Ascension Island: The History Behind A Tiny Part Of Britain

A weekend of commemorations is getting underway in the middle of the Atlantic to mark 200 years since the Royal Navy claimed Ascension...

A weekend of commemorations is getting underway in the middle of the Atlantic to mark 200 years since the Royal Navy claimed Ascension Island for Britain.
The island, which is now part of the RAF's airbridge to the Falkland Islands, was first garrisoned in 1815.
Carla Prater is on the island to witness the anniversary.
Ascension Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It sits in the middle of the Atlantic, so far from any other land mass that its nearest neighbour is 800 miles away. Yet this is part of British Sovereign Territory, that's been flying the Union Flag for 200 years.
Ascension Island flag
Ascension Island flag
Visitors can only fly to Ascension from RAF Brize Norton and need written permission to stay. Once you land, you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived on Mars.
The island is made up of dozens of extinct volcanos, its barren, singed earth is a long way from the green grass of home and yet there are many quirks of this rusty-red land that is worth exploring.
The Portuguese were the first to record Ascension in 1501. They gave the island its name, but the land was so desolate, they didn't stick around.
Three hundred years later, when Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, Britain saw it as a strategic location, to foil any attempts the French might make to release him.
Georgetown, the capital of Ascension
On 22nd October 1815 the Union Flag was raised over what is now Georgetown and the island was designated HMS Ascension, the Navy's only stone frigate.
The Royal Navy used the island during its battle against the Slave Trade. Marines were stationed here, but it took a lot of effort to make the land habitable.
Charles Darwin visited, followed later by a botanist that recommended planting trees to turn the island into a garden. Ships of saplings were sent over which transformed the 'land of cinder' into cloud forest.
Under water communications gave the island a new potential and during the Second World War, Ascension was used to supply antisubmarine patrols.
The US built an airbase and called it Wideawake after the noisy birds nearby, and as the fighting in Europe intensified, 25,000 planes were flown through the island on their way to battle.
After the war, Ascension was designated as an emergency landing strip for space shuttles. Its runway was widened and NASA built a tracking station on site. Later a signals station was established, setting the island up as a communications hub and a relay station for the BBC World Service.

RAF Vulcan bomber on its way to the Falkland Islands
(Picture Credit: Bob Shackleton)
During the 1980s the RAF used Ascension to launch its Vulcan bombers in the Falklands campaign.
Today, it still remains as a link to the South Atlantic, operating an air bridge to the far reaches of British governance.
Eight hundred people live on Ascension. Just over a dozen are British personnel but this weekend the visitor numbers will be much higher. The island is marking its bicentenary, raising the Union flag once more to celebrate its history, to remember how this piece of land became a part of Britain, far from home.