Subject X – a diary

2006, Ascension Island, South Atlantic

On my first survey the island was a terrible disappointment. I had nothing to work with, I would be able to uncover nothing. ESA was represented by a sole Frenchwoman eating sandwiches within a guarded white bungalow, a redundant human observer of the tracks of the fully automated Arianne satellite. I had hoped for more given the seclusion of the spot, low on the edge of the western quarter, all lifted spray and huge auburn rock. She didn’t even ask my name, my purpose; I remained the other side the fence.

 

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Next I went to the mountain. NASA had been based at 400m, a surprisingly damp and green terrain. When I arrived I assumed a mistake: a bunker, several padlocked cabins dank and empty from the window. Untouched in over 30 years. The odd indent evidenced in the direction of the grown grass hinting at the structures previously placed there. I was not capable of imagining the old scene, of straining this ruin into what had decayed. There were locked silences here, the efficient removal of almost everything.

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But NASA had been active on the site for a period of several years tracking missile launches and the orbit of spacecraft and, more pertinent to my own appearance, training several potential astronauts in various aspects of lunar competence, including commanding and steering lunar rover vehicles (LRV). Closer to sea-level the charred remains of lava flows approximately rendered the moon, but NASA’s decision to travel this distance seemed unusual, given the availability of more local wasteland. I wondered if the remote location of the island – really a series of congealed calderas risen from the Atlantic sea-bed – was not the key to NASA’s lunar preparation. Perhaps training on the commanding of LRVs was a diversionary activity, the real, hidden reason for taking the men to the island being psychological rather than practical. It seemed the question would remain academic, given the scant indications of the operation on the island. I had a week until I flew on the military aircraft home.

No-one, including the island’s Administrator, living in the gated leafy compound one third of the way up the mountain, nor his under-secretary and assistants, have been of any help to me in my enquiries. It seems very little record is maintained of the events occurring on Ascension. There is no library. The police – two languid middle-aged men – claim that no crime has yet been significant enough to merit documenting. It struck me that the turnover of population – which incredibly includes the Administrator himself – every two years means that there is no-one here with any lasting memory. The place contains no memory of itself; I find that unnerving.

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I pace the beach at sunset, the breakers rising higher and thumping louder every day. Who was controlling the rigid turnover of the population, and to what purpose? I wondered was there any way this contrived ahistorical setting may have been of interest to NASA, perhaps in their desire to eject human beings from earth. In this may lie the reason for the money expended on dragging the astronauts in training and the LRVs and other unwieldy equipment to the inaccessible isolation of Ascension, despite the locally suitable terrain at Arizona and New Mexico.

The purpose of my going to the island, however, was not to simply gather information. I had wanted to trace the paths of astronauts, sleep where they had slept, look at the world from the same perspective, 400m up on Green Mountain which itself, I was now seeing, is like a natural launch pad from which to leap out into the vast reaches of Atlantic.

It would be illogical to give up. And I hadn’t even considered Subject X.

*

Subject X was at the root of my fascination with Ascension. His postulated existence essentially comes down to a discrepancy in the declassified reports pertaining to NASAs training base on the island. The cryptic, programmatic language of the reports – only a fraction of which have been made available to the public – describes seven astronauts in residence on the island, six of which – the crew and back-up crew of the 1971 Apollo 15 Endeavour mission – are named. The identity of the other astronaut is never revealed, indeed his presence is officially denied in subsequent reports. Correspondence with fellow enthusiasts and researchers had supported my suspicions, and I am now almost certain that a seventh astronaut – Subject X – underwent severe trauma on the island, threatening the integrity of Endeavour and causing NASA to obliterate his presence from official memory. Ordinarily, the decision to withdraw a member of the program at such a late stage, though costly, would not be considered potentially disastrous. Something threatening – it was tempting to say remarkable – had occurred within Subject X. We imagined him as one of us, someone who considered how exceptional and radical manned space exploration is, and we felt his silence almost personally. I wanted to understand how Subject X had thought, and so I had come to Ascension.

I investigated every part of the island. My sleeping quarters were shared with laconic biologists working on an unspecified eradication project – rats, rabbits, and cats in turn had infested and dominated the limited biosphere – and beery game fisherman from Northern Europe and the East Pacific. We each made our meals singly from the limited resources of the island’s ‘supermarket’, items rationed daily, several of us meeting in the cold aisle in the morning in hope of the appearance of new meat.

Remarkably, I found the US military barracks had an ‘access quarter’ part of which included a fast-food restaurant. I was forced to exchange my money for dollars with young servicemen in the car-park in order to purchase a meal. Suffice it to say none of them were in the least bit forthcoming in responding to my NASA-related enquiries. From the distant side of the small dining area I observed three shaven-headed men laughing.

I decided to pack enough tinned food and bottled water to last a three day hike, during which time I should be able to traverse the entire circumference of the island, the better to understand it. The astronauts in training here were in total seclusion – an embargo placed on all naval and air traffic – and would doubtless have been encouraged to set off singly in marches similar to those of my own, in preparation for survey and partial lunar excavation. Of course the low-gravity conditions could not be adequately simulated; nevertheless the astronauts wore their suits and communicated via radio, forced to bear their cumbersome forms over this rock-strewn inorganic terrain.

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None of Endeavour’s ultimate crew – David Scott, James Irwin, Alfred Worden – ever, as far as is known, alluded to the presence of Subject X, nor to what exactly occurred during their twenty-one days on Ascension. Recovered manifests, detailing the equipment and personnel transported to the island during this period, reveal the presence, in addition to that of a general medical practitioner, of two specialists in the area of psychiatric disorder. The almost perfect removal of Subject X from the annals of the organisation’s history and henceforth from the history of space travel, suggests, to my mind, the unnatural psychological training of the remaining astronauts, those who would ultimately enter orbit and land on the lunar surface and who seemed, so easily, to have forgotten their discarded, discredited colleague.

The bakery seems to belong to another age. I don’t know what language they speak. They give you bread straight off the trays, passing it through a single glass-less window. The coins and notes are stamped with seabirds. I miss the green life, the natural shadows. Despite my investigative intent, my full knowledge of how exceptional this present opportunity is, I am having great difficulty resisting the temptation of naps in the afternoon. Shirtless in the dorm, I wake up in a pool of sweat, and my first thought is that I have been swimming. I am losing so much water. A beer here would send me maniacal.

The Endeavour mission is notable, among other things, for orchestrating the circumstances that led to a single human being placed farther apart from all other life than had ever previously occurred. Alfred Worden, alone for three days in the command module orbiting the moon, was 240,000 miles distant from earth and 2235 miles distant from the remaining two members of his team. [This measurement of distance being strictly material, not including as part of its remit psychological estrangement nor any non-corporeal distance implied in the phenomenon of being dead. It is quite imaginable, for instance, than an estranged astronaut on this island, struck by fever and sun and undergoing some kind of descent on his continuous circumferential journey, may have felt considerably more isolated and removed than Worden did in his three day moon orbit.] It is likely, given his subsequent mental collapse, that Subject X was the original choice to assume that position, finding himself unfit for the task.

It is difficult to train myself to discipline, live by my convictions. With no-one on the island having memory, and with no records held anywhere so far as I can tell – they seemed mystified as to what happens to back issues of the monthly newsletter – it ‘just goes,’ a young woman told me – I am left merely with recourse to efforts of empathy and imagination.

There is evidence of artificial excavation on the coastal rock and among the burst caldera of the forty-four extinct volcanoes. I surmise at least some of these were undertaken as preparation for Endeavour’s Apollo 15 mission, at the time the most markedly scientific in its ambition of all the lunar explorations.

Why would seven astronauts be included in the training?

I picture them, in bulky white floating suits and sealed helmets, walking against the unrelenting red rock. The difficulty in manoeuvring inside these suits would mean they were forced to walk at a pace almost as slow as on the low-gravity airless atmosphere of the moon.

II

1971, Ascension Island

Four lunar-ready and three training model LRVs produced at cost-plus-incentive fee to Boeing of $38,000000. Additional fees to General Motors Defence Research Laboratories. Terrestrial weight 463lb, lunar weight 77.2lb; frame 10ft in length; wheelbase 7.5ft; height 3.6ft. Aluminium alloy frame welded in centrally hanging chassis. Two adjacent seats each containing velcro belt, armrest, adjustable footrest.

He would not experience the launch. He would remember nothing. They would be hanging in space. Then he can see earth’s colour. He hopes he will remember this. His body weightless and various. Suspended in dream. A fracture, a looping – he must be on the earth, that is the only place he can be, yet he is looking now at the whole of earth, which has a colour. Every single thing on the earth goes to compose that total colour.

In space everything pure and white. It is not darkness that strikes you, it is purity of light. Everything clean, untouched, unobserved. The suit changes the attitude of the body. Nothing can penetrate the seal, no life. The body in quarantine. A moment’s exposure to anything that exists the other side will destroy the body. It has been removed from life and cannot go back; sent away into sterile post-life.

Outside at night they wear caps that obstruct their viewing of stars and moon. Eases headaches and nausea. They have difficulty orienting when the stars are in sight, when the moon is out. Now they walk briskly; they won’t bear walking with their caps off. When one of them tilts up in reaching for the bottle the front of his cap goes askew and it’s as if something has cut inside the top of his head, the light of the stars shoots into him and he winces and sits back down, closes his eyes. Puts his hands to his ears – a dissonance. Looks to the ground. They say nothing.

The suits quarantined in transit, sealed in coffin shapes; on the island it was like uncovering a tomb. The suits laid out hollow, shells When they put on the suit they prepare for going beyond life. Take more brandy, avoid the skies. Talk about wives. Practice being dead. In the dark it is not obvious, soothes them then. Cold white of the moon and the close stars and the sealed purity of the suit. How will we walk, when we are not on earth? Like this – slow as this? I look at the suit, he says lowly, and I imagine I am already dead. When they fire us beyond these limits we will be nothing more than debris. My experiences, as a child, he says, are unfinishing, they repeat, continue, loop somewhere – as radio-waves from earth drift in interstellar blank. It doesn’t mean anything. They draw from their cigarettes, shake out the rest of the bottle. Our future is inevitable, we are committed to being dead. But being a dead thing whole and frozen on a star – foreign, traceless, singular and cold. The bottle slips from the table and they watch it fall and see it turn and how it waits an age before smashing on the rubble at their feet.

*

Official maximum speed of LRV (13km/hr) exceeded both on days three and five of training. Handling of vehicle described as ‘smooth’, ‘easy’, ‘pleasant’. Initial nostalgic pleasure noted at ‘recreational’ or ‘juvenile’ appearance of LRV giving way first to feelings of homesickness exacerbated by guilt at pressures and worries facing wives and children, and subsequently to practical doubts as to rigour of vehicle in ‘standing up’ to pressures and challenges of lunar atmosphere and surface.

Requests made by subject include: prerogative to sleep on LRV overnight; permission to engrave name on the model; that the training model LRVs be exchanged for lunar gravitation-readied LRVs and themselves be taken to lunar surface; insistence his chosen name for LRV be made official; certain outer parts of the vehicle to be given over, subsequent to imagined post-flight dismantling, to himself for integration into own domestic vehicle; assurances be given that the texture and colour of space-suits used in orbit and on lunar surface be such that aboard the vehicle separation between man and machine will not be apparent.

Severe distress noted in subject at learning LRV to be left indefinitely on lunar surface post-mission, where it could feasibly remain intact several billion years.

Who are we becoming, doing this to ourselves? I look up and it’s as if I never were a person.

Just remember how it feels to walk on earth, and breathe, he says, and speak, and take food regularly, food from the earth, and how it feels to think and move at the same time, to be flowing like that, try to remember it, it’s special, he says. Soon we won’t be able to do any of that, flow like that. We will be a capsule, and move only slowly, and we won’t flow into anything. We’re walking, and we think this is slow, we’re conversing; but this ease, this somehow being permitted to go like that, this is special. It is the rarest thing, to be walking down a road. The most unlikely thing that could ever have happened, in the totality of the universe – men walking down a road. I don’t want to forget this ease, this accord, this nature. I don’t want to sail somewhere that does not have nature. Scared isn’t the word. I don’t have categories for it. Everything would be wrong. It’s impossible but it’s happening. I have read the charts, the flight path, it is programmed. There will be an ascent. How can we go to a place that does not have nature?

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*

Subject’s initial anger and upset on withdrawal of LRVs from island displaced by introduction of simulation space-suits for first time outside of laboratory setting. Suits modelled, measured and adapted precisely on those to be worn on lunar surface.

Vulnerability to infection increased daily at a rate approximate to that experienced by men and women ascending. A virus present on the island bypassed 94% of the population but was hosted by the subjects who complained of high-fever and bouts of hallucinatory distress. A 1-2% loss of body-weight was noted in each member of the team, despite the cattle stock made available from the freezers at Wideawake airbase, Ascension.

At the apex of infection the subject possessed diminished navigational abilities, taking several hours longer than expected to return from drop-off points. An extreme redness of skin marked the face as a result of prolonged wayfaring without means of natural or artificial shade.

Undergoing severe trauma, a chaotic disordering of mental and physical constitution, the subject experienced spatial crises.

Among the most notable changes observed concerned his capacity to speak. Vocabulary levels remained stable, suggesting a cause other than memory loss. The subject resisted issuing personal pronouns when the use was possessive: consequently objects of sentences were unplaced, not grounded or anchored. The words issued in the most severe period of the developing aphasia were streams of continuous floating sound, notable for a self-referential tactile character and for the lack of an obviously directorial relationship to occurrences or ideas.

When I am not, I am not an absence of what I was. When I was I was everything. I was total. I had all my endings when I lived. I lived forever when I lived. When I am not I am not gone. I am not going. I am a fullness to myself. When I was not I was not before myself. Nothing had happened. I lived always, always to myself. I had all my endings to myself.

When I am not, it is a difference moving past me, though I myself am total. This is what you are seeing.

To no longer have that sole certainty of dying on earth is strange. When we ascend, it must be just like dying – it must be, that is the only logical conclusion. We will become dead because we won’t have words for what we are or where we are. We will not be in the world.

Assumption of the continued generative activity of the world was irrational. Place was diversion from the constant state that was not here, that was not form, that was perfectly complete in its absence.

It is not possible to talk of ‘something’ that does not inhabit space nor move through time, that does not bear any difference to what it is ‘around’, that is neither something nor an absence of something. From this the metaphor – the world – is made. To be neither something nor not something is not a darkness. A darkness is a temporary state either side of light. To conceive of something neither darkness nor light with the arising grammars of the memory of a real state…

III

I have not seen anyone in 27 hrs. The southern half of the island is almost entirely unpopulated and trackless, and I am having to make my way tentatively, upon sharp red rocks and without the relief of any organic shade. I have miscalculated the degree to which I would require water and thus the rate at which my supplies would be consumed.

The cloudless twilight transmits the almost live movement of the crescent moon, arcing faster than a clock-hand from my horizontal position. I am reminded of the deceptive movement of stationary trains as another train, seen through a carriage window, begins its own journey. (I was always envious of these transported people, confident and effective, as they drew out of the station, leaving behind a state of flat torpor in our own carriage. I always wondered where they were going, so urgently, and felt as if we, in our own lifeless train, should throw up our own hands in impotence.) If I imagine the moon itself is still then I am struck, almost to terror, by the rate at which the earth whirls. That life at all is permitted, under such haphazard and surely unfavourable conditions, is stunning.

The last people I saw were odd figures: women in swimsuits driving range-rovers; men fully-clothed with snorkel-apparatus attached to their faces; aged construction workers in bright orange overalls blasting into rock by huge revolving white domes. I saw endless alternating rows of aerials and pylons and yellow danger-notices planted into cairns and the frothing spittle of breakers fizzing onto red burning rock all around the shore.

 

Having woken up, I am not entirely sure where I have come from. It certainly seems a different place, the place I must have come from and presumably belong. It is dazzling to be here. The light. I so enjoy it, strangely. I keep walking. It is hurting myself. I feel openings across the top of my head. Liquid pouring, my chest heaving, I am straining now to take the air.

It’s a banal thing to say but I never become quite comfortable or accepting of my age. I realise I am constantly slipping between temporal periods, infinitely divisible, and that my life is an extension of matter through space, but…. And I have been broken, split, several times. I wonder if those times in which I have been broken – my crashes – have seen me move outside of time. All aviators dream of crashing. Crashing would be something that flying builds to, a further transcendence. I don’t understand my age because I don’t realise or experience moving from one temporal unit to another, it is imperceptible to me, as our moving outwith earth’s atmosphere will come only in finely graded stages that I don’t experience and as my death will be a flowing over of life into something else and I will be only mysteriously in space, mysteriously dead, mysteriously an old man.

They can never prepare us for what we are doing, they cannot ready us for being dead. People have done this before but where we are going is irrational and anything can happen in a place so far from home. I keep thinking, what if it has already happened? What if this is it? Do none of the others question how little this island resembles earth, see how nothing appears to grow, notice the dearth of animals, the absence of anything indigenous? We wheeze when we walk. At night, under the dark, it is difficult to move our limbs, such is the pressure. What if this is it? What if we have already gone too far, and we cannot come back?

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Touring Ascension

 

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I visited Ascension in April 2007. The young soldiers dozed and read fantasy fiction on the seats and floor of Brize Norton airbase, Oxfordshire. The service crew on the plane was from Oklahoma, and I remember they spoke unclearly, their safety demonstration was a parody, they acted their roles slowly and with fatigue, and the plane was in a state of disrepair.

Because of the flight delay I arrived in Ascension in the evening. There was a bunker where our passports were processed and stamped with a picture of a seabird. Outside the airport there were no lights. The humidity felt a product of the darkness. The stars and planets were oppressive and nearer.

Nobody has ever come from Ascension. It is always a destination, and always temporary. From the eighteenth century castaways and the ships that stopped to repair and gather food, to the British soldiers today who stop over briefly en route to the Falklands, Ascension has always been useful to people who are going on elsewhere. Citizenship is impossible. Today the administration of the island turns over the transient population of service workers from St Helena (‘the Saints’), British and American soldiers, research scientists (biologists and astronomers) and communication engineers every two years. The law has it that no-one can become familiar with Ascension. There is no retired population and few children. Leisure is not presumed, though there is a golf course (‘the world’s worst green’) and a football pitch, and European businessmen occasionally base themselves there for game fishing. There is little in the way of medical facilities. Birth was late in coming here, and has never been encouraged. It is assumed that people won’t be born on the island and neither will they die there. There is no human generation. RMS St Helena and military aircraft artificially introduce people to the island, as the island’s flora was artificially introduced and as the cats that have devastated the once abundant populations of seabird were introduced. The population drifts at an ever revolving 800. Today there are sheep – no goats – and a score of wheezing feral donkeys, indulged in as an eccentricity (being useless since the introduction of cars) which appear from time to time in the main settlement of Georgetown, a collection of white pre-fab block buildings by Long Beach

 

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NASA, ESA

 

 

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Ascension has a history with space, distance, silence. It is one of the most prestigious locations from which to watch beyond earth. An unusually detailed account in 1877 of an expedition to Ascension to view Mars through a heliometer, a chronograph, five chronometers and two reflecting circles during the Opposition of Mars (an alignment of the sun, the earth, and Mars) is provided by a Mrs. Isabel Gill, wife of the astronomer concerned, who wrote an impeccably elegant manuscript of their stay.

The successful creation of Green Mountain has been noted as a possible example for colonising Mars.

Ascension’s surrounding waters attract ambition. In 1966 NASA built an integrated Apollo and deep-space station on the island, looking up on extravagant flight paths. The particular site within the island was chosen for the cocoon of volcanic peaks which isolate the communication equipment from radar and radio-frequency interference. The station was abandoned in 1990; cabins and rock foundations remain, feathered by grass. However in 2007 Ascension was again listed as part of the US’s ‘eastern range’, a chain of land, sea and space based tracking sites that observe the progress of space shuttles and missile tests for NASA and the Department of Defence. (As well as remote islands, fleets of ships have acted as sea-bases for space observation.) According to a 2007 NASA range safety report, the Eastern Range includes ‘all of the surrounding air, sea and land space that is within the range of any particular launch vehicle.’ The European Space Agency maintains a separate station – at sea-level, by the coast – tracking the commercial Ariane 5 rockets after take off from Kourou in French Guiana.  

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Communications

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In 1899 the company now known as Cable and Wireless Worldwide first used the island as a hub from which to spool out underwater cables linking continents. The island remains a nexus of communications equipment. One of five ground antennae used in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) is based on Ascension. The BBC has a relay station used to broadcast its World Service to Africa and South America. It’s rumoured to pick up information for intelligence agencies. The majority of the island is strewn with elaborate meshes of pylons and aerials, sparse unmanned metal frames that lean over plains of rubble and black rock.

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Charles Darwin and Green Mountain

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Charles Darwin visited Ascension in 1836 aboard HMS Beagle as part of the survey of the world during which he gathered data towards the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. He wrote about the island in his diaries, in Voyage of the Beagle and in Volcanic Islands. At Darwin’s prompting the botanist J. D. Hooker, whose father was director of Kew Gardens, visited Ascension in 1847 and proposed to the British Admiralty a method of artificially stimulating rainfall and thus carving the island into something more congenial to life.

Over a period of decades the Royal Navy brought ship after ship of trees from five continents and planted them on the slopes of the highest peak of Ascension. The trees would capture sea moisture and scarce rainwater carried in trade winds and in time add moisture and fertility to the ground.

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The result: Green Mountain – Green Hill in Darwin’s day – has been a success. It is the world’s first example of terra-forming. Above the cinders, ash, and black-rubble beaches at sea-level the rising mountain gathers verdure. The southern and eastern slopes are covered by vast expanses of ginger and grasses, a distinct eco-system in total contrast to the surrounding land, an island itself within Ascension. The difference in the atmosphere and flora here and at sea-level cannot be overstated. Experiencing the discrepancy in a ten-minute car journey is distinctly unnerving, the nearest thing I can imagine to teleportation. Near constant SE trade winds lift the humid air up over the mountain where it cools and turns to fog and even rain.

Green mountain is an unlikely vision of growth. A monument to human ingenuity, it is profusion in a place of nothing, and it has been visibly and determinedly built. Walking from the shore over rocks, the desiccated ground, you move upwards through an increasing display of life. The atmosphere shifts suddenly, suggesting leaps forward in time. One layer of cultivation succeeds another until finally, through the trees and shrub, the summit appears, and from it a vision of sky and sea. The mountain, transformed at Darwin’s behest, is a living monument to him, a continually developing organic thing, a self-sustaining and self-reproducing eco-system. It is also a spectacular feat of growth in a wasteland, and in this a symbol of an unfortunately general way of seeing our species relative to other life.

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Ascension was ‘discovered’ twice, in 1501 by the Spanish explorer Joãoda Nova Castella en route to India and in 1503 by the Portuguese admiral Alfonso d’Alberquerque. Castella called it ‘Conception’ but it’s d’Alberquerque’s naming – he landed on Ascension day – that stuck. Ascension was used as a base for gathering turtle meat and making ship repairs in the course of the long journeys of imperial nations. Because of its remoteness and lack of fresh water it was one of the last places in the world to be settled. It has never had a resident population but sailors, soldiers and slaves have intermittently lived there. In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned on St Helena. British fear of a rescue mission led to their occupying Ascension – the closest other land – and thus ruling it out as a base for any such escape. Later that century the island was used as a refuge for injured soldiers. Garrison duties were assumed by the British Royal Navy. Ascension became an epidemic risk, with the threat of slaves and sailors spreading fever from the west African coast. On ‘Comfortless Cove’ cemeteries erected in the lava flow mark the deaths of scores of quarantined soldiers, shipwrecked on their patch of island. Ascension is still used as a setting for traumatised soldiers to convalesce in.

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The discovery of Ascension

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