The Portuguese explorer João da Nova is believed to be the first person to discover the island (in 1501), but did not report it. When in 1503 Alphonse d'Albuquerque (Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese navigator) saw the island on Ascension Day as listed on the Roman Catholic Church calendar, he named it for that day of its sighting. 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 who laid their eggs on the sandy beaches. The Portuguese also introduced goats, as a source of meat for future mariners.
In February 1701 the Roebuck, commanded by William Dampier went down in the common anchoring spot in Clarence Bay to the northwest of the island. Some sixty men succeeded to survive for two months until they were rescued. Almost certainly, they found the small water spring, now known as Dampier's drip, in the high interior of the island, near what is now called Breakneck Valley.
In May 1725 a Dutch ship's officer, Leendert Hasenbosch, was set ashore at Clarence Bay as a punishment for sodomy; his tent, his belongings and his diary were found by British mariners in January 1726, when the man had probably died of thirst. It is possible that the island was used more often as an open prison for criminal mariners.
Ascension became an inhabited island in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I on St Helena to the southeast. The Royal Navy officially designated the island as "HMS Ascension" with the classification of "Sloop of War of the smaller class". A Stone ship was a naval nickname for such land based establishments.
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 were based at Ascension from 1923. 1898, the Eastern Telegraph Company (now part of Cable and Wireless), installed the first underwater cable from the Island, connecting the UK with its colonies in South Africa. In 1922, Letters Patent made Ascension a dependency of Saint Helena, with the island being 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.
View of Ascension Island showing Wideawake Airfield.During World War II, the United States built an airbase on Ascension, 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 was used by the US military as a stopping point for American aircraft crossing the Atlantic on the way to theatres of operation in Europe and Africa. After the end of World War II, and American departure, the airbase fell into disuse.
With the "space race" and the "cold war" Americans began a return in 1956. Wideawake airfield was expanded in the mid 1960's. The runway, with its strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow its use by large aircraft, and acts as an emergency runway for the Space Shuttle. Ascension Island continues to serve as an important link in the American space projects. NASA established a tracking station on Ascension Island in 1967, but has since abandoned it. The BBC installed a relay station for broadcasts to South America and Africa.
In 1982, Ascension 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 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. The increase in air traffic during the war saw Wideawake being classed as 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.
Ascension is a dependency of Saint Helena, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. Executive authority is vested in The Queen, who is represented by the Governor of Saint Helena. As the Governor resides in Jamestown, Saint Helena, an Administrator is appointed to represent the Governor on Ascension Island.
In 2002, changes in the constitutional arrangements for Ascension Island, saw the first Island Council being elected.
Ascension also has its own suite of local laws, based on the laws of Saint Helena and the UK.
Map of Ascension Island.The main island has an area of approximately 35 square miles (91 km²). 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 44 distinct craters have been identified. While it was barren with very few plants as recently as 1843, Ascension Island's Green Mountain is now one of the few large-scale artificial forests, and is gradually growing with each year. Its highest point is at 2,817 feet (859 m).
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.
Ascension's climate is subtropical, with temperatures at the coast ranging from about 68 to 88 Fahrenheit (20–31 °C), and about 10 degrees cooler at the highest point. Rain showers may occur at any time during the year, but tend to be heavier between January and April.
There is no indigenous population on the Island, although around 1,100 people live there as of 2005. The military and civilian contractors of the United States and the United Kingdom, along with citizen workers imported from Saint Helena, make up the bulk of the population. The United States of America has around 150 people who service the US Air Force facilities on the island and at Wideawake airfield. RAF Ascension Island is made up of 200 staff. Other residents include some British government employees including the island's British Administrator.
There are five settlements, the capital being Georgetown:
Georgetown (pop. 560)
Cat Hill (Main Base, the U.S. base, pop. 150)
The Residency (pop. 3)
Traveller's Hill (Wideawake, the Royal Air Force base, pop. 200)
Two Boats Village (pop. 120)
Additionally, there are some cottages on Green Mountain.
In order to gain an entry to Ascension Island one needs the written permission of the Administrator. Additionally, it is a near-impossibility to take up permanent residence. Employment is a requirement to stay on the island. The UK government has asserted that no inhabitant of Ascension Island has a "right to abode". As the local newspaper The Islander reports, it is an issue now disputed by Council members and long-time employees and also their family members.
View of "The Pier", 1938.The main economic activity on the island is centered around the military bases at Wideawake Airfield. SERCO Ltd manages the airport with ESS Ltd providing catering and domestic facilities. A former feature of Ascension was the permanently moored 70,000 tonne tanker offshore run by the Maersk which served as a bulk fuel facility but in December 2002 this was replaced by an on-shore Petroleum Supply Depot under military management
The Island also hosts many communications and relay stations, exploiting the Island's strategic position in the middle of Atlantic Ocean. Both the BBC and Cable and Wireless have communications posts there.
The main export item is Ascension Island postage stamps, first issued in 1922. Typically five to six sets of stamps are issued each year.
Until recently, tourism was non-existent due to the inaccessibility of the island to transport, the absence of guest accommodation and the restrictive permissions required for entry. However, in recent years, limited air travel had been made available to the public by the RAF and the Georgetown Obsidian Hotel together with a number of guest cottages have been opened. All visitors still require the administrator's written permission. Sport fishing is the main attraction for many of the visitors.
Location of Ascension Island.The Island has a regular airlink with the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands, with weekly flights to RAF Brize Norton, west of London and to RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands. Although these are operated by the Royal Air Force, civilians are permitted to fly at their own expense. The United States maintains a weekly flight between the Island and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. Past UK and US governments have reached an agreement to allow civilian aircraft to land on Ascension Island. Although designed to improve tourist links the and the island's economy, no services have yet been established and the agreement may yet be revoked.
The RMS Saint Helena operates between Ascension Island and Saint Helena on a scheduled basis, and provides a connection to Cape Town and Cardiff. The US military service their base and facilities with a regular supply ship and air transport.
Within Ascension, the only public transport is a recently formed taxi service; most visitors requiring transport are required to hire a car. There are about 25 miles (40 km) of roads on the island.
Flora and fauna
The protected Green turtle is perhaps the most notable of the wildlife, coming ashore to lay their eggs on the beaches from November to May. Sooty tern or "Wideawake Bird" nests in great seashore lava "fairs," along with boobies, petrels, noddies, Ascension frigate birds, and boatswain birds. On land are found such non-native birds such as canaries, francolins, mynahs, 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 problematic. Crowning Green Mountain is a lush halo of bamboo, while on one flank is a large stand of tall pine trees. A few wild flowers narrowly abound periwinkle, cactus is present with land crabs in several large colonies near the sea and mountains.
Offshore, there is a variety of open-ocean fish, including sharks, wahoo, tuna, bonita, barracuda, marlin, blackfish and sailfish.