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Corsica map Wikipedia 302px-Map_of_Corsica.svgMy thanks to Tour de France coverage for inspiring me to investigate Corsica’s history.

Cycling fans will know that the first three stages took place on the Isle of Beauty. As with every place the Tour passes through, we hear a bit of a travelogue at certain points. I do not know how this is done exactly. It seems that each year, the Tour issues a book with information about the points of interest in every stage. France Télévisions — France 2 and 3 — provide the video and captions, then each country providing the audio can explain the points of interest in its own language by using the book. ITV4 has done an excellent job of describing history, geography, monuments, churches and so on.

And this commentary is how I came to do more research on Corsica. Yesterday’s post discussed Pasquale Paoli, father of their nation, which later became part of France. Paoli’s governance inspired the early American patriots, and he was feted in England for his courage and governance.

Anyone thinking of travelling to Corsica might wish to read the following as history is very much a part of their identity as a people.

There is an ancient Corsican language — similar to neighbouring Sardinia’s — as well as Italian and French. Therefore, proper name spellings often differ. One example is the name of the capital Aiacciu in the map above. That is the Corsican name; Ajaccio (pron. ‘Ah-jack-see-o’) is the Italian derivative universally used today.

Topography

Geographically, much of the country has rugged mountains thanks to the native granite rock and volcanic formations which have occurred over many millenia. There are a number of ‘needles’, which are fascinating sharp, irregular columns of stone which have resulted. The highest mountain peaks have snow nearly all year round.

At lower levels, the ground is fertile, good for fruit and the cork trees which characterise the south. Stage one of the Tour showed these forests, which provide a substantial proportion of world cork production for wine bottles and pressboard tiles.

Other parts of the island are arid brush. The native flower is the fragrant maquis, although thistle and other wildflowers abound. With so much desolation, it is not surprising to discover that Corsica’s rural inhabitants have an insider’s knowledge of their terrain and its hiding places. For centuries, the countryside still has — to some extent — an unofficial clan structure with its own omerta, still important in the continuing nationalist movement (e.g. the protection of Yvan Colonna, the assassin of French Prefect Claude Érignac in 1999).

Strategic positioning

Students of Mediterranean history know that islands and ports in this part of the world offer strategic positioning for native peoples and foreign invaders.

Corsica has had its invaders and conquerors since the beginning. The oldest skeleton excavated — ‘the lady of Bonifacio’ — dates from 6610 BC. However, artifacts of stone and pottery date back another two millenia, possibly further. Archaeologists think that the very first Corsicans disappeared around 800 BC.

The Greeks were the first to settle the island, landing in Aléria (central east coast port, see map). That was in 565 BC. Not too long afterward — in 540 BC — the Carthaginians and Etruscans combined forces to defeat the Greeks at Alalia, today’s Aléria. This limited Greek expansion into the western Mediterranean. Although Carthage would control the island militarily, the Greeks continued to control trade, principally in wood, resin and honey.

During the first Punic War, the Romans invaded Aléria in 259 BC. It took them nearly a century to conquer the inland.

Near the end of the Roman Empire, the Vandals destroyed the city in 456. The Emperor Justinian made the island a Roman province in 552.

Afterward, Italian provinces — sometimes with the aid of France and certain Popes — claimed the island. During this time, they considered Corsica a strategic backwater which fell to whichever governor was assigned to the island. The Pisans ruled it between 1077 and 1284. Tuscan and neighbouring Ligurian noblemen moved to the island and subdued the people ruthlessly. In addition, the Bishop of Pisa acted as papal representative to represent Rome’s interests.

In the final years of Pisan rule, the Genoese began conquering the island little by little. In 1296, Pope Boniface VIII asked the King of Aragon (Spain) to mediate the territorial dispute. This led to an internal disagreement among the Corsicans. The nobility welcomed Spanish intervention; the ordinary people supported Genoa.

The Genoese had a mixed record. The Tour de France commentary told us that they were vigilant about preventing Barbary pirates from invading the island. They set up 85 towers around the coastline with beacons at the top which they could light when invading ships approached. They also built viaducts and roads which allowed shepherds and farmers living in the interior to travel from one village to another. The Genoese founded the northeast port of Bastia in 1380 and Ajaccio in 1492. Later on, however, they imposed exhorbitant taxes on the Corsicans, ruthlessly subdued rebellions and became lax in their protection of the coastline.

The fight for independence — with foreign help

In light of declining acceptance of the Genoese, some Corsicans sailed for Rome where they formed the Pope’s Corsican Guard. Others looked to a new European presence on the island. Sampiero Corso (1498-1567) had limited success in bringing in French rule.

The tenacious Genoese relinquished the island only in the early 18th century. That said, they still controlled the ports of Calvi and Bastia. In 1735, three Corsicans — Andrea Ceccaldi, Luigi Giafferi and Ghjacinto Paoli (Pasquale’s father) — declared the island’s independence and wrote a constitution.

Strangely, the following year, they fell under the spell of an adventurer who was a nobleman and had made a name for himself in certain powerful European circles. However, this German from Westphalia, Baron Theodor von Neuhoff, sensed the Corsicans’ vulnerability in their fledgling independence. With financing from the Bey of Tunis and arriving on a ship flying the British flag, von Neuhoff came laden with grain, munitions and other useful items. Elected by the people, he became the short-lived king Theodore I.

Theodore I fought the Genoese until they published an exposé revealing what a charming charlatan he was.  By then, the Corsicans were already having doubts about their monarch; he did not understand their culture or customs and had no intention of doing so. Those who supported the regional clans were outraged that he declared their method of summary law, vendettas — yes, murders to preserve family honour — punishable by death. He would have to go.

Sensing he was in trouble, he secretly appealed to Spanish and the Neapolitans for help. In the end, he was forced to flee to Amsterdam where he was arrested for an outstanding debt. That did not hamper his subsequent efforts in trying to regain the island for the next several years. He ended up in a debtors’ prison in England until he declared himself bankrupt. At that point, his friends, such as Horace Walpole, supported him until his death in 1756 in London.

Pasquale Paoli and independent leadership

For his time and place, Pasquale Paoli was the man who captured the imagination of Europe and the American colonies.

Although he was unable to govern all of Corsica, he was a man ahead of his time.  Unfortunately, the Genoese had made a deal with the French and sold the island to them. At this point, Paoli requested Britain’s help. The result, as I discussed yesterday, was the brief Anglo-Corsican Kingdom, during which time Admiral Nelson lost the sight in his right eye when trying to take Calvi during a naval operation.

Fortunately, the British government recognised Paoli’s efforts and intelligence. He was able to retire to London and enjoy an exchange of ideas with the country’s most intelligent men until his death in 1807.

Napoleon and French rule

It seems ironic that another son of Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte, would support French rule, but, by then, he was already a French general. In 1793, he defended the southernmost town of Bonifacio for France. By 1815, Corsica was under French governance.

Generally speaking, the Corsicans decided that French rule was preferable to any other. At this point, much Corsican history stops until the emigration which started in the late 19th century and continued throughout the 20th. Greater opportunities for the Corsicans presented themselves on the mainland, especially between Marseille and the Italian border.

Today, a growing separatist movement seeks to pursue Corsican independence. Some of their achievements have been constructive — courses on the native language in schools and the reopening of Paoli’s university — but more radical elements rely on violence and omerta to accomplish their own ends.

A small number of radicals have threatened to destroy real estate developments and, as mentioned above, one assassinated the French governor — prefetClaude Érignac, which resulted in a prolonged trial and string of appeals which finally resulted in Yvan Colonna’s sentence to life imprisonment in 2011, 12 years after the murder took place.

Any visitors to Corsica will benefit from knowing a bit about the Isle of Beauty. Whilst there is much to enjoy — sailing, climbing, touring — there is also a strong sense of history and identity of which to be aware.

Further reading:

‘I Muvrini and Corsica’

‘Corsica History Facts and Timeline’

‘Frontline 12: Corsica — a National Question?’

‘Corsica’s History’

‘Corsica’ (Wikipedia)

Tomorrow: Corsica and the Moor’s head

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