Monday, August 4, 2008

Stamp Issuer - Ascension Island

Ascension, 1922 (Scott #3)
Image courtesy Jay Smith & Assoc.

Ascension Island is a small island located in the Atlantic Ocean, just seven degrees south of the Equator. Its approximate location is near the intersection of a line drawn due south of the westernmost part of Africa and a line drawn due east of the easternmost point of South America. Its placement between Africa and South America has made it a prime mid-point for historical sailing expeditions and for modern-day military exercises.

Ascension Island is part of the territory of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory. Besides the island of Saint Helena and Ascension Island, the island cluster of Tristan da Cunha is the third dependency of the territory.

Geographically, Ascension Island rose from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean through volcanic processes. The island was inhabited only by birds and turtles when first discovered by Portuguese explorers. When the Portuguese navigator Alfonso of Albuquerque sighted the land on the Roman Catholic holiday called Ascension Day, he named it after the day.

The early Portuguese started a trend in changing the barren island when they left goats on the island as a source of meat for future navigators. Later, mammal immigrants to the island included donkeys, sheeps, cats, and rats. The cat population became wild ("feral") with each passing generation and threatened the native birds of the island, who escaped to nearby Boatswain Bird Island. Following the eradication of the feral cats from Ascension Island, birds are beginning to return.

Ascension, 1938 (Scott #41)
Image courtesy Jay Smith & Assoc.

With the exception of a lone Dutch castaway, who is believed to have been purposely stranded on the island as punishment, and who probably only lived a few months, the island was uninhabited by humans until 1815. At that time, Great Britain set up a small base of operations as a buffer against potential hostile attempts to free the political prisoner Napolean I from exile on nearby St. Helena.

During World War II, the U.S. built an airfield on the island known as Wideawake Airfield. During the war, the airfield was primarily used as a staging point for transatlantic military flights. Immediately following the war, the airfield was abandoned.

With the Cold War and the concurrent Space Race between the West and the Soviet Union, Ascension Island once again became an important location for military and telecommunications exercises. It currently serves as an important tracking site and emergency landing point for the U.S. Space Shuttle program, as well as a key Global Positioning System (GPS) site.

Philatelically, Ascension Island is an intriguing stamp issuer to collect. There is only one post office on the island, located in Georgetown. Because the population of the island consists primarily of service workers for the air field, including the U.S. Air Force and the Great Britain's Royal Air Force, it would probably be difficult for collectors who are not connected to someone on the island to receive non-commercial covers.

The early stamps of the island are costly. While the most expensive stamp catalogs for $175 mint ($200 used), there are several stamps in the early years that catalog for $50 or more. Because of the relative scarcity of postal use through the islands single post office, many early stamps are even more expensive used.

The total catalog value for mint or used stamps is about $3700. Approximately half of this amount is comprised of the first 100 stamps. Most of the remaining 800+ stamps are easily affordable. The country only issues 5 or 6 stamp sets per year, making a modern collection within the budget of most collectors.

Flora and fauna are common themes for the Ascension Island stamps. Even though the island is small, its long history of being uninhabited has led it to be a safe shelter for many birds, sea life, and hardy plants.

Have fun collecting this unique island's stamps!

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