CAPTAIN BATE THE COMMANDANT
THE OFFICERS OF THE ROYAL MARINES,
IN GARRISON ON THE ISLAND OF ASCENSION,
BY THEIR SINCERE FRIEND
AND HUMBLE SERVANT,
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ISLAND OF ASCENSION.
Of all places on the globe, ASCENSION is the last that would be thought of as the habitation of man ; and, but for an accidental circumstance, it might have remained for ever unnoticed in its sterility. However, when he who grasped at the empire of the world found a prison on the rock of St. Helena, it was thought necessary to send an officer with a small party to take possession of this cinder, as a collateral measure of security. These Aborigines were Troglodites, for they lived in holes and caves, which they scooped in the cinders. They could hardly obtain a sufficient supply of water from the spring which Dampier discovered when his ship foundered in the roads in 1700.
Since Napoleon's death the island has been retained as a dépôt of stores for the ships cruising off the coast of Africa against the slave trade. The garrison (on its present reduced scale) consist of 142, officers and men, of the ROYAL MARINE Corps. The inhabitants, all together, may amount to 400, including women and children, with a party of negroes.
The skill and industry of the residents have raised convenient dwellings, and called forth resources which the island was never thought to possess.
Situated in the middle of the Atlantic, Ascension presents an aspect of desolation difficult to imagine. Whether upheaved from the depths of the ocean, or changed from pristine beauty and fertility, by volcanic agency, it now includes in its circuit of more than twenty miles (with the exception of the summit of the green mountain) an uninterrupted waste of ashes, basaltic rock, scoriæ, &c.; in some places so fantastically piled, that one would think that Titans had been amusing themselves in heaping them up.
To compensate, however, for its barrenness, the salubrity of the island is such, that disease is seldom known, and invalids from the sickly coast of Africa rapidly recover. The thermometer ranges from 86° to 92°, but the heat is tempered by a constant fresh S.E. wind. The temperature of the mountain is from 60° to 86°.
Ascension has, from the period of its cooling, been the peculiar home of numerous sea-birds and turtles, which come annually to deposit their eggs. The former are in incredible numbers. They are the Sterna fuliginosa (the hack-backed tern, called on the island wide-awake, and the place to which they constantly resort has the name of Wide-awake Fair,) Pelicanus bassanus (gannet goose, the spot where they locate themselves is called Gannet Fair,) Pelicanus piscator, Pelicanus fiber, and Pelicanus aquila (the man-of-war bird.) The green turtle, Testudo mydas, frequents the island from the beginning of January to June. Great numbers are caught on moonlight nights, when they come on shore to dig holes for their eggs. Fifteen hundred have been taken in a season, and put in ponds walled in from the sea. They are of very fine quality, and all large, some weighing 8 cwt.
The anchorage is safe, if at a sufficient distance from the shore to be without the influence of the rollers, which set in without any apparent cause, and line the coast with surf. The phenomenon has never been sufficiently explained. The view from the roads embraces all the principal points, and takes in 180°. The stranger will find little in the first appearance of the island to tempt him to go on shore, unless it be to contemplate the very beau idéal of sterility. Yet he will find much to admire even in these convulsions of Nature ; and he will feel that she never, in her very wildest moods, loses sight of beauty.
THE BLOW HOLE; OR, GRAMPUS CAVERN.
THIS is one of the natural curiosities of the island, situated near Pyramid Point, about two miles from George Town. It can only be visited at the expense of a pair of shoes, as the way lies over the sharp and rugged clinkers. When the rollers set in, the scene is one of terrific beauty. The swelling wave, as it dashes with an awfully deep note into the Cavern, compresses the air within its deep but narrowing limits. The next instant a reaction takes place—the elasticity of the air overcomes the intruder, and sends it bellowing back in magnificent jets of spray. The Cavern has a small aperture on the surface of the rock above, through which the imprisoned air tries to escape. If sand be cast on it at this time, it is thrown up a considerable height in singular and beautiful jets. The reverse takes place with the retreating wave : the air then rushes in by the small aperture, to supply the vacuum caused in the Cavern, so that there is a constant exhalation and inhalation.
SITUATED also near Pyramid Point, is one of the singular forms which the lava has assumed on coming in contact (while in a state of fusion) with the sea. The whole mass at this part seems as if it would have surmounted the resistance of the opponent by overarching it. The lower parts, in cooling, formed points of contact and support, while the fiery flood rolled on above, producing a labyrinth of low caverns, through which the sea rushes, foams and frets, dashing high the spray through every opening. It is a scene of wild magnificence, of which description can convey but a very inadequate idea—the strife of Pluto and Neptune, hand to hand.
The subject of the View, unlike the massive proportions of the vaults just mentioned, is light and lofty, resembling the mouldering remains of a Gothic gateway. It is about fifty feet in height and thirty in the span, appears to be reduced to the smallest dimensions consistent with stability, and probably will not be of much longer duration. A similar arch, which spanned a stupendous chasm on the other side of the island, has fallen in within the last three years.
In some of the caverns, beautiful stalactites have been formed by the percolation of sea water through the roofs. Probably it is by another operation of the same agent, that a fine porcelanous glaze has been deposited on the rocks at the margin of the sea. It is at first quite thin, but becomes thicker and assumes the appearance of a beautiful inflorescence. In its several stages it is of a milky white, purple, and black. It has been observed to increase.
THE MOUNTAIN HOUSE.
THIS is the residence of the officer who has charge of the agricultural establishment. It is 2231 feet above the sea, in a little sheltered nook cut and levelled in the cinders. A small garden surrounds it, tolerably well stocked with flowers, the delight of the sojourners on the arid waste below. At this elevation a tunnel, 900 feet in length, has been cut through part of the mountain, to convey the water from the other side.
The view from the terrace in front of the cottage extends for over three-fourths of the island. It is very magnificent, but devoid of what generally constitutes the charm of a distant prospect. The eye seeks in vain for some grateful object on which to repose. It wanders over a wildering scene of craters, the ancient vomitories of the lava, which has streamed in every direction. With the exception of a little purslane, which springs up after rain, there is not a vestige of vegetation to be seen, except on the favoured summit, which has obtained, par excellence, the title of the Green Mountain. This emerald crest contains about twelve hundred acres of land capable of cultivation ; but, owing to want of hands, only a few are in use. The patience and perseverance of the cultivators frequently experience grievous disappointments. Many a crop has failed, from want of rain, after having been planted and fostered with the greatest care. However, a small supply of vegetables is procured, and they send every day to the town a sufficient quantity of milk for the officers and families of the garrison. The horses and cattle are in very fine condition ; but auxiliary supplies of fodder are received from the Cape.
The Physalis edulis grows in great abundance on the peak, affording a grateful supply of fruit. In the ravines the castor oil plant is very luxuriant ; and in sheltered situations bananas and peach trees have been planted, but the fruit seldom comes to maturity.
THE BLACK ROCK.
IT requires considerable nerve, for persons unaccustomed to such passes, to go by the narrow path winding round this rock. Many have turned back when they came to the brink of the dizzy precipice. Two horses once went frolicking and gamboling along, in utter contempt or recklessness of danger ; when one receiving from the other an unlucky kick, which savoured more of earnest than of joke, fell "from cavern to rock," and was dashed to pieces. The aghast look of his companion may easily be imagined, as he stood with arched neck, distended nostrils, and his fore-feet placed firmly in advance, as if he were determined to profit by the backsliding of his yoke-fellow, who lay quivering in the abyss below, las quatre pates en l'air. The Black Rock is not basaltic, but appears to be rather a compact kind of cinder.
In the distance are White Hill and Weather-post Hill. On the latter there was a signal station when Napoleon was at St. Helena.
The newly built cottage in the middle distance will probably be a favourite for a villeggiatura, as it is below the region of clouds and vapours, which frequently settle on the summit, rendering it very humid. It is, however, sufficiently elevated to have the benefits of a temperate climate, and of vegetation ; so that probably there will soon be a garden rivalling that of the mountain house, if, indeed, the strong winds which blow over the shoulder of the mountain, check not the growth of the shrubs.
HAS all the appearance of a vast crater. The rocks surrounding it have imperfect indications of basaltic structure. On the N.W. side White Hill and Weather-post Hill rise at once from it. They are composed of pumice. From the impending heights the bottom of the valley appears to be a dead level ; but, on descending, many inequalities are found. It is much broken up, and intersected by fissures ; but it is frequently overspread with verdure. If it were not for the difficulty of transporting the implements of husbandry, and, above all, the precariousness of the rain, it might be cultivated with advantage.
This is the best view of the Green Mountain.
THIS has become a misnomer, since a road has been cut, rendering it easy to avoid a broken neck, which was formerly inevitable, unless the adventurer could depend on the steadiness of his head and the firmness of his footing. In such a case the sailor's ironical injunction to youngsters, "Let go with your hands and hold fast with your feet," would have been very à propos. As this is near the summit of the mountain it partakes of its verdant honours. The rocks are very gay with the flowers of the nasturtium, which run all over them, but are not indigenous. Several kinds of grass cover the sides of the peak, and afford good pasture to three or four hundred sheep. In the fold I saw some very fine fleeces, taken from a cross between the long-haired African and the South-down. I believe in the third generation the hair becomes fine wool. A negro, who witnessed the operation of shearing, exclaimed, "Ah, white man clever, too much! he savy make blanket grow on beef."
WHIP VALLEY, AND BOATSWAIN-BIRD ISLAND.
THIS is a scene of indescribable grandeur. Seated at the brink of a precipice of seven or eight hundred feet, the base of which is lashed by the never-ceasing waves, the spectator is at a loss which to admire more, the vast expanse of ocean over which his eye uninterruptedly ranges, or the wild desolation of rocks and precipices rising from its bosom : they form the most powerful contrast to each other. Whip Valley appears to be the remaining part of a prodigious crater, the other having been destroyed by the volcanic throes and convulsions, which have transformed the island into a waste beyond the power of nature to restore to beauty and usefulness. Probably Boatswain-bird Island is a fragment of the opposite side of the crater. It is covered with innumerable birds, and great numbers of sharks are constantly about its base. A cavern through the island admits the passage of a boat. Power's Peak is in the middle distance : the ascent is one of the most daring exploits of the cragsmen of the Island : few can boast of having reached it.
THE BAY OF PILLARS.
THE walk to this is excessively fatiguing and difficult, through a tremendous chasm (formerly spanned by an arch), and over rugged fields of lava.
The rocks called the Pillars, are of equal magnitude, though, from the distance across the bay, the nearer one appears the larger : it has the semblance of a priest in his sacerdotals. It is impossible to estimate their height, as there is no known object in the vicinity with which to compare them. All around are frightful precipices and towering masses of rock. Some have fallen, and increase, if possible, the desolation of the scene.
These precipices are the resort of wild goats, which are obliged to wander far in quest of the scanty vegetation on which they subsist. If pursued by dogs they retreat to their fastnesses, and dash over the precipice to some narrow ledge half-way down, where they are said to be "rocked;" and though they dare not return, on account of the dogs, they fancy themselves safe ; little dreaming of their more fatal enemy, the sportsman above, who, if he have a keen eye and a firm foot, frequently can get good aim, and tumbles them into the abyss, taking especial care that he topple not down headlong himself. If he escape such a mode of descent, he must get down among the yielding ashes and loose fragments of rock, at the risk of his neck, after his prey. He must then clamber up again with it on his shoulders.
Goat Hunting is a very favourite, but dangerous amusement. Few can stand the fatigue of it, increased as it is by the fervour of a tropical sun, where not a drop of water is to be met with, to assuage the parching thirst consequent on such exertions.
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VIEW FROM GOAT HILL.
THIS is the most favourable position for viewing the whole of this little Establishment, and of witnessing how much may be done by the perseverance of a few when guided by intelligence. A very few years ago the Garrison had barely the means of shelter ; now they have completed public works which would reflect credit on professed architects, in a country where they could be assisted by practised workmen, and have every resource at command. The accompanying View takes in nearly 180°. On the left is the Pier, of solid masonry, and great strength to resist the fury of the rollers, which sometimes make a fair breach over it, threatening to level every thing in their way : this, indeed, was the fate of the first jetty. The Fort commands the beaches both ways : they are almost the only accessible parts of the island. Indeed, such is its rugged nature, that a handful of men could defend it against numerous invaders. Cross Hill itself, from its difficulty of ascent, might be deemed impregnable. George Town can boast of only a few wooden houses, with a well built stone government store. The long low building with double roof is the tank, excavated in the rock, and capable of containing 1700 tuns of water, which it receives from the mountain, through pipes laid down for the distance of six miles. When all the tanks shall be completed, there will be 3000 tuns of water where that precious article was once only to be obtained by treasuring the drops as they trickled from the rock at Dampier's spring.
Cross Hill is the signal-station in communication with the mountain, whence ships can be seen at an immense distance. On the slope of the hill Captain Bate has built a cottage for himself, of which the taste and elegance within, contrast with the unvaried and inhospitable scene of desolation around.
The three large buildings are the new barracks (admirably calculated for a hot climate), the mess-room and officers' quarters, and the spacious and cool hospital. The small intermediate buildings are for the married officers. Goat Hill will not long remain to command this fine view, as it is intended to cut it down, and fill in that part where the stone is quarried. There will be then a gradual slope continued to the sea.
The aspect of Ascension is so uninviting, that one would think a residence here would be as intolerable (though opposite in its nature) as banishment to Siberia. The residents however contrive, by constant occupation, by the excitement of homeward-bound ships, (which, as this is in the trade wind and the track from St. Helena, are frequently passing), and by the hope, not, however, frequently gratified, of the arrival of ships from England. I believe no one ever visited this remote spot without being astonished at the wonders which have been performed here, and delighted with the hospitality invariably shewn to visitors.
For my own part, although I was extremely anxious to return to England, I passed eight rapid and happy weeks on the island, every day finding fresh reasons to be grateful for the kindness and attentions which I received from the Officers and their Ladies, who prove that amiable manners and good society can make even a desert agreeable.
Notes about this version of Allen:
The title page and plates were scanned directly from an original copy of Allen and reduced (the size of the original plates is approximately 255 by 175 mm and 665 by 90 mm for the two panoramas) and edited to remove minor blemishes. The text is exactly reproduced from an original copy of Allen.
Contributed by Barry Weaver, from whom higher resolution images of the plates and a MS WORD version of the text can be obtained.
Details of the original:
Allen, Lt. W. Picturesque Views in the Island of Ascension. Moyes, London, 1835.
Size: Oblong folio.
Text: Title page (with a plan of Ascension; verso blank); dedication page (verso blank); Text (one leaf).
Plates: Ten uncoloured lithograph plates, signature and imprint variable and detailed for each plate below.
British Library shelfmark: 1899.cc.52.
Library of Congress call number: Not in the catalogue.
Not in Abbey.
Last updated: 21 December, 2011