The systemic complications of homozygous sickle cell disease (SS) are more severe than in sickle cell haemoglobin C (SC) disease, and yet visual loss due to proliferative retinopathy is more common in the latter. This anomaly is unexplained. It is believed that proliferative disease occurs in response to closure of the peripheral retinal vasculature, yet a systematic longitudinal survey of the peripheral retinal vascular bed has not been undertaken. In the Jamaica Sickle Cohort study all subjects are scheduled to receive annual ocular examination and fluorescein angiography. The results have now been analysed in subjects with SS and SC disease using a new classification system based on a comparison of the peripheral retinal vascular bed with that recorded in the cohort with normal haemoglobin (AA) genotype. The vascular patterns could be classified as qualitatively normal (type I) or abnormal (type II). An abnormal vascular pattern was identified more commonly with age, in a significantly larger proportion of subjects with SC than SS disease, and was associated with the development of proliferative disease. In order to establish the dynamics of change, the angiograms were analysed in the 18 subjects (24 eyes) who developed proliferative disease. It is shown that a qualitatively normal vascular pattern may be retained despite loss of capillary bed and posterior displacement of the vascular border. A border which is qualitatively abnormal does not revert to normal, and once abnormal, continuous evolution may occur before development of proliferative lesions. The peripheral border of the retinal vasculature was too peripheral to photographed in 13 of the 24 eyes before it becoming qualitatively abnormal. It is concluded that a normal border, if posterior, results from gradual modification of the capillary bed and indicates low risk of proliferative disease. A qualitatively abnormal vascular border occurs as a radical alteration of retinal perfusion in subjects in whom little modification of the vascular bed occurred before the event, and signals risk of proliferative disease. This classification system is useful in identifying the likelihood of threat to vision in young Jamaicans with sickle cell disease, and the higher frequency of proliferative retinopathy in SC can be explained by the higher prevalence of a qualitatively abnormal peripheral retinal vasculature.