Independent Corsica

Corsica was once independent. It was a kingdom before becoming a republic and then a kingdom again. The whole affair has to be classified as highly unsuccessful as most of Europe just ignored it. The first king was German and spent nine months on the island; the second king was British and never set foot on Corsica. In between the two was a general turned president; he then turned prime minister for the last act.




The Island of Corsica belonged to the Republic of Genoa since 1347. The Genoese hold on the island was tenuous and only guaranteed within the walled cities on the coast. When in 1729 the Genoese tried (once again) to collect taxes, a general revolt evolved out of local protest. It started the War for Corse Independence. Corse rebels became active all over Europe trying to get alliances going and asked for commitments of troops and money to the cause. 


In 1732, a Corse delegation to Florence was apprehended by Genoese agents; they were deported to Genoa despite a safe conduct previously issued by the Genoese government. In Florence, they had been in contact with Baron Theodor of Neuhoff. The latter was acting as an agent for the Holy Roman Empire at that time. Neuhoff was able to intercede with the Habsburg Emperor who put pressure on Genoa to let the Corse delegation go free. 


Neuhoff up to that point had been in the employment of quite many European princes as an agent; usually he was involved in intrigues and subversive endeavors. His prior employers included the king of Sweden and the king of Spain. His successful intervention for the Corse delegation made him popular with the rebels and they offered him the crown should he be able to drum up enough support for the cause of independence. 


In 1736, Neuhoff landed in Corsica with a ship full of arms which he had acquired somehow from the Bey of Tunis. He was elected king by a Corse assembly and crowned King Theodor of Corsica. His kingdom included all parts of the island with exception of the Genoese fortified towns. His armies started to beleaguer these towns and real trouble hadn't even started yet. 


King Theodor was completely unprepared for the favorite hobbies of the inhabitants of Corsica: Family and vendetta. General Hyacinth Paoli for instance withdrew his troops from Bastia because his father had died leaving the Genoese free to redeploy their troops. The siege had to be lifted after that. When Theodor ordered a general shot because he had traitorously handed back the town Porto Vecchio to the Genoese, his Royal aides were assassinated by the general’s family and several attempts on his own life were made after that. 


It was enough to make him seek a better clime and to try to find more assistance from European powers with interests in clashing with Genoa. He had a lot of troubles doing that. The Genoese had set out a right Royal sum on his head (please deliver rather dead than alive); they also started a concentrated denunciation campaign against him. Most of what we ‘know’ today about Theodor’s life is based on Genoese pamphlets and slander. 


Theodor’s mission was almost impossible in a European climate where alliances tended to shift almost daily. Having been part of the game most of his life, he knew that and finally was able to strike a deal with traders in Amsterdam who were prepared to exchange arms for produce. Two expeditions reached Corsica in 1737 and in 1738, but he didn't land himself feeling too insecure due to the prior assassination attempts. In 1738, the French overran the island in an alliance with Genoa and Theodor's nephew had to surrender in 1740. 


Theodor went into exile in England where he was on the verge of cementing an alliance with the English in 1749. The Genoese in turn had him apprehended and sent to a debtors’ prison by presenting a (probably fraudulent) indemnity for 15,000 pounds. He was released in 1755 in a general amnesty but was sent to prison again in 1756. By the end of 1756 he was released again but died three days after his release. 


The Genoese defamation campaign was extensive. Accordingly, Theodor is often represented as an impostor, fraudster, gambler, adventurer, and general gangster even by historians. That he had accumulated debts in his youth is uncontested and may be read up in the archives in Munich; he fled his debtors in Paris and Munich at one time, but these debts seemed to have been settled as he returned to Paris several times during his work as an agent. 


While in prison in London, he was often visited by Horace Walpole and David Garrick who both collected money for him as well. He was buried in St. Anne’s Church in Soho; the epitaph was composed by Horace Walpole.


King Theodor’s reign over Corsica had de facto ended with the defeat of his nephew by the French in 1740. Many Corse nationalists went into exile. General Hyacinth Paoli (the guy who failed to take Bastia from the Genoese because he had to attend a funeral) chose exile, too, and took his wife and his youngest son Pascal to Naples. At the time, Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies under the Bourbon King Charles (VII of Naples, V of Sicily). There Pascal received an extensive education in the Military Academy and later joined the Farnese Regiment of Naples. 


During his stay in Naples, Pascal Paoli got acquainted with Antonio Genovesi and his political and economical ideas. Genovesi was the first holder of a chair for political economics at a university. He postulated that the only reason for power is the interest of the people governed and was an advocate of the division of temporal and ecclesiastical office. In economics he insisted on a free international market to promote wealth and insisted on the intrinsic worth of labor.

  

In 1755, Pascal Paoli returned to Corsica. In the ongoing war with Genoa, parliament decided that they need a general to lead the Corse troops. With the votes of the mountain districts, Paoli was proclaimed General-in-Chief of the Kingdom of Corsica (King Theodor was still alive after all, albeit in a London debtors' prison). The districts of the lowlands were unhappy with that choice and proclaimed Mariu Emmanuele Matra as General-in-Chief. Matra was killed by the troops of Paoli’s brother in 1757 while trying to breach into a fortified monastery whereto Pascal and his personal guard had fled when ambushed. 


After that, Paoli went to work on a constitution for a republic (as King Theodor had died in 1756 in London). One of the persons heavily involved in that process was one Carlo Buonaparte; you might recognize the name. The constitution was the most modern of its time and included the right to vote for every man over 25; more notably, it included the right to vote for widowed and unmarried women as well. This particular right of vote was influenced by Corse tradition; the heads of families, male and female, had the right to vote for their families in communal affairs. 


With the passing of the constitution, Paoli's job description passed from General-in-Chief to president. He was ignored by Europe as had been poor King Theodor. The only diplomatic recognition came from the Bey of Tunis. In 1758, Pascal founded the city Paoliville (today L’isula Rossa); and in 1765, he founded the University of Corte. 


In 1768, Genoa ceded Corsica to France which took the ongoing war more seriously than the previous owners. While the nationalists were able to win the first battles against the French, Paoli lost the deciding battle at Ponte Nuovu against the Count of Vaux in May 1769. Corsica was annexed to France and the inhabitants were regarded as French citizens. Paoli left Corsica with 600 of his supporters and finally settled in exile in England. Carlo Buonaparte remained on the island, though, and his son Napoleon was born in Ajaccio in August of that year. 


Paoli’s constitution inspired writers like Rousseau and Voltaire. International acclaim was accorded to Paoli only after James Boswell published his An Account Of Corsica: The Journal Of A Tour To That Island And Memoirs Of Pascal Paoli.


The Republic of Corsica had de facto ended with the defeat of its troops by the French in 1769. Corsica was formally annexed to France and put under French law; women’s vote was rescinded; the Corse nobility was invited by King Louis XV to present their claims at court to have them approved. Carlo Buonaparte and his family therefore removed to Paris to indulge in an extended bout of Royal boot-licking and changed their name at the same time to the French sounding Bonaparte. 


The French Revolution turned the tables on the nobility and Pascal Paoli was invited to Paris and hailed as a hero by the National Assembly. In 1790, he returned to Corsica from Paris with the rank of lieutenant-general as commander of the island. The republican honeymoon between Paris and Corsica soon soured over questions on power sharing. In 1791, the commanding post for the Corse Army was put to a democratic election. Napoleon won hands down by murdering one candidate and imprisoning another. At the same time, Pascal Paoli went on a confrontational course with the leaders of the revolution over the execution of King Louis XVI and plotted heavily with the French royalists. 


When Paoli was ordered by Paris to invade Sardinia in 1793, he was already in close contact with London to find a way out of the French mess. He made his nephew commander of the invading forces with the explicit order to lose the conflict. Napoleon was part of the command of this invasion and had brought 6,000 mainland troops along for the fray. He tried to outsmart the other commanders but was still defeated as the defenders of Sardinia somehow had advance warning of his every move. 


Napoleon returned to Paris fuming. He denounced Paoli as a traitor and a warrant was issued. The Corse parliament reacted by declaring independence (again) and swearing allegiance to King George III of England as King George I of Corsica. Paoli became head of government under Viceroy Sir Gilbert Elliot. In 1794, the English fleet arrived from Toulon having been evicted from there by Napoleon. They laid siege to Calvi; the altercation cost Horatio Nelson an eye and left Calvi in a state of rubble. 


Frictions in the new set-up were inevitable as the form of government was defined more by spur of the moment decisions than by lengthy negotiations. The agreement between London and Corsica was tenuous and ill-defined leaving most questions of authority open to heated discussion. The limits of power between king and parliament were never truly tested, though, as the position of the British soon became untenable. 


Paoli was invited back to exile in London and issued with a state pension. He died there in 1807 and was buried in St Pancras churchyard. A cenotaph was erected in his honor in Westminster Abbey. In 1889, his remains were returned to Corsica and interred in his home town. 


After the British left the island, it took the French only weeks to re-conquer it. The Second Kingdom of Corsica ended de facto in 1796 when French troops took control again. While King George III discontinued the use of the title of King of Corsica, he never renounced it officially (at least to my knowledge). Queen Elizabeth II is titular Queen of Corsica, would you have guessed that?