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The Strange Tale of the Mad Tyrant of Clipperton Island

Most of us, especially any of those of you with an Internet connection to even be reading this, are at least for the most part safely ensco...

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Most of us, especially any of those of you with an Internet connection to even be reading this, are at least for the most part safely ensconced within civilization and proper society. Although one might have complaints, you are in a buffered zone of laws and accepted behavior that most people more or less take for granted. Yet what happens when all of those laws and the very idea of civilization are stripped away, and we get flung out of the sphere of society as we know it? Do humanity and values live on, or do we devolve into something worse than we can imagine? Sadly, according to many points in our history, without civilization to keep us in check we are prone to crumbling into chaos, and one intriguing glimpse into the breakdown of society and its scary consequences can be seen in the tale of a ragtag group of people who came to a remote, uninhabited island looking to make a difference, but finding a nightmare instead.

Lying out in the middle of nowhere, approximately 671 miles from the coast of south-west of Mexico and around 600 miles from the nearest land of any kind at all is a lonely, largely barren windswept speck of a coral atoll called Clipperton Island. Named after the English pirate and privateer John Clipperton in the 18th century, it was originally discovered in 1528 by Spanish Conquistadors, and over the ensuing centuries this unassuming little slash of largely rocky, treeless land would become the center of numerous disputes of ownership between France, the United States, Britain, and Mexico, in a sometimes bitter tug of war, as it was seen as being in an important strategic position and also held vast reserves of valuable guano, essentially bird, bat, and seal droppings prized as fertilizer. It was a lot of ruckus over what was really just a forbidding barren collection of rocks inhabited only by seabirds, lizards, and land crabs, but this would go on for centuries.

Clipperton Island

The island would eventually be formally claimed by France in 1858, but even after this there were conflicting attempts to permanently colonize the island by all involved, mostly for the purpose of mining that sweet, sweet guano. Mexico and France made the boldest claims to the island, clashing endlessly on it, but the first somewhat permanent settlement on Clipperton Island began with a guano mining operation set up here by The British Pacific Island Company in 1906, and before long there was a small population of a dozen or so families trying to eke out a living in this inhospitable place far from civilization. These early settlers did their best to work the land and try to coax life out of the sterile, arid soil, planting vegetation from their homeland and supplementing the barren earth with imported soil, but it was largely futile and they were far from self-sufficient, requiring regular supply ship visits from Mexico every 8 weeks in order to survive. Mexico mostly allowed all of this, although they set up a lighthouse on the island partly to spy on what the British were up to.

Although it could never be mistaken for flourishing in any conventional sense of the word, by 1914 there were about 100 people living on Clipperton Island, and they had built houses, barracks, and even a little railway for their budding town. The growth of this settlement was somewhat worrying for the Mexican government, so in order to keep an eye on the British and guard their own perceived sovereignty over the island, 13 soldiers from the Mexican Army were sent to Clipperton along with their families to join the outpost, led by an officer named Ramon Arnaud, who would be declared the governor of the whole thing.

It would turn out that Mexico’s worries were unfounded, as the British guano operation was proving to not be particularly lucrative, and was turning into a money losing venture. The operation had its plug pulled and the British inhabitants of Clipperton began to trickle out, until only the Mexicans and one of the original British inhabitants remained. With the leaving of the British the island’s population dropped to just around 30, consisting of the soldiers, their families, a lone British representative from The British Pacific Island Company, and a reclusive Mexican lighthouse keeper by the name of Victoriano Álvarez, who was of no help, hardly ever seen, and might as well have been invisible. Arnaud was nevertheless on orders to guard the island against the many others who sought to claim it, and so he and his contingent of men and their families remained even as the Mexican Revolution heated up far away out over that endless sea of blue. Unfortunately for them, although they were safe from all of the fighting and bloodshed, the Revolution also meant that the supply ships stopped coming, and they were more or less forgotten and left to fend for themselves in this hostile land.

Ramon Arnaud

In the way of natural resources, the island had next to none. The vegetable gardens the British had tried to plant had failed, and with no supplies coming in the only thing to eat were seabirds, their eggs, lizards, land crabs, some coconuts, and any fish they could manage to catch. The lack of nourishment, and especially a void of Vitamin C, led to various health problems, most notably scurvy among the men. Even in the face of this mounting hardship, Arnaud refused to give up his post, and even when a passing American ship offered to take them off the island they were met with defiance by governor, although the lone remaining British inhabitant took this opportunity to get away.

In time, scurvy and starvation began to pick the men off, with one after another falling to the deficiency, until only five men remained alive. This was perhaps around when Arnaud realized that staying on Clipperton was folly, and with a pregnant wife and many women and children to think about, he made plans for them to get off the island. The problem was that they had no way of building a boat that could navigate these unknown waters and weather the hundreds of miles of sea to the nearest land, but they nevertheless cobbled together a makeshift raft in case they saw any ship out over the horizon. In 1917 their chance would come, when Arnaud claimed to have seen a ship out over the water and scrambled his few remaining men aboard the flimsy raft to try and go to it in a desperate shot at freedom. Unfortunately for everyone who had relied upon them for their survival, the men would row out on their raft to never return, quite possibly drowned. This left behind eight women, including Arnaud’s own wife, seven children, some of whom had been born on the island, and one lone man in the lighthouse keeper Victoriano Álvarez. It would also be the start of a new nightmare for those who remained.

The women and children were already distraught as it was, but that very same evening a hurricane would descend upon the island, forcing them to take refuge in the basement of the sturdiest dwelling they could find as the fierce winds howled above. During the hurricane Arnaud’s wife, Alicia, would gave birth to the background cacophony of the village being destroyed above them, and when they tentatively peeked outside the following day they did so to find the town they had called home had been completely leveled by the storm. It was at this time, as they picked and stumbled through what was left of the only civilization they had known since coming to the island, a new threat emerged from the wilds. From the wilderness came the lonely lighthouse keeper, Álvarez, who up to that point had remained mostly removed from the settlement and spending all of his time ignored as a reclusive hermit in his light house, but who now came forth with dark thoughts on his mind.

Perhaps it was a mental breakdown from all of the stresses of trying to survive on Clipperton, or perhaps he had been merely biding his time to strike, planning it all along, but in the absence of any other men to oppose him, Álvarez came forward to proclaim that he was now the governor of the island. To underscore his point, he gathered any remaining firearms and discarded them in the sea, keeping just one for himself as a show of power. He then rounded up all of the remaining survivors and began a reign of terror, forcing the women to do as he pleased and beating any who disobeyed him. Rapes were common, with some of the victims as young as 13 years old, but the terrified survivors were too scared to fight back. The rifle was constantly used for intimidation, and those who spurned his unwanted advances or tried to fight off his rapes were dealt with using great violence, with at least four of the women shot and killed in a campaign of deviancy and brutality.

Álvarez sought to keep his sex slaves and twisted tyrant ways intact, and one of his main pieces of leverage was the wife of Arnaud. He used her to keep the others in line, threatening to kill her and her newborn baby if any of them were to try to escape or flag down a passing ship. He also made it abundantly clear that he would murder any outsiders who happened to land on the island, and mostly this kept everyone quiet except for one outspoken and volatile young woman by the name of Tirza Randon. Together with Alicia Arnaud, she began plotting to get rid of Álvarez once and for all. In the end it would not be so much a crafty scheme so much as just catching him off guard. Randon and Arnaud snuck out one evening and crept up to the madman’s hut, where they found him cooking a seabird for dinner, completely unaware that anything was amiss. The two women managed to get their hands on a hammer and an axe from the hut and proceeded to attack Álvarez with great fury before he even knew what hit him. When they were done the mad tyrant had been reduced to a mangled, bloody corpse, his reign of horrors over.

It would be not long after this when on July 18, 1917 amazingly a ship would amazingly appear on the horizon, an American gunboat called the USS Yorktown, which had been on patrol in the area on the lookout for rumored German U-boats in these seas, and the vessel was successfully signaled by the ragtag group of survivors. After a failed attempt to reach the island through turbulent surf, the Americans were finally able to rescue the four women and seven children who remained, all that was left of the only real attempt then or since to populate the island. When they reached Mexico they found that shocked family and relatives had thought them long dead, and it would not be until years later that any of them would mention the horrors of their ordeal at the hands of the mad king of Clipperton Island. In the end, we don’t know exactly what happened here, or how things managed to devolve so thoroughly into savagery, and the case of Clipperton Island’s Mad King has proven to be a curious historical oddity, and a glimpse into the potential darkness of humankind.

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