The Tragic History of Clipperton Island

The history of Clipperton Island is peculiar indeed. Situated 670 miles southwest of Mexico’s coast in the eastern Pacific and spanning a modest 6 square kilometers, Clipperton doesn’t embody the idyllic tropical island dream.

This isolated and desolate speck of land teems with venomous crabs, endures relentless torrential downpours and tempests from May through October, and emits an ammonia stench for the year’s remainder.

However, Clipperton posed diplomatic challenges throughout history and witnessed an especially strange episode of brutality and homicide just over a hundred years back.

Controversy surrounds the initial discovery of Clipperton Island. While some suggest Ferdinand Magellan first chanced upon this secluded isle in 1521, others believe it was a Spanish sailor named Alvaro de Saavedra Cerón who stumbled upon it in 1526, dubbing it La Isla de Médanos.

The name we know today, Clipperton Island, traces back to John Clipperton, a British privateer from the early 18th century. Functioning as a mercenary pirate, he was an asset to the British monarchy and pursued his operations near Central America’s western shoreline.

His goal was to curtail the Spanish influence in Central America and Mexico. Owing to the island’s strategic position westward of the Guatemalan and Mexican coasts, it’s believed he utilized this island as a stronghold for his assaults around 1705.

By 1711, French explorers Martin de Chassiron and Michel Du Bocage came across it, charted the first map, and staked a claim in France’s name. They gave it a new title, Île de la Passion, which, predictably, didn’t gain traction.

Come 1804, while in Peru, German geographer Alexander von Humboldt observed locals employing a unique material known as guano for fertilizing purposes. He transported a specimen to Europe for examination.

There, the crop outcomes from using guano fertilizer were astounding. Therefore, the rich guano reserves on Clipperton Island made it a coveted territory for France, the US, and Mexico.

Guano, primarily the droppings from seabirds and bats, is prized due to its abundance of nitrogen phosphate and potassium, which are vital for vegetation. Intriguingly, guano’s properties also made it suitable for gunpowder production, intensifying the island’s desirability among the three countries.

In 1856, the US enacted the Guano Islands Act, permitting American adventurers and firms to seek out guano-laden islands in the Pacific and annex them on behalf of the US, given they were unoccupied and not under another nation’s jurisdiction.

Reacting in 1858, the French Emperor, Napoleon III, dispatched naval forces to incorporate the island into the French colony of Tahiti. Yet, ownership remained contentious.

In 1892, a team of Americans landed on Clipperton Island, intending to exploit the invaluable guano reserves, turning it into a lucrative venture in subsequent years.

With the guano industry booming, Mexico also expressed interest in adjacent islands rich in guano and informed the US of their assertion that Clipperton was Mexican territory.

Reclaiming their stance in 1897, Mexico, under President Porfirio Diaz, deployed a naval vessel to claim and integrate the island. Following their arrival, the Mexican soldiers ousted the small American contingent mining the island’s guano and hoisted a Mexican banner to signify their possession.

Amidst the diplomatic skirmish that was already ensnaring three nations vying for Clipperton Island, the British dramatically entered the arena in 1899, with a clear intention of staking their own claim.

The involvement of Britain, given its maritime supremacy at the time, was a disconcerting development for both America and France. Their concerns, however, were essentially academic, for Britain’s naval prowess was unmatched, making any opposition practically futile.

Understanding the gravity of confronting Britain head-on, Mexico’s President Porfirio Diaz took a more tactful approach. He proposed a mutually beneficial agreement: in exchange for recognizing Mexico’s sovereignty over Clipperton, the British would be allowed unrestricted access to exploit the island’s resources.

To this arrangement, the British diplomatically concurred. By 1906, the British Pacific Island Company was granted exclusive rights to tap into Clipperton’s rich guano deposits.

Without delay, they initiated settlements, expanded the palm tree plantations, and pioneered the cultivation of various vegetables in stone-bordered gardens. However, as time wore on, the British venture began grappling with economic setbacks.

Spiraling shipping costs combined with unpredictable market dynamics eroded their profits. Moreover, with the value of guano experiencing a downward trend and the exorbitant shipping expenses, their operations on Clipperton started looking untenable.

By 1909, disillusioned and disheartened, they abandoned their operations, leaving behind a lone guardian to oversee their erstwhile enterprise. Subsequent to Britain’s unexpected withdrawal, Mexico and France sought a diplomatic resolution to the ongoing territorial dispute.

They agreed upon an arbitration pact, nominating King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy to determine the island’s rightful sovereign. Anticipating the decision, Mexico proactively deployed troops to fortify its presence on the island.

This marked the establishment of a formal colony, governed by military commanders. An entourage of thirteen soldiers, accompanied by their kin and aides, was dispatched to Clipperton.

Among them was the interim governor, Ramon Arnaud, a young military official, and his spouse, Alicia Rovira Arnaud. It’s noteworthy that Ramon had a checkered past with the military; he had deserted shortly after enlistment, faced imprisonment, and was subsequently relegated to Clipperton as a form of disciplinary action.

In that same year, acting on President Porfirio Diaz’s directive, a lighthouse was constructed on Clipperton. This beacon was to be continually manned, with Victoriano Alvarez taking on this responsibility.

Little did anyone know then, but this lighthouse was set to be the stage for some of Clipperton’s most peculiar and haunting tales. By the dawn of 1910, the island’s population had burgeoned to approximately 100 settlers.

Their sustenance was heavily reliant on the periodic supply ships that arrived from Acapulco. But, in an unforeseen twist, 1911 saw Mexico plunged into a revolution, culminating in President Diaz being ousted from power.

The national upheaval disrupted the logistic lifeline to Clipperton, effectively stranding its inhabitants. In a fateful turn in 1914, an American vessel made its way to Clipperton, its mission to evacuate any lingering British denizens.

The captain relayed news of the Mexican political unrest and also of the outbreak of World War I in Europe. Recognizing the dire situation, he extended an offer to Governor Arnaud and the island’s residents: leave with the ship and escape potential catastrophe.

But Arnaud, perhaps haunted by past decisions or holding onto hope, declined. This decision, laden with foreboding, was one that he’d deeply rue. As the American vessel retreated beyond the horizon after offloading some essential supplies, the settlers saw their meager resources diminish rapidly.

The once-thriving gardens initiated by the British also withered away, pushing the already beleaguered settlers to eke out an existence on scarce coconuts and the occasional catch from the sea or sky.

By the end of 1915, Clipperton Island became synonymous with despair. Scurvy, a vicious disease, had its relentless grip on the inhabitants. Their bodies deteriorated rapidly, with gums bleeding and sores refusing to heal.

The island’s limited resources offered little respite, and the majority of the male population met their untimely demise. The remaining were few and weakened.

In the midst of this hopelessness, a potential lifeline emerged on the horizon. A ship, perhaps the answer to their prayers. Governor Arnaud, sensing an opportunity, rallied the remaining able-bodied men and embarked on a desperate chase using their last functional rowboat.

However, what should have been a rescue mission ended tragically, as the boat met its fate, capsizing in the tumultuous waves. The island’s occupants could only watch, mouths agape, as their last beacon of hope disappeared beneath the ocean’s vastness.

If things weren’t dire enough, Mother Nature added to their woes. A severe storm pummeled the already scarred island, toppling homes and uprooting the few remaining trees. The storm’s aftermath presented an eerie sight – an island battered, its soul torn apart.

In this post-apocalyptic setting, Victoriano Alvarez saw an opportunity. Emerging from his isolation in the lighthouse, he seized control, disposing of all weapons and establishing himself as the island’s unchallenged ruler.

With unchecked power came unspeakable cruelty. Alvarez’s reign of terror began, and he treated the remaining women as mere objects to satisfy his wicked desires.

His rule was absolute, and his methods of control were barbaric. Alvarez’s sadistic tendencies knew no bounds. When defiance was shown, he didn’t hesitate to deliver swift, lethal justice, as a young girl and her mother discovered to their peril.

However, the human spirit, despite its fragility, has an innate ability to resist, to hope. Tirza Randon embodied this spirit. Weak and malnourished, she still summoned the courage to challenge Alvarez’s tyranny. Her vocal disdain for the self-proclaimed king became legendary, and whispers of revolt began to stir among the survivors.

The pivotal moment came in July 1917. Following days of torment, Alvarez demanded the presence of Alicia Arnaud at his lighthouse. Sensing an opportunity, the women conspired. Their plan was simple yet perilous.

As Alicia engaged Alvarez in a heated argument, Tirza seized the moment, using a hammer to deliver a devastating blow. Together, they overpowered the beast, finally ending his tyrannical reign.

The women’s victory was sweetened further when they spotted the US Navy gunship Yorktown approaching the island. The sailors aboard rescued the survivors, who relayed their harrowing tales of survival, despair, and ultimate triumph over evil.

Clipperton Island’s tragic history stands as a stark reminder of human resilience and the lengths one might go to ensure survival. The island saw colonization attempts, territorial disputes, and environmental challenges. Yet, its darkest chapter was undeniably the reign of Victoriano Alvarez.

Despite its troubled past, Clipperton Island found peace in international law. In 1931, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy intervened in the territorial dispute, declaring the island rightfully belonged to France, a decision rooted in historical claims dating back to the early 18th century.

Mexico conceded, officially recognizing France’s sovereignty over the island in 1932.

Today, Clipperton Island stands desolate, its haunting past a lesson in human endurance, the dangers of unchecked power, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.