|Avis Part Two - Beginnings are Such Difficult Times|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
Once, whilst talking to some visiting students from Edinburgh in Ascension, I asked what has to be the stock question to visitors, "What are your first impressions?" It reminded me of my own first impression in December 1971 as I sat in the VC10 looking out at Ascension. "What have I done?" Mind you, in those days the authorities had the right idea. You sat in the plane, the police collected the passports, and you didn't get them back until after the plane had left!
I wonder what the first residents thought. It had to be better than sailing the seas in a small ship. Why were they here? On the 15th of October 1815, a squadron put into St Helena, commanded by Rear Admiral George Cockburn. He had just arrived from England with an important prisoner, one Napoleon Bonaparte. Cockburn was concerned that the French might use Ascension to mount a rescue mission, so the island was to be claimed and garrisoned. Two Brigs of War were duly dispatched to Ascension. On the 22nd of October 1815, at 5pm, HMS Zenobia and HMS Peruvian anchored in Clarence Bay. The ships' logs record that at 5.30pm, Captain White and Captain Dobree came on shore, raised the Jack, and took possession of Ascension Island in the name of His Britannic Majesty, King George III. (I'm sure George III would have been impressed, had he been sane!)
At 7.00pm the ships' boats were again sent to the shore to look for turtle, luckily for the turtle none was found. The next day a Lt. Hobson was sent with a party to dig for water behind Long Beach. Hardly surprisingly, they found salt water! Lt. Thorne was sent to the mountain to explore for water and goats, and ships carpenters started to survey the site that was to become the first settlement.
Within a few days construction had started on a settlement known by the imaginative name of "The Garrison", which was based in an area later to become known as Regent Square. This is the low lying ground bounded by the turtle ponds and the stone buildings of the naval stores, close to the site of the current Georgetown Public Swimming Pool. Two cannons were put onto what became Fort Cockburn (later called Fort Thornton), forming a small battery.
A further battery was built at the base of the fort - it is still there today, close to the Turtle Ponds. This was known as a ricochet battery. Ever skimmed a stone across water? This battery did the same thing with cannon balls. It would quite ruin the day of any force trying to land in their rowing boats. The structure is well worth a visit, as it still contains a pretty good powder magazine.
And so the garrison developed. Water was found at Dampiers Drip (143 gallons per day), in Breakneck Valley (300 gallons per day), and on Middletons Ridge (300 gallons per day). The rocks lying close to Fort Cockburn were dressed with stone, and turned into a landing place, (now the Pierhead). A pond was constructed to keep turtles, and alongside this a small boat harbour was built. Not all was peace and tranquillity however, as a cemetery was laid out on the slopes of Cross Hill. It is still there today, containing 18 graves. The most prominent feature in this graveyard is now known as the Redpole Monument. (HMS Redpole spent a number of years on the St Helena station and the monument on the hillside is said to commemorate its loss in 1828 in an action with a pirate.) In fact, old maps show this Monument as Paisley's Monument, Paisley being the Captain of the Redpole who died at Ascension in 1819, along with other members of the crew. The other graves also date from this period, one being of Richard Verner, the Quartermaster of HMS Heron.
1821 saw the death of Napoleon, and the first of many suggestions that Ascension was to be abandoned. No such luck, I'm afraid! Sir George Collier decided that Ascension would make an ideal victualling place and recuperation base for the West Africa Squadron then engaged in anti-slaving duties on the African Coast. The coast and its river deltas were known to be unhealthy, as demonstrated by Ascension's next main event.
1823 saw the infamous visit of HMS Bann carrying a particularly nasty little bug. This managed to spread to the Garrison, and killed 24 from the community as well as 26 officers and men from the ship itself. A memorial marks the place where all are buried; you can't miss it, it's by the Chinatown sewer plant! Following this scare, revised arrangements were put in place for ships arriving, and a fever station established at Sydney Cove. But more of that later on!
Also in 1823, a new commandant arrived, Lt Col Edward Nicholls RM, later to become Gen Sir Edward (Fighting) Nicholls. He continued the work of establishing the community. Barracks were built at Dampiers Drip, (so he claimed - really they were caves carved out of the clinker). Roads were constructed to the upper and lower drip sites. Barracks were constructed at Middletons, (another cave), and on the mountain, where the farm was beginning to flourish.
It was in Nicholls time that the first large building was started, a store, now part of the AIS Works Dept. This 3-storey building, complete with its own water tank was completed by 1827. The only other good building was an Officers Mess (how unusual!), built above The Garrison, roughly on the site of the old stockyards, just below Georgetown Villa.
In 1824 Nicholls wrote,
"The animals are in a thriving condition and we should have thousands of guinea fowl and wild cocks and hens instead of hundreds, were it not that we are over-run by wild cats as bad if not worse than the island was formerly over-run by rats. A rat is scarcely to be seen now, and I hope soon to be able to put down the cats by the assistance of my dogs. The cats have killed the geese and their goslings in their nests, turkeys in the same way. So numerous are they that I have killed 16 in one day, and should have killed more, but that the dogs were knocked up from intense heat and want of water."
"But for the cats" is obviously a long-established Ascension cry! Nothing changes, does it? So life on Ascension dragged on, and Nicholls in his letters painted a glowing picture of the island. Writing to the Governor of Sierra Leone, he said;
"It is with sincere regret that I have heard of the death of some of your most valued officers, and think it is my duty to inform you that if you require the bracing cool air of our mountains, I have a humble but clean (and to me) a very comfortable and healthy abode much at your service. We have plenty of good vegetables, mutton, beef, poultry, fish, tea, coffee, milk and eggs to all which, I will give an old soldier's hearty welcome to any of your officers or friends that you may entrust to my care."
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and not everyone agreed with Nicholls glowing description of the island, including Lt Brandreth, an Engineer sent to do a survey of the island. Things were to change however; Ascension was about to get one of those great strokes of luck.
A new commandant was appointed; Captain William Bate.