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Ascension Islands

° Ascension Islands ° Saint Helena Islands ° Tristan da Cunha

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Saint Helena is a British Overseas Territory consisting of Saint Helena and Ascension Islands, and the island group of Tristan da Cunha.

Ascension Island

This barren and uninhabited island was discovered and named by the Portuguese in 1503. The British garrisoned the island in 1815 to prevent a rescue of Napoleon from Saint Helena. It served as a provisioning station for the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron on anti-slavery patrol. The island remained under Admiralty control until 1922, when it became a dependency of Saint Helena. During World War II, the UK permitted the US to construct an airfield on Ascension in support of trans-Atlantic flights to Africa and anti-submarine operations in the South Atlantic. In the 1960s the island became an important space tracking station for the US. In 1982, Ascension was an essential staging area for British forces during the Falklans War. It remains a critical refueling point in the air-bridge from the UK to the South Atlantic.

June 10, 1888, Daily Alta California
San Francisco, California, USA

The British Admiralty Determine to Abandon It.
One Link Connecting England's History With the Napoleonic Legend About to Be Snapped.

London Telegraph.

One of the last links which connect this country with what M. Thiers calls the "'Napoleonic legend," is about to be snapped. In August, 1815, the great Napoleon was transferred from the Bellerophon, on board which ship he had remained since his surrender to Captain Maitland, at Rochefort, on July 14th, to the Northumberland, of seventy-four guns, which conveyed him to St. Helena. The transference of the illustrious prisoner from one ship to the other was effected off Start Point on the 7th of August, and on the following day the Northumberland, accompanied by her escorting squadron, sailed for St. Helena, where she arrived on October 15th.

Ascension. Atlantic Islands.
South-West African Islands, 1885.

Ascension Islands.

Shortly before that day the British Government, mindful of the fact that the French Emperor had already escaped from Elba, and had been the cause of all the anxiety and bloodshed to which the Hundred Days and the battle of Waterloo gave rise, made it evident that they were firmly determined not to allow their dangerous and irrepressible captive to get free again. Accordingly they sent a man-of-war to take possession of the Island of Ascension, which is the nearest land to the rock of St. Helena, from which it is separated by 700 miles of water. Ascension lies nearly in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, about half way between the coast of Africa and that of South America, and is one of the few isolated or single islands on the face of the globe. Like its nearest neighbor, St. Helena, it is a barren and rocky spot, originally upheaved from the ocean by volcanic action, and tortured by the mysterious force of subterranean fire into mountainous peaks and deeply-sunk ravines. Although discovered by the Portuguese, who first sighted it on Ascension Day, so far back as 1501, it had remained uninhabited for three centuries, during which it was surrendered by man to the occupation of the wild rabbit and the mountain goat.

In 1851 the English Ministry, who had borne the heat and burden of the tremendous effort demanded from them to put Napoleon down, conceived the idea that some foreign power might seize the Island of Ascension, and afford opportunities to one of the Emperor's brothers or sisters to plot and maneuver with a view to compassing his escape and return to France. If Count Montholon one of Napoleon's companions in captivity at St. Helena is to bo believed, nothing would ever have tempted the Emperor to trust himself to an open boat manned by French or Italian sailors and to fly from his second island prison had the opportunity been presented to him. He had not forgotten the indignities which he had received or the execration of which he had been the object, on his journey from Fontamebleau to Ferjus in April, 1814. At Orgon, in the south of France, he was with difficulty preserved from the fury of the French populace by the intrepidity of Colonel Campbell and the other allied Commissioners. At the inn of La Calade an exasperated mob surrounded the house for hours, demanding his head, and it was only by getting out of a back window and ruling the next post in the disguise of a courier, with the white cockade of the Bourbons on his breast, that he escaped from his infuriated fellow countrymen.

On arriving at Aix he wore the Austrian uniform of General Roller while wrapping himself in the Kussian cloak of General Schouvaloff, and iv this guise he at last got on board the English frigate Undaunted, which bore, him in safety to Elba. With these painful memories implanted in his breast, the Emperor repeatedly expressed his conviction to Count Monthofon that, if ever he trusted himself to the tender mercies of French or Italian sailors in an attempted escape from St. Helena, they would throw him overboard when the boat which carried Caesar and his fortunes was far out at sea.

Dampier Wellsprig, Ascension Island.
Climb to Dampier Wellspring on Ascension Island

The British Government had made up their minds that no such an opportunity of evasion should arise. They were well aware of the intrigues, bribes and machinations by which his sister Pauline, the wife of Prince Borghese, had contrived to rescue her brother from his custodians at Elba, and were firmly resolved that they should not be repeated at St. Helena. Among many other steps taken by Lord Liverpool's Ministry to insure the safety of their prisoner, the Island of Ascension was seized and held by an English man-of-war and its crew in 1815. From that day to this it has remained under the custody of the British Admiralty, who have always appointed a naval officer to the command of the island, which has been treated as though it were one of the war ships of the royal navy. Upon it the Board of Admiralty caused a steam factory and navy and victualing yards to be established to which a small coaling depot was subsequently added. Seeing that many sick sailors were brought to the island in want of medical relief during the protracted voyages of sailing ships' returning from India, some excellent hospitals were built there for their accommodation.

On the craggy uplands rabbits and wild goats have always abounded, and a few pheasants, guinea-fowls and partridges afforded amusement to an occasional sportsman. From January to May in each successive year the island is visited by shoals of sea turtles, which lay their eggs in the sandy beach and sometimes attain an enormous size. lt is said that fifty or sixty turtles, some of them weighing 700 pounds, are occasionally caught in one night and transfered to ponds close to Georgetown, the only station on the island. The little town is protected by a single fort, with about as much power to resist the big guns of modern ironclads as is possessed by the Martello towers, which in 1803 the third Duke of Richmond, then Master of the Ordnance scattered along the coasts of Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Essex. Little surprise will therefore be felt at the announcement that the Admiralty have resolved to abandon Ascension, and to withdraw from it the small naval station which has been established there since 1815, and of which Capt. Richard H. Napier, R. N. is now the Commandant, at a salary of 600 per annum. Whatever objections may be entertained to surrendering "one inch of our soil or one stone of our fortresses" to borrow the expression employed by Jules Favre in his famous interview with Prince von Bismarck at Ferrieres, September, 1870 there will be none to deny that Ascension may be abandoned with advantage in days when steam has superseded sails as the motive power of ships of war, and when no profit is derived from spending some hundreds of pounds annually upon a barren and inaccessible rock situated in the middle of a boundless waste of water.

Cathedral of Holy Ascension. Unalaska Island. Aleutian Islands.

We are reminded, however, by the geography and physical configuration of the island of Ascension that the feelings of those who gaze from the sea upon its one lofty peak must have been more than shared by the imperial captive who, seventy-three years since, looked forth from the deck of the Northumberland at the mountain walls of his St. Helena prison. The mind of Napoleon," says Mr. William "was dependent for happiness on the accidents of external, fortune. He had an organization which was sensitive in the extreme. The sight of St. Helena must have smitten such a man with dismay." Both islands Ascension and St. Helena are beyond expression, gloomy and forbidding, when seen from the sea. Masses of volcanic rock with sharp, and jagged peaks tower up around the coast and form an iron girdle which seems to bar all access to the interior. Both bear evidence of having been created by the terrific agency of fire, but so gigantic are the strata of which they are composed, and so disproportioned to their area, that to some geologists they appears to be the wrecks and relics of a vast submerged continent. No delicious scenery, like that which allures him to Funchal, in madeira, invites the marienr to stop on his voyage, and the exigency occasioned by the want of water or provisions alone induces him to visit these lonely and upheaved rocks.

In Ascension there are said to be at this moment no more than one hunred and fifty inhabitants, all told, consisting of English officers, seamen and marines, with a few Kroomen interspersed among them. The chief exports of the tropical island are turtles and birds' eggs, and, being within the influence of the southeast trade winds, its area of thirtyeight square miles is blessed with a dry and salubrious climate. Yet on the entire surface of the island there are less than ten acres under cultivation, and according ito a humorous American traveler who recently visited St. Helena and Ascension, the product in which they most abound is rats of extraordinary size and amazing impudence. It is notorious that Longwood, Napoleon's 'residence at St. Helena, swarmed with these ubiquitous rodents, which made such a noise at night that sleep was almost impossible. Writing on January 17, 1817, Barry O'Meara records in his "Voice from St. Helena," which, according to Mr. Forsyth; is far from a true voice that "as Napoleon rose from table, and took his hat off the sideboard, a large rat sprang out of it and ran between his legs."

The British Empire will not moult a single feather of its size and strength by reason of its surrender of the Island of Ascension as a naval station. The tiny islet will still have its placid life, amid the waste of waters, with a smaller population and even a quieter and less noticed career.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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