The Spanish explorer João da Nova, sailing for the Portuguese Crown, allegedly discovered the island in 1501, but his discovery was apparently not registered. Thus, in 1503 when the Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque sighted the island on Ascension Day, in the church calendar, he named it after the feast 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 potential 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).
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, set ashore at Clarence Bay as a punishment for sodomy in May 1725. British mariners found the Dutchman's tent, belongings and diary in January 1726; the man had probably died of thirst.
Organised settlement of Ascension Island began in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I on Saint 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." Ascension Island viewed from the south; the island is approximately 91 square km.
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 grew in lush profusion at the highest point of the island, Green Mountain, creating a tropical cloud forest.
In 1899, the Eastern Telegraph Company (now part of Cable & Wireless Worldwide) 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. 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.
During World War II, 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 (PBY 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 based at Wideawake were engaged in the Laconia incident. After the end of World War II, and American departure, the airbase fell into disuse.
The only local military action during World War II 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, the Americans returned in 1956. Wideawake Airfield expanded in the mid-1960s. The runway, with its strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow its use by large aircraft, and later to act as an emergency runway for the Space Shuttle, although the Shuttle never had occasion to use it. The United States Air Force uses the island as part of its Eastern Range. NASA established a tracking station on the island in 1967, which it operated for more than 20 years before closing it down in 1990. The island retains a role in space exploration: the European Space Agency now operates an Ariane monitoring facility there. The BBC Atlantic Relay Station was installed in 1966 for short-wave broadcasts to Africa and South America.
In 1982 a British task force used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falklands War, though according to Matthew Parris,"...at the start of the Falklands conflict Washington at first refused Britain permission to use the USA-operated airfield facilities for refuelling RAF jets. Only after Mrs Thatcher intervened with Ronald Reagan did the Americans reluctantly concede." The Royal Air Force deployed a fleet of Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers at the airfield. Vulcans launched the opening shots of the British offensive from Ascension 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. In particular, the Post-Detect Telemetry System used to acquire launch vehicle telemetry includes a station on Ascension.
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 (200,000 km2) of submarine territory around the island. This would enable exploration into new reserves of oil, gas and minerals, though none are thought to exist...
Trini Hiker 2 nov 2021
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The rich history of St. Helena Island is all you need to lure you to this place, the place of exile of Napoleon. It's a great hiking destination and now with an airport it's more accessible.