I recently read about Ascension Island, a remote British outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. Today it is home to a tiny population, much of it servicing the island’s secretive satellite spy base, and governed by an Orwellian figure in London referred to only as The Administrator.
The island’s history has been bizarre from the outset.
When first discovered in the sixteenth century it was uninhabited by humans, as well as any land animals larger than a crab.
It was also dry, a desolate rocky island in the South Atlantic which rose, parched and empty, to a craggy volcanic peak.
It was here that Dutch sailor Leendert Hascenbosch was left marooned by his passing ship in 1725 – condemned to a lifetime of thirst and solitude in punishment for his crime: homosexuality.
British sailors visiting some years later found his tent and diary – which made references to drinking the blood of sea turtles but not, sadly, of the freshwater spring in the centre of the island. Of Leendert himself there was no sign and the investigators concluded he had died, if not from thirst then from suicide.
The British also kickstarted the next strange chapter in the island’s history. Under scientific advice they planted seedlings on the island’s mountain top, hoping to grow a cloud forest which would trap condensation and change the whole climate of the island. Then they could grow food, gather wood for repairs and use the island as a useful staging post.
The extravagant plan worked. Today the island is lushly forested and green with introduced plants – perhaps the nearest man has yet come to “terraforming” his environment and perhaps a precursor to our further adventures in the stars.