In the South Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Brazil and Angola, lies 34 square miles of British territory. It is in the form of a small volcanic island, allegedly first discovered in 1501 by a Portuguese explorer, João da Nova. The newly discovered island did not appear on recorded until its rediscovery two years later by a Portuguese navigator, Afonso de Albuquerque, who named it after the day on which it was first sighted, Ascension Day.
With no indigenous population, Ascension Island remained uninhabited until Napoleon Bonaparte’s incarceration on St Helena in 1815. A small British naval garrison was stationed on Ascension Island that was designated ‘HMS Ascension’. The idea behind the garrison was to deny the French strategic access to St Helena should a rescue attempt for the exiled Emperor ever be attempted.
During an exploration of ‘strange new worlds’, Charles Darwin visited Ascension on journey back to Britain in 1836. As passenger aboard the Beagle, Darwin sailed from St Helena believing Ascension to be nothing more than a cinder. However, the red volcanic hills and black rivers of solidified-lava flow inspired him to carry out an elaborate experiment. His ambition was to provide the island with a greatly improved and much needed water supply. Darwin began by importing plants and trees from Europe, Argentina and South Africa. The idea worked remarkably well with more rainfall as acres of trees grew over the years. The soil became more fertile and this experimental ecosystem remains the world’s largest artificial cloud forest. The highest peak on the island, now known simply as ‘Green Mountain’, flourishes with bamboo, banana and pine trees. Darwin created an oasis out of a volcano.
In 2009 Ascension Island plays host to an array of inhabitants and specialist industries from communications, surveillance and national security to the British and American militaries. An airstrip built by a US Army Task Force in 1943 provided an essential stop for planes to land and refuel during flights back to Europe during the Second World War. This airfield would later become critical to the Royal Air Force during the Falklands Conflict in 1982.
There is no ‘right of abode’ on Ascension Island; it is not permitted for anyone to buy property, and no one is allowed to stay without a contracted job. Potential employers are one of the few companies on the Island, the military, or the Ascension Island Government. Children born on the island are given British citizenship, but they cannot remain on the island in to adulthood without contracted employment.
Visitors must have written permission to enter from the island’s Administrator who is appointed by the Governor of St Helena but, ultimately by the British Crown.