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Island of the Damned

3 August 2010

My recent foray into the weird and wacky world of right-wing extremism introduced me to a forgotten, and tragic, bit of the Mexican Revolution that I never knew about, and certainly didn’t expect to learn about from some Falagist website.   The few “Reconquistadores” you run across in Mexico are connected with the extreme right-wing (despite what the extreme right wing in the United States seems to think).  At any rate, the Falangists, besides demanding the return of Arizona and Texas and California to “The Catholic Empire” want to reclaim Clipperton Island.  It seems a big deal to them… though I’d never heard of Clipperton Island, and had no idea Mexico ever lost it.

First of all, it’s not exactly an easy place to find… 9 square Km. of atoll roughly 1300 Km. west-south-west of Acapulco.  Clipperton himself was an English pirate, working more or less for the Spanish (but, being a pirate, more for Clipperton than anyone else) who noticed the nine square Km. atoll while sailing by about 1700.   A couple of French sea captains, Martin de Chassiron and Michel Du Bocage, landed in 1711, drew a map and left it for a French scientific expedition to claim the place in 1725.  And then, more or less forget about it.

Humbolt: he studied shit

The only thing Clipperton really had was shit… lots and lots and lots of shit.  Bird shit, aka guano.. became a valuable commodity in the early 19th century, thanks to Alexander von Humboldt, who wrote on the beneficial uses made by Peruvians of the piles of seabird shit that had piled up on desert coasts over the milenia.  He used the Quicha word “guano”  in his reports, which sounded better — and much more like a valuable exotic commodity — than the German translation,  “vogelscheiße” … easier to spell, too).  Humboldt noted it was rich in both nitrogen and phosphorus.  Which — with interest in scientific agriculture just seeping into public consciousness — meant a lot of people started getting interested in guano, especially since nitrogen and phosphorus aren’t just for enriching soil.  This was also the Napoleonic Era, when Europeans were busy slaughtering each other as never before… and nitrogen and phosphorus are also essential ingredients for gunpowder.   It’s not exactly “swords and ploughshares,” but guano had commercial possibilities both in war and peace.  Every country wanted to get their hands on the stuff, and they weren’t interested in… ah… getting their shit together… which led to at least two wars.

Clipperton’s nearest landfall being the the Revelligigio Archipeligo (about 950 Km. north), Mexico made a vague claim to the place in the 1840s.  So did the United States, which, in a rather far-fetched claim of Manifest Destiny, passed the Guano Act of 1856, claiming all unclaimed islands with bird shit on them for the United States.  In response, France officially annexed Clipperton, making it part of Tahiti, in 1858.  The French didn’t actually get around to doing anything about the place until 1897, when they stumbled upon a couple of Americans busily mining guano… and ran them off.  And left.

Clipperton Rock, aka, a pile of ...er... guano

At which point, Porfirio Diaz dispatched the Mexican gunboat Democratía to Clipperton and installed a governor.  The French weren’t exactly thrilled to find out there were a bunch of Mexicans illegally crossing into Tahitian territory, but — maybe having learned that messing with Porfirio Diaz wasn’t such a hot idea, they weren’t in any hurry to settle the dispute.  Instead of fighting over a pile of shit, they turned the who shitpile over to King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy who didn’t get around to flipping a coin and giving the place to France until 1931.  In the meantime…

… To keep from upsetting the French too much, in 1906 — when Porfirio decided to complicate matters by awarding the guano concessions to a British company, he sent a English-speaking Franco-Mexican officer,  Ramón Arnaud Vignon, as military governor.  Arnaud, after spent several months trying to figure out what he’d done so horribly wrong to merit such a promotion to governor, arrived with a handful of Mexican settlers.  For the next several years, as the King of Italy more or less forgot about the whole thing, the British exported their guano and the Mexicans worked in the mines, built a light house, a couple of homes, shops  and went about their otherwise uneventful lives.   Every two months a ship from Acapulco arrived with food and supplies …

Until… in 1914, with the Revolution in full swing, the supply ships stopped coming.  In 1915, a U.S. warship bringing the news of the Revolution (and the First World War) and offered to evacuate the 100 or so people living on Clipperton.  The mine manager, a German who had gotten a bit funny in the head from the isolation, was taken away, but Arnaud — a stickler for duty — turned down the offer.  By 1917, every adult male — including Arnaud — were dead except for light-house keeper Victoriano Álvarez.  Launching his own revolution, Álvarez declared himself King of the Island, and decided to repopulate the place.  Never mind there wasn’t any food coming in.

Alicia Rovira — Arnald’s widow — launched the counter-revolution — at any rate, when Álvarez attempted to rape her, she bashed his brains in.  Leaving no adult men on the island.  The last surviving four women and seven children were rescued by the U.S. gunship Yorktown.

While the island remained largely uninhabited it was visited — twice — by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the late 1930s, who probably only heard of the place when the King of Italy finally decided it was French and it showed up in the newspaper one day, considered buying it for the United States as a naval refueling station.  During the Second World War it was briefly occupied by the United States, but returned to France in 1945, by which time chemical fertilizers and bigger better nukier bombs had pretty much killed the demand for guano.

Other than sports fishermen and a few French scientific and naval personnel, and Jacques Cousteau (who thankfully didn’t complicate things by claiming it for his sovereign, the Prince of Monaco) , there were no permanent residents after the Mexican colonists were evacuated.  A biologist studying seabirds in 1958 stayed long enough to slaughter the feral pigs that were killing off the guano-makers, and in 1962, the crew of a shipwrecked tuna boat spent a couple of weeks living on the island.  The French considered using Clipperton either as a nuclear test site or a tourist resort (but not both…at least not at the same time), but nothing came of either proposal.  A California con-man tried using Clipperton as one of his supposed headquarters for an off-off-off-shore investment scheme got him tossed into the slammer first in Mexico, then in the United States.  Somebody or the other in Paris finally figured out it’s just too far from Tahiti to be part of French Polynesia and it’s left as an French Overseas Territory (with no people).   And leave it to the Mexicans to check up on the place once in a while.

Occasionally visited by scuba-diving expeditions out of the Revelligigios or Cabo San Lucas,  there is a sort of Mexican claim.  At least one Mexican environmental group  (Conservacíon del territorio insular Mexicano, A.C.) considers the island’s future a Mexican one.  But, despite what the Falangists or the environmentalists think, Clipperton — as it was, and as it is — is for the birds.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 August 2010 7:34 am

    This is some interesting shit Rich. You’re really starting to get your shit together and that is a no shitter my friend

  2. Maggie permalink
    3 August 2010 6:27 pm

    Oh LMAO, I needed this. I wonder if the waves there are shitty too?

  3. muabud permalink
    6 August 2010 5:55 pm

    The Archipelago name was misspelled it’s Revillagigedos. 😉

  4. 7 August 2010 1:38 pm

    But, there was water on the island?

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