Isolated places: Clipperton Island

Note from the Authors: Recently, one of our number expressed a desire to move “as far away as possible from human civilization.” We doubt very much that he truly desires to cut himself off from all human contact – it’s likely the stress of everyday life getting to him. Nevertheless, this comment prompted us to think about the possible effects of isolation, and led to a discussion about what far-flung parts of the world we would choose to live in if we had to live as hermits. The result is this series that we will be occasionally producing on top of our regular archiving schedule.

(Source: Christian Jost, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Situated over 1,000 km off the Pacific coast of Mexico, Clipperton Island (or Île de la Passion as it was originally named) is one of the world’s most isolated and desolate islands. Clipperton consists of a thin beach encircling a lagoon full of brakish water, with only a rocky hill and a few clumps of palm trees breaking up the monotony. Despite the fact that Clipperton seems fit only for the birds and for the species of poisonous crab native to the island, people have occasionally visited the island, and one intrepid group of pioneers tried to settle it – an attempt that ended in disaster.

Clipperton was first found in 1711 by French explorers who dubbed the island Île de la Passion for the reason that they had discovered it on Good Friday. For a century and change afterward, Clipperton received only visits from fishing and whaling boats and from privateers and pirates (among them Captain John Clipperton, for whom the island was alternatively named.) By the mid-19th century, however, the world’s naval powers began to seek out desolate islands such as Clipperton for deposits of guano – a nice term for petrified bird and bat excrement – which was used as a convenient fuel. Clipperton’s supply of guano made it the subject of a decades-long legal fight between France, which had originally claimed it, and Mexico, which had easier access to the island and had carried out some operations there.

Survivors of the settlement on Clipperton Island.

In order to press their claim, the Mexican government sent a small group of settlers in 1897 to colonize Clipperton. The barren nature of the island required that the government provide constant supplies to the new colony by sea. This spelled the colony’s ultimate fate, however. Almost twenty years after the founding of the Clipperton settlement, a revolution against the dictatorial President Porfirio Diaz disrupted the resupply missions, and the population of Clipperton began to fall prey to scurvy and malnutrition. Eventually, only several women and children were left, together with lighthouse keeper Victoriano Alvarez, the sole remaining adult man on the island. Perhaps as a result of a mix of insanity and lust, Alvarez declared himself monarch of the island and began to physically and sexually abuse the surviving women of the settlement – a reign of terror that ended when one of the last women standing, Tirza Rendon, killed him. Shortly thereafter, the 11 remaining women and children of Clipperton were discovered by an American vessel and rescued.

Understandably, nobody has tried to permanently settle Clipperton after the failure of the Mexican colony, although it is occasionally visited by scientific missions, amateur radio operators, and French authorities (which officially won recognition of their claim on the island in 1931.)

How to get there

Traveling to Clipperton Island is not impossible, but it is fairly arduous due to the fact that the island is only accessible by boat and is so far from land. Moreover, legal access to Clipperton requires a permit issued by the French government, which presumably does not just hand out permits like candy. Assuming you receive permission (or assuming you don’t care about getting permission, in which case be prepared to possibly get arrested by French authorities if they happen to be around) the closest significant ports to Clipperton are in Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast and Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Baja California. Bring supplies as well – it’s debated whether the water in Clipperton’s lagoon is drinkable, so you probably should stick with bottled water unless you want to become violently ill over one thousand kilometers of ocean from the nearest hospital.

A view of Clipperton Island from the Pacific. Beyond this clump of trees is the island’s lagoon.

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