Ascension #46 (1944)

Ascension #46 (1944)

Ascension #46 (1944)
Ascension #46 (1944)

Ascension Island is an isolated volcanic island in the equatorial waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, roughly midway between the horn of South America and Africa, located around one thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) from the coast of Africa and 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) from the coast of Brazil, It is governed as part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, of which the main island, Saint Helena, is some 800 miles (1,300 kilometers to the southeast. The territory also includes the sparsely populated Tristan da Cunha archipelago, 2,300 miles (3,730 kilometers) to the south, about halfway to the Antarctic Circle.  The chief settlement and capital is Georgetown.

This remote island was first sighted by a Portuguese Captain, Juan de Nova, in 1501 and named in English, “The Island of Our Lady of the Conception”. The Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque landed on the island on May 21, 1503, which was the feast day of Ascension that year. He named it Ilha da Ascensão after Ascension Day. Dry and barren, the island had little appeal for passing ships except for collecting fresh meat, and was not claimed for the Portuguese Crown.  Organized settlement of Ascension Island began in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I on Saint Helena to the southeast.  On October 22, 1815, the Cruizer class brig-sloops Zenobia and Peruvian claimed the island for His Britannic Majesty King George III. The Royal Navy designated the island as a stone frigate, HMS Ascension, with the classification of “Sloop of War of the smaller class”.

Originally mail was carried on an irregular basis as ships called. Under Post Office regulations of 1850 (ratings) and 1854 (officers), mail from men of the Royal Navy serving abroad had the postage prepaid in stamps of Great Britain, supplies of which were issued to each ship.  British stamps used on the island before 1860 may have been provided by the naval officer in charge of the postal service.  A datestamp was in use on Ascension Island from February 1858, and in 1860 the British G.P.O. assumed responsibility for postal matters on the island.  In 1863 the Union Steamship Co. began regular carriage of mail, continuing until 1977.  In January 1867, stamps were sent from Great Britain for use on the island, becoming valid for Ascension mail on March 3, 1867. The use of British stamps ceased in December 1922.  Until about 1880, the naval mail which made up most early correspondence did not have the stamps cancelled until arrival in England.

On October 20, 1922, Letters Patent made Ascension a dependency of Saint Helena. On November 2, 1922, nine stamps of St. Helena overprinted ASCENSION replaced British stamps. These were followed up in 1924 by a series of twelve using the St. Helena design, but inscribed for Ascension. In 1934 a pictorial series of ten engraved stamps depicted various views of the island.  In 1938 the pictorials were re-issued with a portrait of George VI replacing his father’s image. Various colour, perforation, and watermark changes ensued, with the last being issued in February 1953.

During World War II, to supply and augment extensive amphibious aircraft antisubmarine patrol operations ongoing from the early days of the war, the United States built an airbase on Ascension Island, known as “Wideawake”, after a nearby colony of sooty terns which are locally called ‘wideawake’ birds because of their loud, distinctive constant (day-and-night) cawing chatter. The airbase, which was under construction by the 38th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Army Corps of Engineers, was unexpectedly visited by two British Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes on June 15, 1942. According to one of the pilots, Peter Jinks, the planes were fired upon before being recognised as allies. The Swordfish had to land on the unfinished airstrip, thus becoming the first aircraft to land on Ascension Island proper — which had long served as an anti-submarine warfare base for Catalina flying boats. The airfield was used by the US military as a stopping point for American aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the way to theaters of operation in Europe and Africa. American bombers based at Wideawake were engaged in the Laconia incident. After the end of World War II, and American departure, the airbase fell into disuse.

Wideawake Airfield expanded in the mid-1960s. The runway, with its strange hump, was extended, widened, and improved to allow its use by large aircraft, and later to act as an emergency runway for the Space Shuttle, although the Shuttle never had to use it. At the time, it was the world’s longest airport runway.  Currently, the United States Air Force uses the island as part of its Eastern Range. NASA established a tracking station on the island in 1967, which it operated for more than 20 years before closing it down in 1990. The BBC Atlantic Relay Station was installed in 1966 for short-wave broadcasts to Africa and South America.  A joint Government Communications Headquarters and National Security Agency signals intercept station was also established on Ascension during the Cold War.  In 1982 the British task force used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falklands War, The European Space Agency now operates an Ariane monitoring facility there and the hosts one of four ground antennas (others are on Kwajalein Island, Diego Garcia, and Cape Canaveral) that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigational system. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the United States Air Force operate a telescope on Ascension Island for tracking orbital debris, which is potentially hazardous to operating spacecraft and astronauts, at a facility called the John Africano NASA/AFRL Orbital Debris Observatory.

Scott #46 was released on May 17, 1944, as part of the 1938-1953 pictorial series which would eventually include sixteen major numbers in the Scott catalogue (and a number of minor numbers for differences in perforation gauge; for example, Scott #46 is perforated 13 while #46a has a gauge of 13½).  The stamp is denominated one shilling and was recess printed by Thomas De La Rue & Company of London with a black center and dark brown frame (the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, where it is numbered SG #44a, called this latter color sepia).  Watermarked with a multi-script CA (for Crown Agents), the stamp portrays a view of the harbor at Georgetown.

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