History of Corsica

It is believed that Corsica's original inhabitants arrived from northern Italy in the seventh millennium BC. They lived in caves and survived by hunting, gathering and fishing. It was another thousand years before new settlers began building villages, planting crops and herding cattle. In the fourth millennium BC Corsicans started erecting stone monuments called menhirs (Breton for long stone). Historians have been unable to agree about the function of menhirs. It has been claimed that they have been used for human sacrifice, as territorial markers, or as early calendars.

In around 1500 BC a series of protective towers were built at sites such as Arraghju, Cucuruzzu and Tappa. It has been argued by the archaeologist, Roger Grosjean (1920-1975), that they may have been used to cremate the dead or sacrifice the living. Grosjean has also speculated that these towers were built by the Shardana people. During this period meniers began to take human forms and these characters were given swords or daggers. It has been suggested that these menhirs were representations of dead spirits or trophies of war. The best collection of these carved stones can be found in Cauria, Flitosa and Tappa. It is believed that these settlers migrated to Sardinia in around 600 BC.

Dorothy Carrington, the author of Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica (1971), has argued: "The Corsican megaalithic phenomenon can be seen as a religious movement cutting right across the established stages of cultural evolution. Brought, it seems, to a Neolithic people by foreign navigators who were apparently themselves without metals, it flourished and developed through the Copper and Bronze Age of Corsica, and was perhaps still creative in the early Iron Age, several centuries after 1000 B.C."

Corsica was on the western Mediterranean trade routes and provided sheltered harbours for sailors. It was invaded by colonizing powers such as the Greeks, who established Alalia, on the estuary at the mouth of the River Tavignano, in 565 BC. The called the island Kalliste (beautiful). For the next thirty years the Greek refugees from Phocaea, made a successful living, planting vines and olive trees. However, in 535 BC Etruscans and Carthaginians from Sardinia attempted to invade Corsica. A combined fleet of 120 ships was defeated by 60 Phocaean ships at the Battle of Alalia in the Sardinian Sea. However, as Herodotus points out, it was a damaging victory as the Greeks lost 40 ships sunk and most of the others were so damaged that they could not be used in battle again. The Greeks now decided to abandon Alalia and with their remaining boats sailed to Rhegium in southern Italy.

A small group of Etruscans now settled in Corsica. In 259 BC the Roman troops arrived under the command of Lucius Cornelius Scipio. The Corsi retreated inland and the Romans found it easy to conquer the east coast but it was another forty years before Corsica became part of the Roman Empire. Captured inhabitants became slaves and were forced to work in the farms and mines on the island.

Alalia, renamed Aléria, became the capital of new Roman province. In 170 BC the Corsi rebelled against the Romans and it is estimated that around 50% of the population died as a consequence of the revolt. Aléria was considerably developed during the rule of Julius Caesar (60 BC - 44 BC). This process was continued under Hadrian (98-138), Caracalla (198-209) and Diocletian (284-286).

In the third century AD the Romans introduced Christianity to Corsica. However, Pope Gregory I complained that the Corsicans still worshipped stones. Dorothy Carrington agreed and argued: "The megalithic monuments, indestructible, remained objects of popular veneration long after they had ceased to be erected, in spite of the Greek colony and the Roman conquest, in spite of invasions, in spite of Christianity."

The Romans called the people who lived outside the Roman Empire barbarians. In the 4th century AD the Roman Army had considerable difficulty in stopping these Barbarians from entering the empire. The Romans were forced to increase the size of their army. By the end of the 4th century AD it had grown to 600,000 men. Taxation had to be increased to pay for this large army. These taxes were higher than most people could afford and created wide-scale poverty. Some people were forced to sell their children into slavery, while others died of starvation.

Some Christians claimed that Jesus had preached non-violence. Christians who interpreted the words of Jesus in this way often refused to join the Roman Army. Even citizens who were not Christians were reluctant to join, and emperors were forced to recruit slaves, gladiators and criminals. It was also decided to employ barbarian mercenaries. This created long-term problems as the barbarians did not always remain loyal to their Roman paymasters.

Some Roman citizens, upset by heavy taxation and suffering from poverty, formed themselves into an armed resistance group called the Bagaudae. This movement started in Gaul in AD 283 but during the 4th and 5th centuries spread to other parts of the empire. These groups of rebels attempted to set up their own independent states within the empire but the Romans, with the help of barbarian mercenaries, were eventually able to crush them.

However, with the Roman army spending more and more time suppressing its own citizens, it became easier for the Germans to defeat those guarding the frontiers. Between AD 406 and 419 the Romans lost a great deal of their empire to different German tribes. The Franks conquered northern Gaul, the Burgundians took eastern Gaul, while the Vandals replaced the Romans in Hispania. They also began an invasion of Corsica and by 460 AD the Romans had left the island.

Over the next few hundred years Corsica suffered from invasions from the Goths and the Byzantines. In the 9th century the Moors established control of the island. This upset the Roman Catholic Church and in 816 Pope Stephen IV sent troops to liberate the island. After initial success he was forced to withdraw. In 825 Count Boniface of Lucca, gained a foothold on the island and was able to build a fortress on its southern tip.

At the beginning of 11th century the Moors retreated under pressure from Pisans and Genoese. In 1077 Pope Gregory VII placed the island under Pisan protection. The Genoese refused to accept this decision and feuds between the two groups. In 1133 Pope Innocent II split Corsica's bishoprics between Pisa and Genoa. This created even more conflict between the two groups. In 1187 The Genoese captured Bonifacio in 1187 and Calvi in 1268. Genoa defeated the Pisan fleet at Meloria in 1284 and finally took control of the island.

In 1297 Pope Boniface VIII gave Corsica to the kingdom of Aragon. The Genoese refused to accept this ruling and managed to defend the island against Aragon until losing control to Vincentello d'Istria in 1420. He was captured by Genoese forces and publicly beheaded in 1434. Fearing more conflict between the Genoese nobles the island was placed under the control of the Bank of Saint George, a powerful financial institution of the Republic of Genoa, with its headquarters at the Palazzo San Giorgio. Over the next ten years the bank, who had its own army, imposed a tough military government.

Henry II of France sent a fleet to capture Corsica in 1553. The troops were led by Sampiero Corso and they defeated Andrea Doria and Genoese troops on several occasions. Genoa reoccupied Calvi and Bastia, but the rest of the island remained French - under the rule of Giordano Orsini. Two years later Corsu was recalled and Corsica was returned to Genoa under the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis in 1559.

For the next 170 years Corsica enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence under Genoese rule. The rural economy prospered and the large landowners on the island did very well but they resented the taxes they had to pay the Genoese administration. After a series of bad harvests some of the farmers refused to pay their taxes in 1729. Two years later a popular assembly declared national independence and established a parliament with a representative from each village. After a year of fighting the Corsicans agreed to a settlement that gave them several concessions from the Genoese.

In 1736 Théodore de Neuhof from Westphalia, arrived in Aléria with his troops. The expedition was funded by Tunisian financiers. After agreeing to accept an elected legislature, Neuhof was crowned king of Corsica. King Théodore's reign lasted only eight months and he was forced to leave when his men failed to control the island. A few years later Neuhof was in a London debtor's prison.

Pasquale Paoli, the son of the exiled Corsican leader, Giacinto Paoli, arrived back on the island in 1754. Soon afterwards he was elected as General-in-Chief of Corsica, the commander of all resistance. In 1755 Paoli designed a constitution where every man over 25 had a vote. It has been claimed that it was the first democratic republic of the modern age. Paoli argued in the preamble of his constitution: "Having reconquered its liberty, wishing to give durable and constant form to its government, reducing it to a constitution from which the felicity of the Nation will derive." Paoli was elected president and despite meague resources he arranged the building of schools and founded a university in Corte. His enlightened system of government found admirers among the radicals of Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was so impressed that he considered moving to Corsica.

Dorothy Carrington, the author of Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica (1971), has pointed out that: "Paoli's constitution was very exactly suited to the Corsican temperament. Almost every position of authority was to be won by election: membership of the Diet, of the Council of State, of the provincial magistrates (which the Diet elected), besides minor posts that none the less gave spectacular prestige, such as those of the captains and lieutenants in arms, who combined the functions of police officers and local military commanders."

French forces invaded Corsica in 1764. Eventually the Genoese ceded their rights to the island. Pasquale Paoli and his supporters now carried on a guerrilla war against the French. In 1769 he was defeated in the Battle of Ponte Novu by vastly superior forces. Voltaire supported the rebels and he later wrote: "The principal weapon of the Corsicans was their courage. This courage was so great that in one of these battles, near a river named Golo, they made a rampart of their dead in order to have the time to reload behind them before making a necessary retreat; their wounded were mixed among the dead to strengthen the rampart. Bravery is found everywhere, but such actions aren't seen except among free people." Paoli was forced to flee from Corsica and went to live in London. The following year Corsica officially became a French province.

After the French Revolution the government granted an amnesty to Pasquale Paoli. He immediately travelled to Corsica and soon afterwards was once again elected president of Corsica. Paoli disagreed with the Reign of Terror and argued against the execution of King Louis XVI. In 1793 announced that Corsica was going to seceded from France and requested the protection of the British government, then at war with revolutionary France. His friend, Napoleon Bonaparte, and fellow Corsican, disagreed with this policy and left the island.

In 1794 Britain sent a fleet to Corsica under Admiral Samuel Hood. Later, Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound (1st Earl of Minto) arrived with reinforcements. It was during the fighting to capture Calvi, Captain Horatio Nelson lost the sight in his right eye. Corsica now became a protectorate of King George III and the Earl of Minto was appointed as viceroy of the country, with the power to dissolve parliament and to nominate councillors. This period become known as the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom. When Corsica's national assembly elected Pasquale Paoli as their president, Minto threatened to withdraw his troops and they were forced to back down and Paoli was forced into exile. Paoli's supporters now turned against the new regime and began attacking British soldiers. In September 1796, the British left Corsica and the following month the French reconquered the island.

In the 1790s the French government decided that a number of uprisings on the island should be put down with the maximum force. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d'état and installed himself as First Consul. One of his first actions was to crush a rebellion in Corsica and ordered the execution of its leaders.

After 1815 and the restoration of the French monarchy, the French government did make some investment in the Corsican economy. This included opening mines and foundries, setting-up a road and railway system, and building schools on the island. Despite these actions Corsica remained a largely neglected region of France. Many people decided to emigrate and during the second-half of the 19th century the population of Corsica halved.

In 1909 Georges Clemenceau, the French minister of the interior, established a commission to look into the needs of Corsica. As a result the government promised to increase investment in the island but this plan was shelved with the outbreak of the First World War. The young men of Corsica joined the French Army in large numbers during the conflict. Over 20,000 were killed, a higher per capita casualty rate than any other part of Europe.

In May 1940 Adolf Hitler ordered his troops to invade mainland France. Benito Mussolini decided to take advantage of this situation and also sent his army into the country. In November 1942 his Italian troops invaded Corsica. Soon afterwards, General Albert Kesselring and the Ninth Panzer Division arrived on the island. The German and Italian forces encountered considerable resistance and by September 1943, Corsica became the first region of France to be liberated. Allied troops took control of the island and in the months following the end of the Second World War they took part in the operation of clearing the east coast of malarial mosquitoes.

In 1957 two state-sponsored organizations were established to exploit Corsica's potential. SOMIVAC introduced modern agricultural techniques and SETCO provided funds to build a tourist industry. Max Simeoni was highly critical of the way France ruled Corsica and he established the L'Action Regionaliste Corse (ARC) that called for decentralized government, a Corsican university (the one established by Pasquale Paoli had been closed by the French) and for compulsory schooling in Corsican language and history.

By the early 1970s over 500,000 people a year visited the island. Although tourism had many benefits, the nationalist movement became concerned about these developments. The National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) carried out its first attacks on the night of 4th May 1976 with 21 bombs exploding in Ajaccio, Bastia, Sartene, Porto Vecchio and other towns. The majority of the targets were public buildings and the offices of Estate Agents. The following day the FLNC issued a manifesto which claimed responsibility for the previous nights attacks.

In July 1977 Max Simeoni established The Union of the Corsican People (UPC), which represented the autonomist branch of Corsican nationalism. The UPC condemned all violence, especially that of the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC). In 1981 the University of Corsica was reopened and the following year, in regional elections in Corsica, the UPC won 10.61% of the votes and 7 seats. Later the UPC disbanded to form the Party of the Corsican Nation (PNC).

The FLNC continued its terrorist activities and on 6th February 1998, Claude Érignac, the French Prefect for Corsica and the top representative of the French Republic on the island, was assassinated in Ajaccio. The FLNC denied involvement in the killing. The police suspected that a Corsican nationalist militant Yvan Colonna, was responsible for Érignac's death. Colonna went into hiding but was finally arrested in the mountains near Vico. In 2007 he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.