They were the last inhabitants of a community that in its maximum splendor must have had around fifty people. But how did they get there and what happened to make them alone? To understand its odyssey, you have to know the incredible history of this tropical island lost in the middle of nowhere, which was once Mexican. One Medanos the one given to him by the Spanish conquerors who first recorded it on a map back in the 16th century.Another, Clipperton, the one that prevailed, which is the last name of a famous English pirate who is said to have used it as a hideout and base of operations in the early 18th century. And a third I Isla de la Pasion the one given to it by the French explorers who rediscovered it on Good Friday in the early 18th century when they declared it as their own.
But many in Mexico are unaware of its existence, the long international dispute over its sovereignty, and the tragic history of which it was the scene. It is a tale of those who surpass fiction, starring businessmen, shipwrecked men, soldiers, and brave women who survived disease and violence, abandoned for years in the middle of the ocean, and charge of their children. All this, before finally France took the island, in the 20th century, by the decision of an Italian king.
The last man on the island shortly before this photo was taken, two of the women portrayed had blood on their hands. Some time ago, to protect their families, Tirsa Rendón and Alicia Arnaud Rovira had decided to end the life of the only man left on the island who had been tormenting their small and vulnerable community for several years with beatings, rapes, and murders, survivors recounted. As it happened, they carried out the plan on the same day that they ended up being rescued by the American gunboat, who, in the context of World War I, had approached Clipperton during a reconnaissance mission looking for German ships.
Ramón Arnaud was about 8 years old when he witnessed what happened, a traumatic episode that he spoke about frequently to his descendants and that would describe sixty years later in great detail to the famous French explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau when he returned to Clipperton in 1981 as a guest to participate in one of his documentaries. Since the rescue, he had not set foot on the island where he was born, in 1909, when Mexico still considered it his. It had been a year since his father, the young Captain Ramón Arnaud, the first and last governor of Clipperton, had settled permanently there, as a newlywed, with his wife Alicia.
Arnaud (father) was in charge of a military garrison of a dozen men who, accompanied by their families, were carrying out an assignment ordered by President Porfirio Diaz himself to protect Mexico’s sovereignty over the island, which throughout the 19th century it had piqued the interest of the French, British, and Americans. Paradise and hell
From the air, Clipperton looks like a colorful paradise. It is a white belt of coral sand that stands out against the blue of the ocean and encloses a lagoon of emerald water. Up close is something else. The booby birds dominate the island, covering it in a blanket of excrement, a peculiarity that played a key role in Clipperton’s history, attracting the interest of international powers and companies that in the mid-19th century were trading guano, a prized treasure. fertilizer rich in phosphate derived from these animal feces.
There must have been hell but an absolute hell marine ecology researcher Enrique Ballesteros told who has dived in waters around the world, including those of the Clipperton lagoon close to the sea, smelly and brackish, full of algae and bacteria but deserted with fish. This Spaniard participated in a scientific expedition to the island in 2016, as part of an investigation by the Pristine Seas project, by National Geographic, in collaboration with the University of French Polynesia. And there he found, together with his team of researchers, that the island and the waters that surround it are full of life, with vegetation and fauna in constant evolution, which attracts the attention of scientists.
But it is an inhospitable place for humans. Besides being in the path of frequent storms and hurricanes there is a wind that does not stop and huge waves that do not let you access the sea recall Ballesteros. The island is surrounded by a great coral reef that makes access by boat extremely difficult and dangerous. Besides some groups of palm trees, the only thing that stands out on the completely flat line of sand is a large volcanic rock about 28 meters high. On that rock at the beginning of the 20th century, the Mexicans put a lighthouse to work. And in an isolated cabin, at the foot of that rock pierced by caves and passages, Victoriano Alvarez, the lighthouse keeper, spent days and nights, who ended up losing his mind.
The pulse of great powers determination of Captain Arnaud and his determination of Captain Arnaud and his garrison, who ended up giving their lives to protect the sovereign interests of Mexico, failed to prevent France from ultimately staying with Clipperton. The French, in fact, already had annexed unilaterally in 1858 the then called I SLA of the Passion, but the Mexicans did not learn until nearly 40 years later, in 1897. In 1858, France sent a lieutenant on behalf of Emperor Napoleon III to take formal possession of the territory that its explorers had first sighted at the beginning of the century.
The French intended to later cede the exploitation of the guano to an American businessman who had taken an interest in the atoll. When the lieutenant arrived on the island, he drew up an administrative act that he later registered with the French consul in Hawaii, his next destination, more than 6,000 km away. The news was also published by The Polynesian newspaper, of Honolulu. But later the French did not visit Clipperton again, in part because their initial guano mining project failed. Those who did, on the other hand, were the Americans. Up, in fact, its flag on the atoll in late-late-nineteenth-centurylding on the Law of the I slas g cameras adopted in 1856 which authorized its citizens to possess and exploit any island with deposits of guano was uninhabited and not under the jurisdiction of another country.
When all this finally came to light, it turned into an international dispute involving four nations. It happened by chance an article in the New York Herald newspaper in August 1897 reported that a guano-laden ship had just returned from Clipperton and pointed out that the British flag was about to replace the American there because a company English was to take the reins of exploitation. During the following weeks, several Mexican newspapers echoed the surprising news and the pressure grew so much that that same year President Porfirio Diaz sent a gunboat to the atoll to see what was happening and defend Mexican sovereignty.
There they did find an American flag and several workers from the Oceanic Phosphate Company, who were informed that the island was Mexican and took possession of the territory. What they did not know then is that the real threat to their sovereignty would not come from the United States, but France. Mexico began to install a small colony at Clipperton, which would later be led by Captain Arnaud. But France insisted so diplomatically that the atoll was theirs that in 1909 the government of Mexico sure of its position, agreed to submit the dispute to international arbitration. The decision which would be binding was thus in the hands of a neutral referee, who agreed that it would be the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III. A chain of bad decisions shouldn’t have let her lose Laura Ortiz, passionate about Clipperton’s history and professor of International Law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told.
Like the vast majority of Mexicans, he learned nothing about the atoll in school but listened to the story full of fantasy and half fictionalized when he was studying law at university. For Ortiz, behind the loss of Clipperton above all is the historical disinterest of the Mexican government for the island and the insular territory in general. And also a chain of bad decisions. The first, he says, was that of President Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico between 1876 and 1911, for agreeing to submit the dispute to international arbitration, because the island was already colonized by Mexicans, Ortiz explains. Then more than 20 years passed before the Italian king made his award. At that time the Mexican Revolution and the First World War were unleashed.
When the award in favor of France finally arrived, on January 28, 1931, Mexico was already another country Porfirio Díaz had already died and there was post-revolutionary Mexico in the making. The ruling said that Clipperton sovereignty had belonged to France since 1858. In the arbitration, the evidence of the maps of the Spanish routes was not taken into account in whose routes it appeared as the island of Médanos. And the sighting of the French was taken into account, who discovered and registered it in quotation marks.
And there comes, according to Ortiz, another error in the chain not having immediately appealed the arbitration decision before the Permanent Court of International Justice, the predecessor of the current International Court of Justice in The Hague, the main judicial body of the United Nations. United. Another mistake of Mexico, continues Professor Ortiz, was rushing to reform the Constitution after accepting the arbitration ruling, eliminating Clipperton from Article 42, in which it expressly appeared, along with other Mexican islands, as an integral part of the national territory.n Mexico for all jurists and scholars on the subject, the arbitration award was unfair says Ortiz.
The late Mexican lawyer, writer, and politician Miguel Gonzalez Avelar, author of “Clipperton, Mexican Island also considered it that way. The circumstances that determined their exclusion from Mexican sovereignty are so absurd that there is no reasonable person who, upon knowing them, is satisfied with the result he wrote in 1992. A heroic decision that ended in traded captain Ramon Arnaud and Alicia Rovira’s early years on the island, at the beginning of the last century, passed relatively calmly. Every two or three months a ship loaded with provisions, medicines and news arrived from Acapulco.
In addition to the members of its garrison and their families, the last workers of the British company to which Mexico ended up giving the concession to exploit the guano lived in the atoll, although they would soon abandon the mission when they verified that it was actually an unprofitable operation. But everything changed after 1910: the beginning of the Mexican Revolution on the mainland at first interrupted the supply of the island and left it totally forgotten later. What followed then was a tragic story of survival, which for the most fortunate lasted seven years. Before reaching the most critical moments of shortage, disease, and death, Captain Arnaud had the opportunity to leave Clipperton aboard an American ship that arrived to rescue the survivors, upon learning that they were still alive.
But the captain decided not to abandon his post unless ordered to do so by his Mexican superiors, and both the garrison and their respective families rejected the offer to return to the mainland to stay by his side. For many it was a heroic sacrifice for the country that the Mexican authorities of the time never appreciated. What Arnaud did not imagine was that in Mexico, in the midst of the revolution, no one wanted to take charge of a small and remote military detachment loyal to the previous government now an enemy. In time the people of Clipperton were forgotten and later presumed dead. In the atoll, they never went hungry because they could live off the sea and booby birds, but the lack of vitamin C was killing the population with scurvy.
A dozen coconut trees, then the only vegetation on the island, was the salvation for the few survivors. Meanwhile, Clipperton’s youngest children grew up more or less oblivious to the older ones. Ramon Arnaud’s three little brothers had little memory of the hardships that they later told them they lived through. But Ramon, who grew up on the island until he was eight, remembered all the details you can imagine. He had them all very clear his granddaughter Gabriela Arnaud, captain Ramon, and Alicia’s great-granddaughter told BBC Mundo via videoconference. He recounted over and over again everything that had happened with the same naturalness with which he had lived it recalls Gabriela, who now chairs a project called Clipperton Honor and Gloria, with which she wants to publicize family history.
At first, as a child, I understood everything almost like a story. He told me about an island where he had lived where at first everything was fine, where the ship came and went, they had a beautiful house his mother played the piano, I taught all the children on the island it was a very nice thing in the beginning before all the tragedy came, says Gabriela. But over the years things got more and more complicated. Almost three years before seeing how his mother and Tirsa killed Victoriano Alvarez, Ramon had seen his father drowning in the turbulent waters that surround the atoll, trying to reach his last men, except the lighthouse keeper, a ship that he had sighted on the horizon. By then, 1915, it was clear to the captain that no one from the Mexican navy was going to look for them again.
This is how the first and last Governors of Clipperton died. And that’s how Alicia Arnaud, Tirsa Rendon, and Altagracia Quiroz ended up alone in the middle of the Pacific in charge of seven children and a teenage girl and harassed by a maddened and violent man. After their rescue in 1917, the women had to explain the death of the lighthouse keeper, but according to Gabriela Arnaud, they were exonerated of guilt for having acted in self-defense. With the stories that her maternal grandfather told her, Gabriela Arnaud wrote a book Clipperton, a story of honor and glory. It’s not the only one. The tragic events also inspired a film, several documentaries, numerous essays, plays, and novels such as Laura Restrepo’s The Island of Passion. But the history of the atoll does not end with the rescue of the survivors, nor with the award of the Italian king.
Clipperton never had a permanent population again, but during World War II it was briefly occupied by the United States, which established a meteorological base and observation center there. In a 1945 letter, then-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had visited the atoll on several occasions, wrote to his Secretary of State The ownership and development of Clipperton Island are matters that I consider to be of importance to the United States. for its strategic location for the Panama Canal. Mexico has long disputed the French claim on this island and the Mexican arguments are not unfounded. It would be to our advantage if the United States, in the absence of direct ownership, sought to obtain rights to a base on the island of Clipperton with a concession. long-term through Mexican property continues the letter, now a public document accessible through the Office of the Historian of the US Department of State.
But that idea never came to fruition. Today Clipperton is a French overseas territory. Every so often a frigate approaches the atoll to replace the flag and repaint the letters RF, for Republique Française, inscribed on a concrete monument. After all these years, the atoll per se has no economic or strategic interest, except for the waters that surround the islet says Professor OrtizThanks to Clipperton, France has under its jurisdiction an Exclusive Economic Zone of 425,000 km² the equivalent of the size of Paraguay, in one of the richest fishing areas in the world in which ironically, it allows it to catch tuna from Mexico using a fishing agreement.
But few in Mexico remember or question the loss of Clipperton. For several years, some legislators said that Clipperton’s territorial sovereignty would have to be vindicated, but they were unable to secure that idea Ortiz explains. Now, more than a sovereign claim by legal means, the most that Mexican fans of Clipperton hope to one day achieve is some type of negotiation with France that allows Mexico to co-administer the island. Meanwhile, the bust of Captain Arnaud adorns a square in Calle Real de Orizaba the city of Veracruz where he was born and to which he was never able to return from his mission.