Abstract: Managing Political Risk in International Shipping: The Ocean Group in Eastern Asia and Western Africa, 1950s-1980s

Nick White


To the 1970s, Liverpool's Ocean Steam Ship Company remained the leading international shipping group in East and Southeast Asia. From the 1930s, Ocean also enjoyed a controlling interest in Elder Dempster, the leading line in West Africa. To the Second World War, the group benefitted from the certainties of colonial rule in Southeast Asia and West Africa, as well as from semi-colonial conditions in China and Egypt. A key competitive advantage for Ocean was its specialist knowledge of eastern Asia and western Africa. After 1945, however, rapid decolonization in West Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as the communist victory in China and political change in Egypt, led to the unravelling of those certainties. Attempts were made to accommodate economic nationalism. But a lack of knowledge of what might happen led to major reorientations of Ocean's business activity in attempts to manage political risk. From the mid-1960s, diversification into safer, apparently more "certain" fields became a touchstone of group strategy. Ironically, lack of specialist knowledge led to failure in several of these new departures. However, land distribution in the United Kingdom and global airfreight did succeed, and led to increasing disengagement from shipping.