ASCENSION PAST AND PRESENT.
Ascension discovered. — Its volcanic origin. — Its shape and size. — "True as the needle to the Pole." — Embedded turtle. — A French opinion of Turtle-soup. — The Sailor's Post-office. — Visit of Abbé La Caille. — British occupation of Ascension. — Why we keep it. — Its peculiar government. — The Governor's troubles. — A decision worthy of Solomon. — The population in 1877. — Ascension, the Flora Tender. — Sea life ashore. — Ascension mutton. — A gallon of water a day. — Novel domestic economy.
IN order to make the process of taking root on Ascension intelligible, it is necessary first to explain something of the nature of its soil, and the peculiar manner of its cultivation. In other words, to make our own particular story less incoherent, it will be advisable, in the first place, to tell the little I know of the past history of our new home, and in what condition we found it in 1877.
Like its upturned face, the history of, Ascension is featureless and colourless, being only redeemed from utter inanity by its contradictoriness. Doubtless there were stirring times here once on a day when. Vulcan's forge was alight, but that was before we short-sighted mortals dared to peep into this now deserted workshop of the grimy god.
On Ascension Day, 1501, Juan de Nova, the great Portuguese navigator, found the fire gone out, and only hills of cinder and plains of ash to bear record of past labours. Ascension, so called by its discoverer from the fact of his having sighted it on Ascension Day, is one of the peaks of a submarine volcanic ridge which separates the northern and southern basins of the Atlantic, and is situated in lat. 8° S., long. 14° W., almost midway between the coasts of Africa and South America. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world, and has no land nearer than St. Helena, which lies 800 miles to the South-East.
Doubtless the apex of a great volcanic upheaval, which the deep Atlantic could no longer hide, Ascension is now at rest. Not the slightest trace of volcanic action has been recorded during the 377 years that have elapsed since its discovery, but the absence of all vegetation, and the slow progress of disintegration, owing to the dryness of the climate, give it every appearance of recent disturbance. Although there is no record of recent disturbance on Ascension itself, yet there have been observed at intervals, since the middle of last century, certain volcanic phenomena in its neighbourhood.
Both in the "Nautical Magazine" and in the "Comptes Rendus" of 1838, accounts are given of a series of marine disturbances in the open sea, between longitudes 20° and 22° West, about half a degree south of the equator. "These facts seem to show that an island or an archipelago is in process of formation in the middle of the Atlantic; a line joining St. Helena and Ascension, prolonged, intersects this slowly nascent focus of volcanic action." So perhaps Ascension may one day shake out her skirts suddenly, and frighten the greedy sea into giving her up a little more land.
Meantime our little island has an area of 38 square miles, and takes the form of an almost equilateral triangle, each side of which is about seven miles in length. The west side lies nearly north and south, its extreme angles being rounded off; but the eastern angle terminates in a well-defined point. Round the shore are black and rugged streams of basaltic lava, many of which can be traced to points of eruption at the base of Green Mountain—a great mass of trachyte 2,870 feet high, near the centre of the island—or to numerous little red-coloured hills that are scattered over the plains and northern and western borders. This reddish colour is owing chiefly to the large proportion of iron contained in the lava, as we discovered to our personal inconvenience.
On consulting a compass on one occasion, in order to determine our whereabouts, we were much surprised to see the needle point to what was, according to our preconceived ideas, the south! and still more surprised were we, when, on moving the compass some little distance, the fickle needle wheeled right about! Then we tried it at the former spot, and again the needle changed its pointing, so we removed the loose surface to investigate, and found that a big lump of red lava was the cause of this extraordinary behaviour on the part of the compass. "True as the needle to the pole" evidently does not mean much when there is iron-stone in the neighbourhood.
Every specimen of rock that we were able to find here was purely volcanic, except in some of the little bays, where there are immense accumulations of small water-rounded particles of shells and corals, intermixed with a few volcanic particles. At the depth of a few feet these are found cemented into a sandy limestone, of which the softer varieties are used for building. It is said that these particles become united in the course of a single year, and I certainly found that the turtles' eggs, deposited in the sand, get enclosed in the solid rock before the sun has had time to hatch them. A specimen of limestone in which this was the case, was given to me by one of the marines employed at South-west Bay to quarry stone for the limekiln, and Sir Charles Lyell has shown a figure (Principles of Geology, book iii. chap. 17) of some eggs containing the bones of young turtles found thus entombed.
From time to time, at long intervals, we have short glimpses of the little island after the reign of Vulcan and under the undisputed sway of the sea-birds.
One, Mons. Brazen, writing in 1726, tells us that Ascension was discovered by Tristan d'Acunha in 1508; but how could this be when Juan of Portugal discovered it seven years before? The old Frenchman must have been dreaming, possibly after a too hearty meal of turtle-soup, for he goes on to say of the turtle, "On en peut manger tant qu'on veut, sans crainte de s'incommoder." That depends on circumstances!
In 1673 Ascension was visited by the Dominican Father Naverette, who speaks of it then as the "Sailor's Post Office." "Mariners of all nations being accustomed at that time to leave letters here, sealed up in a bottle, in a certain known cranny of some rock, to be taken away by the first ship which passed in an opposite direction."
We hear that a man of mark lighted on the island in the month of April, 1754. At that time Abbé La Caille spent five days there; but evidently without seeing much that he considered worthy of record, for all he tells us is, "Ascension est une espèce de butte en pleine mer. Elle est couverte d'une terre rouge, semblable à de la brique pelée. Sa capacité est un gouffre, qui retentit d'un bruit sourd et confus lorsqu'on frappe le sol des bords du volcano."
Portuguese and French alike passed the untempting isle. No nation coveted its barren shores, until the British lion stretched out a paw in 1815 and gathered it into his heap of treasures. Napoleon had then been sent to St. Helena, and we dared not leave such a vantage point open to the enemy; so the British flag was planted on yet another spot of the globe, and Ascension became, to all intents and purposes, a man-of-war guarding Napoleon at St. Helena. Though there is now no Napoleon to guard, we still keep possession of Ascension, for no other reason, that I can see, than that we do not wish anybody else to have it.
True, it is useful as a coaling station, and the fresh trade-wind, constantly blowing across its flowerless; waterless plains, brings health to many of our poor sailors who have drunk in the blood-poison of the Gold Coast swamps. But need we spend £40,000 a year for this, when St. Helena might make a better Sanatorium at half the expense? There the S.E. trade-wind blows still more freshly, and cool showers fall to beautify everything and to supply water and fruit and vegetables in plenty for the sick.
In the Ascension hospitals—of which there are two, with a staff of three medical officers—the want of these advantages is much felt; and moreover, the cheerless, changeless surroundings are likely to have a depressing influence on nerves already weakened by fever and ague.
All this must tell against Ascension as a naval hospital; but probably the Admiralty may find some advantage in having the place perfectly under their own control, and thus being able to keep the men in as perfect discipline as when afloat. In case of war, also, Ascension, in the hands of an enemy, might be the means of inflicting serious injury on our commerce—lying as it does, directly in the track of our merchant ships on their way to and from the East. So we keep as a friend what might prove a dangerous foe, and pay dearly for our white elephant, rather than allow anybody else the privileges and expenses of possession.
The government of Ascension is unique. No other land in the world is ruled by the same laws, and my husband and I are the only civilians that have ever been subject to them. When David decided on this island as the most favourable spot on which to observe the Opposition of Mars, the first step was to obtain permission from the Lords of the Admiralty to go there. This permission was readily granted, through the kind intervention of the Astronomer Royal; and not only that, but, what was of immense importance to me, the accommodation usually accorded to a married officer was provided for us. Our official letter also contained the promise of assistance in erecting the Observatory, a blue-jacket for night-watch, and a gracious permission to buy meat. Without this letter, we could no, more have landed on Ascension than we could have boarded a line-of-battle ship.
The sway of the Captain is quite as absolute in the one case as in the other, and, generally speaking, the same regulations apply to both. But there is one notable exception. A certain number of women and children are allowed on board this "ship ashore," which of course has the effect of somewhat relaxing the discipline. Indeed, it is on record that a certain Captain was so perplexed by his difficulties in governing the female portion of his crew, that at last he gave up the attempt in despair.
But à propos of these difficulties of his, there is a story told, which, if true, shows that on one occasion at least, he proved himself no mean diplomatist. Once upon a time, a fierce war raged between two dames of, let us say, equal degree. The apple of discord was—precedence in church! Each claimed her right to the pew in front of the other, and both being equally determined, there seemed no way of settling the question except by referring it to the chief. This in due course was done, and the decision is worthy of Solomon: "Let age take the higher place," said the wily Captain, "and let the younger lady give way to the elder!" From this there was no appeal, and next Sunday, lo! both ladies were seated in the pew nearest to the door. The lower place was now the prize, but whether a new war, more desperate than the old, broke forth in consequence, and whether the poor Captain's troubles turned his brain in the end, neither history nor tradition sayeth.
This is a legend of the island, but I have more respect for my sex than to believe it, and the state of society on Ascension in 1877 strengthens my unbelief.
At this time I found myself the sixth lady on board; and a few of the men are allowed to have their wives with them, on condition that the latter make themselves helpful to the community in some way. The male population is under 200, and consists of a company of marines, a few blue-jackets, several St. Helena boys who act as servants to the officers, and 70 or 80 Kroomen—a fine race of negroes from Kroo country on the West Coast of Africa, about whom I shall have more to say presently. All these men are of course under the strictest naval discipline, and the Captain's office is the "quarter-deck," where every offender, from the greatest to the least, is judged and sentenced. Everything is the property of the Government, and each officer and man receives his daily ration of bread, meat, and "grog," just as on board ship.
Indeed, in the Naval Gazette, the population of Ascension will be found under the heading "Crew of the Flora Tender;" and service here does not mean half-pay to the naval officer, but counts for active service afloat. Ascension acquired the name of the "Flora Tender," I believe, at the time that H.M.S. Flora was anchored there, and when the island of course provided her supplies. Now the Flora is stationed at the Cape for better anchorage, but her "Tender" still stands firm in mid Atlantic, and never drags her anchors as the Flora once did alongside of her.
It was late in life for us to go to sea, but we very soon dropped into sailor-like ways, and by-and-by we adopted even the language of Jack. A kitchen was not a kitchen here, but a "galley;" the pantry became a "locker;" our floors and tables were no longer scrubbed, but "swabbed out;" and the dinner had not to be cooked but to be got "under-weigh."
The only regulation we mutinied against was, "Lights out at 10 P.M.;" and for this rebellion we got a free pardon, no doubt on the ground that an astronomer, being a species of lunatic, is not amenable to the laws of any country.
We were indeed in a new country, and one that taught us, with many other things, the fallacy of the belief that "Gold commands everything." Not even a Rothschild could buy a juicy leg of mutton here, nor enjoy the luxury of a fresh salad with his cheese. That mutton! Shall I ever forget it? Our first "gigot," of hock-bottle shape, would have made an English butcher faint, and ought to have been sent to the British Museum, there to consort with time-toughened mummies, and testify to future generations the high state of training attained by Ascension sheep in 1877.
Poor sheep! They were almost starving; and so were the miserable, gaunt-looking bullocks, that we sometimes saw prowling around the house at night, having wandered over five miles of terrible road from Green Mountain in search of food and water. I could not bear to see them in such distress, and yet we could not relieve them, being ourselves limited to one gallon of water a day for all purposes, and our whole allowance would have been but a drop on the tongues of these poor animals.
This scarcity of water it was at first very difficult to take into account in household expenditure; and my surprise was great when, on the first morning I sent some linen to be washed, "Sam," our handsome Krooman, returned to say that I had forgotten to send the water. This was truly an extra thought to the housewife; and in many ways the first clays of housekeeping on Ascension were rather bewildering. But by-and-by light appeared through the wood, and I found that once started on the proper routine, the road was not so rough after all.
By careful management and a plentiful use of salt water whenever it was practicable, we could eke Out our scant allowance of fresh water to a sufficiency; and this novel poverty enabled me to make two valuable discoveries in culinary art, viz., that fish and potatoes are better when boiled in salt water than in fresh. We soon got accustomed to tinned milk and vegetables; and when the rollers disappeared, we found ourselves by no means dependent on the scanty meat rations, for the fish here was as good and plentiful as it had been at St. Helena. And then there was the turtle!
Surely Ascension should be the paradise of Aldermen. The first spoonful of that clear, creamy nectar called Turtle Soup, is enough to reconcile any gourmet to banishment here for life! A turtle was killed once a week, and our share of the booty generally provided us with sufficient to make a turtle-steak pie, besides a slice of fin for soup. The steaks were excellent, stewed or baked, but they could not stand the ordeal of a gridiron. Cooked over the fire, the meat became hard and juiceless, almost as bad as an Ascension beef steak. With the fin, and taking care not to, omit the "calipash," and "calipee" we made delicious soup, when we could spare water for it; but some weeks we had to pay the price of a little extra extravagance in the precious fluid, by being deprived of our soup. Then, with sad hearts, we stewed the fin, and it made a palatable if not a pretty dish.
Verily, all one's pre-conceived ideas of the relative values of things were here turned upside down. Water carefully measured and treasured, potatoes 4d. per lb., occasional cabbages from St. Helena knocked down by auction at 1s. 6d. each, milk priceless, and turtle soup for nothing. It was very difficult to comprehend at first, and I suffered much from alternate feelings of stinginess and prodigality before being able to master this new domestic economy; but after the first feelings of bewilderment were over, the novelty was delightful. Something like the fresh, stirring sensation of a shower-bath, after the head has recovered from the first shock of the falling water.