Ascension Island

One of our sister islands

This is one of the strangest places on the face of the earth.
Captain William Burnett, Ascension Island Commandant, 1858

Ascension Island is our nearest neighbour, lying some 1,300Km to the northwest of St Helena

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Ascension Island

Below: One of threeAbout ‍Ascension Island‍One that got away…

One of three

Administratively St Helena is part of a three-island Territory: St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Previously the Territory of St Helena and Dependencies, when our new Constitution was adopted on 1st September 2009 the territory became known as ‘St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha’. All three islands{2} share the same Constitution, and the same Governor.

St Helena is (obviously) described in detail on this site. We do not (and have no plans to) provide equivalent sites for Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, but due to their close historic and cultural links to St Helena we provide below some basic information on Ascension Island.

SEE ALSO: Tristan da Cunha, and for some rather smaller islands, somewhat closer, see Islands.

About ‍Ascension Island‍

Map of Ascension Island
Map of Ascension Island

Ascension Island is our nearest neighbour, lying some 1,300Km to the northwest of St Helena. The capital is Georgetown, 7°56’S 14°25’W. Other significant settlements include Traveller’s Hill and Two Boats.

Also a volcanic island, and frequently described as a cinder there is some question over when and by whom it was discovered. Some think it was the Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque, who discovered it on 21st May 1503 - Ascension Day. An alternative history says it was discovered in 1501, either on 25th March or 21st May, by João da Nova, on his outward voyage to India, in the return leg of which he discovered St Helena, and originally called it ‘Ilha de Nossa Señora de Conceiçao’ (‘The Island of Our Lady of the Conception’), the story going that da Nova failed to document his discovery, so it was re-discovered in 1503 by Afonso de Albuquerque{3}.

We are, however, quite sure that it was first occupied by the British in 1815, as part of fortifying St Helena where Napoleon was to be imprisoned. On 22nd October 1815 British ships landed and claimed the island for His Britannic Majesty King George III.

It was of little initial use, being too small and too arid to provide a significant supply of fresh food or water for passing ships. A garrison of Royal Marines was based at Ascension from 1823. In 1899, the Eastern Telegraph Company installed the first underwater cable from the island, connecting the UK with its colonies in South Africa (the ‘Victorian Internet’). In 1922, letters patent made Ascension a dependency of Saint 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 Saint Helena on Ascension.

It was not until the United States Air Force decided in 1942 to build an airbase there that Ascension first acquired a significant working population. Saints from St Helena were recruited in 1942 to work on building the airbase, and Saints have been living and working on Ascension ever since. The airport was later extended (more Saint labour) to act as an emergency alternative landing strip for the Space Shuttle, though it was never used for this. In 1966 the BBC decided to set up a relay service for its BBC World Service on Ascension Island. NASA operated a tracking station on the island from 1967 to 1990. In 1982 the British task force used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falklands Conflict.

Geographically, Ascension is a simple volcanic peak, ‘Green Mountain’, rising to a height of 859m. The majority of human activity takes place on the (eroded) surrounding flat lands. The island has an area of approximately 88Km².

Ascension Island has no permanent population. Nobody is allowed to reside on the island unless they are employed on the island, or are a dependent of someone who is. Children who are born on Ascension and grow up there are forced to leave the island at the age of eighteen, unless they have found work on the island. It is considered by some that this raises Human Rights issues.

The island population comprises Saints from St Helena (80%), British ex-pats (12%) and Americans (8%), primarily USAF personnel and associated people.

Tourists visit Ascension Island. The primary activities are walking, nature study (the island is a breeding ground for Green Turtles, and has some endemic species), and sport fishing.

Ascension is the midway stop in the ‘Air Bridge’ between the UK and the Falkland Islands. Prior to the opening of St Helena Airport the fastest route between the UK and St Helena was to use the Air Bridge to Ascension and then the RMS St Helena to St Helena.

The island has seven elected councillors. The Governor is represented by an Administrator, appointed from London.

There is a location (which has no official name but we have christened it ‘The Monument’ - picture, below) with a curious tradition. Dating back to servicemen stationed there, it is claimed that if you pour a can of paint over it just before departure you will never have to return. Given that many Saints actually would like to be able to make Ascension their home but can’t{4} this is an interesting dichotomy.

More here:

One that got away…

Note that our assumed sister island, St Helena Nova, side-by-side with us in the South Atlantic, never actually existed!

Credits:
{a} Ascension Islander{b} Earth Observatory, taken from the ISS

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Footnotes:
{1} Now a small-business emporium with offices.{2} There are three inhabited islands, but all three have a number of associated islands, of varying sizes.{3} The problem with the da Nova outward-bound theory is that in the 16th Century, ships just didn’t go that way, as explained on our page Before Discovery. It is hard to see why da Nova would have deviated from established practice to take a much more difficult route. Also he could not have discovered it on 25th March because he didn’t set out from Portugal until 10th March.{4} The UK Government does not permit anyone to become resident; if you are not employed or a dependent of someone who is, you have to leave.{5} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{6} From which much of the information presented here is obtained{5}.

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Ascension Island | Copyright © John Turner

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