Ascension Island History

“To travel is to evolve.”

Pierre Bernado

Ascension Island is a British overseas territory, located in the Atlantic Ocean, north west of Saint Helena Island.  It is not part of the United Kingdom and it is self governing, making its own laws and raising taxes, although the UK is responsible for providing it with defense and internal security.  Ascension is a volcanic island and the western side is made up of volcanic ash and very little grows there.

Ascension Island History

Ascension Island was named after a Portuguese navigator, Afonso de Albuquerque sighted the island on Ascension day (the 21st of May that year).  The Portugeuse never claimed the land for the crown as they saw little appeal to it.  They and later ships collected fresh meat from the seabirds and green turtles, as well as introducing goats to the island for future ships.

Captain Cook even passed the island in 1775 and one of his crew, Georg Forster, described the island as a “ruinous heap of rocks”.  It was later that the British claimed the island and established the first settlement in 1815 as a precaution in case it be used as a staging post to rescue Napoleon, who had been exiled at nearby St Helena Island.

Ascension Island also made a useful stopping point for ships on route.  Charles Darwin stopped there in 1836 on board the HMS Beagle, where he saw an arid, treeless island with sheep, goats, cows, horses, guinea fowl, rats, mice and land crabs.  There were some houses on the mountain at this point fighting survive the elements.

When Darwin returned to England he encouraged his friend Joseph Hooker, a botanist and whose father was the director of Kew Gardens to visit Ascension.  Darwin also encouraged Hooker with the help of kew gardens to send shipments of trees to Ascension Island.  With the help of the Royal Navy the trees were planted on the mountain.  The purpose of the trees was to capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich soils.  Starting in 1850 shipments of trees arrived from Europe, South Africa and Argentina.  By the late 1890s, Ascension Island had been transformed and the mountain, now referred to as green mountain was filled with Eucalyptus, banana trees, pine and bamboo, creating a cloud forest.  Although a farm on Green Mountain to grow food, it is not able to support the population of Ascension Island and ultimately they import most foods needed.

By the end of the 19th century steam engines and the Suez canals meant there were less and less boats stopping at Ascension to top up their meat supply.  However in 1899 a telegraph cable connecting Britain to Cape Town, increased Ascension Islands importance again.  During the first world war radio receivers helped to communicate information to ships at sea.

In the early 1940s the US troops built an airstrip on the lava fields on St Helena, this allowed American aircraft to refuel their planes when flying from South America to Africa and Europe.  The only military action that took place in Ascension Island was on the 9th December, 1941, when a German submarine approached George Town with the intent to bomb any ships in the harbour, it was fired upon and retreated.

Americans returned to Ascension island in 1956, extending and improving the runway at the airfield to be used as an emergency runway for the space shuttle, although never used, it was the longest runway in the world at the time.  NASA later used Ascension Island as a tracking station from 1967 – 1990.  Although NASA no longer uses the tracking station an European Space Agency now operates a monitoring facility.

The British used Ascension Island with the BBC installing an Atlantic Relay Station in 1966 for broadcasts to Africa and South America.  Aditionally during the 1980s, the British used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falkands War, to deploy bombers and tankers at the airfields and for the Royal Navy to refuel on its way to Falklands.  The British continue to use Ascension Island to provide a refuelling stop for planes between Britain and the Falkland Islands.

Ascension Island is a British overseas territory, located in the Atlantic Ocean, north west of Saint Helena Island.  It is not part of the United Kingdom and it is self governing, making its own laws and raising taxes, although the UK is responsible for providing it with defense and internal security.  Ascension is a volcanic island and the western side is made up of volcanic ash and very little grows there.

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