Potted History

from Packer's Ascension Handbook, 1983 (3rd edition)

1501 - Island discovered by Juan da Nova and named 'Conception' but the discovery was never publicised.

1503 - Island re-discovered by Alphonse D'Albuquerque who was not aware of da Nova's visit, and named Ascension.

1589 - Van Linschoten, a Dutch traveller, called and recorded details of bird life. He later published a book of his travels with a pictorial map which is the earliest know representation of Ascension - a rather inaccurate profile.

1656 - A Cornish traveller, Peter Mundy, mentioned the 'numberless sea fowl' on the island and described a flightless rail-like bird of which only a few semi-fossil bones have been found. See Part 5: Ornithology. Flightless birds exist on many remote oceanic islands (Tristan da Cunha, etc.).

1673 - Father Navarette visited and mentioned the 'ocean letterbox' where ships left messages for each other concealed in a crevice in the rocks. (See Part 2 under Letterbox.)

1698 - James Cunninghame visited Ascension and made the first collection of shells and plants later described in a paper for the Royal Society.

1701 - Wm. Dampier's vessel 'Roebuck' wrecked probably near S.W. Bay. (See Part 2 Dampier's Drip.) Goats had already been introduced, probably by da Nova or D'Albuquerque.

1725 - A Dutch sailor was castaway on the island for some crime and managed to survive for about five months on turtles and goats. He wrote a diary which shows that he was gradually going insane, the diary was later discovered near his bleached skeleton.

1754 - Abbe de la Caille, a French priest and savant visited and described some of the few indigenous plants.

1775 - Cpat. James Cook put in to collect turtle meat, in H.M.S. Resolution.

1798 - Wm. Davies, surgeoun abord the 'Atlantic' called and recorded the cross (navigation mark) on 'Crucifixion Hill' as being down. This is the earliest reference to Cross Hill. Davies was an ancestor of Mr. Ford Smith of Cable & Wireless Ltd., who was himself on Ascension in 1927-29 and possesses the surgeon's private log-book.

1800 - H.M.S. Endymion picked up a crew of a brig wrecked some months previously.

1801 - H.M.S. Cambrian passed close and fired 24 lb. shots into the hills as a signal to possible castaways to show themselves, in view of the Endymion incident of the previous year.

1815 - The decisive year for the island. Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned on St. Helena and the first British garrison claimed Ascension in the name of King George III lest the French use it as a base from which to attempt to rescue the Emperor. From 1815 the island has been continuously inhabited. The garrison's immediate tasks were to search for fresh water and to build simple fortifications.

1816 - The first buildings were erected in the Garrison around an area called 'Regent Square' near the present Georgetown swimming pool, many men still living in tents. A rough track made to Dampier's ravine and a detachment established there to collect fresh water which was sent to 'Regent Square' in barrels by donkey. The rough cave houses still visible at Dampier's were probably dug at this time.

1817 - A track was extended up the side of Green Mountain and a stone house, almost certainly the present 'Garden Cottage' was built, and garden plots started nearby. A lookout post and alarm gun were mounted on the Weather Port Signal (now Weather Post), a fort, probably Ft. Thornton, was begun in Georgetown, and a wall built to form a 'boat harbour' at the site of the present turtle ponds.

1819 - First proper map of Ascension surveyed by Lt. Campbell.

1820 - Mountain gardens extended, aloes and various shrubs planted, further stone buildings at 'Regent Square'.

1821 - Naploeon died at St. Helena. Lookout removed from Weather Post, and the Ascension garrison passed from the Royal Navy to the Royal Marines.

1823 - H.M.S. Bann brought a 'virulent fever' causing about 50 deaths, 26 officers and men being buried in a mass tomb just south of the present pierhead. Four water storage tanks completed.

1825 - Guinea fowl introduced; these thrived for several years then died out.

1826 - Six test boreholes for water made near Middleton's Ridge but with little success. Detachment at Dampier's still collecting water in casks for pack transport to Georgetown. The original 'Two Boats' shelters were erected at the foot of the mountain 'ramps' as a resting place for those ascending on horseback.

1827 - English honey bees introduced and released on the mountain to assist in pollination at the gardens. Island commander asks for convicts to be sent out to cut stone.

1828 - A British vessel was plundered by a pirate within sight of the island, the garrison was helpless due to the superior speed of the pirate vessel and lack of suitable island guns. H.M.S. Redpole of the St. Helena station, formerly at Ascension, lost off Cape Frio in action with another pirate.

1829 - The settlement at 'Regent Square' named Georgetown after King George IV. Turtle pond built. Two vessels believed to be pirates hanging around, armed parties put in all the bays and a semaphore and lookout established at Cross Hill. More bees from U.K. arrived dead. First large tank completed at Dampier's (Bate's Tank). The French scientific vessel 'Astrolabe' spent five days at Ascension. Lt. Brandreth arrived to advise about drilling for fresh water at Green Mountain.

1830 - The famous ex-slaver 'Black Jake' arrived from West African duties with a fever stricken crew; after quarantine at Comfort Cove (later Comfortless) they recovered. Two small tanks built at 'Bullock Holes' and piping being laid from Dampier's tank to Georgetown. Fort Thornton enlarged; it was known as Fort Cockburn at this time.

1831 - Capt. (formerly Lt.) Brandreth found water at a depth of 30 feet in Breakneck Ravine. Pipelines between farm area and Georgetown via Dampier's completed, during trials the water took one hour and 35 minutes to reach Georgetown from the farm. Heavy rains damaged Dampier's tank. One marine killed another during a fught over a card game at the mountain. Commodore Hayes visited the island - later Ft. Hayes was named after him.

1832 - The tunnel to carry waterpipes from Breakneck well to the farm area was completed, digging took place from both ends and when the adits met in the middle the difference in floor levels was only a few inches, a tribute to good surveying.

1833 - Stone barracks built near the upper catchment which did not yet exist. North East Cottage built.

1832-1835 - These years saw a great expansion in Georgetown, the present Hospital and Exiles Club (barracks) and many of the small original Officers' cottages between them were built at this time to replace delapidated wood and canvas structures. The focus of Georgetown thus moved from the old 'Regent Square', near the turtle ponds and swimming pool (Narcissus tank), a part regarded as unhelathy, to the higher better ventilated plateau from which all boulders and loose debris had been cleared. An engraving dated 1834 shows the Exiles Club as a single storied stone building, the upper floor and clock tower were added later. Fort Hayes was an unfortified hill called Goat Hill, and it was proposed to level it and use the cinders for filling the depression now occupied by St. Helenian married quarters. Palmer's Cottage and associated small farm area were probably begun during these years.

1836 - Charles Darwin visited the island as naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle, and wrote an account of the geology (Darwin 1876).

1838 - Lt. Bedford of H.M.S. Raven re-surveyed the island and produced an improved chart. H.M.S. Bonetta brought yellow fever, her victims being buried near Comfortless Cove. Later in the year an influenza epidemic caused some deaths including that of Capt. Wm. Bate, island commander for the previous ten years, who died at N.E. Cottage. Ships reported volcanic disturbances north of Ascension, with floating pumice and vapour clouds.

1839 - Drought and scurvy. Thirty-seven donkeys running wild.

1843 - Cornerstone of St. Mary's Church laid by Mrs. Dwyer, wife of the commander. J. D. Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, visited the island, and later sent many seeds and seedlings to improve the mountain gardens.

1844 - More cowsheds built, cattle introduced.

1845 - The naval transport ship 'General Palmer' arrived from Buenos Aires with seedlings - perhaps this vessel gave its name to the small settlement at 'Palmer's' where some of the seedlings were planted.

1847 - H.M.S. Tortoise nearly lost its anchorage when her cargo of coal caught fire. Church completed.

1848 - Cottage built at Green Mountain, later to be named after Mr. Bell, farm superintendent during the 1860s. Collier Brig 'Africa' wrecked at Comfortless. The Main Store in Georgetown (Her Majesty's Great Victualling Store) begun. Turtle ponds enlarged by 20 ft.

1849 - 24-pounders placed on Hayes (Goat) Hill and near Governor's Lodge on Cross Hill. Convalescent Hospital at the mountain completed (not the present 'San' building).

1851 - Francolin (Red Legged Partridge) and probaly Waxbills (Estrelda astrild) introduced. A Scottish firm sent two brigs to collect guano at Boatswain Bird Island.

1852 - Main Store completed. Walls built at N.E. Cottage to enclose a paddock. Starlings introduced. Men employed turning turtles issued with free boots for walking over the clinker.

1857 - Drought, cattle dying in numbers.

1858 - Cape Botanic Gardens sent over 200 species of plants.

1859 - Great rains, 9 inches in a day with damage to roads and crops.

1861 - Now about 200 starlings. Request for windmills to pump water at Breakneck and Georgetown. Work commenced on a steam driven 'factory' near Fort Thornton. Church consecrated.

1863 - Union Castle liners begin to call at Ascension. Red Lion barracks built at the mountain. 12 h.p. steam engine for the 'factory'.

1865 - Seven fever victims ex-H.M.S. Archer buried near Comfortless (2) and at Monkey Rock (5).

1867 - Mountain Hospital ('San') completed.

1872 - James Galloway, R.M.L.I., fell to his death from Black Rock on Rupert's path whilst going to N.E. Cottage in the night.

1875 - Dewpond constructed at the peak of the mountain.

1876 - The 'Challenger' oceanographic expedition called. A 'boat' shelter erected at the dewpond.

1877 - Professor Gill and his wife Isabel camped at Mars Bay to make astronomical observations.

1879 - Mynah birds (Acridotheres tristis) introduced from Mauritius. The 'Pillar Bay' tragedy in which five officers and men were drowned when their cruise round the island ended in shipwreck on a submerged rock. Very few sailors could swim in those days. St. Mary's Church restored and chancel built.

1881 - Mountain catchment areas cemented to supplement the supplies from the Breakneck Wells and Dampier's.

1882 - First Bermudan Cypress (Juniperus bermudiana) trees planted on summit of Weather Post.

1886 - M'seur Faye of the French Academy of Science measured the local gravity which he found to be higher than the mean for the area.

1888 - The island establishment was reduced as part of a British economy drive. Capt. Napier spent money supplied by a philanthropic society to build a saltwater fountain (which never fiunctioned well and was demolished in 1967) near the present Georgetwon telegraph office.

1890 - Canaries introduced.

1891 - Needles water tank built.

1896 - Unusual thunderstorm. The Captain's Japanese steward, who was talking to the mountain on the telephone, was struck down to the verandah floor when the overhead line was hit. "A good brandy soon brought him round" (Cronk 1922).

1898 - Conduit laid from peak dewpond to feed sheeptrough at N.E. Cottage.

1899 - The Eastern Telegraph Company (later Cable & Wireless Ltd.) laid the first submarine telegraph cable into Ascension from the Cape via St. Helena. This was soon extended to the U.K. via the Cape Verde Islands and others were subsequently laid to West Africa and to Central and S. America until the island sat like a spider in a telegraphic web.

1900 - With the advent of direct cable communications with England, the Committee of Lloyds took over complete running of the Naval Semaphore Station on Cross Hill, sending back details of all ships passing the island. A further water catchment was built immediately above the Red Lion.

1901 - First large scale survey of the island made by Capt. E. Y. Daniel. The carved wooden survey markers set in stone cairns still dot the less accessible parts of the island and a cairn above Coconut Bay has the letters E.Y.D. carved in the topmost stone.

1902 - Georgetown stables (now Cable & Wireless Ltd. power house) built. A donkey driven treadmill worked a grist mill inside the building, the circular 'walk' and shaft trough can be seen north of the building.

1904 - The 'Scotia' of the Scottish Antarctic Expedition called.

1908 - H.M.S. Mutine geodetic team 'fixed' Ascension relative to the rest of the world with precision, the 'observation stone' lies immediately north of Bungalow No. 5 in Georgetown Detailed marine surveys made of S.W., N.E. and Clarence Bay.

1912 - St. Mary's Church roof repaired and an unsightly ventilating dome removed.

1913 - Tin Box (probably the first) placed at Letter Box (q.v.) by Messrs. H. Vincent and G. Dobson.

1915 - First radio installation on Ascension erected by Admiralty at 'Wireless Plain' behind Cross Hill - a spark set for ship communication.

1916 - Mountain 'ramps' improver, corners cut back and drains cut. Piping laid from a water tank on Middleton's to feed the Bullock Ponds.

1921 - Cronk's Patch cut from Red Lion area to N.E. Cottage. Prof. R. A. Daly studied the geology, later a mineral new to science was discovered in specimens collected by him near Middleton's and named 'Dalyite'.

1922 - Complete withdrawal of the British Naval establishment, the Eastern Telegraph Company (Cable & Wireless Ltd.) became the sole residents with the Manager appointed as resident magistrate. Shackleton-Rowett Expedition called. The first Ascension postage stamps were issued.

1923 - The 'English Bay Company' erected buildings and processing plant and laid miles of light railway between English Bay and Porpoise Point, and started collecting 'guano'.

1925 - Cleveland Museum expedition vessel 'Blossom' spent three weeks collecting bird specimens.

1926 - The Union Castle liner 'Garth Castle' went aground near English Bay after mistaking the new Guano company's lights for those of Georgetown. (See 'Wrecks' Part 2.)

1934 - Torrential rains, mountain road destroyed, floods in Georgetown.

1939 - Ascension Volunteer Defence Force organised.

1941 - The Manger of the E.T.C. (C.& W.) redeived coded instructions from the Governor of St. Helena to take soil samples and write a brief description of the surface of the 'Waterloo \ Plains' (S.W. Plains - now the airstrip). He may not have realised the military significance of the task.

1942 - The U.S. Army Engineers built the airstrip, the first plane landed at Ascension. St. Helena Government representative appointed.

1943 - About four thousand servicemen now stationed on the island, mostly American, but small detachments of Royal Artillery, R.A.F. and R.N.

1945 - Large reduction in the island garrisons.

1947 - Departure of the last servicemen, and island administration reverted to the Manager, Cable & Wireless Ltd., who once more became the sole occupants of Ascension. Population fell to about 170.

1949 - Charles Darwin's great grandson (see 1836) visited the island and wrote an article for the American National Geographic Magazine.

1952 - Prof. Combs (Otago University) conducted a three week geological survey.

1953 - H.M.S. Sparrow called and serviced the guns on Cross Hill. Live ammunition was removed from the associated storerooms.

1956 - Advance survey parties arrived to survey the island for the present American Airforce Eastern Test Range facilities. U.S.S. Maury and Truckee assisted.

1957 - The Duke of Edinburgh visited the island for one day. The Eastern Test Range opened. Installations erected on Cross Hill, and at the present domestic site near S.W. Bay Red Hill. Road built to summit of South Gannet (Telemetry) Hill. Airstrip repaired. British Ornithologist's Union Centenary Expedition arrived and set up camp near Mars Bay. Pierhead at Georgetown extended.

1958 - Further installations erected for the A.F.E.T.R. Airfield old wooden control tower burnt down. New mountain road via Command Hill and Hospital Hill tarred and opened to traffic. Mountain 'ramps' tarred for the first time. Survey made by firm interested in re-opening guano workings, but this proved to be uneconomic.

1959 - British Ornithologist's Union Expedition left. Gradual expansion of the 'Base'.

1960 - The 'Golfball' (T.T.R. Site) erected near Comfortless Cove and tarred road built to it from One Boat. A turtle tagging programme was initiated by Prof. A. Carr of Florida University, and H. Hirth visited the island to start the scheme. British Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research commenced radio transmissions from a caravan on Long Beach in connection with ionospheric research.

1961 - New submarine cable terminating house built at Comfortless. Advance party for the B.B.C. project arrived.

1962 - Two lattice steel towers at Wireless Plain dismantled. The discoverer of the 'coelocanth' (a fish long considered to be extinct) visited the island and collected bird specimens. H.M.S. Puma visited Ascension after a trip to the recently active volcano on Tristan da Cunha which necessitated the evacuation of that island.

1963 - Rough dirt road built from the N.E. Bay track, via N.E. Cottage spur, to the Devil's Ashpit. Further B.B.C. advance parties arrived. Old steam cranes on the pierhead at Georgetown dismantled. British judge arrived to try a murder/manslaughter case. A great rainstorm, which brought three years' rainfall in one day, caused extensive damage to roads, Deadman's Beach cemetary flooded to 3 ft. deep, landslides occurred around Elliot's, etc. Transmitter in a caravan at English Bay (tests).

1964 - The island administration passed from the Manager of Cable & Wireless Ltd. to an apointed Administrator - the first since the war years. Oxford University Geological Expedition visitied the island. Building operations were begun at English Bay and Muriel Avenue near Two Boats for the B.B.C. project.

1965 - The airstrip, which had stopped just short of Booby Hill, was considerably lengthened.

1966 - A road from Command Hill, via Grazing Valley, to the Devils' Ashpit (N.A.S.A. Tracking Station) was completed in little over three months, and the N.A.S.A. facilities were installed. The boat at 'One Boat' was removed for restoration.

1967 - Cable & Wireless Ltd. Satellite Earth Station opened. South African Cable Company coaxial terminal building erected in Georgetown. The old Mountain road between One Boat and Two Boats was re-aligned and tarred for the first time. Transmitting site at English Bay completed and masts erected.

1968 - Secor team visited the island to carry out intercontinental geodetic mapping by satellite observations. Simultaneously a BC4 camera team carried out a similar triangulation by optical means, photographing the satellite against a star background. S.A.C.C. coaxial cables laid, from Capetown, then northwards to the Cape Verde Islands. Road from Two Boats Village to B.B.C. Receiving Station near Butt Crater re-aligned and surfaced.

1969 - Green turtle eggs shipped to Caymen Islands to establish the worlds first commercial turtle farm (Mariculture Ltd.). Dr. Archie Carr of the University of Florida visited Ascension to study turtle breeding habits. Selected turtles were fitted with small 7 MHz transmitters to aid in tracking their movements.

1971 - Red Lion (farm) clock repaired and bell found to be dated 1890 although works believed to be older. Whales sighted off the Georgetwon pierhead in October. Dr. Honnorez (Miami University) paid a visit to collect geological specimens, especially xenoliths (See Part 4, Geology).

1972 - More turtle research and tagging. Two unusual waterspouts seen.

1973 - Good Hope castle caught fire about 30 miles S of island. Crew and passengers spent 24 hours in lifeboats, were rescued by a passing tanker and landed on Ascension. The ship was later salvaged.

1974 - Eggs of cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) introduced to Cricket Valley. The caterpillars feed on prickly pear and it is hoped they will limit the spread of this cactus.
The Captain and Mate of an ocean going tug mysteriously disappeared, leaving the vessel in unqualified hands N. of Ascension. Unfortunately the crew thought they were south of the island! This made "talking them in" by radio somewhat longwinded.

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