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Forbidden Seas and Barbarous Coasts

ascension island[Today’s article comes to us from world traveler and quintessential “international man” Dr. Jack Wheeler.]

Two Boats Village, Ascension Island, South Atlantic Ocean. “This is one of the strangest places on the face of the earth,” observed William Burnett, Commandant of the HMS Ascension  in 1858.  It remains so today.

You might ask how an island can be formally designated a ship of the British Royal Navy, which Ascension was from 1816 to 1922. Children born on the island were designated to have been born at sea, with their birth registered at the parish of Wapping, the sailors’ district along the Thames’ dockyards in London.

No one has ever been allowed to legally live here; there has never been an Ascension Islander. People have been residing here for close to 200 years; some 900 people reside on the island today, with many born here as were their parents and grandparents, going to school and growing up here. Yet all were or are here at the whim of the British Government.

The people here have fewer rights than any other British citizens in the world. One of the rights they don’t have is private property. The British Crown owns the entire island, and no private entity may own a square foot of it.

Tourists would flock here to see hundreds of green turtles laying eggs on the beaches and vast numbers of seabirds, for world-class big game fishing and scuba diving – but the government makes it ludicrously hard to get here.

A friend of mine once gave me a t-shirt that says, “I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.” I’m wearing it now.

For Ascension is a barbarous coast in a forbidden sea – thanks to its government making it that way. It should be an object lesson to us, for Zero is intent on making America a barbarous government-run land, and one day it may be too late to prevent him.

You may recall from a previous article that Portuguese captain, João da Nova, who discovered St. Helena on his way back from India in 1502. On his way to India in 1501, he discovered Ascension (named such because it was May 20, Ascension Day in the Catholic Liturgical Calendar).

800 miles north of St. Helena baking in the equatorial sun, 1,400 miles from both Africa and South America, da Nova found it to be a barren, waterless, scorching lava-strewn volcanic cinder with no natural harbor. No wonder it was uninhabited – and would remain so for over 300 years.

Ships would stop there to catch the huge green turtles nesting on the beaches, each of which supplied up to 200 pounds of tasty meat, and sail on. Sailors marooned or shipwrecked on the island went mad and died from thirst unless rescued by another passing ship.

Then came Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena in 1815. The Brits who delivered him there in October were ordered to sail to Ascension, annex it for the Crown, and establish a Royal Navy Garrison of Marines there – in order to patrol the waters and prevent any escape attempt by the former Emperor. By the following February, the island was officially declared a Royal Navy “Sloop of War,” HMS Ascension.

The island is part of the chain of volcanoes poking through the ocean along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, like Iceland, the Azores, St. Helena, Tristan, and Bouvet. It is also one of the youngest, at about 1 million years old, with a main cone rising steeply to 2,800 feet, and 44 smaller cinder cones scattered around its 35 square miles. The last eruption was 600 years ago.

The peak is now called Green Mountain, yet when Charles Darwin examined it during his famous Beagle voyage in 1836, he thought it “arid and treeless.” But he had an idea.

The biggest problem for the Marine Garrison was getting fresh water. They had found a dripping seep way up the mountain, which they laboriously gathered in barrels and lugged down by mules to their encampment by the shore. Darwin thought if enough plants could be grown way up on the mountain, they would capture sea-mist that would create enough dampness to attract clouds and thus rain.

He gave this idea to Joseph Hooker, son of the Director of the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Hooker persuaded the Royal Navy to send skilled gardeners to Ascension, and arranged for a huge variety of plants, tree seedlings, fruits, flowers, and vegetables to be shipped from India, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and England.

The Marines and their Kroomen (laborers recruited into the Royal Navy from the Kroo tribe in West Africa) built a large barracks up on the mountain in 1863 called the Red Lion – still intact today – to grow food, raise animals like sheep and cattle, and keep the increasing amount of water flowing. For Darwin was right. A visit to Green Mountain is an extraordinary experience.

You drive up from black lava fields and thorn bushes past locations like The Devil’s Ashpit into grassland, then as you climb higher negotiating narrow hairpin turns you get cedar and casuarina trees, after that eucalyptus groves and stands of Norfolk pines.  Finally you reach the Cloud Forest, perhaps the only artificially cloud forest in the world of tree ferns, banana trees, palm trees, bamboo thickets, and flowers of every color in incredible profusion.

It is awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping. And hardly anyone on our planet knows about it. That’s today, however.  In the 1860s, Ascension was an “abomination of desolation,” as the wife of one Marine put it – bad food, water rationed, heat and dust, unending monotony in the Marine settlement of Georgetown built on a lava cinder. And there was no reason for it – Napoleon dead for 40 years, no threat from any other power, as no one wanted the place. Yet the inertia of the British Admiralty bureaucracy kept the place going to no end.

Finally, in 1899 with the Second Boer War raging in South Africa, the Brits had to have a telegraph to Cape Town. The Admiralty commissioned the Eastern Telegraph Company to lay an underwater cable from Cape Town to St. Helena to Ascension, and on to England via Cape Verde and Madeira. The ETC opened a station in Georgetown staffed by company personnel. For the first time, Ascension had civilians living on it.

After World War I, which the Marines spent uselessly watching the seas for no Germans, the Admiralty finally gave up and turned the island over to the ETC in 1922. Now a Crown Dependency (and no longer a ship), no one was allowed to live on it except ETC staff and workers on contract from St. Helena.

For 19 years, ETC people (averaging about three dozen plus wives and children) and Saints (averaging about 100) on 3-year contracts lived a quiet and lonesome life. The most exciting event was when ETC changed its name to Cable & Wireless. Then came World War II – and the Americans. In November 1941 – note: before Pearl Harbor on December 7 – the C&W manager on the island was notified that the American military would be building an airfield on Ascension.

A massive task force had arrived by March, and by June, a 6,000-foot runway had been blasted through and laid down on a lava plain which had been a nesting site or “fair” for sooty terns called Wideawakes for their early morning calls. The first C-47 landed on Wideawake Field, flying from Accra in West Africa, landed on July 10, 1942.

By August, daily squadrons of B-25s and even fighter planes with extra tanks were ferrying men and munitions from Natal, Brazil (1,400 miles) via Ascension to Roberts Field, Liberia (1,400 miles), then on to supply the Allied campaign in North Africa. Over the course of the war, over 25,000 planes flew through Ascension, providing utterly crucial support for the war effort in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even China.

4,000 American servicemen were stationed on Ascension. Roads were built all over the island, underground gasoline storage tanks, barracks, a hospital, a distillation unit for distilling sea water, an electrical plant, gun emplacements, and ammunition dumps. One thing they mysteriously didn’t touch was the pier.

Jutting straight out just a few feet from the shore at Georgetown, less than 30 feet wide with its flat concrete face allowing the huge South Atlantic rollers – often 15 feet high or more – to slam right into it, the Pierhead was built in 1820. The Americans didn’t touch it, nor build any improvement like a breakwater or actual harbor – even though they off-loaded 25,000 tons of stores on it. It is idiotically primitive – and it’s just the same right now today.

After WWII, the Americans pulled out and the island went back to lethargy for Cable & Wireless workers – but not for long. In 1956, the Americans were back, building a missile tracking station monitoring missiles launched from Cape Canaveral 5,560 miles to the northeast. Then, in the 1960s, the BBC (British Broadcasting) built its Atlantic Relay Station for shortwave broadcasts to Africa and South America, while NASA contracted with C&W to build an earth station for its satellite parked above the Atlantic in geostationary orbit, this for the Apollo Moon Landings.

By this time, Ascension stopped being a company island, with the Colonial Office in London sending an Administrator to govern it. In the 1970s, NASA had Wideawake Field lengthened and widened so that it could be used as an Emergency Landing Site for the Space Shuttle flights starting in 1981.

Just in time to save the Falklands. When Argentina militarily invaded and seized the Falklands in April, 1982, the Brits were at an incredible logistical disadvantage – so much so that the US Navy considered a successful British counter-invasion a “military impossibility.” Over 8,000 miles of ocean separated Britain from the Falklands. Once again, Ascension became the invaluable halfway link.

Wideawake Field became the busiest airport in the world during the Falklands War (350 take-offs and landings per day). RAF Vulcan bombers were able, with multiple-refuelings and a 9,000 mile round-trip, to attack Argentine positions. C-130s provided critical supplies to British troops recapturing the islands. Reagan authorized the release of 12.5 million gallons of jet fuel stored by the US at Wideawake.

The Argies surrendered to the Brits on June 14. The “impossible” war was won by the Brits in 74 days – which, according to Margaret Thatcher, could not have been won without Ascension.

After the war, the RAF (British Royal Air Force) established a permanent station at Wideawake, which continues to be jointly run by the US and the UK.  The European Space Agency built a tracking station on the island to monitor its Ariane satellite-launching rockets from its Guiana Space Center on the east coast of South America.

The US Air Force built a GPS (global positioning satellite system) ground antenna site on Ascension, one of only four in the world that makes GPS possible (the other three:  Cape Canaveral, Florida; Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean; Diego Garcia Atoll in the Indian Ocean).

Throughout all of this history, up until nine years ago, no visitor or tourist was ever allowed to step foot on Ascension. Private ships and yachts would be chased away by British patrol boats. No private plane was allowed to land. Perpetrators of emergency landings were arrested, interrogated, and quickly sent on their way.

Starting in 2004, private ships were allowed to disembark passengers – but only if they had been previously issued an Entry Permit and provided proof of medical evacuation insurance. Few are actually able to, however, due to the 1820 Pierhead. There are no steps. The ship tender or Zodiac can’t be tied up. You hold on to a rope, and you have to time the swell to jump off onto the slippery concrete landing when the swell rises up to it.

It’s been like this since 1820. We were able to make it, and just barely. We had to wait a day offshore for the swell to die down. Two weeks ago (4/18), Holland America’s cruise ship Amsterdam could not land a single one of their over 1,000 passengers. They sailed away bitterly unhappy. This is why hardly any cruise ship ever comes here.

The RAF operates a twice-weekly flight from its Brize Norton Air Base near Oxford to Ascension and on to the Falklands. It’s for military and contract personnel, but will provide seats for visitors on a space-available basis. It’s the only way to fly here or out. The US Air Force operates flights to/from Patrick AFB in Florida for its personnel exclusively. No commercial flights to Ascension are allowed.

The weird thing is that once you get here, there’s no security whatever. After a totally perfunctory Customs check at the pier, wherever we went on the island, we didn’t see a single guard or guard post, even at the US military facilities at Wideawake, nor a single policeman.

Just about everyone of the some 1,400 people on Ascension, aside from Brit administrators and technicians, plus US Air Force personnel, are Saints from St. Helena. As long as they have a contract for a job – and almost every job here is done by them – they can stay. They can have wives and children – but once their kids, who were born and grew up here, turn 18, if they don’t have a contract job within six months they are kicked out and are put on the next ship for St. Helena.

I’m here at the local watering hole in quaintly-named Two Boats Village, where most people live (Georgetown is just an administrative center, although it has the only place on the island you can stay at, the 1-star Obsidian Hotel). Saints are very friendly folk, and over a few beers, they explained to me how rightless they are.

“We can’t own the homes we live in, only rent them from the government. We can’t own any property, only lease it from the government. Some of us have put our life savings into a business here, which we could lose overnight if the government decides we can’t stay here anymore for any reason they make up…”

“In the British government’s view, although we are British citizens and pay lots of British taxes, we have no rights while we are here, as we have no right to be here. Many of us were born here, went to Two Boats School. Many of our families have been here for two or three generations. Doesn’t matter – we’re not Ascension Islanders, for the government says there’s no such thing…”

“Ascension could be such a tourist gold mine. To see a hundred giant green sea turtles nesting and laying their eggs on Long Beach, or watch their hatchlings – thousands of them – coming out of their shells and struggling to make it off the sand and into the sea… well, you can’t see that anywhere else on the planet…”

“The big game fishing’s better than anywhere too – just a while ago, a bloke landed a blue marlin over thirteen hundred pounds. Then there’s the Cloud Forest on Green Mountain, beautiful beaches like at English Bay, and lots more. But the government resists all our efforts to create good tourist facilities or make it easy for tourists to get here.”

This is what you get when you combine choking government control, anti-capitalism, and an obsession with secrecy and security that tramples people’s basic human rights.

Does this sound familiar? It is precisely what Zero is doing to us. The only main difference is that his government will end up preventing us from leaving rather than forcing us to leave the US if we displease him. The only way we’ll be able to leave is if we turn over all our assets – like our 401k’s – to the Feds beforehand.

That’s where we’re headed – an America of forbidden seas and barbarous coasts. It could be so easily a land of prosperity and freedom, as it once was – but our current government is dedicated to preventing that, just like Ascension’s.

Tonight, I hope to be on the RAF flight to the UK and then fly home. I haven’t been on the Internet, watched TV news, or read a newspaper in over a month. It’s been blissful ignoring the world, and hope you’ve enjoyed this series of missives from hidden places – Antarctica, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, and now Ascension over the last five weeks. For strangely, each has a relevance to us.

I must admit I’m not looking forward to plunging back into the world, for I know it will still be wallowing in cultural degradation and political insanity. Yet I know that Joel Wade would advise me to quickly abandon that attitude, and refocus on the good that can always be found, especially in America. Besides, I can hardly wait to see my wife.

[Editor’s Note: Once called “Indiana Jones of the Right” by The Washington Post, Dr. Jack Wheeler is the founder of To The Point, a website that serves as “The Oasis for Rational Conservatives”. Learn more at www.tothepointnews.com.]

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