Georgetown Commonwealth Walkway

Ascension Island / Africa

Ascension is a volcanic island in the Atlantic, midway between Brazil and West Africa. The island was first discovered in 1501 by a Portuguese seafarer, João da Nova. It was then rediscovered by Alphonse d’Albuquerque on Ascension Day 1503, hence its name. Being dry and barren, no one bothered to raise a flag until the British garrisoned the island on 22 October 1815 in order to prevent a French rescue attempt following Napoleon’s imprisonment on St Helena. In 1815 the Captains of HMS Zenobia and HMS Peruvia came ashore and established a small British Naval Garrison here.

The main settlement on the island was originally called the Garrison but was renamed Georgetown in 1830 following the death of King George IV. After the death of Napoleon, Ascension was used as a mid-Atlantic sanatorium and a victualling station for ships engaged in anti-slavery patrols along the coast of West Africa. Georgetown continued to develop, becoming an important communications link for the world when the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived here in 1899. Underwater cables were laid from Cape Town to St Helena, and via Ascension, Cape Verde and Madeira.

After 1922, ETC took over the running of the island after the Royal Navy left and only their contracted workers, mostly from St Helena, were allowed to live here.

The island became an important military base during the Second World War, with the Americans establishing a base here and building Wideawake Airfield (named on account of a noisy colony of Sooty Terns) during 1942. Approximately 4,000 US servicemen were stationed here and 25,000 planes flew through Ascension, providing crucial support for the war effort in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and China. The last US servicemen left in 1947.

In 1956 the Americans returned to build a space tracking station to monitor rockets launched from Cape Canaveral. Prince Philip visited the island briefly in 1957, aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, judging it: “exactly like a huge heap of different coloured cinders or clinkers with a white sandy beach round the edge.”

In the 1960s the BBC established its Atlantic Relay Station here, NASA built a ground tracking and relay station and Cable and Wireless built a satellite earth station in support of the Apollo Moon Landings. In 1964 the Colonial Office sent its first British Administrator to govern the island.

In the 1970s NASA lengthened Wideawake Airfield to accommodate emergency landings for Space Shuttle Flights, which would start in 1981. In 1972 Duff Hart-Davis wrote Ascension, a story of a South Atlantic Island, a lively book about the Island, which began with the memorable line: “It has never played any major role in history, and probably never will.” As it happened, it became a vital refuelling station during the Falklands War of 1982, with up to 350 planes taking off daily.

Following the Falklands War, the RAF established a permanent presence on the island. The European Space Agency built a tracking station to monitor its Ariane satellite-launching rockets and the US Air Force built one of four remote GPS ground control antenna sites in the world.

Today, Ascension has a population of approximately 800 people spread across four settlements – Georgetown, Two Boats Village and the British and US Bases.

3.5 miles / 5.6 kilometres

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