St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha profiles

  • 16 March 2016
  • From the section Africa
Map of Ascension, St Helena and Tristan Da Cuhna

The remote islands of St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha lie in the South Atlantic Ocean, midway between Africa and South America.

Though far from each other, they form a single territorial grouping under the sovereignty of the British Crown.

Much of their history has been influenced by military and strategic interests.

St Helena

St Helena is probably best known as the island to which French Emperor Napolean Bonaparte was exiled in 1815 after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Its inhabitants, known locally as "Saints", are the descendants of sailors, settlers and slaves. The island's economy is dependent on British grants and remittances from abroad.

It is linked to the outside world by a Royal Mail Ship, the St Helena, which makes a five-day journey from Cape Town in South Africa, every three weeks, carrying passengers and supplies,

The British government hopes an international airport completed in 2016 will boost the island's self-sufficiency, "with the ultimate aim of eliminating the island's reliance on aid".


St Helena

British Overseas Territory

  • Population 4,255

  • Area 122 sq km (47 sq miles)

  • Major language English

  • Major religion Christianity

  • Currency St Helena Pound (equal to British pound)

  • Economy Agriculture, fishing concessions and tourism



Head of state: Elizabeth II, represented by a governor

The territory elects an assembly of 12 members, five of who sit on a local government council, chaired by the governor.

The governor is represented on Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha by local administrators.


Key dates in St Helena's history:

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Napoleon ended his days on St Helena

1502 - The island is uninhabited when it is first discovered by Portuguese mariners.

1600s - The British East India Company uses the island as a way station for trading ships sailing home from the Orient and is granted a charter to run the island, installing its own governor in 1659.

1815 - Napoleon Bonaparte is imprisoned on the island after his defeat at Waterloo and remains confined there until his death in 1821.

1834 - St Helena becomes a British crown colony.

1980s - Widespread poverty eases with the Falklands War creating job opportunities in both the Falklands and Ascension.

2002 - Britain repeals a 1981 law depriving Saints of full citizenship, prompting a third of its inhabitants to leave the island to live or work elsewhere.

2011 - The UK government announces plans to invest £250m in the building of an airport on the island's east coast with a view to boosting the island's self-sufficiency.

Image caption Many residents of St Helena are descendants of sailors, settlers and slaves

Ascension Island

Just south of the equator, Ascension Island is 700 miles from its nearest neighbour St Helena. It is a vital staging post for Britain in the South Atlantic and served as a key logistical base for troops during the Falklands War in 1982.

The island was an important communications and operations centre during both World Wars and its Wideawake airfield is now shared by the British and American air forces.

Today, the island is used by the telecommunications company Cable & Wireless for satellite communications; Merlin, which runs a satellite-tracking station for the European Space Agency; the BBC World Service, which has a relay station there and the Composite Signals Organisation, which is part of GCHQ.

The island has a transient population of about 1,000, mainly Britons, Americans and St Helenians involved in the military, telecommunications and satellite tracking. It can be reached by air or by the RMS St Helena.

Image copyright UK Ministry of Defence

Britain has expressed the intention of applying to the UN to extend its territorial rights around Ascension Island on the grounds that the island's landmass actually reaches much further underwater. This would give Britain more extensive rights over any oil or gas reserves in the areas.

Ascension Island facts

Status: British Overseas Territory

Capital: Georgetown

Population: 880

Area: 90 sq km (34 sq miles)

Major languages: English

Major religion: Christianity

Currency: St Helena/Ascension Pound (equal to British pound)


Key dates in the history of the Ascension Islands:

1501 - The island is discovered by Portuguese navigator Joao da Nove Castella but remains uninhabited until the arrival of a British naval garrison in 1815.

1823 - Control of the island transfers to the Royal Marines and it remains under the supervision of the British Admiralty until 1922 when it is declared a dependency of St Helena.

1899-1964 - The East Telegraph Company, now Cable & Wireless, administers the island until 1964.

1943 - World War Two: The US military builds the Wideawake airbase and landing strip and remains on the island until 1947. Post-war, a US military presence is re-established.

1964 - The BBC establishes a South Atlantic relay station and administration of the island transfers from Cable & Wireless to a London-appointed administrator.

1967 - A NASA tracking station is built to support the Apollo lunar landing programme but closes in 1990 to be replaced by a European Space Agency station.

1982 - St Helena is used as a base to support British military operations during the Falklands War. The RAF detachment remains on the island after the war to support the Falklands garrison.

2016 - Britain announces plans to protect the island's rich marine biodiversity by creating a reserve the size of the UK in the waters around Ascension Island, with just over half of the protected area to be closed to fishing.

Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha was once the main trading route between Europe and the Indian Ocean. It is now home to 300 residents who live in its only settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.

Situated 1,243 miles from its closest neighbour Saint Helena, 1,491 miles from South Africa and 2,088 miles from South America, the remote archipelago includes Inaccessible, Nightingale, Middle, Stoltenhoff, and Gough - which has a manned weather station.

Accessible only by a six-day boat journey from South Africa, its main island is just seven miles long.

Most of its residents are farmers, with cattle among the livestock, and fishing also forms a major part of the island's economy.

Tristan da Cunha facts

Status: British Overseas Territory

Capital: Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

Population: 300

Major languages: English

Major religion: Christianity

Currency: British Pound


Key dates in the history of Tristan da Cunha:

1506 - Portuguese navigator Tristao da Cunha discovers the island but it remains uninhabited.

1700s - The island is used as a temporary base by US whalers before the first permanent settlers arrive in the early 1800s.

1816 - The British navy stations a garrison on island during Napoleon's exile. When the garrison is withdrawn a year later, three settlers stay on to become the founders of the present settlement.

1800s - By 1856, there are close to 100 residents and the island begins to prosper, operating as a subsistence economy. The island is used as a way station for ships en-route to South Africa, India, the Far East and Australia.

1875 - The islands are declared part of the British Empire.

1938 - Tristan da Cunha is declared a dependency of St Helena.

1950 - The British government sends its first administrator to the territory.

1961 - A volcanic eruption forces the evacuation of all the island's inhabitants to the UK with the majority opting to return in 1963.


The far-flung islands support local newspapers and radio stations. There are no locally-based TV services.

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