Ascension is an island five mile by seven miles, about 1000 miles from Sierra Leone and 680 miles from St Helena. The Island of Ascension was discovered by Portuguese explores but was not permanently inhabited until a British garrison was established on the Island in 1815. This was the year Napoleon Bonaparte was incarcerated on St Helena, and Ascension was seen as part of its’ defence. The Island then slowly developed as a Victualling Yard and Coaling Station and was regularly used by the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy carrying out anti-slavery operations.
The Island is unusually because it was administered by the Royal Navy and Garrisoned by Royal Marines. The fortifications do not therefore follow the usual patterns until later years.
Although designated as a Coaling Station, this was not one of the official defended coaling stations. It was used by the Royal Navy from its own budget.
Ascension was a popular stopping off point for vessels travelling around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 saw sea traffic transiting through Ascension drop from five hundred vessels to fifty vessels of year. This loss of traffic was compounded when the Royal Navy West Africa Squadron, primarily involved in anti-slavery operations off the West Coast of Africa, had been based at Ascension. The Squadron’s operational base was moved in 1865 from Ascension to Cape Town with the end of slavery in the United States. As a result of these two developments, Ascension became a backwater with the population reduced by two thirds. However, Georgetown continued to be used as a coal depot for the Royal Navy but it was not a designated Defended Coaling Station.
Between 1872 and 1889 the small resident population was shown as HMS Flora (Tender).
In 1875 Ascension had the following coastal defences:
- Fort Hayes, with three 24-pdr SBML guns. This was on top of Goat Hill
- Fort Thorton (Cockburn) with seven 24-pdr guns
- Ricochet Battery or Fort Warren with two 24-pdr guns
- Two 24-pdr guns at Fort Murdock on Cross Hill, near the Governors Lodge
- Fort Clarence on Green Mount established as a bastion of last resort. With one 32-pdr gun and 18-pdr gun, supported by two 18-pdr carronades, three 12-pdr brass howitzers and three 6-pdr field guns.
By the 1880s Ascension saw a rejuvenation, in part due to the installation of an underwater cable network operated by the Eastern Telegraph Company (later Cable & Warless). By 1900 Ascension was connected by cables to Cape Town, England, and Sierra Leone.
The Admiralty provided a small garrison of about one hundred marines and maintained a hospital on Green Hill, built in 1848. By 1894 Ascension Island mounted seven 7-inch RML guns, six machine guns and was awaiting the arrival of two 6-inch BL guns for Bedford New Battery.
The Island of Ascension remained a strategic location during World War 2, and oil farms were built. Operations against the German U Boats were also mounted from here.