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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Ascension Island
by Bill Glover

ASCENSION ISLAND

EARLY HISTORY

Ascension Island was first discovered, in 1501, by the Portuguese nobleman Juan da Nova on an expedition to India via the Cape of Good Hope. He gave it the name of Conception. However the discovery was not publicised and it was Alfonso de Albuquerque, in charge of four vessels on their way to India, who rediscovered the island in 1503 and named it Ascension, after Ascension Day, the day on which it was sighted. From then until its annexation by Great Britain the island was uninhabited except for the occasional shipwrecked sailors.

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Alfonso de Albuquerque

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Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn

ANNEXATION

In 1815 Napoleon, following defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, was sent into exile on St. Helena and to prevent anyone using Ascension as a base to rescue him, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who escorted Napoleon to St. Helena, decided it was necessary to annex the island. He gave orders to Captain James White, Commander of HM Sloop Peruvian, to sail with Captain William Dobree, Commander of HM Sloop Zenobia, to carry out the task.

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The two vessels left St. Helena on 18 October 1815,arriving at Ascension on the 22nd. Peruvian’s log records. "5.30 pm Captain White in company with Captain Dobree went on shore and took a formal possession of the Island in the name of His Britannic Majesty." The island eventually became known as HMS Ascension and was on the Admiralty books as a "Sloop of War".

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The death of Napoleon in 1821 did not affect the situation on Ascension as it was by now used as a supply depot for ships of the West Africa Squadron engaged in the suppression of the slave trade. At the same time the Marines took over from the Royal Navy.

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The Marines gradually built defences, accommodation and developed a garden on Green Mountain to supply fresh vegetables to the garrison. This grew into a farm with cattle sheep and pigs. A number of those posted to Ascension were skilled tradesmen who spent their time pursuing their trade rather than military duties. One of the major achievements was the system of piping water from Green Mountain to Georgetown the main settlement. This was devised by Lieutenant (later Captain) H. R. Brandreth of the Royal Engineers. So successful was the system that it operated for the best part of a hundred years.

Captain’s Office, Barracks, and
Salt Water Tower, circa 1902

CABLES

At the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 the only way to get a telegraph message from the UK to Cape Town was either via the west coast or the east coast of Africa, a slow and tedious journey. A quicker and more direct route was urgently required. The Eastern Telegraph Company contracted the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company to manufacture and lay the necessary cables, which were to link Cape Town - St. Helena - Ascension - St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands. Messages were then routed over the Western Telegraph Company cables, St Vincent - Madeira - Carcavelos, Portugal, from there to Porthcurno they again travelled over the Eastern network.

CS Anglia laid the 2065 nm first stage from Cape Town to St Helena, completing it by 26 November 1899, and while CS Anglia returned to the UK for more cable CS Seine laid the section from St Helena to Ascension, a distance of 844 nm, completing it by 15 December 1899. CS Anglia then laid 1975 nm of cable from Ascension to St Vincent, Cape Verde Islands, completing the task by 21 February 1900.

In 1901 the Eastern Telegraph Company contracted the same company to manufacture and lay cables from St Vincent to Madeira, 1130 nm, and from there a 1375 nm cable to Porthcurno. CS Anglia and CS Britannia (2) carried out the work. Another cable laid by CS Anglia in the same year was that from Ascension to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a distance of 1125 nm. This was to provide an alternative route in case of cable failure.

Further cables were laid this time for the Western Telegraph Company in 1910 when CS Colonia laid 3145 nm of cable from St. Vincent - Ascension - Buenos Aires, Argentina, with CS Cambria assisting and CS Cormorant (2) laying the cable up the River Plate. This cable was the second longest telegraph cable to be laid. In 1919 CS Colonia laid a 2103 nm cable from Ascension to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

SAT 1 [South Atlantic Telephone (Cable) 1]

The only other cable to land on Ascension was SAT 1 (South Atlantic Telephone 1), a co-axial telephone cable carrying 360 circuits, which came ashore at Mitchell Cove, to the south of Long Beach. From there a landline connected it to the company office in Georgetown. This was brought about by South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth, and the South Atlantic Cable Company was formed in South Africa to fill the gap.

Standard Telephone and Cables Ltd. manufactured the cable, which was laid over the following route: South Africa - Ascension - Cape Verde Islands - Tenerife - Portugal. CS Mercury laid the section South Africa - Ascension and HMTS Monarch (4) laid the remaining sections. CS John W. Mackay laid all the shore ends.

The GPO, using CS Alert (4), laid a cable from England - Portugal in 1969. This cable was also manufactured by Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd., Greenwich.

When SAT 1 was replaced in 1993, by SAT 2, the long association between Ascension and submarine cables ceased. Cable & Wireless Ltd. operate a Satellite Earth Station on the island, and they also operate the ARIANE station for the European Space Agency.

COMFORTLESS COVE

In 1823 HMS Bann arrived at Ascension with fever on board. Sick sailors were sent ashore with terrible consequences for the garrison. By the time the disease had run its course 26 officers and men from the ship had died as well as 24 of the Garrison. From then on all vessels with sickness on board were sent into quarantine at Comfortless Cove.

When the island was first occupied this was known as Sydney Cove. Its name was changed to Comfort Cove when it became the quarantine station for vessels, arriving at Ascension, having fever or other contagious diseases aboard. For obvious reasons the name changed to Comfortless Cove. The sick were sent ashore and were nursed by their shipmates. The island garrison supplied food and water leaving it at a suitable spot, then firing a rifle to signal to the unfortunate sailors that it was ready for collection.

Cable Hut, Comfortless Cove, circa 1902

By the time the cables came ashore at Comfortless Cove it was no longer used as a quarantine station. All six telegraph cables came ashore in the cove. The 1999 Ascension Souvenir Sheet for the centenary of Cable & Wireless on Ascension shows a cable being landed at Long Beach which is a design error. The land lines linking the cable hut and the cable station were buried in trenches which ran behind Long Beach to Georgetown.

Cable Hut at Comfortless Cove, 2002
Photograph copyright © 2002,
C. Bishop, RAF Brize Norton

CABLE STATION

The building was constructed between 1899 and 1903 and was intended for use as the Petty Officers/Sergeants Mess, but it was given to the Eastern Telegraph Company for use as a cable station. The equipment and manager’s office was on the ground floor and the upper floor was used as living accomodation. The building was then put to a variety of uses during which period it was known as Top Flat and Bottom Flat.

The Eastern Telegraph Company’s
Station and Quarters, Ascension, circa 1902

These photographs were taken during the visit of HMS Worcestershire to Ascension in the mid 1930s:

Eastern Telegraph Company Cable Station and staff accommodation.
HMS Worcestershire can be seen in the background

St.  Mary’s Church

In 1989 the occupants were moved out and the building was refurbished as the first holiday hotel on the island.

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MARINE BARRACKS

The barracks were built in 1836, a second storey being added in 1848. When the Navy left in 1922 the Eastern Telegraph Company acquired the building and it became known as the Exiles Club.

Photograph copyright © 2002,
C. Bishop, RAF Brize Norton.

Graham Avis, BBC engineer and former Senior Manager Ascension Island Services, includes the following information on the ETC and its buildings in his history of Ascension Island, copyright © 2000 by Graham Avis and reproduced by permission. The complete text is available at the Ascension Island Heritage Society’s website on Graham’s History of Ascension page.

In 1899, came an event that was to change Ascension forever. A party of the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived, and Ascension ceased to become solely a military island, although it continued to be run by the Admiralty. The Eastern Telegraph Company was to use Ascension as a relay station in its new undersea cable network running from Capetown to St Helena, Ascension, St Vincent and on to England. On the 15th of December 1899, the cable from St Helena was completed, and Ascension was no longer isolated from the world. By the end of February 1900, the island was part of the network extending from Capetown to England. In 1901, a cable was added connecting Ascension to Sierra Leone. Cables to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro followed in later years.

The cables were dragged ashore at Comfortless Cove, and a cable termination hut built on the beach. Landlines connected the undersea cables to Georgetown, where the new company was to establish its offices. The course of these cables can still be followed, and in the area between Comfortless Cove and Long Beach, ETC cable markers can still be found.

The Navy allocated one of its new buildings to be used as an office and termination room. The CPO’s Mess, now the Islander Hostel, was the first home of the ETC. The Superintendent had the top floor of the building as a flat, and the ground floor was used as an office and operating room. All telegrams passing through the cable were read and retransmitted by hand.

Further ETC buildings were erected. A larger office was built where the old SACC building stands now, with a water tank. Accommodation was also erected on the southern edge of the town, (now known as Cuba); mess rooms, a billiard room, a library, kitchens, and ablution blocks were erected all in the same colonial style out of corrugated iron sheets. Two tennis courts also followed, with the complex being complete by 1910. The accommodation buildings still survive today, and are in use. As well as the UK staff of the ETC, company servants were recruited from St Helena. By 1908, the ETC presence amounted to 40 persons, including the domestic servants. The ETC staff obtained their victuals from the Navy, but although they appeared on the island’s books for food purposes, in all other respects they were private individuals, rather like the servicemen’s wives and children.


Cable & Wireless Ascension Island Station, 1970

C&W Central Telegraph Office in 1970.
The original Cable Station can be seen on the right

C&W Administrative Building

Cemetery near Comfortless Cove

Staff Bungalow

C&W Single Girls’ Quarters

C&W Bachelor Staff Quarters

Ascension Island photographs in this section courtesy of Bill Glover

Site contributor Paul Taylor visited Ascension Island
in 2003, and shares these photographs:

The "new" cable hut at Comfortless Cove. The former cable route to the previous "old" hut, demolished, can be clearly seen on the right.

A cable draw pit along the route from Comfortless Cove to Georgetown with an ETC cable marker.

The ETC marker.

Comfortless Cove cemetery

Ascension Island photographs in this section copyright © 2006 Paul S. Taylor
Paul Taylor visited Ascension Island again in 2007,
and shares these new photographs:

The "new" cable hut in Comfortless Cove.
The cable route to Georgetown is under
the steps to the left of the hut

Cables transit from the beach to the
right hand side of the cable hut

Right hand side of the cable hut
showing cables as above right,
viewed from seaward side

The steps to the left of the hut

A view of the left side of the cable hut

The linear grey path, also the cable
route, (in 1st quadrant of pic)
extends from the steps

Cable ducting comes to the
surface in the path

View behind the cable hut, showing the base of a previous hut. This shows the cable route to the base of the steps; also visible are slots in the base, right and left, for previous cable entry points. The small concrete pillar may have been the support for the cable termination point.

Left hand side of hut showing cable entry on that side

Ascension Island photographs in this section copyright © 2008 Paul S. Taylor

Last revised: 15 August, 2016

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