The Tragedy at Clipperton Island

Survivors of Clipperton Island, 1917

Survivors of Clipperton Island, 1917

Clipperton Island is a lonely, ring-shaped coral atoll located 1610 miles southwest of San Diego. The jagged coral and sandy islands enclose a fresh water lagoon, and is home to several thousand sea birds and land crabs. While the island was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan, the tiny reef takes its name from John Clipperton, an English pirate rumored to have hidden treasure there more than three hundred years ago.

The island has changed hands several times, shifting from French to American to Mexican and to British hands. Who actually owns the place today remains unclear.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the atoll was valuable property due to the presence of large deposits of guano, a valuable source of nitrates, which can be used in fertilizers and explosives.

The British Pacific Island Company annexed the island in 1906 and with support from the Mexican government established a settlement there. In 1914, 100 settlers –men and women both–arrived on the island. Supplies were delivered over the vast ocean every two months by a ship from Acapulco. But with the starts of both the Mexican Civil War and World War I, the island colony slipped far down the priority list. What followed is a tale of brutality, tyranny, and survival that has become known as the tragedy at Clipperton Island.


Abandoned and alone

In 1914, Captain Ramon de Arnaud arrived on Clipperton on one of the supply ships with his young wife, Alicia. A few months after arriving, Ramon would help rescue the crew of an American schooner blown onto Clipperton Rock –the highest point of the island–during a hurricane. The American crew would be picked up that June by the USS Cleveland. It would be the last glimpse of the outside world that the people of Clipperton would see for three years.

With war sweeping the world, the men and women of Clipperton were left to fend for themselves. Dwindling food supplies began to plague the island inhabitants, and disease began to gain a deadly foothold. In April 1915, they consumed the last of their supplies. The only food supply available was that which could be scrabbled from the island itself: fish, coconut, crabs, and sea birds. with the lack of foods rich in vitamin C –there were only enough coconuts for each person to have one a week–scurvy swept through the population. The dread disease started killing the unfortunate colonists one by one.

In June, Captain Arnaud believed he saw salvation on the horizon–a ship! He gathered the remaining men and set out in a small boat toward the ship. But the Pacific breakers were too much for the men, weakened by hunger and disease, to handle. The ruthless waves smashed the tiny boat against the coral reef, killing every man aboard.

That left fifteen women and one man alive on the island. The remaining man lived in the island’s only lighthouse, far up on Clipperton Rock. his name was Victoriano Alvarez, and he was most certainly out of his mind. A big, powerful man, he declared himself King of Clipperton Island and ruled over the women and children remaining with an iron fist. He roamed around the makeshift shelters the women had built after a hurricane knocked down their houses, knife in hand. He hoarded any guns left on the island into his lighthouse, from which he ruled like a medieval despot. For years, the mad lighthouse keeper ruled over the women with violence. He regularly beat and raped them. He controlled their access to food as well.



Whereas the hope that Captain Arnaud had seen on the horizon was a mere mirage, what Alicia and the other women saw in 1917 was very real. Hope took the form of the Stars and Stripes flying over the gunboat Yorktown. Seeing the scrawny, emaciated figures on the beach, Commander H.P. Perrill ordered a boat be sent to rescue them. Lieutenant R. E. Kerr and his men came ashore on a boat to find a pitiful scene. The haggard faces of women and children who had survived something unimaginable. The survivors were taken back onto the gunboat, where Alicia told the story of the horror they had endured. When the Commander and Lieutenant went back to shore, they found pitiful huts and the dilapidated remnants of the guano mining operation. Entering one hut, they found the giant Alvarez sprawled out on the floor. Nearby were an axe and a knife, covered with blood. The tragedy of Clipperton Island was finally over.



“Clipperton Island.” <>

Thomas, Leslie. “An Island the World Forgot.” The Age. February 22, 1960. p. 13. Retrieved from:,3660925

Little, Jack. “The Clipperton Project.” September 20, 2011. The Bubble. April 25, 2014. <>


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