Episode 35: The King
Some fears are obvious and visible. A dark, cobweb-covered basement. An old ax propped up in the corner of the garage, with something red along its edge — maybe rust, or maybe something else. Many fears, you see, can be documented, even photographed. But others can’t.
Some fears are like the wind: the only proof it exists is in the way it effects other things. That cool feeling on your skin, the way the leaves in the tree sway back and forth. And just like the wind, there are fears that we can only point out thanks to their effects.
One of the best places to feel that breeze, so to speak, is Hollywood. The stories that entertain us the most seem to tap into the deep, unseen fears that we all struggle with. It’s like touching the tip of your tongue to a 9-volt battery; you hate the sensation, but there’s something disturbingly attractive about it.
One of the biggest themes to come out of Hollywood over the past few decades, by far, has been one of isolation, loss, and disaster. Films like I Am Legend and Alien dip into this pool, as do small-screen shows like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica. We’re obsessed with the idea. We fear it, but we also love it, because the questions feel important.
What would happen if humanity were reduced to a tiny population, left on the brink of extinction, and fighting for survival? In what ways would our civilization hold strong, and where would it crack? Could we rediscover order, or would chaos consume us all?
You would think this would be an impossible concept to understand first-hand, that human dignity and ethics would prevent us from testing it out to find the true answers. Then again, real life is rarely ethical, and thanks to the events that took place on a small island in the Pacific just a century ago, we have answers:
Odds are, though, that you won’t like them.
All for Guano
Roughly one thousand miles due south of Cabo San Lucas, in the Pacific waters off the coast of Mexico and Central America, is an island. When I say ‘island’, your mind probably conjures an image of a large, green mountain protruding from the water, with sandy beaches and luxury resorts along the coastline, but that would be wrong.
This island is small. Really small, in fact. It’s perhaps two miles long, but from the air it’s almost nonexistent. It’s more of a coral ring than anything else, with very little vegetation. If you can picture a coffee stain, like a dark ring on a white napkin, that’s what I’m talking about. Outside the ring, the waves of the Pacific crash against the shore. Inside, though, is a fresh water lagoon. It’s not deep, but it’s drinkable.
The first European to stumble upon it, as far as historians can tell, was a man named John Clipperton. In the first two decades of the 1700s, he operated as a privateer, a pirate for hire, serving the British crown in its efforts to hinder Spanish expansion in Central America and Mexico. Due to the tiny island’s proximity to the western coast of Guatemala and Mexico, Clipperton set up base there.
For as tiny as the island is, it offered a surprising amount of space for Clipperton. The highest point is a mere 95 feet above the ocean waves, but he found a number of serviceable caves, which he had his men expand for storage and defense. But his time there was short-lived.
Clipperton Island, as it became known, had another feature that attracted attention: guano. The island was actually one of many that were mined to supply a growing need for the chemical elements found in the manure of birds, bats, and seals. This guano would primarily be used to manufacture gunpowder and fertilizer, two products that growing nations lusted after.
Because of this, the island exchanged hands a number of times through the middle of the 19th-Century. For a while, Mexico claimed ownership, but in 1856, the American government passed the Guano Islands Act, making it legal for US citizens to claim guano-rich islands no matter where they were located, so long as they were uninhabited and unclaimed by another country.
In the late 1800s, Napoleon sent French troops to annex the island. They found a small group of American guano miners there, and forced them out. Mexico wasn’t too happy about the French claim, though, and they argued about it for years. While they did, in 1899, a group of industrious British men landed and got to work.
Not only did they start mining, but they build houses and created garden areas. They even planted more palms. These guys were serious about colonizing the island, and wanted to do it right. But the island was more harsh than they realized, and by 1909 they had given up. All but one of the Englishmen abandoned the island and headed home.
And that’s when Mexico got serious. In 1910, President Diaz put thirteen soldiers on a ship and transported them to Clipperton, where they would do their part in maintaining Mexican rule over the valuable resources there.
Thankfully, when they arrived, they found the homes and buildings that the British had constructed, empty and waiting for them. There was even a recently-built lighthouse, complete with its own keeper. But it wasn’t just thirteen men with guns who made the trip.
Most of these men brought wives with them, you see. And there were children, and servants, and all the supplies they would need to settle in and build a life there. Sure, no one had been able to make a go of it so far. Sure, the island was nearly inhospitable. And sure, it was expensive and difficult to transport supplies to them. But they were determined.
By 1910, nearly 100 people had begun to call the island their home, and even more would be born there in the years to come.
What none of them could foresee, though, was just how many would die there, as well.
One of those thirteen soldiers was a man named Ramon Arnaud. He was a 33-year-old military officer with a checkered past. Within months of his enlistment years before, he deserted his post. It resulted in him spending over five months in a military prison, and then a series of unappealing command assignments. Clipperton Island was, to him, just one more piece of the punishment, whether or not it came with the title of Governor.
Children were born in those first few years. Governor Arnaud and his wife Alicia welcomed their first child, Ramon Jr., in 1910, and two more followed over the next three of years. During that time, life was a dull rhythm of island life and the occasional resupply ship. But that was all about to change.
Sometime in 1914, the supply ships from Acapulco stopped coming. With a frequency of every two months, it was probably hard to tell if the ship was just late, or if plans had changed. I imagine everyone on the island watched the horizon daily for a sign of help. Without that ship, they were essentially stranded. And every day that ticked by was another attack against their dwindling supply of hope.
In late summer of 1914, a ship did show up, but this one was American. It brought supplies, but its real mission was to pick up the last remaining member of the British mining crew who had stayed behind five years earlier. While there, the ship’s Captain informed Governor Arnaud of the situation back home.
Not only had Mexico erupted into revolution, but the world was now at war following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. They’d seen nothing like it, and he had no idea if or when it would stop. Perhaps, he suggested, Arnaud and his community would like to come home, just to be safe?
Arnaud declined, and the community soon watched the Americans vanish over the horizon. By 1915, though, that decision was beginning to feel flawed. The vegetable garden that the British had installed had started to fall apart. The only naturally-occurring food on the island was a small supply of coconuts and whatever fish and birds they could hunt. But what those foods lacked was vitamin C, and so by late 1915, many on the island had scurvy.
We tend to treat scurvy lightly, making pirate jokes about it when we’re out with friends, but the reality of the disease is more horrible. The symptoms begin with bleeding gums and sore spots, and eventually grow into depression, immobility, and open wounds. In the end, someone suffering from scurvy simply bleeds to death, and without vitamin C, those around them can only helplessly watch it all end.
The people died off one or two at a time. The disease seemed to favor adult men, and as the population dropped like a lead weight, the survivors struggled to bury their dead deep enough to keep them out of the reach of the island’s crabs.
By 1916, nearly all of the men were dead, and many of the women and children as well. All told, there were perhaps two dozen survivors, by this point, Arnaud was motivated. His wife Alicia was pregnant with their fourth child, and if his family was going to survive, they needed to find help.
It was probably while they were all studying the dark storm clouds on the horizon that they spotted the ship. They tried jumping and waving their arms, but there was no sign that the vessel saw them. It was just too far away, and the approaching storm probably made it too dark to see them, anyway. Hope was slipping right past them, and they were helpless.
Almost. Out of desperation, Arnaud made the decision to gather the last of the men into the only boat on the island and row after the passing ship, hoping to catch its attention. Their lives depended on it. It was probably their last chance, after all. And so they rowed hard and fast into the rough waters.
Historians aren’t sure what happened next. There might have been a struggle in the boat, according to some witnesses. Or the small boat might have started to take on water. What we do know is that the men stood up and seemed to grapple with each other, only to capsize the boat and toss them all into the sea. And there, within sight of their families, all of the men drowned.
But Alicia Arnaud didn’t have time for heartache. The storm that had been on the horizon was upon them within just two hours of the tragedy. The three remaining woman, along with perhaps half a dozen children, all gathered in the basement of the Arnaud’s home to take shelter.
And that’s when Alicia went into labor.
All Hail the King
She named her new son Angel, and he was the last good news they would experience for years.
When the women stepped out of the basement the following morning, the rest of the house was gone. The storm had destroyed everything, it seems. All of the homes, the remnants of the garden, even some of the palm trees were gone.
But something new was there as well. Someone, actually. The reclusive lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez. They knew he’d been there, of course, but he was seen so infrequently that most had forgotten about him. He’s described by historians as mentally unstable, and a lack of social skills drove him to hide in the lighthouse from the others for years. How he got supplies, though, I have no clue.
Álvarez was a giant. Tall, powerful, and menacing, he must have been a shocking sight to the surviving women as they pushed their way free from the wreckage of their home. But there he was, and he had a mission.
He wandered the ruined settlement and gathered all of the weapons together. Some reports say that he tossed most of them into the deeper part of the lagoon, while others say he took them all back to the lighthouse. Whatever he did with them, the message was the same: I am the law now, he was telling them. I am your only hope.
Álvarez set himself up as King over the island, with no other men to challenge him, and only three young woman who were doing their best to keep the children alive. But it wasn’t a glorious reign; no, Álvarez quickly became a nightmare for everyone there.
The three woman were helpless to stop him. For the next three years, Álvarez would rape, abuse, threaten, and beat the woman like some sort of primitive clan elder. He would often chose one of them to return to the lighthouse with him, and only send her back to the others when he grew tired of her company.
And none of the woman angered Álvarez more than 20-year-old Tirza Randon. Maybe it was her youthful rebelliousness, or her sheer will to live, but Randon constantly made life difficult for the lighthouse keeper. When she was with him, she was quick to voice her hatred of him, and when she was back in the settlement, she was a loud voice of dissent.
They needed to find a way to escape, but without a visiting ship, that seemed hopeless. Álvarez, though, was a monster, and something needed to be done. And he had made a mistake. You see, he thought of his captives as ‘just women’. Yes, he was stronger. Yes, he was armed. And yes, he seemed to be in control. But Alicia and the others weren’t ‘just women’.
No, they were survivors. They were human beings fighting for dignity and safety. And they were powerful in their own ways. So when Álvarez walked into their collection of primitive shelters in July of 1917, and he demanded that Alicia Arnaud be the next to report to his lighthouse, they saw their chance.
Arnaud and Randon walked up to the lighthouse the next morning, with Ramon Jr. — now seven — following close behind. When they arrived, Álvarez was outside cooking a bird he had managed to capture. It must have been a rare catch, as the women later described how he was smiling. But that smile melted away as he saw Randon approaching.
There was an argument. Álvarez wanted to know why Alicia had brought the other woman. And while the giant of a man was busy shouting about it at Arnaud, the other woman slipped silently into the lighthouse. When Randon stepped back out through the doorway, Alicia gave her a tiny nod. Álvarez saw this, and turned to see what was behind him, but it was too late.
Later, all three women were standing in their settlement on top of a small hill that was criss-crossed by the overgrown paths used by the mining companies years before. And it was at that moment that they saw the row boat. It was a whaler, launched from an American gunship called the Yorktown, anchored farther out at sea.
It was a Lieutenant Kerr who landed on the beach, and after speaking with the women, he brought all of the survivors back to the ship with him. There, they were presented to the Commander of the gunship, a man named H.P. Perrill, who listened to their story with deep interest. They told him of their ordeal during the past three years, and of the maniacal lighthouse keeper who had held them captive through force and violence.
“Were is he now?” Commander Perrill asked them.
“Dead,” Alicia told him, and then added, as if it helped clarify the matter, “from scurvy.”
Slayer of Monsters
Some people view humanity as just one more member of the animal kingdom. And much like a dog left alone in the house for hours, it’s in our nature to create chaos and destruction when we’re left to our own devices. We need rules and boundaries, these people would say, if we have any hope of maintaining order and civilization.
Others, though, disagree. They would say that our tendency toward society and structure is innate, that it’s written in our DNA right along side things like the blueprints for our circulatory system and eye color. We’re hard-wired to build community, and it’s merely the trials of life that push us off course from time to time.
But both can be equally true, I suppose. What if humanity is really more of a creature in the balance? The events that played out on Clipperton a century ago certainly show us both sides of that coin. Some leaned toward order and peace, while others became animals.
Lieutenant Kerr witnessed this first-hand. After delivering the survivors to the Yorktown, he and Commander Perrill returned to the island later that day. They wanted to see for themselves who this monster was that had terrorized the women for so long, dead or alive. Both of them had seen scurvy kill men before, so they weren’t afraid of what they’d find.
After walking the path from the beach and up the hill to the lighthouse, the men found the door wide open, so they stepped in side. It was eerily quiet inside the dimly-lit room, but it didn’t take them long to figure out why.
Stretched out on the floor was the largest man either of them had ever seen. Blood had pooled around the body, filling in low spots in the stone floor, but their eyes were drawn away, toward an area of the floor beyond the man’s shoulders.
Two objects had been tossed there, a knife and a hammer. Both were small, easy weapons for a malnourished woman to hold and swing. And both were covered in blood.
The two Americans looked at each other from across the body of the King of Clipperton Island, but neither of them said a word. They knew what had happened, what had really brought an end to the man on the floor. But neither wanted to remark upon it.
With a nod, they turned and left the building. The survivors were safe, and that was all that mattered to them. The island could keep its King.
Alicia Arnaud would tell us that some people truly are monsters deep in their core — Álvarez certainly was one. But she also advocated a very risky balance, a wagering of her soulin the pursuit of freedom.
Because sometimes — even if only in the rarest of rare circumstances — we have to become the monster in order to defeat it. And then hope that we change back.
- “The Tragedy at Clipperton Island,” OddlyHistorical.com, date unknown, here.
- “The Tyrant of Clipperton Island,” DamnInteresting.com, updated March 2016, here.
- “Guide to Islands You Never Want to Visit,” Atlas Obscura, May 2011, here.
- “The Explorer,” TheSmartSet.com, June 2010, here.
- “An Island the World Forgot,” The Age, February 22, 1960, p.13.
All content copyright ©2016 Aaron Mahnke.