Ascension Island is an
isolated island of volcanic origin in the South Atlantic
Ocean, around from the coast of Africa, and from the
coast of South America. It is part of the British overseas territory of
Ascension and Tristan da Cunha which also includes
Saint Helena, which is to the southeast
and Tristan da
The Island is named after the day of its
recorded discovery, Ascension Day
is located at .
is the location of Wideawake Airfield, which is a joint facility of the United States Air Force and the
Royal Air Force and the BBC World
Service Atlantic Relay Station.
The island was used
extensively by the British military during the Falklands War
. Ascension Island hosts one of five ground
antennas (others are on Kwajalein,
Springs and Hawaii) that assist
in the operation of the Global
Positioning System (GPS) navigational system.
Ascension Island does not have its own flag or coat of arms. The
and Royal coat of arms of
the United Kingdom
are used instead.
Portuguese explorer João da
Nova is believed to be the first to discover the island (in
1501), but he did not report it.
When in 1503 Afonso de Albuquerque
, a Portuguese
navigator sighted the island on Ascension
in the church calendar, he named it for that day. Dry and
barren, it had little appeal for passing ships except for
collecting fresh meat. Mariners
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 source of meat for future mariners.
In February 1701, HMS Roebuck
by William Dampier
, went down 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
officer, Leendert Hasenbosch
who was set ashore at Clarence Bay as a punishment for sodomy
in May 1725. The Dutchman's tent, belongings
and diary were found by British mariners in January 1726; the man
had probably died of thirst.
Ascension Island was first inhabited in 1815, when the British
garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I
to the southeast. On 22 October the Cruizer class brig-sloops
claimed the island for
His Britannic Majesty King George
. The Royal Navy
designated the island as a stone
, "HMS Ascension
with the classification of "Sloop of War of the smaller
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
working against the slave
. A garrison of Royal Marines
was based at Ascension from 1923. In 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
In 1922, Letters
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
the Governor of Saint Helena on Ascension.
Location of the island.
During World War II
, the United States
built an airbase on Ascension Island, known as "Wideawake", after a
nearby colony of Sooty Terns
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 Corp of Engineers, was unexpectedly visited by two British
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 aircraft to land on Ascension Island. The event was later
commemorated with a postage stamp 15 June 1982.
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
American bombers engaged in the Laconia incident
used Wideawake as base.
After the end of World War II, and American departure, the airbase
fell into disuse.
The only 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.
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
during a refit in Malta in 1938.
With the space race
and the Cold War
, Americans returned in 1956. Wideawake
Airfield was expanded in the mid 1960s. The runway, with its
strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow its use
by large aircraft, and also acts as an emergency runway for the
. The US Air Force
uses the island as part of their
Eastern Test Range
Island continues to serve as an important link in American space
projects. NASA established
a tracking station on the island in 1967, but has since abandoned
Atlantic Relay Station was
installed in 1966 for short-wave broadcasts to Africa and South
Ascension Island was used as a staging
post for the British Task Force during the
The Royal Air Force
deployed a fleet of Vulcan
bombers and Victor
tankers at the airfield. The
opening shots of the British offensive were launched from Ascension
by Vulcans in Operation Black
. 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.
the war, the British retained an increased presence on the island,
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
includes a station on
The U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and other partners, designed a
combined, 7-MW prime power, diesel power and desalinization plant
to support mission operations at Ascension Island for the U.S. Air
Force Space Command. This project also included installation of a
In 2008 British diplomats requested sovereignty, at the United Nations
Commission on the Limits of
the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), over of submarine territory around
the island. This would enable exploration into new reserves of oil,
gas and minerals, though none are thought to exist.
is part of an overseas territory
of the United
Kingdom together with Saint
Helena and Tristan da
Executive authority is vested in The Queen
, who is
represented by the Governor of
. As the Governor resides in Jamestown,
Saint Helena, an Administrator is appointed
to represent the Governor on Ascension Island.
As a result of changes in the constitutional arrangements for
Ascension Island, the first Island Council
of seven members was
elected and took office on 1 November 2002. This Council was
dissolved by order of the Governor of Saint
on 24 October 2005, and a new election was held on 16
November 2005, a total of 697 electors choosing between ten
candidates contesting the seven seats.
Six of the seven members resigned in January 2007 in the belief
that they were "assisting to legitimise a democracy that doesn’t
really exist on Ascension Island". Consequently, a general election
was called, but by the close of nominations there were only two
candidates. As a result of the boycott, the election was abandoned,
and the governor suspended the Island Council for 12 months. It was
stated that an election would take place in April 2008 but
following consultations this was extended to October. With 8
nominations the elections were duly held and 7 candidates were
elected to form a new Island Council, which was sworn in on 28
Ascension Island has its own local system of law, much of which is
based on the laws of Saint Helena and some parts of English law
with modifications. The Island Council advises on new or revised
laws. Where local legislation does not exist, Saint Helenian law is
used where appropriate. Employment legislation is a mixture of
contract law and the Workmen's Protection Ordinance, which
guarantees a contract, as well as obligating employers to provide
accommodation, medical cover, travel etc.
The Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order
2009 was made by HM the Queen and the Privy Council on 8 July and
is expected to come into operation shortly thereafter. The new
Constitution replaces the 1988 version and among other changes
limits the Governor's powers, includes a Bill of Rights,
establishes independence of the judiciary and the public service
and formally designates the Governor of St Helena as, concurrently,
the Governor for Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. It also ends the
"dependency" status of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha on Saint
Helena that had been in place since 1922.
Geography and ecology
The main island has an area of approximately
. A volcanic peak rising from just west of
the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
, much of
the island is a wasteland of lava
; no fewer than forty-four
island was barren with few plants as recently as 1843, Ascension
Mountain is now one
of the few large-scale planned forests, and is gradually growing
with each year.
Its highest point is at 2,817 feet
east coast of Ascension is the tiny island of Boatswain
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. Following a successful campaign headed by the
for the Protection of Birds
, the main island was in 2006
declared free of feral cats, and sea birds are now once again
nesting on Ascension Island.
Ascension's climate is tropical, with temperatures at the coast
ranging from about 68 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit
), and about 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 6 degrees
Celsius) cooler at the highest point. Rain showers may occur at any
time during the year, but tend to be heavier between January and
Flora and fauna
Black volcanic rocks
The protected green turtle
the most notable of the wildlife, coming ashore to lay their eggs
on the beaches from November to May. Sooty
or "Wideawake Birds" nest in great seashore lava
"fairs". Other seabirds
include some types of boobies
(named boatswain birds by the inhabitants of the island), White Tern
, Black Noddy
and Ascension Frigatebird
. On land are
found such non-native birds such as canaries
, and waxbills
. A variety of mammals
have been introduced: donkey
, cats and rats
consist of two species of lizards
. In summer, flies
known to be problematic. Crowning Green Mountain is a lush halo of
bamboo, while on one flank is a large stand
of tall Norfolk pine trees which were
planted by British mariners for use as replacement masts for sailing ships should the need arise.
few wild flowers narrowly abound such as periwinkle
present with land crabs
in several large
colonies near the sea and mountains.
the eradication of feral cats from the island, several species of
seabird previously confined to Boatswain Bird Island are making a return to the main island.
became extinct around the beginning of the 19th
Offshore, there is a variety of open-ocean fish, including sharks
The endemic flora includes plants like Pteris adscensionis
, Asplenium ascensionis
as well as the extinct species Oldenlandia adscenionis
. In June 2005 the first ever National Park on
Ascension Island, the Green
Mountain National Park
, was opened. Prosopis juliflora
or the Mexican
Thorn, has thrived on the barren lava of the island in recent
years: growing on the edges of beaches this threatens the green turtle
There is no indigenous or permanent population on the island,
although around 940 people live there . The military and civilian
contractors of the United States and the United Kingdom, and
civilian contract workers from Saint Helena, make up the bulk of
the population. The United States has around 200 people who service
the US Air Force
facilities on the
island and at Wideawake Airfield. RAF Ascension Island is made up of 170 staff.
include some British government employees including the island's
five settlements, the capital being Georgetown:
- Georgetown (pop. 450)
- Cat Hill (Main Base,
the U.S. base, pop. 210)
- The Residency (pop. 4)
- Traveller's Hill (Wideawake,
the Royal Air Force base, pop. 170)
- Two Boats village (pop. 110)
Additionally, there are some cottages on Green Mountain.
In order to enter Ascension Island, people need the written
permission of the Administrator. There is no permanent residence. A
contract of employment is a requirement to stay on the island,
though short term visits by tourists are possible with prior
approval. The UK government has asserted that no inhabitant of
Ascension Island has a "right of
". As the local newspaper The Islander
it is an issue that has been disputed by former Council members and
some long-time employees and family members.
View of "The Pier", 1938.
The main economic activity on the island is centred on the military
bases at Wideawake Airfield, and the BBC World Service's Atlantic
Relay station. The MOD
facilities are managed by the infrastructure support provider
manages the airport services with Sodexo
providing catering and domestic facilities.
feature of Ascension was a 70,000 tonne tanker permanently moored
offshore that was operated by Maersk as a bulk fuel facility.
In December 2002,
this was replaced by an on-shore Petroleum Supply Depot under
Tourism and related industries
The main export item is Ascension Island postage
, first issued in 1922. Typically five to six sets of
stamps are issued each year.
Until recently, tourism was non-existent because of the
inaccessibility of the island to transport, the absence of guest
accommodation and the restrictive permissions required for entry.
Limited air travel has, however, been made available in recent
years to the public by the RAF, and the Georgetown Obsidian Hotel
together with a number of guest cottages that have been opened. All
visitors are required to obtain an entry permit before travelling.
is the main attraction
for many of the visitors. The Island also boasts what was once
officially the worst golf course in the world. Located between the
settlements of Two Boats village and Georgetown, the course has 18
holes and the greens are in fact 'browns', a reference to the sand
and oil mix used to make them. The rest of the course is made up of
volcanic ash and rock, which makes for some interesting rounds. The
current Ascension Island Open Champion is Alex Turner, who in fact
has been the 'Open' Champion three times in the last four years
(2003 - 2007).
The island hosts many communications and relay stations, exploiting
the Island's strategic position in the middle of the Atlantic
Ocean. Both the BBC
and Cable and Wireless
posts there. The European Space Agency (ESA) also has a tracking station on the island
that tracks the Ariane 5 Space rockets
shortly after they take off from French Guyana.
The Bank of St. Helena
branch on the Island. Domestic transfers to the UK are possible, as
Saint Helena is part of the UK banking system.
island has a regular airlink with the United Kingdom and the
Falkland Islands, with twice weekly flights from the RAF
Ascension Island to the UK (RAF Brize Norton) and to the Falkland Islands (RAF Mount
These are chartered civilian Boeing 767
aircraft operated by FlyGlobespan
on behalf of the Royal Air Force,
however a limited number of commercial passenger tickets are
available. The United States maintains a weekly flight
between the island and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida for the use of its personnel only.
the UK and US governments signed the Wideawake agreement designed
to allow a limited amount of non-scheduled civilian aircraft to
land on Ascension Island. Operators require prior permission to use
Wideawake and should apply at least three weeks in advance.
RMS Saint Helena
visits Ascension Island approximately once a month linking the
island to Walvis Bay (Namibia), St Helena and Cape Town.
The US military service their base and
facilities with a regular supply ship and air transport.
Within Ascension Island, there is a limited taxi service (advance
bookings only); most visitors requiring transport hire a car. There
are about 40 km of roads on the island.
- The St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
Constitution Order 2009, see "EXPLANATORY NOTE"
- see Duff Hart-Davis, Ascension, the story of a South
- Barry Weaver home page of Ascension
- ibid, page 62.
- Juanita Brock, Ascension: Ascension Island Votes for
- Road Repairs - Ascension Island News
- Ascension Island Council
- See http://www.the-islander.org.ac/