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    Avis Part One - A South Atlantic Tale
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(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)

Once, when walking around Georgetown, seeing the Tourist Information Office had me wondering who wrote the first Ascension tourist guide, and who was our first tourist. One B.B.C. Engineer here in the 1960s often claimed it was his mother-in-law. Long before the days of sponsorship she rang him at his home in Two Boats one night and demanded to be picked up at the pierhead. She had just arrived unannounced from a Union Castle Mail Ship. Perhaps the honour goes to Capt. Joshua Slocum, the first single-handed circumnavigator to call at Ascension in April 1898. He readily described the slow lethargic life that still seems familiar today!

The honour of being the first tourist however, belongs very much in the past. Indeed, from the 16th century a steady stream of passing ships visited the island, mostly to collect "meat on the hoof" in the form of turtles. Some visitors, particularly shipwrecked or marooned sailors, stayed longer than others. It was not uncommon for sailors who had committed a serious crime (like casting lustful eyes on the cabin-boy) to be marooned on the nearest island; that is if they were not hanged!

The most famous of Ascension's shipwrecked mariners was William Dampier in 1701. Dampier was in command of HMS Roebuck, which had sailed to the Far East on a combination of discovery, trade and to map the areas it visited on behalf of the King. Dampier was an Englishman, born on the Somerset-Dorset border; he was an experienced seaman and a skilled hydrographer. A one-time buccaneer, he had sailed to many parts of the world, before this his most disastrous voyage. The journey had been marred by a disagreement between himself and his First Lieutenant, which came to a head when Dampier left him in a Far Eastern jail! Dampier started his journey home, calling in at St Helena, and then setting sail for England. Unfortunately, his ship was rather old, and in places rotten. It sprang a leak, which worsened, and it became obvious that the ship could not reach England without repairs, so Dampier made for Ascension. Dampier's carpenter was an innovator (at least that may be the word; possibly Dampier had another). He was convinced that the only way to repair the leak was to knock a bigger hole in the hull, which could then be plugged. In his diary, Dampier expresses some scepticism about this, but agreed to go along with the plan. He did insist, however, that before the carpenter made the hole bigger, he should have the plug ready to seal the enlarged hole. Unfortunately, the carpenter ignored this rather basic advice, and tore away some of the outer planking before he was ready to fix the leak. As a result, the ship slowly began to sink, and despite the efforts of the crew the ship could not be saved.

Dampier's crew was able to get some supplies ashore, but only a limited quantity of fresh water. They began to search the island for a source of fresh water, and legend has it that a hunting party found a spring by following a goat. Dampier gave a very good description of the location of his spring. Unfortunately it does not match the location now known as Dampier's Drip, but is a very good description of how to get to Breakneck Valley!

Dampier remained on the island for about 6 weeks before being rescued. He returned to England where he was court-martialled not only for the loss of his ship, but also for the imprisonment of his First Lieutenant, who it appears had some very influential relatives. Dampier was found guilty and was fined all his pay for the voyage; it was also declared that he should never command a King's Ship again. It is perhaps an indication of the respect held for Dampier that within a year he was once more in command of a King's Ship on a voyage of exploration.

If Dampier was the first famous tourist to record his stay, (a copy of his book is in the Ascension Gallery), he certainly was not the last. Capt Cook called here in 1775, and Charles Darwin in 1836. Most of the learned travellers wrote of their experiences, but few set out to publish details of just the island. Probably the best early description of Ascension comes from George Maxwell who called here in 1793, produced a map of Clarence Bay, or as he knew it "English Roads", and included on the map what must be Ascension's first tourist guide. He describes the place admirably, writing;

"Ascension is an uninhabited island about 20 miles in circumference. Composed of porous rock, calcined earth and pumice stone, the surface in general powdered as it were with sulphur, and hot vitriolic fumes pouring from the mountains destroying all vegetation. Not a blade of grass to be seen, though there are many wild goats; these may possibly have reservoirs of water and hardy plants to glean on the windward side where the destructive vapours cannot reach. The bay abounds with fish, particularly a small cod, but they have a black appearance, and when dead grow putrid remarkably soon, which should deter people from using them, as many have experienced their deleterious effects. Vessels bound for English Road should run down on the North Side, and take Pelican Point within two cable length, being a steep rocky shore, then brace up to fetch in with the bay, which they may easily do, to anchoring ground, the first stretch within one third of a mile of the beach, in 10 or 12 fathom water, fine sandy bottom, bringing the flagstaff on Constitution Hill to bear S.E.

There is another bay under the south about two miles from Rat Corner, called French Road, and better frequented by turtle, but lies very open to the sea, and is dangerous for boats on account of its rocky beach and heavy surf. Vessels calling at Ascension for turtle often turn 50 in a night, from 3cwt to 5cwt each, and may be found in great abundance 8 months out of 12, say June, July, August and September excepted, when the season is too cold. They are wholesome, nutritious food, and prove a salutary refreshment to mariners on long voyages. It would therefore be a good maxim for vessels leaving the coast of Angola, with the wind at S.S.E or even at S.W to call at the island, being little or nothing out of their course to the West Indies, and would most assuredly be of infinite service, in correcting that putrid scorbutic habit, which prevails more or less on board of African ships especially if those concerned in that trade were to erect a few houses for the accommodation of the sick on shore, until the vessel is properly aired and fumigated, the turtle taken on board, and they might also have a supply of water, if cisterns were constructed for that purpose, as it might be done at a very moderate expense."

It sounds quite charming really! Perhaps Captain Burnett provided the best description of Ascension as he took over as Island Commandant in 1858. He summed the island up beautifully in a phrase that would still describe it today:

"This is one of the strangest places on the face of the earth."

Copyright © 2000, Graham Avis
Created by Stephen C Fowler
Last revised on the 8th of February 2002