|Avis Part Six - Nothing New Under The Sun.|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
Compared with busy industrialised countries, the Ascension of today is very much a sleepy backwater. Many living here often wonder how long the island will continue to be occupied. Nothing is new in life; by the 1880's much the same thoughts were being expressed. The efforts of individuals to build a long-lasting infrastructure were continually affected by the instructions of their remote masters to reduce the establishment's costs.
While the community of Georgetown was being built in the 1830s, the Admiralty decided to reduce the island's complement. Captain Bate continued his grand building plan however, with the reduced establishment. His death in 1838 affected the morale of the community, but not its enthusiasm for improvements. Two of Georgetown's more recognisable structures were started in the 1840s; the Church and the great Naval Store, both still in use today. These two buildings show interesting differences. The store is built with dark basalt stone from the Chinatown quarry. It has massive walls, cast iron floor supports, and even a reasonable size cellar. It is an impressive building built to last. The more modest church is built in softer stone, obtained from Quarry Hill, half way up Cross Hill, below "The Needles". The store appears to have been the last building constructed from the more durable basalt stone. Perhaps the reduction in numbers made the use of this stone impracticable.
Since the establishment of the island, the passing of time had been announced by the firing of a signal gun. A clock was requested, an additional storey built on to the Marine Barracks, and for the first time the town had a clock that could be seen by everyone. No excuse for being late for work now! The clock still works, both loved and disliked. Those who visit Georgetown often ask why it isn't kept wound. Those who live within earshot of its chimes prefer it to be left well alone!)
As far as Georgetown was concerned, these represented the last of the major works to be undertaken for nearly 30 years. Work continued on the mountain however. The Mountain Hospital struggled towards completion, and in 1860 work started on the new farm accommodation, The Red Lion.
Up until 1860, Ascension was still a popular calling place for ships. Perhaps visiting captains may have had an ulterior motive. Ships could purchase stores at government prices, which were much less than that charged by the merchants on St Helena. Following pressure from these merchants, the island's charges were more than doubled, and very high harbour fees introduced. But ships still called. The West Africa Squadron's Commodore visited four times a year, each visit being very much a social occasion. The Commodore's ship often brought luxuries missed by the Ascension garrison.
By 1865, two events had occurred that adversely affected both Ascension and St Helena. The base of the West Africa Squadron was moved from Ascension to Capetown, and the Suez Canal opened. The effect of the canal on St Helena was catastrophic. Where over 500 ships a year had called at Jamestown, this reduced to less than 50. The effect on Ascension was similar. The Admiralty ordered a reduction in the garrison; according to a writer in the period 1866 to 1872, the island population was only a third of what it had been previously. No more regular visits from the Commodore; Ascension became a sleepy backwater.
Visitors to the island reported the sleepy life, where petty arguments could mean that wives would not speak to each other for weeks at a time. Wives were permitted to accompany their husbands if the passages were paid, with all food and goods being supplied by a naval canteen. There had previously been a shop, roughly near the site of the present shop, run by a firm of English merchants. The reputation of this shop had spread far and wide in the Navy. Its well-filled shelves suggested that anything could be obtained. Unfortunately this store had been closed by order of the Admiralty. The clock on the barracks was said to chime "Oh Gawd" every quarter of an hour.
Many visitors recorded their thoughts. The first Bishop of St Helena called in 1861 to consecrate the church and the main graveyard. (Some cemeteries remain un-consecrated grounds). In 1877 Professor David Gill, accompanied by his wife Isabel, arrived for a six-month stay. Astronomer Gill was here to study the opposition of Mars, and so try to determine the exact distance of the Earth from the Sun. Mrs Gill's account of their stay is an interesting description of life on Ascension. Major Ellis visited the island twice up to 1882. He claimed that Ascension produced nothing but turtles, rats, and wide-awakes. Cattle, sheep and vegetables had to be imported from St Helena, with two sheep being killed weekly "usually just in time to save their lives!" A single-handed circumnavigator, Joshua Slocum, called in 1898, and was made very welcome. His descriptions of island life however, show how lethargic things had become.
The odd ship still called with fever. The Mountain Hospital had been closed in 1873, although it could be opened up if necessary. In 1883, the Flirt made use of the facilities, with members of the crew spending ten days at the hospital. Other vessels called and their crews did some repairs on the island, such as clearing paths, weeding roads, or repairing buildings. One visit by the Opal in 1884 coincided with an unusual event. The Opal's crew were convalescing from Yellow Fever at the Mountain Hospital, when a change of wind meant that the hospital had to be closed due to the smell from the ravines used as a depository for the hospital's waste and rubbish.
In the 1880s there was a very strong move to abandon Ascension, with even talk of selling the island. By that time, the island consisted of the community of Georgetown, complete with its two forts, Fort Hayes and Fort Thornton, the Lloyds lookout post on Cross Hill, the Mountain Hospital, and the mountain settlement. The Admiralty tried to go in for long distance demolition, by ordering the destruction of numbers of the buildings. However, the local commanders somehow seemed to avoid too much destruction. This unfortunately meant that it was difficult to get new investment into the island. Materials had to be recycled, wood, old barrels, old buildings - everything had another use.
As Ascension slumbered towards the new century, life must have been dull. Only the odd visiting ship to enliven the place, no money being invested in the infrastructure, and the island under a continuous threat of closure and cutback; how like today!
Yet in the 1890s the world was changing, and Ascension's future prospects were about to be radically improved.