosen was in the area of Horse Pasture, though the exact location is not known. By June 1691 vineyard development was reported to be well under way and when Captain Dampier visited he was anxious to see the vinyards but prevented from doing so by poor weather.

Any yet when one Seaman Barlow, a frequent visitor, arrived in 1694 he made no mention whatsoever of the vinyards in his Journal, and they are never heard of again in the Records{3}. What happened in the intervening years?

One theory is that, with the assasination of Governor Johnston in 1693 Captain Poirier became acting Governor. Did the vineyards fail because his attentions were directed elsewhere, or had they already failed by this time? The short answer is - we don’t know. No Records{3} exist to document the industry’s fate or the reasons for its demise. Our best guess is that an unrecorded spell of wet weather wiped out the vines; the weather on St Helena is known to be prone to bad spells. Or it could be that, coming from Northern France, the Huguenots brought vines that needed an annual frost to keep them healthy, and St Helena has never experienced frost. It would be nice to know in case anyone considers trying St Helena wine again!

Two of the Huguenots are known to have remained on St Helena. Samuel Defountain founded a family of farmers, though later disgraces brought the family name into disrepute. And Captain Poirier went on to become Governor from November 1697 to September 1707.

1691: Tobacco

Tobacco cultivation [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

In 1691 the East India Company decided to turn St Helena from being supplied almost exclusively from England towards more self-sufficiency. In addition to sugar-canes, cotton and indigo, an area was set aside for growing tobacco. On maps as early as that of John Thornton, 1703 can be found an area to the east of the island entitled ‘Tobacco Valley’. It appears up to the map by R. P. Read, 1817 and then vanishes. Comparison of old and new maps suggests Tobacco Valley is now Fisher’s Valley in Longwood.

It is reported that the crop failed, due to lack of proper manuring of the soil. The industry was attempted again in 1869, but abandoned when the supplied expert from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was withdrawn.

John Melliss{1} reports:

Although in one year no less than 18,207lbs of tobacco, and 1,620lbs of cigars, upon which a high duty is levied, were imported into the Island, not a single pound of native-grown tobacco is gathered either for home consumption or for exportation.

And yet wild tobacco is reported as being harvested and locally smoked as late as the early 20th Century and the report of the (original) discovery of Louden’s Ben’s cave says that “a large quantity of island tobacco nicely done up in rolls” was found there.

More recently, during the stay of the Boer Prisoners, the industry was re-tried (again!), using the prisoners’ skills, but this did not survive their departure in 1902. With current views towards tobacco and tobacco products it is unlikely it would ever be resurrected.

1774: Whaling

Whalers [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

Whaling began off St Helena after American Independence, when British whaling fleets were forced out of the Northwest Atlantic, but the industry really took off in the 19th Century. To support this flourishing industry, Governor Robert Brooke (1878-1801) proposed the creation of a whale fishing ‘depot’ on St Helena, providing transshipment for whaling products back to Britain. Two whale species were hunted: Sperm Whales, which would yield between 25 and 90 barrels of oil per whale, and Right Whales, providing useful whale bone (a component of corsets, popular at the time). Whale oil provided fuel for lighting, lubricated machines and made soap and candles. Whale oil was also popular with watchmakers, and other precision instrument manufacturers.

In 1829, 22 whaling ships were reported as visiting St Helena: two Americans and twenty British. An attempt was made to set up a whaling company in 1837, but investors declined to participate and the share offering failed. The industry declined over the following 25 years and in 1855, although a total of 46 whaling ships called at St Helena, only three were British. The industry continued to decline and when Governor Cordeaux argued upon his arrival in 1912 that the industry should be restarted he was met with indifference. The industry was finished.

You can read more about our whaling industry on our Whaling page.

1774: Dolphin Fishing

Dolphin in the bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Dolphin in the bay{b}

Incredible as it may seem, with dolphins now not only a protected species but also part of our tourism industry, until relatively recently dolphins were hunted for meat. (The same, of course, could be said for whales.)

It seems likely that dolphins were first hunted, at least in significant numbers, by the whaling fleets. John Melliss{1} reports a whaling captain describing how “these creatures do exhibit prismatic colours immediately they are taken on board after capture”. When the whaling industry collapsed it seems local fishermen continued to hunt dolphins, in addition to their usual catch of tuna and other fish. Fishing was manual, using a hand-thrown harpoon until the 1960s when spears became common. in 1978 the Fisheries Corporation recorded the landing of 37 dolphins, though in those days it was not required that catches were sold exclusively to Fisheries, so the actual number caught would have been higher, possibly up to 200. In the 1960s dolphin meat was sold for around 6d/lb and was very popular on St Helena.

The industry did not fail, it was prohibited. Dolphin fishing became illegal in the early 1980s and the industry ceased at that time.

1824: Silk Production

Blue Silk [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Blue Silk

In June 1824 Governor Walker decided that St Helena would be a suitable place to produce silk. Silkworms were ordered from India, but they died in transit. A second batch, supplied from China by one of the Chinese workmen arrived successfully. Mulberry bushes, the intended food for the silkworms, were planted in what is now known as Mulberry Gut near Longwood, and in mid-1827 The Briars was purchased for £6,000 to be a silk farm. The Records{3} show that in early 1829 52lbs of silk had been sold in London for between 9s 9d and 18s 6d per lb. And then…

Actually we don’t know what happened next. Evidently the industry did not survive. John Melliss{1} reports that the Mulberry Trees remained but “the silkworm has long since disappeared”. No reports have been found of any other income being earned, or any further silk having been produced. It is our assumption that the project was abandoned in Governor Dallas’s time before it could become established, or when control of the island moved from the East India Company to the Crown on 2nd April 1834. An attempt was made in 1892 to re-start the industry, but this too obviously failed as there is no record of any progress.

1867: Cinchona

cinchona officinalis [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
cinchona officinalis

Cinchona was the source of an important product for the British Empire: Quinine, used to ward off malaria. In 1813 one Dr. Roxburgh, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, recommended the introduction of Cinchona plants, in four varieties (cinchona calisaya, cinchona officinalis, cinchona pahudiana and cinchona succirubra) from South America, and that the young plants be raised here for later transmission to India. This was acted upon in the time of Governor Elliot. Dr. Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew also advised the culture of Cinchona plants. Governor Elliot agreed with his plan, and a skilled gardener, J. H. Chalmers, was sent out from Kew, and Cinchona planting rapidly progressed. By the end of 1869 there were around 10,000 Cinchona plants, raised from seed and cuttings in a nursery at Plantation House then planted out at the Peaks. Plants were in all stages of growth, vigorous and in good health, with many approaching a metre in height. In December, 1869 Mr Chalmers reported:

It might seem premature to offer an opinion in respect to this, at so short a time from the commencement of the experiment, but considering the progress the plants have made, the extraordinarily long period of drought to which they were subjected during the very earliest stages of their growth, and perhaps, too, at times not the most favourable treatment resulting from inexperience on my part, I can express myself well satisfied with their present promising state.

All seemed well with significant income on the horizon, but in 1870 Governor Elliot was replaced by Governor Patey. The latter did not agree that Cinchona was the way forward for St Helena and, such was the power of a Governor in those days, he directed in December 1870 that the industry be terminated. The plantation was neglected, and soon totally abandoned. As far as we can tell none of the plants was ever harvested or shipped to India and the experiment, initially so promising, ended in failure purely due to Governor Patey. John Melliss{1} reports that in 1871 around 300 plants remained, reaching heights of 1.4m, and also that by 1874 some plants were “thriving in a way which proves that they have the right soil and climate”. Some may remain, but are likey to have been cleared as a non-endemic species.

1907: Lace

Lace making [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Lace making

After experiments from the 1890s our lace making industry took off in 1907, organised by Bishop Holbech with a Government grant of £470, supported by an enthusiastic Governor Gallwey. Ms Penderel Moody arrived in May, to be followed by Helen Girdwood in 1908, establishing the first Government Lace School, based in what is now the Post Office building. Business was initially good and while the income was not enough to balance the island’s budget (from 1912-1914 the income from sales was just over £1,500), it did provide employment for many women at a time when there were few other opportunities. Sadly, like so many other industries on this page, Government attention waned with the departure of Governor Cordeaux in March 1917 for time in the UK. When Helen Girdwood became ill and had to leave St Helena she was not replaced and the School closed. But this was not the end of lace making on St Helena.

Lace training was revived in the 1940s when Nelly & Minnie Finnigan arrived. Classes moved into the island’s schools and public library and the craft has been handed down ever since. It is not really fair to describe it as an ‘industry’ - it provides little income for the island, though perhaps if the number of tourists dramatically increases, as has been predicted to result from the advent of the St Helena Airport, it may again grow in importance.

You can read more about our lace industry on our Lace Making page. Locally-made Lace is sold at the • Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]Moonbeams Shop.

1908: Fish Canning

Emperor Brand Tuna, 2005 [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Emperor Brand Tuna, 2005

In 1908 a friend of Governor Gallwey, a millionaire by the name of Alfred Mosely CMG became interested in developing industry on St Helena. Seeing the island surrounded by an apparently inexhaustible supply of fish, he decided the island should have a canning industry where freshly-caught fish could be canned for export, bringing work and income to the island. So keen was he on his idea that, encouraged by an eager Governor Gallwey, Mr Mosely invested his own money in getting experts to review the plans and in building the canning factory and equipping it with the necessary raw materials, namely a stock of thousands of empty tins. The factory was opened on 26th February 1909.

Nothing could go wrong…but it did. Inexplicably (unless you believe in Napoleon’s Curse) the fish did not appear. According to Gosse, normally in plentiful supply, for the next ten months catches of mackerel, the target fish, were almost non-existent, and certainly far below what was needed for a viable industry. To this day nobody has explained why the fish failed to appear{4}, though local rumour had it that it was caused by a comet which passed over at the time the factory was opened. The factory sat idle until early in 1910 it was closed down and the project abandoned.

Two other fish processing attempts failed in the 20th Century. Ovenstones started a fish factory on 21st December 1956, but it closed in November 1957. Then Frank Robb & Associates St Helena Island (FRASHI) got a licence to open one on 2nd March 1965, but it too failed.

A tuna canning industry did start on St Helena in 1984, based in Rupert’s Valley and using the ‘Salmon process’, where a solid piece of fish is cooked in the tin. Indeed, the new factory apparently used Mosely’s original equipment! ‘Emperor Brand Tuna’ was a moderately successful export, but the factory was closed in February 2012 when the costs of complying with new food hygeine regulations made the business unviable.

1914: Flax

Flax processing [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Flax processing{c}

After a few false starts from 1874 onwards, the island’s flax industry really took off with the demand for rope and fibre due to World War 1 (‘The Great War’). It proceeded successfully, providing work for many and a reasonable income for the three industry owning families. At its peak flax covered over 12,000Km² of land and the industry directly employed 300 to 400 people.

However after World War 2 the industry fell into decline, partly because of competition from synthetic fibres, but partly because the delivered price of the island’s flax was, due to processing and shipping costs, substantially higher than world prices. Mills elsewhere in the world had automated the process by 1930; however the Government of St Helena imposed financial penalties on any mill owner who employed labour-saving techniques. The machinery in use here in 1965 was the same as that designed in New Zealand in 1900. The decision by the British Post Office in 1965 to switch to using synthetic fibres and the removal of the £5 per ton Government of St Helena subsidy dealt the final blow. Within the year the island’s flax mills closed, the last closing in 1966. The 54-year boom was over.

The full story of St Helena’s flax industry is told on our The Flax Industry page.

1922: Postage Stamps

1912-16 pictorials [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
1912-16 pictorials

St Helena’s first postage stamps were issued in 1856, and from the beginning our issued stamps were of interest to collectors worldwide. It was not realised at first that income could be earned from this. The sale of stamps was discovered to exceed that required for transmission of letters and packets, the balance being the demands of philatelists. The first pictorial stamps were issued in 1903 but it was the 1922 pictorials, designed by Thomas R. Bruce{5} that first really excited the collectors and that design remained on sale for the next 15 years.

The first true commemorative set wasn’t issued until 1934, celebrating a century of Crown rule. These were also considered very collectable and commemoratives have been issued ever since. Currently the St Helena Post Office issues around 6 sets per year, though since 2012 worldwide philatelic sales are now handled by agents in the UK due to the transport issues associated with shipping from St Helena. You can buy St Helena stamps online from the St Helena Post Office Philately Sales website. Stamps are often bought by cruise ship visitors - they are small and easily transported.

With the introduction of the Internet and email sales of stamps for the transmission of letters and packets is in decline, but sales to collectors seem to be robust.

You can read more about our postage stamps and postal history on our Postage Stamps page.

1984: Coins

Island coins, 1984 [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Island coins, 1984

In the 1970s, inspired by the income earned from Postage Stamps it was suggested that, if St Helena had its own currency, money could be made by selling coin sets to numismatists. The new currency would be the St Helena Pound, ISO code ‘SHP’, and would be linked 1:1 with the British Pound, GBP. The passage of the Currency Fund Ordinance of 1975 and the Currency Regulations of 1976 established a currency board and the new St Helena pound became legal tender. The first St Helena banknotes were issued on 2nd February 1976 and the first coins were issued on 3rd January 1984.

Income was indeed earned from numismatists, though as with the Postage Stamps the returns made very little impact on St Helena’s budget. Income from the Currency Fund averaged £191,000 for the period 2006/07 to 2012/13 and, once costs were deducted for printing notes, minting coins and investment management charges, the averaged net income was £99,000 a year.

Recently the decision has been questioned. it has been pointed out that the income from coin sales goes to the Government of St Helena, but individuals and businesses on St Helena incur costs converting SHP into GBP to pay for goods and services sourced from overseas. It has been suggested that these costs may approach, or even exceed the profit gained, resulting in a net negative impact on the economy. At the time of writing{2} this is still under review.

You can read more about our notes and coins and monetary history on our Notes and Coins of St Helena page and the article ‘St Helena’s Forgotten Currency Board(28.2Kb) may also be of interest.

1994: Coffee Production

Coffee production [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Coffee production

Coffee was first introduced to St Helena in 1733 when Green Tipped Bourbon Coffee seeds were brought from Mocha in Yemen. It was grown only for local consumption until Napoleon praised it (“The only good thing about St Helena is the coffee”) during his exile here. St Helena grown beans were sent to London and caused a small sensation, based largely on Napoleon’s endorsement, and by 1845 it was selling in London at 1d per pound (about £24/Kg at today’s prices{6}). In 1851 it won a Premiere Award at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Any yet, in the following years export seems to have stopped. The 1900 accounts do not mention coffee production or any income from it.

The industry was revived in 1994 when David Henry, a Saint previously living in the UK, returned with plans to grow St Helena coffee in exportable quantities, using his contacts in the world coffee industry to secure overseas sales. As part of this initiatve grants were offered by the Government of St Helena for others to set up coffee growing, and several new producers joined the market in the following years.

David himself ran into difficulties with his business and left St Helena, but other producers continued. In August 2015 it went on sale in Harrods (London). Volumes remain small and the income earned does not come anywhere near to funding St Helena, but it does generate an income for the producers and employment for coffee pickers and others.

You can read more about our coffee production on our St Helena Coffee page.

2000: Fish Processing

Argos Atlantic [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]
Argos Atlantic

In June 1998 an agreement was signed by the Government of St Helena whereby a new company, Argos Atlantic Cold Store Ltd., initially funded from the UK, would begin processing fish for export at a new purpose-built facility in Rupert’s. Argos would not provide its own fishing vessels, it would purchase catches from the local fleet. Exported fish would be shipped via the RMS St Helena to Vigo in Northern Spain to be marketed and distributed. The facility was officially opened on 29th February 2000.

As with so many others on this page, initial results were promising. Argos seemed able to take all the island’s catch and more. The fishing industry expanded with the addition of offshore boats, including the Portzic and Atlantic Rose. Income to the Government of St Helena budget was significant, though not vast. But towards the end of the decade problems began to appear. The loss of the offshore fleet seriously reduced catches, and the rising cost of fuel set against static prices for exported fish on the world market made operation marginal, and for some fishermen un-viable. The Government of St Helena purchased its own fishing vessel, the MV Extractor, in December 2013, but this suffered operational difficulties. Other vessels joined the fleet but catches remained depressed. Argos itself brought in an experimental vessel in 2014 but it could not rescue the situation and in 2015 Argos Atlantic announced that it would not renew its agreement with the Government of St Helena, which would expire on 26th April, and the facility would close. The Government of St Helena purchased the fish processing plant from Argos to continue processing fish for local consumption but none is now exported.


We have only snippits of information about these. If you can tell us more please contact us.

  • In 1907 a concession was granted to James Morrison & Co. to work manganese and guano deposits.

  • Potatoes and pears were grown in 1909, for export to the UK.

  • In June 1921 cotton was planted on Prosperous Bay Plain. Occasional stray cotton bushes can be seen in Half Tree Hollow but none remained on Prosperous Bay Plain even before they started building the Airport.

  • The first Cruise Ship called on 19th February 1930. Ships have called ever since but in insufficient numbers to generate significant income for the island, though local merchants and souvenir makers do benefit.

  • An attempt was made in April 1933 to start a lobster fishing industry.

  • In 1937 a failed attempt was made to grow for export Potatoes, Geranium Oil, Roman Hyacinths, Lavender and Olives.

  • A note in the Records{3} for November 1940 reports a record export of 64,000 Lily bulbs - presumably the Arum Lily zantedeschia aethiopica. We can find no other references to this industry, but 64,000 bulbs suggests it was a substantial one, but again there is no trace of it today.

  • In March 1981 the News Review reported that Solomon’s was exporting wool: “The wool was successfully pressed into 16 bales each weighing nearly 3cwt. This is the fourth year that Solomons have shipped wool acting as brokers for others on the Island with unwanted wool”. We don’t what happened next but wool is no longer exported from St Helena.

  • Coconuts used to grow on St Helena in Jamestown and in Sandy Bay, but gradually died out. They were tried again in Rupert’s in the 1980s. In December 1985 the News Review reported that the RMS had brought a crate of 100 coconut seed nuts, which had been planted in a seed bed on Mr Robert Maggot’s property, to be “carefully looked after and protected from pests such as white ants”. Once sufficiently developed they would be transplanted to “various sites down the valley”. Apparently they survived but in 2002 the trees were reported to “require attention” and there is no report of them since. As far as we know there are now no coconuts growing on St Helena. More on our Rupert’s page. Incidentally, we may no longer have coconuts, but Coconut Fingers are very popular!

  • It is sometimes said that Whiteweed austroeupatorium inulifolium, an invasive weed, was originally brought here to make perfume, but this story does not seem to make sense. The Wikipeda doesn’t list perfume making as one of Whiteweed’s (few) uses, and none of the histories or Records{3} lists any attempt to start a perfume-production industry here. We prefer the theory the Whiteweed simply migrated here, with seed carried on ships from South America. But if you know otherwise please contact us.

21st Century: Tourism

Fly Here [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

At present St Helena is trying to develop a significant Tourist Industry. Of course, tourists have been coming here since the island was discovered, and the first Cruise Ship called on 19th February 1930, but now the plan is to make the island self-sufficient due to income gained from ‘high-value, low-volume’ tourists. To facilitate this the UK Government spent £285m building St Helena Airport, attracted by projections{7} that this could deliver up to 30,000 tourists per annum within fifteen years of the airport opening.

The island has been developing towards this opportunity since the first airport announcement in 2005. Accommodation has and is being built; customer services training has been undertaken; tourist facilities (including signposting) have been improved; even food hygeine regulations have been tightened.

At the time of writing{2}, as the airport, although open, is not yet servicing Scheduled Flights it is far too soon to comment on the extent to which this predicted boom will be realised.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

Laugh at funny industries humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]

In case you don’t remember, our subtitle, “It’s the economy, stupid” is a common variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid”, which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H. W. Bush.


{a} TheRecords{3}.

{b} Robyn Sim

{c} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{8}.{9}


{1} In ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875.

{2} W/c 15th May 2017.

{3} The St Helena Records is a collection of documents dating back to the earliest days of St Helena, held in the Government of St Helena Archives. The Archives can be accessed in person or via email - see our Family And Friends page for more. You can search our events database, extracted from the Records and other sources, on our Chronology page.

{4} We checked, and it wasn’t an El Niño year. Wikipedia says “A study of climate records has shown that El Niño events in the equatorial Pacific are generally associated with a warm tropical North Atlantic in the following spring and summer” but the preceding El Niño was in 1906 so this cannot be relevant.

{5} He was postmaster 1898-1928 and also painted “The ‘Rollers’ of 1846”, from an earlier sketch by an unknown artist. He was the grandfather of Ian Bruce.

{6} Source:

{7} Atkins, St Helena Access Feasibility Study, 2005.

{8} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged

{9} The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™


• PAGE SEARCH: Type search word(s) and click ‘Search’:



Take Me Anywhere But Here!

PLEASE NOTE: We actively encourage others to quote from this site. Please see our Link To Us page for more.

Got a question about St Helena? We’ve already answered many common questions on our ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ page, including:  but if your question isn’t covered please contact us.

This site is sponsored by the • Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:Industries]Moonbeams Shop, selling cards, gifts & souvenirs in Jamestown, St Helena.


Please note that content featured below is not provided by Saint Helena Island Info,
and will only work if JavaScript is enabled in your browser.