views updated Jun 11 2018


CORSICA. The mountainous island of Corsica is visible from the nearby islands of Elba and Sardinia, themselves not far from Italy. Handicapped by a small population and few economic resources, Corsica during the Middle Ages was ruled by or associated with various Italian states. Corsica's proximity to Italy has also made it strategically of interest to such maritime powers as France, Spain, and Britain. Though not without rich soil, Corsica was plagued until the late twentieth century by malaria, causing the inhabitants to live for the most part in hilltop towns and villages considered safer and also easier to defend against endemic raids from the Barbary States. Not until the nineteenth century were any significant roads built. Thus Corsica's history has been continuously linked with that of other states, and since 1814 the island has been incorporated into France.

From 1447 until the eighteenth century Corsica was mainly under Genoese control. Until 1552 peace allowed population growth and agricultural development. Maritime commerce flourished, Calvi emerged as a major center, and Corsicans in Genoese service made their marks as far away as America. The Genoese began building solid and defensible watchtowers at points on the coast to limit the depredations of the Barbary corsairs, a program that continued all through the Genoese period. Peace and a degree of prosperity produced an increase in population mirrored by the rise in the number of Corsicans in Genoese, Venetian, papal, and French service.

After 1552, however, French warfare and higher taxes stimulated agitation against Genoese rule. A Corsican distinguished in his many years of service in the French army, Sampiero Corso (14981567), with limited support from Catherine de Médicis (15191589), landed in Corsica in June 1564, but the effort to expel the Genoese collapsed after Corso's death in an ambush in 1567. Two years later Genoa proclaimed an amnesty and discussed a list of Corsican complaints. Corsicans continued to find employment in France. Corso's son and grandson both reached the rank of marshal of France under the name of d'Ornano.

Having been challenged by the Corsicans, the Genoese never trusted them again and systematically excluded them from the administration of the island and from various professions. The reservation of these positions for the Genoese, who were often unprepared and who benefited from nepotism and corruption, increased Corsican alienation from Genoa. The island's poverty encouraged considerable emigration (including to Sardinia and, for fishermen, to Algeria) of Corsicans seeking service in the armies of various states as well as those pursuing commerce in regions not controlled by the Genoese. Particularly notable over the centuries has been the settlement of Corsicans in Marseilles. To compensate for this depopulation, the Genoese planted six hundred Greeks in Corsica, where they met a hostile reception but, with difficulty, survived. On the positive side, efforts were made to stimulate agriculture, though without much success. Some success was reached in introducing vines, olives, figs, chestnuts, and silk production to areas that had neglected them, but profits went mainly to the Genoese, whose regime at this time can be described as "colonial." The growth of cities, especially Bastia, Ajaccio, and Calvi, demonstrates increasing commercial activity, but one result was the appearance of an expanding Corsican bourgeoisie, though handicapped, in competition with the Genoese. Banditry flourished, and the murder rate averaged nine hundred a year.

The early eighteenth century brought full-scale rebellion against Genoese rule. A series of bad harvests culminated in two particularly bad years in 1728 and 1729, the latter year coinciding with new taxes. The rural population attacked some large estates but notably attacked the cities, taking over Bastia, Saint-Florent, and Algajola. Austrian military intervention restored Genoese rule, but new rebellions followed in 1733. The War of the Polish Succession (17331738) and the War of the Austrian Succession (17401748) prevented the great powers from intervening and opened a window of opportunity for the rebels. A sort of provisional government was set up in Corte with the support of a consulta or 'assembly' presided over by Giacinto (or Hyacinth) Paoli (16901768) and two other Corsican notables. To their aid in March 1736, totally unexpectedly, came a German adventurer, Theodor von Neuhof (16941756), bringing weapons and possibly British approval. In rapid succession Neuhof accepted the crown as king, distributed titles, ran out of money and support, withdrew (November 1736), and eventually died in a debtor's prison in London.

The Genoese turned to France. Troops landed in February 1738 and left in September 1741. A new Corsican insurrection followed. A coalition of Britain, Austria, and Sardinia fighting France, Spain, and their dependent Genoa in the course of the War of the Austrian Succession attempted to capture Bastia and succeeded briefly in 1745. A second attempt failed in 1748. In May 1748 French troops landed and imposed peace, but the commander, General Séraphin-Marie Rioult de Donilly, marquis de Cursay, emphasized conciliation. This displeased the Genoese and led to Cursay's recall and the departure of the French in April 1753. A fourth insurrection, headed by Jean-Pierre Gaffori (17101753), who was assassinated in October 1753, brought a period in which no single leader established dominance.

In contrast, the years from 1755 to 1769, when Pasquale Paoli (17251807) dominated, appear as a golden age, largely because of the favorable press he received as a thoughtful man of the Enlightenment and because of the heroic Corsican resistance to the French invasion of 17681769 that provoked enthusiasm across Europe and especially in America. Accounts of Paoli by James Boswell (17401795) and other travelers and comments about him by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and Voltaire (16941778) helped create his legend. Undoubted accomplishments help explain his success: the foundation (1765) of the university at Corte, a written constitution allowing for a degree of representation, the application of severe justice to reduce the rate of banditry and murder, a degree of accommodation with the church, the development of L'Île Rousse as a port not controlled by the French or the Genoese, and a degree of naval success culminating in the capture from Genoa of the island of Capraia (1767).

But Paoli was handicapped by financial shortages, bad harvests, and the opposition of major Corsican families. He would have been content to negotiate a benevolent protectorate with France, but the French minister Étienne-François de Choiseul (17191785) wanted control. By the treaties of Compiègne (1754, 1764), Genoa entrusted the major ports to France, thus limiting Paoli to the interior of the island. In the end the weight of French forces was too great. With the Treaty of Versailles (1768), Genoa handed over control to France.

From 1769 to 1789 the French regime attempted reforms much like those earlier attempted by Genoa, including improvements in agriculture, draining of the marshes, and repression of banditry by harsh measures (including repression of rebellions fomented by numerous exiles). Though some offices and estates were entrusted to Corsican supporters of France, in general the French benefited from government generosity at the expense of Corsicans, thus building up resentment. The university was abolished, though in an attempt at assimilation some Corsicans received scholarships for education and training in France.

The outbreak of the French Revolution brought new political upheavals. Although the French National Assembly voted that Corsica was part of France, Corsicans tried to expel French officials and succeeded in driving out Corsican supporters of the ancien régime. Paoli returned from exile in England in 1790 and reestablished a moral ascendancy over the island that left political power in his hands. Squabbles among minor figures for political office and their spoils became conflated with the major issues of the time. Thus the denunciation of Paoli as a friend of Britain shortly after the war against Austria was extended to Britain in 1793 may be seen as a political maneuver by Corsicans, who thought they could gain by his elimination. The belief that he could not receive justice in the Paris of the guillotine prompted separation and independence. Since there had been no effective administration in Corsica since 1789, there were no resources. A full-scale European war was in full flow, and to prevent another French invasion, Paoli (who feared the return of Genoa) invited British protection. The result was the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom (17941796). This arrangement gave Britain valuable naval bases, but British priorities in the Caribbean and South Africa had precedence, leading to inadequate military resources to defend the island once Spain joined France and Napoléon I (17691821) overran Italy.

Fighting a world war, Britain had inadequate finances to subsidize Corsica as Paoli and many Corsicans had hoped. Thus the constitution, parliamentary system, and proposed reforms weighed little compared to the necessity to make Corsica pay for itself, and necessarily unpopular taxes, one cause of incipient revolt, were reintroduced. Napoléon reconquered the island as the British withdrew, and in 1814, at the Congress of Vienna, Corsica was incorporated into France.

See also France ; Genoa ; Revolutions, Age of .


Arrighi, Paul, and Antoine Olivesi. Histoire de la Corse. Toulouse, 1990.

Caird, J. H. The History of Corsica. London, 1899.

Pomponi, Francis. Histoire de la Corse. Paris, 1979.

John McErlean


views updated May 18 2018



This island of 8,722 square kilometers, situated in the Mediterranean Sea some two hundred kilometers off the southern coast of France, is a veritable mountain in the middle of the sea. Sparsely populated (with 260,000 inhabitants in 1999), it belongs to the Italian sphere of influence, but became French when the Republic of Genoa provisionally ceded it to France in 1768. In reality, it constitutes a kind of autonomous territory within the kingdom of France. During the Revolution, Corsica was designated a department when all of France was divided up for administrative purposes; and under the empire that followed, the most famous Frenchman of the day, Napoleon Bonaparte, was Corsican. As a result, the island gradually became better integrated with France. All the same, throughout the nineteenth century and for the first part of the twentieth, Corsica had a completely different political organization from continental France, which, whatever its formal institutions, was actually based on clientelism, or "clanism." Broadly speaking, government authorities let well enough alone as far as political life in Corsica was concerned and were not particularly concerned with fraud that had taken place when establishing voter registration rolls. Economically, the island was poor, but population growth was easily absorbed by continental France and the colonies. Corsicans played an important role in colonial ventures, as well as in the French army and administrative apparatus.

In the 1960s this traditional equilibrium, both human and economic, was upset by the end of the colonial enterprise and the return of many Corsicans who had been living in North Africa. In addition, a new generation emerged that sought to bring the island out of its economic isolation so that young people might remain there and find work. An independence-minded nationalist movement developed in Corsica during this time, spawned by what came to be called the "Aléria incident" of 22 August 1975, when two policemen were killed during an assault on a wine and spirits store occupied by "regionalist" militants, who would soon take the name "nationalists" under the leadership of two brothers, Edmond and Max Siméoni.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the question of Corsica's status had been a recurrent theme in French political life for more than twenty-five years. A wave of successive governments, and in particular their interior ministers, sought to settle the question, shifting back and forth between negotiation and repression. As just one example, the interior minister under the government of Lionel Jospin, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, appointed an iron-fisted prefect who wanted to bring the island firmly under the control of French law in all aspects of everyday life. His mission ended in farce when he sought to have the police set fire to an illegal beachfront restaurant. Chevènement resigned when he felt the government was making too many concessions.

The trouble is that no government can envision ceding a portion of its national territory and yet independence is precisely what the nationalists seek. The vast majority of Corsicans are caught between the French government and the nationalists: they do not want independence but they rarely demonstrate, for fear of being the victims of a terrorist attack themselves or because custom prevents them from denouncing those nationalists who are guilty of violence, even though they disapprove of them. There are a number of reasons why a majority do not favor independence: a portion of the Corsican population lives on the Continent; there have been numerous marriages between Corsicans and continental French; no other French department receives as many subsidies, both legally and through back channels; and no other French department has a higher ratio of civil servants and welfare recipients. This last argument is less persuasive for the young, among whom the nationalist movement finds the majority of its recruits.

Corsica has experienced violence, only occasionally punctuated by periods of calm, since the nationalist movement began. In its first fifteen years, more than five thousand acts of armed violence were recorded, including almost daily bombings that attacked the "symbols of the French state" such as public buildings, police stations, and "colonizers," both those from continental France and pieds noirs, Corsicans who had returned from the colonies . The modern farms built by Algerian repatriates on Corsica's east coast, for example, were destroyed by nationalist attacks. In 1976 a number of diverse groups united into the Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC; National front for the liberation of Corsica); but in the ensuing years it was plagued by incessant schisms caused by disputes about strategy or divergent material interests. Many nationalist groups turned into regular mafias, which led to scores of settling of accounts, at times constituting a veritable civil war. Violence reached an extreme on 6 February 1998, when the island's most senior French civil servant, its regional prefect, Claude Erignac, was assassinated.

This constant unrest is obviously highly unfavorable to economic activity. Potential investors flee the island, and agriculture and industry are extremely limited. The paradox is that, aside from the public sector, the only significant economic activity is tourism, favored by the climate and scenic beauty. This is true to such an extent, in fact, that, contrary to the wishes of its nationalists, the island has come to depend primarily on tourism. For two months every year, Corsica is overrun by some two million visitors.

Over time the violence has wearied the majority of the population, and the demand for "Independence Now!" is fading in nationalist circles. Furthermore, the progressive installation of new institutions such as the Territorial Assembly, granted significant powers, is slowly transforming conditions in Corsica, and it is conceivable that the island is headed toward a broad-based autonomy.

See alsoFrance; Italy.


Andréani, Jean-Louis. Comprendre la Corse. Paris, 1999.

Becker, Jean-Jacques. Crises et alternances, 1974–2000. New ed. Paris, 2002.

Tafani, Pierre. L'État de la France, un panorama unique et complet de la France. 2 vols. Paris, 1993–2001.

Jean-Jacques Becker


views updated May 14 2018


CORSICA , Mediterranean island. Corsica is the only major Mediterranean island without a Jewish settlement either in ancient or in medieval times. "King" Theodore, the German adventurer who temporarily established his rule in Corsica in 1736, invited Jews and Protestants to settle under his protection, and among the accusations made against him was that he was addicted to magic and the Kabbalah and had induced Jews and Greeks to settle in his kingdom. When in 1757–68 General Paoli set up an independent Corsican regime, he attempted to encourage the settlement of Jews from Leghorn by promising them naturalization and autonomy. At the end of the 19th century a few families settled in Bastia and established a small community that maintained a stable population of up to 150 through the second half of the 20th century.


C. Roth, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (1962), 152ff.

[Cecil Roth]


views updated May 23 2018

Corsica (Corse) Mountainous island in the Mediterranean Sea, c.160km (100mi) se of the French coast. It is a region of France comprising two departments. The capital is Ajaccio. It was a Roman colony, before passing into the hands of a series of Italian rulers. In 1768 France purchased all rights to the island. Napoleon was born here in 1769. Products: grapes, olives, mutton, cheese, wool, fish. Area: 8681sq km (3352sq mi). Pop. (1999) 260,196.;