Information Category | 21-12-07 06:39 GMT | Posted by Ian Chicken

A Long Look
A History that dates back to the 1500's

The Red Lion on Green Mountain. Built in 1863 as the new marine quarters
(Note the lack vegetation at this point)


T
he 1500's

King Manuel of Portugal wanted to send a fleet of ships to India, so led by the Spanish Nobleman (from Galicia) Jao da Nova (Castelia, a debated part of his name) on March 5th 1501, they set sail from Port Belem, Portugal.
He passed the island on March 25th 1501 and named it Conception, after sighting it on the feast of the Annunciation (Though this visit is not recorded).

A year later on his return from the far east he found and named St Helena. He passed Conception this time due to it having little to offer.

Now the Portuguese were sending numerous expeditions, some 130 ships were sent between 1500 and 1509
Problems arose in India, with Zamorin of Calicut, which King Manuel wanted to sort out so, on April 6th 1503, led this time by Alphonse d'Albuquerque (later the Viceroy of India) another fleet of four ships (St James, Holy Spirit, St Christopher & Catarina) set sail from Lisbon for India. Deciding not to take he coastal route around Africa, he took the sea bound route instead.

On the May 3rd 1503 they arrived at the island and stayed overnight. Supposedly he named the island Ascension due to him arriving there on Ascension Day (As listed in the roman catholic church calender), but other accounts suggest that the island had already been called this by someone else.

d'Albuquerque did not land, and set sail again. He was also part of an expedition led by Tristo da Cua who discovered the island which has his name and makes up the third island of this small group.
Of all the accounts given by the Portuguese none suggests that they actually made any use of Ascension except for putting goats ashore to provide fresh meat if need be.

King John III of Portugal officially recognised the island as part of the empire on 25th August 1539, but they never inhabited the island.

1589 saw a Dutch traveller, Jan van Linschoten arrive, on the 28th May. They stopped due to the fact one of the ships in the group was damaged and leaking. He wanted to get everything ashore, but in the end the ship had extra equipment installed to deal with the leaks. They then continued on their way back home. Again surprisingly they did not go ashore.
He wrote:

"there commeth not a ship in twentie yeares into that iland, because there is nothing in it to be had"


The 1600's
As there was not much vegetation and little water it was not used much by the fleets of the East Indies. On 8th June 1656 Englishman Peter Mundy (Alleppo Merchant) came ashore and wrote of turtle meat and eggs being taken to add to ships stores, he also left animals for other ships coming by.
He also wrote about how barren and rocky the island was.

"A multitude of ragged, craggy, sharpe pointed hard rocks for miles along the shore and up toward the land. appearing white with the dung of sea foule, of which there were innumerable of several kinds. The most desolate barren land (and like a land thatt God has cursed) thatt my eies beeheld......I conceave the whole world affords nott such another peece of ground,most part the collour of burnt bricke, reddish, the substance stones, somewhat like pumice stones, the rest like cinders and burnt earth".
                                             
Cemetery at Comfortless Cove

The island by this time was being used as make shift  "Post Office" with south bound ships leaving mail ashore in bottles, for the north bound ships to pick up and take back home.

Robert Everard send a party ashore In 1693 to search the island for signs of life, They climbed to the peak of hill which had a cross on it (Origin Unknown) and as such named it Cross Hill, after find nothing else they returned.

The middle of the 17th Century saw the island being used for the collection of turtles by sailors. It was taken to supplement their diet with fresh meat, thus preventing scurvy.
                                                                                                                                                                                  

The 1700's

On 22nd February 1701
Captain William Dampier arrived from his voyage of discovery to Australia (New Holland). he had to land due to his ship HMS Roebuck taking on water, after 24 hours of effort to try and stop the leaks the ship eventually sank in the common anchoring sport in Clarence Bay, located in the northwest of Ascension.

He eventually got himself and his crew (around 60) off the island on April 9th when three British warships and Canterbury arrived. They had survived there for the two months after finding a water spring on the island at a point now called Breakneck valley

The island being used as an open prison has been mention though only a single documented case has been recorded It was written that between 5th May and 14th October 1725 a Dutch sailor (ships officer Leendert Hasenbosch) was set ashore as punishment for sodomy, and endured many months of hardship before eventually dying of hunger and thirst. Writings of his account there where later found in 1726 by British mariners and later published in the Harleian Miscellaney in 1746.

In 1752 Swedish priest Peter Osbeck explored some of the island and climbed Cross hill to inspect the structure on its peak with crucifixes on it.

By 1769 the practice of leaving post on the island for others to take home and post on was noted to be still in operation when Louis de Bougainville on the La Boudeuse arrived on Ascension.

Captain James Cook on HMS Resolution call and stayed there for five days in May 1775 he was with George Foster (Naturalist) who remarked on the stark views of the island.

HMS Endymion, Captained by Sir Thomas Williams found on September 8th 1799, 15 American crew from a ship which had been wrecked there.

The 1800's
The Island stayed as it was until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. When under the control of Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn The British exiled him to St Helena.
He arrived there on 13th October 1815 on HMS Northumberland.
The idea of occupying the island was thought of by Cockburn, so as to deny the French any way of rescuing him. This led to the British installing a Naval Garrison on Ascension.

The garrison travelled from St Helena on the  brigs of war HMS Peruvian (Captain James White) and HMS Zenobia (Captain William Dobree).
They landed on the 23rd October 1815 and claimed the island in the name of King George III. 

To help alleviate some military points of view the Island became a "Stone Sloop of the smaller class" in other words" HMS Ascension (This was to effect better discipline and also the fact that martial law only applied to seaman when on a ship).

These ships then took it in turns to sit off the coast of the island to protect it and chase any ships seen nearing the island.

Napoleon died on St Helena in 1821 and as such the island garrison was not needed for his protection. So Ascension had become a victualling (refuelling) station, especially for the West Africa Squadron who worked against the slave trade. It was also a Sanatorium for ships and crew being used in the suppression of slavery on the West coast of Africa. 1821 saw the British Marines take control of the Island and 1823 its first commandant
Lt-Col Edward Nicholl's arrive to assume his post.

HMS Bann arrived at the island in 1826 with a crew suffering from yellow fever. They where told not to land in Clarence Bay and so they went to Comfort Cove (later to become Comfortless) to land, the fever killed 26 of the crew and also 50 of the marine garrison. After this incident the Cove was used as an isolation area for sick crew, with no one allowed near it except to deliver food and then signal that it had been left.

The marines
(One being Captain William Bate) now continued to improve the islands infrastructure and where to build up the farm on Green Mountain, the roads, a mains water system, planting schemes to induce rainfall. They also introduced animals and Insects.

This was also the time when other Island buildings began and gave it the features, that can still be seen today.
The mountain barracks were erected in 1833 and used until a new one (the Red Lion) was built in 1863, when it was turned into a cowshed.

HMS Beagle, with
Charles Darwin aboard, visited in 1836.

The Navy again took charge of the island in 1844 though the marines continued to be the most active on the island.

Botanist
Joseph Dalton Hooker (who became Director of Kew Gardens) arrived in 1847. It was his idea to give the island its first gardener, and to send out various plants, seeds, saplings etc to help populate the island.
1847 also saw St Mary's Church was completed (Later restored and extend in 1879).

The Main store in Georgetown was finished in 1852 and ten years later Fort Hayes was added to boost the island's defences.

Sir David Gill the Astronomer and his wife arrive on expedition for 6 months, to observe the opposition of Mars. Isabel Gill then wrote an account of their time in Georgetown and at Mars Bay.

In 1899 with the islands usefulness becoming of less significance the island took a new route one which it is still on today. Ascensions first Civilians arrive in the form of the
Eastern Telegraph Company using the island as a staging post for a new telegraph cable being laid which connected the UK with its South African colonies.

The 1900's
In 1922 Letters Patent (A legal intsrument in the form of a letter issued by government granting, office, monopoly, title or status to a person or entity) were drawn up making Ascension a dependency of St Helena with the Eastern Telegraph Companies head managing it, This continued till 1964.

With WWI breaking out the garrison was put on alert and in 1915 a wireless station was built behind cross hill to aid ship to shore communication. The islands association with St Helena came to fruition when in 1921 an insurrection by the resident Kroomen resulted in 'Saints' being brought in to work.

Ascension remained under the British Board of Admiralty. The Navy finally reached the point when they did not need a station on the island and so they departed on 22nd October 1922. 


1939 saw WWII break out and the islands defences where increased as such by the installation of two 6in guns from HMS Hood on Cross Hill above Georgetown. It also brought the Americans to the island to build the Wide awake Airstrip. They arrived on 30th March 1942, with 1500 men from the 38th Engineer Combat Regiment and 8000 tons of equipment to build the airstrip and the tank farm.

the only wartime action seen by the island was in 1941, when on December 9th the german U-boat U-124 approached to try and sink and ships and destroy the cable station. It was fired upon by the Cross hill battery and before it could do any damaged it retreated.

On May 20th 1942 the airfield was declared open and the first plane arrived in July 1942, it was 3000 yards long and eventually saw some 25000 planes use it.
The  American contingent by 1943 totalled some 4000 service personnel who covered areas such as Engineers, Aircrew, Infantry, Submarine Bomber crews etc.
with the end of the war in 1945 the Americans left and the island returned to its peaceful, quiet state with about 170 people left for Cable & Wireless.

By 1947 the Runway was closed. The Americans did not stay away for long they started plans to return to the island to construct a station for the Eastern Test and Missile Range. The Agreement was signed in 1956 and by 1957 they started construction with Station 12 opening that year.
They also constructed a town 'The Base' for the staff to live in which is still in existence today and has been continually improved and expanded

The sixties saw a large expansion with the Tracking, Telemetry and Relay (T.T.R.) site at Pyramid point being built in 1963 and with the BBC and CSO arriving on the island in 1964.

The BBC built a large transmitter site at English Bay, also built was the Islands Power Station and Two Boats Village was started.

More U.S. sites where built on Cross Hill, Red Hill, and South Gannet Hill and the USAF Base was established

In 1965, with Gemini and Apollo missions getting underway NASA decided to build a tracking station at Devils Ashpit and Cable & Wireless to connect them by satellite with an earth station on Donkey Plain. The runway was also extended by 1300 yards.

The Red Lion and Farm complex

The island was also the a relay point for a coaxial submarine cables running from South Africa to the United Kingdom and also links that went to South America and West Africa.

At this point it was felt someone else should watch over the Island, so in June 1964 Cable and Wireless handed over control of the island when an Administrator was appointed. 

Harold Wilson's Labour Government, it's said, did not want to be publicly seen supporting the then apartheid government of South Africas wish to improve their telecommunications to the rest of the world by installing a submarine coax telephone cable, so he would not allow the 100% government owned (and hence had no choice) Cable & Wireless Plc to run any of the relay stations for the project.

So the political solution was for Cable & Wireless to allow a South African company to operate the repeater station on Ascension Island.

The South Atlantic Cable Company came in to being in the mid 1960's to run a cable from South Africa up to the United Kingdom.

The cable to South Africa was ceased in 1992 (It was replaced by a new one which did not land at Ascension) and SACC left.

1982 saw the island heavily used by the British forces who where tasked to the Falklands. The RAF had Vulcan bombers based there, and teh island was used a supply station for the task force. With all the traffic coming in and out of the island, Wideawake afiled became the busiest airport in the world.

These days there are satellite Earth Stations on the Island (operated by C&W) these carry traffic to St Helena and the rest of the world.

More recent times a tracking site for the European Space Agency flight's out of Kourou in French Guiana.