As for every island and uninhabited territory, the history of Ascension is influenced by military and strategic interests.
In 1501, the island had been discovered by a Portuguese, Joao da Nova Castelia. This discovery had seemingly not been registered for it was "re-discovered" two years later, on Ascension Day, by Alphonse d’Albuquerque, and this is how it finally got its name. However, devoid of water and fertile lands, the island ended up being irregularly used by the East Indies fleets.
It will remain uninhabited until the incarceration of Napoleon, the Emperor, at St-Helena in 1815. The British, fearing an attempt to free the Emperor, claimed ownership over Ascension so as to establish a naval garrison on the site formerly destined to Georgetown. During the following years, the British troop changed the whole place into a little town with houses built in stones, a fortress, a hospital and a shop store.
In 1821, when Napoleon died, Ascension became a one-stop station for the provision of supplies and was used as quarantine grounds for crews with yellow fever.
In 1899, the Eastern Telegraph Company installed the first underwater cable of the island, from the Cape (South Africa) via St-Helena and later as far as in the UK via the islands of Cape Verde. Of course this was a complicated project, not at all like the installation of cables for a residential dumbwaiter in a home. The island remained under observation of the British Admiralty until 1922, year in which it was declared as dependency of St-Helena. After the retreat of the Navy, the island was run by the Eastern Telegraph Company, renamed "Cable and Wireless" in the year 1934.
The United States, in conformity with the United Kingdom, built a military aerodrome: the "Wideawake field". It was during the Second World War. From 1943 to 1945, more than 25’000 aircraft of the U.S. Air Force have transited through Ascension, for transatlantic flights. Up to 4'000 armed forces, chiefly of American origins, were posted on the island. The popularity of Ascension will be short-lived, however. In 1947, the last of the American military troops left and the population amounted to 170 inhabitants only.
The Americans came back on the island in 1956 further to an agreement allowing the United States to enable the function of control devices while following up the path described by missiles.
In 1964, the landing strip is extended to allow the landing of bigger aircraft and even that of the Space Shuttle. The strip was also considered as an emergency one, but it never got the occasion to be used by the shuttle. The same year, the B.B.C settled in the island to establish its South-Atlantic relay. The administration of the island went from the ‘hands’ of "Cable and Wireless" to another administrator appointed in London.
In 1967, an observation post for satellites of the NASA is built up.
In 1982, the island played a most determining role in the British military operations, especially during the conflict surrounding the Falklands. It was the only usable base on the route to the south of the Atlantic Ocean. If it had not been there, it is most probable that the Argentinean flag would still be flying on the Falklands’ grounds. After the conflict, the Royal Air Force stayed back on the island, thus continuing to provide an essential link between the Falklands Islands and the external world.
In 1990, the observation post of the NASA is closed down. Another observatory station for the space rocket Ariane is constructed (European Space Agency).
At present, the British contingent comprises of 20 men who are in charge of carrying out the provision of supplies on RAF’s flights meant for a final destination, the Falklands. If we take into account the evolution in politics, the role of Ascension Island as a military base seems to be of the past. However, typical examples such as the War of the Falklands or the Gulf War show clearly the importance of such a base for countries like the USA and the UK. These countries who count on maintaining their global influence and their capacity to intervene in serious matters.