Ascension Island

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Ascension Island

St Helena, Ascension
and Tristan da Cunha

Georgetown in the distance.jpg
View down to Georgetown, Ascension Island

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Location: 7°55’60"S, 14°25’0"W
Area: 34 sq miles
Population: 940
Ascension Island

Ascension Island is an isolated volcanic island of 34 square miles lying in the equatorial waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the British overseas territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Ascension lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge some 994 from the coast of Africa, and 1,398 miles from the coast of South America, and 800 miles from St Helena which lies away to the southeast.

The Island takes its name from the day of its recorded discovery, Ascension Day. Ascension Island was garrisoned by the British Admiralty on 22 October 1815. Historically, it has played a role as an important safe haven and coaling station to mariners and for commercial airliners during the days of international air travel by flying boats and during Second World War was an important naval and air station, especially providing antisubmarine warfare bases in the Battle of the Atlantic and throughout the war.

The island is the location of Wideawake Airfield, a joint facility of the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force and of the BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station. The island was used extensively by the British military during the Falklands War. Ascension Island hosts one of five ground antennas (others are on Kwajalein Island, Diego Garcia, Colorado Springs and Hawaii) that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigational system.

Geography and ecology

Comfortless Cove
Lava fields

The main island has an area of approximately 35 square miles. A volcanic peak rising from just west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, much of the island is a wasteland of lava flows and cinder cones; no fewer than forty-four distinct craters have been identified.

The island originally had its own native flora until Portuguese explorers released goats in the 1500s which ate much of it. The later introduction of rabbits, sheep, rats and donkeys, and over 200 imported species further marginalized the original flora. [1]

By 1843 the island was barren with few plants. However, due to the introduction of species by the British, Ascension Island's Green Mountain is now one of the few large-scale planned forests, and is gradually growing with each year. Its highest point is at 2,817  feet.

Off the east coast of Ascension is the tiny island of Boatswain Bird Island. It is a haven for sea birds, to get away from the rats, cats and people that came to Ascension Island from Europe and Africa. Following a successful campaign headed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the main island was in 2006 declared free of feral cats, and sea birds are now once again nesting on Ascension Island.

Ascension's climate is tropical, with temperatures at the coast ranging from about 20–31 ° C, and about 5 ºC cooler at the highest point. Rain showers may occur at any time during the year, but tend to be heavier between January and April.

Flora and fauna

Black volcanic rocks

The endemic flora includes plants like Pteris adscensionis, Asplenium ascensionis, Euphorbia origanoides as well as the extinct species Oldenlandia adscenionis, Sporobolus durus and Dryopteris ascensionis.

In June 2005 the first National Park on Ascension Island, the Green Mountain National Park, was opened. Non-indigenous plants teem there, and the crown of Green Mountain is a lush halo of bamboo. Flanking one side is a large stand of tall Norfolk pine, trees planted by British mariners, which were to have been used as replacement masts for sailing ships.

A few wild flowers narrowly abound such as periwinkle; cactus is present with land crabs in several large colonies near the sea and mountains. Prosopis juliflora, or the Mexican Thorn, is an introduced species which has thrived on the barren lava of the island in recent years; however, its spread has been destructive to other species, and current encroachment on the edges of beaches threatens those that utilize this space, such as the green turtle.[2]

The protected green turtle is perhaps the most notable of the endemic fauna, coming ashore to lay their eggs on the beaches from November to May. Sooty Terns or "Wideawake Birds" nest in great seashore lava "fairs". Other seabirds include some types of boobies, petrels and tropicbirds (named boatswain birds by the inhabitants of the island), White Tern, Brown Noddy, Black Noddy and Ascension Frigatebird. The Ascension Flightless Crake became extinct around the beginning of the 19th century. Following the eradication of feral cats from the island, several species of seabird previously confined to Boatswain Bird Island are making a return to the main island.[3]

On land are found such non-native birds such as canaries, francolins, mynas, sparrows, and waxbills. A variety of mammals have been introduced: donkey, sheep, cats and rats among others. Reptiles consist of two species of lizards. In summer, flies are known to be problematic.

Offshore, there is a variety of open-ocean fish, including sharks, wahoo, tuna, bonito, barracuda, marlin, blackfish and sailfish.


Ascension forms part of the Diocese of St Helena in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

  • St Mary's Church, Georgetown


João da Nova

The Spanish explorer João da Nova, sailing for Portugal, is believed to be the first to discover the island (in 1501), but he did not report it. When in 1503 Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese navigator sighted the island on Ascension Day in the church calendar, he named it for that day. Dry and barren, it had little appeal for passing ships except for collecting fresh meat. Mariners could hunt for the numerous seabirds and the enormous female green turtles that laid their eggs on the sandy beaches. The Portuguese also introduced goats, as a source of meat for future mariners.

In February 1701, HMS Roebuck, commanded by William Dampier, sank in the common anchoring spot in Clarence Bay to the northwest of the island. Some sixty men survived for two months until they were rescued. Almost certainly, after a few days they found the strong water spring in the high interior of the island, in what is now called Breakneck Valley (there is a much smaller water source, lower on the mountain, which was named Dampier's Drip by people who probably misinterpreted Dampier's story).[4]

It is possible that the island was sometimes used as an open prison for criminal mariners, although there is only one documented case of such an exile, a Dutch ship's officer, Leendert Hasenbosch, who was set ashore at Clarence Bay as a punishment for sodomy in May 1725. The Dutchman's tent, belongings and diary were found by British mariners in January 1726; the man had probably died of thirst.

Ascension Island was first inhabited in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I on St Helena to the southeast. On 22 October the Cruizer class brig-sloops Zenobia and Peruvian claimed the island for His Britannic Majesty King George III. The Royal Navy officially designated the island as a stone frigate, “HMS Ascension", with the classification of "Sloop of War of the smaller class".

The location of the island made it a useful stopping point for ships and communications. The Royal Navy used the island as a victualling station for ships, particularly those of the West Africa Squadron working against the slave trade. A garrison of Royal Marines was based at Ascension from 1823.

In 1836 the Beagle voyage visited Ascension. Charles Darwin described it as an arid treeless island, with nothing growing near the coast. Sparse vegetation inland supported "about six hundred sheep, many goats, a few cows & horses," and large numbers of guineafowl imported from the Cape Verde islands, as well as rats, mice and land crabs; he agreed with the saying attributed to the people of St Helena that "We know we live on a rock, but the poor people at Ascension live on a cinder". He noted the care taken to sustain "houses, gardens & fields placed near the summit of the central mountain", and cisterns at the road side to provide good drinking water. The springs were carefully managed, "so that a single drop of water may not be lost: indeed the whole island may be compared to a huge ship kept in first-rate order." In commenting on this, he noted René Primevère Lesson's remark "that the English nation alone would have thought of making the island of Ascension a productive spot; any other people would have held it as a mere fortress in the ocean."[5]

In 1843, botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker visited the island. Four years later, Hooker, with much encouragement from Darwin, advised the Royal Navy that with the help of Kew Gardens, they should institute a long term plan of shipping trees to Ascension. The planted trees would capture more rain and improve the soil, allowing the barren island to become a garden. So, from 1850 and continuing year on year, ships came each depositing a varied assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Argentina, Europe and South Africa. By the late 1870s, Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, bamboo, and banana trees were in lush profusion at the highest point of the island, Green Mountain, creating a tropical cloud forest.[6]

In 1898, the Eastern Telegraph Company (now part of Cable & Wireless Worldwide) installed the first underwater cable from the island, connecting the United Kingdom with its colonies in South Africa. In 1922, letters patent made Ascension a dependency of St Helena. The island was managed by the head of the Eastern Telegraph Company on the island until 1964 when the British Government appointed an Administrator to represent the Governor of St Helena on Ascension.

During Second World War, to supply and augment extensive amphibious aircraft antisubmarine patrol operations ongoing from the early days of the war, the United States built an airbase on Ascension Island, known as "Wideawake", after a nearby colony of Sooty Terns (locally called 'Wideawake' birds because of their loud, distinctive call, which would wake people early in the morning). The airbase, which was under construction by the 38th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Army Corps of Engineers, was unexpectedly visited by two British Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes on 15 June 1942. According to one of the pilots, Peter Jinks, the planes were fired upon before being recognised as allies. The Swordfish had to land on the unfinished airstrip, thus becoming the first land based aircraft to land on Ascension Island proper — which had long served as an ASW base for Catalina flying boats. The event was later commemorated with a postage stamp 15 June 1982.

The Airfield was used by the US military as a stopping point for American aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the way to theatres of operation in Europe and Africa. American bombers engaged in the Laconia incident used Wideawake as base. After the end of Second World War, and American departure, the airbase fell into disuse.

The only action during Second World War occurred on 9 December 1941. At around mid-day, the U-boat U-124 approached Georgetown on the surface with the intention of sinking any ships at anchor or shelling the cable station. A two-gun shore battery at Cross Hill, above Georgetown, fired on the submarine. The guns scored no hits but the U-boat submerged and retreated. The battery remains largely intact to this day, together with its guns, BL 5.5 inch Mark I naval guns removed from HMS Hood during a refit in Malta in 1938.

With the Space Race and the Cold War, Americans returned in 1956. Wideawake Airfield was expanded in the mid 1960s. The runway, with its strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow its use by large aircraft, and also acts as an emergency runway for the Space Shuttle. The United States Air Force uses the island as part of its Eastern Range. Ascension Island continues to serve as an important link in American space projects. NASA established a tracking station on the island in 1967, but has since abandoned it. The BBC Atlantic Relay Station was installed in 1966 for short-wave broadcasts to Africa and South America.

In 1982, Ascension Island was used as a staging post for the British Task force during the Falklands War. The Royal Air Force deployed a fleet of Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers at the airfield. The opening shots of the British offensive were launched from Ascension by Vulcans in Operation Black Buck. The RAF also used the base to supply the Task Force. Because of the increase in air traffic during the war, Wideawake was the busiest airfield in the world for a short period. The Royal Navy's fleet stopped at Ascension for refuelling on the way. Following the war, the British retained an increased presence on the island, establishing RAF Ascension Island, and providing a refuelling stop for the regular airlink between RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, and RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands.

As of 2007, NASA continues to list Ascension Island as a "downrange site" used for range safety instrumentation.[7] In particular, the Post-Detect Telemetry System used to acquire launch vehicle telemetry includes a station on Ascension.[8]

In 2008 British diplomats requested sovereignty, at the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), over 77,220 square miles of submarine territory around the island. This would enable exploration into new reserves of oil, gas and minerals, though none are thought to exist.[9]


Ascension Government House

Ascension is part of the British overseas territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The Governor resides in Jamestown, St Helena, and appoints an Administrator to represent the Governor on Ascension Island. Ascension has an Island Council of seven members though the Governor has had difficulty finding candidates to stand for election.


There is no indigenous or permanent population on the island, although around 880 people live there; 696 from St Helena (who are British citizens), 106 British citizens from the United Kingdom, 70 US citizens and 12 of other nationalities.[10] RAF Ascension Island is made up of 17 staff.

There are five settlements, the capital being Georgetown:

  1. Georgetown
  2. Cat Hill (the US base)
  3. The Residency
  4. Traveller's Hill (Wideawake, the Royal Air Force base)
  5. Two Boats village

Additionally, there are some cottages on Green Mountain, occasionally occupied by visitors.

Government permission is required to enter Ascension Island and no inhabitant of Ascension Island has a right of abode there.


View of "The Pier", 1938.

The main economic activity on the island is centred on the military bases at Wideawake Airfield, and the BBC World Service's Atlantic Relay station.

The main export item is Ascension Island postage stamps, first issued in 1922. Typically five to six sets of stamps are issued each year. Sales of commemorative coins and commercial fishing licences commenced in mid 2010 and provide new revenue streams.

A secondary export is the international internet domain code ‘’.ac’’, which small British educational colleges and science museums are favouring due to its similarity to ‘’’’, the domain code reserved for well established British educational institutions.

Until 2002, tourism was virtually non-existent because of the inaccessibility of the island to transport, the absence of guest accommodation and the need for a sponsor. Limited air travel has, however, been made available in recent years to the public by the RAF, and the Georgetown Obsidian Hotel together with a number of guest cottages that have been opened. All visitors are required to obtain an entry permit before travelling. Sport fishing is the main attraction for many of the visitors. The Island also boasts what was once officially the worst golf course in the world. Located between the settlements of Two Boats village and Georgetown, the course has 18 holes and the greens are in fact 'browns', a reference to the sand and oil mix used to make them. The rest of the course is made up of volcanic ash and rock.


The island hosts many communications and relay stations, exploiting the Island's strategic position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Both the BBC and Cable & Wireless Worldwide have communications posts there. The European Space Agency (ESA) also has a tracking station on the island that tracks the Ariane 5 rockets shortly after they take off from Kourou in French Guiana.



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