CORSICA

by James Brannan


Corsica has an area of 3351 square miles. The distance between the northern most tip (Cap Corse) and the south is 114 miles. The interior is mountainous - the highest peak is Monte Cinto at 8892 feet.




Books on Corsica

In 1999, this work was finally been published in French, under the title "La Corse" (Editions Arthaud) ISBN 2-7003-12392.


The Anglo-Corsican Kingdom

One of the more curious episodes of Corsican history was the attachment of Corsica to the English crown, albeit with a certain degree of autonomy. It all started when Pascal Paoli led the Corsican nationalists of the day to resist the rule of Genoa and drew up a democratic constitution in 1755. In 1765, the writer Boswell said of Corsica that it was "the best model... ever to exist in the Democratic tradition". However, in 1768 the French stepped in and crushed the Corsican nationalists. Under the Treaty of Versailles of that year, the French had bought out the Genoese for a pittance (an act that met with the criticism of Voltaire). Paoli went into exile in London.

Then came the French Revolution and the people of Corsica were declared to be subject to the same laws as Revolutionary France. Paoli seized the opportunity to return to the island and to try and develop his separatist politics under the new regime. He soon found however that the Corsican Jacobites - including the Bonaparte family - owed too much to France to have much sympathy for his way of thinking. So in 1793, Paoli set up an independent government in Corte and approached the British government for help. The British had been driven out of Toulon by the French and were looking for a new naval base. English troops and naval forces moved in and there was some fighting, including the siege of Calvi in 1794 when Nelson lost his right eye, and the French moved out. The British sent their viceroy Sir George Elliot, who showed a tendancy to misundertand Paoli and the nationalists, who soon became frustrated, despite the new constitution of 1794 which declared Corsica "free and independent". As a result there was some friction between Elliot and Paoli, who was in a difficult situation as the guillotine awaited him if ever the French came back!

The French did indeed return in 1796. Paoli had been persuaded to return to London and Elliot reluctantly withdrew (he later incorporated the Corsican flag into his coat of arms!) as Napoleon's army landed to secure the island for France. Paoli died in London in 1807, at the age of 82, and his bust was placed in Westminster Abbey. In 1889 his remains were brought back to Corsica and he now lies in his birthplace at Morosaglia.

How is the Kingdom seen today?

How do contemporary Corsicans see Britain's role in their history? The Anglo-Corsican kingdom is still seen as a "protectorate" (the spontaneous answer of a Corsican I asked), in contrast to French rule, both before and after, where repression of nationalists was the order of the day. Some Corsican nationalists also think that the British may have given them a better deal (more autonomy) than the French have ever given them because of the greater distance between Corsica and London - a totally hypothetical theory of course. This episode in history however is often considered insignificant or is misunderstood. A well-known painting (copies are ironically on sale at Paoli's birthplace!) is entitled "La Délivrance de la Corse" showing the island being "liberated" by the French in 1796 after the British retreat. The British in fact evacuated the island without any resistance.

Several misconceptions about Sir Gilbert Elliot are being spread by the guide at the Palace of the Genoese Governors in Bastia! Visitors are shown a portait of Elliot and the arms of the Anglo-Corsican kingdom. When I was there the guide said that Elliot was a hard man who didn't care about Corsica - in fact he was sent there as a punishment. Then, as if to prove his disinterest in the island, the guide quoted Elliot's description of Corsica as an "enigma" impossible to fathom. Considering all the nasty things that French writers have said about Corsicans over the centuries (such as that they're all bandits, liars and lay-abouts), such a comment seems quite complimentary and has even been used in a recent history (see above) to illustrate that very point. Far from being disinterested in Corsica, Gilbert once wrote to his wife: "I am very fond of Corsica. I mean of its cause and interests; and I have a real ambition to be the founder of what I consider likely to prove its future happiness". Unlike the French, he ensured that the local government was made up of Corsicans. His failure to fulfil his ambition was due to the decision taken in London to withdraw Britain's protection following a threatening alliance between France and Spain. The British returned to protect Bastia for a while in 1814 and then withdrew for good - one has to suppose that the island was not of strategic importance to Britain (unlike Gibraltar or Malta) or that it was too difficult to govern!