History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Ascension Island was first discovered in 1501 by the Portuguese nobleman Juan da Nova, who was 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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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), laid in 1968. This was 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.
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.
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.
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.
These photographs were taken during the visit of HMS Worcestershire to Ascension in the mid 1930s:
In 1989 the occupants were moved out and the building was refurbished as the first holiday hotel on the island.
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.
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.
Last revised: 14 May, 2019