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Ascension Island is an isolated island of volcanic origin in the South Atlantic Oceanmarker, around from the coast of Africa, and from the coast of South America. It is part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha which also includes Saint Helena, which is to the southeast and Tristan da Cunhamarker. The Island is named after the day of its recorded discovery, Ascension Day. It is located at .

The island is the location of Wideawake Airfieldmarker, 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, Diego Garciamarker, Colorado Springsmarker and Hawaiimarker) 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 Union Flag and Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom are used instead.

History

The Portuguesemarker 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 Day 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 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 source of meat for future mariners.

In February 1701, HMS Roebuck, commanded 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 ship's 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 on St 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 1923. In 1898, the Eastern Telegraph Company (now part of Cable and Wireless) installed the first underwater cable from the island, connecting the UKmarker 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.

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 (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 Corp 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 aircraft to land on Ascension Island. 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 Oceanmarker on the way to theatres of operation in Europe and Africa. 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-124marker approached Georgetownmarker 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, 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 Space Shuttle. The US Air Force uses the island as part of their Eastern Test Range. Ascension Island continues to serve as an important link in American space projects. NASAmarker established a tracking station on the island in 1967, but has since abandoned it. The BBC Atlantic Relay Station was installed in 1966 for short-wave broadcasts to Africa and South America.

In 1982, Ascension Island was used as a staging post for the Britishmarker Task Force during the Falklands War. 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 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 Islandmarker, and providing a refuelling stop for the regular airlink between RAF Brize Nortonmarker in Oxfordshire, and RAF Mount Pleasantmarker in the Falkland Islandsmarker.

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.

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 60,000-gal/day flash evaporator desalinisation plant.

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.

Politics

Ascension is part of an overseas territory of the United Kingdommarker together with Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunhamarker. Executive authority is vested in The Queen, who is represented by the Governor of Saint Helena. As the Governor resides in Jamestown, Saint Helenamarker, 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 Helena 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 October.

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

Comfortless Cove
Lava fields


The main island has an area of approximately 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 forty-four distinct craters have been identified.

While the island was barren with few plants as recently as 1843, Ascension Island's Green Mountainmarker 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 (859 m).

Off the east coast of Ascension is the tiny island of Boatswain Bird Islandmarker. 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 Royal Society 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 (20–31 °C), 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 April.

Flora and fauna

Black volcanic rocks


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 Terns or "Wideawake Birds" nest in great seashore lava "fairs". Other seabirds include some types of boobies, petrels and tropicbirds (named boatswain birds by the inhabitants of the island), White Tern, Brown Noddy, Black Noddy and Ascension Frigatebird. 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 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 Britishmarker mariners for use as replacement masts for sailing ships should the need arise. A few wild flowers narrowly abound such as periwinkle; cactus is present with land crabs in several large colonies near the sea and mountains.

Following the eradication of feral cats from the island, several species of seabird previously confined to Boatswain Bird Islandmarker are making a return to the main island. The Ascension Flightless Crake became extinct around the beginning of the 19th century.

Offshore, there is a variety of open-ocean fish, including sharks, wahoo, tuna, bonito, barracuda, marlin, blackfish and sailfish.

The endemic flora includes plants like Pteris adscensionis, Asplenium ascensionis, Euphorbia origanoides as well as the extinct species Oldenlandia adscenionis, Sporobolus durus and Dryopteris ascensionis. 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.

Demographics

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 Islandmarker is made up of 170 staff. Other residents include some British government employees including the island's Administrator.

There are five settlements, the capital being Georgetownmarker:
  1. Georgetownmarker (pop. 450)
  2. Cat Hill (Main Base, the U.S. base, pop. 210)
  3. The Residency (pop. 4)
  4. Traveller's Hill (Wideawake, the Royal Air Force base, pop. 170)
  5. Two Boatsmarker 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 abode". As the local newspaper The Islander reports, it is an issue that has been disputed by former Council members and some long-time employees and family members.

Economy

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 estate and facilities are managed by the infrastructure support provider Interserve Defence. Serco manages the airport services with Sodexo providing catering and domestic facilities. A former feature of Ascension was a 70,000 tonne tanker permanently moored offshore that was operated by Maerskmarker as a bulk fuel facility. In December 2002, this was replaced by an on-shore Petroleum Supply Depot under military management.

Tourism and related industries

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 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. Sport fishing 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).

Telecommunications

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 have communications posts there. The European Space Agencymarker (ESA) also has a tracking station on the island that tracks the Ariane 5 Space rockets shortly after they take off from French Guyanamarker.

Banking

The Bank of St. Helena has a branch on the Island. Domestic transfers to the UK are possible, as Saint Helena is part of the UK banking system.

Transport

The island has a regular airlink with the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands, with twice weekly flights from the RAF Ascension Islandmarker to the UK (RAF Brize Nortonmarker) and to the Falkland Islands (RAF Mount Pleasantmarker). 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 Basemarker in Floridamarker for the use of its personnel only. In 2003 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.

The RMS Saint Helena visits Ascension Island approximately once a month linking the island to Walvis Bay (Namibia), St Helena and Cape Townmarker. 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.

See also



Bibliography



References

  1. The St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009, see "EXPLANATORY NOTE"
  2. see Duff Hart-Davis, Ascension, the story of a South Atlantic island.
  3. Barry Weaver home page of Ascension Islands
  4. ibid, page 62.
  5. Juanita Brock, Ascension: Ascension Island Votes for Councillors
  6. Road Repairs - Ascension Island News
  7. Ascension Island Council
  8. See http://www.the-islander.org.ac/
  9. ProcPt5b


External links




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