Corsican Republic, the small and ephemeral independent state that held the first modern constitution

Ruins of the Ponte Novu, destroyed during the battle of the same name which marked the end of the Corsican Republic / Image: Piero Montesacro on Wikimedia Commons

In 1775, on the occasion of the outbreak of the American War of Independence, a group of students from King’s College (now Columbia University), among whom was Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s future right-hand man, founded a militia which, under the motto God and our right (the same as the British crown Dieu et mon droit but changing the singular “my right” to the plural) and the cry of “Freedom or death“, took a very active part in the fight against the English. Those young people were known as Hearts of Oak but originally they called themselves The Corsicans, in homage to a historical episode that occurred a few years ago: the ephemeral independence of the Corsican Republic.

Alexander Hamilton (by Alonzo Chappel) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

To be exact, it was two decades earlier. In 1755 Corsica belonged to the Republic of Genoa, one of the many states in which the Italian peninsula was atomized. Founded in the Middle Ages and rival to Venice, Genoa’s dominions were not limited to the city but extended to all of Liguria, part of Piedmont and the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. As we know, Genoa was occupied by Charles V’s imperial troops and became a satellite state of Spain because of its enormous strategic value, as this was the beginning of the so-called Spanish Way, the route followed by the Tercios to reach Flanders.

Afterwards, the decline of one dragged on the other, although the political ties continued because in 1714, by the Treaty of Utrecht, Sardinia was left in Austrian hands and then became the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piemonte, dependent on the Duchy of Savoy, so the Genoese tried to maintain the Hispanic alliance to avoid losing Corsica as well. However, Genoa’s almost colonial treatment of the island led to the emergence of a nationalist germ that hatched in 1729 with an insurrection.

It was run by a group of Corsicans with illustrious names such as Andrea Colonna, Ghjacintu Paoli, Andria Ceccaldi and Luigi Giafferi, with Carlo Francesco Raffaelli as generalissimo. They had the blessing of a charismatic but simple priest, Fr. Orticoni, because the lower clergy, the country and the bourgeoisie, supported the movement, while other more affluent sectors, mainly established in the coastal cities, remained on the sidelines or were against it.

Italian states in 1494 / Image: Shadowsfox on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, most of the actions were carried out by mountain people. The revolt, whose spark was the abusive taxes, began in Bozio, a municipality in the interior, extending through the Castagniccia, a region whose abrupt orography (with altitudes above a thousand meters) and dense chestnut forests (hence its name) isolated it from the sea, making it difficult to suppress the rebels. This allowed it to take root and spread throughout the island territory.

The Genoese, unable to control the situation, requested help from the Duchy of Würtemberg, a state of the Holy Roman Empire that had a powerful army and sent a contingent of fifteen thousand soldiers. But the Corsicans knew how to counteract it by asking for help, in turn, from Spain and the Papal States. Philip V was already reigning in the former and he could not stand by and watch the Germans take possession of an island situated so close to his native France, in a sort of minor epilogue to that bloody strategic departure that had been the War of the Spanish Succession.

Aerial photo of Corsica showing its abrupt orography / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Corsica spent almost seven years involved in a conflict where the rebels fought for independence, the Genoese for preserving their rule, the Spanish for establishing a protectorate and the Germans for fulfilling the order. A peace agreement was finally reached in the town of Corte in the spring of 1732. The agreement included amnesty for the rebels, lowering of taxes and recognition of a native government institution called the Consiglio dei Diciotto.

Everything seemed to be on the way to a solution but the Genoese did not play their part and took the opportunity to unleash a wave of arrests. It was 1735 and the Austrian troops, who had disembarked four years earlier at the call of Ghjacintu Paoli, and who were responsible for maintaining stability, had had to withdraw when they were reclaimed elsewhere because their country had entered into war with Poland. Hostilities then resumed and, little by little, the Corsicans were favoured.

Philip V, King of Spain (painting by Jean Ranc) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This time it was Luigi Giafferi who saw the opportunity to shake off the domination of Genoa once and for all and called again for insurrection, again calling for Spanish help. Philip V sent a contingent, thanks to which the Genoese had to contain their repression and were progressively cornered in the coastal towns, losing control of most of the island. The revolutionaries promulgated a constitution that gave power to a six-member National Junta; Giafferi and Paoli, its leaders, were in favor of the establishment of a monarchy but lacked a king, as Philip V rejected the offer.

Then a peculiar character named Theodor Freiherr von Stephan Neuhoff appeared in the story, an ineffable bourgeois native of Cologne whom some identify with Voltaire’s Candide and who rented out his services as both a military man and a spy, having worked for France, Sweden and Spain. From Spain he had to flee, harassed by the debts left by his wife, having to dedicate himself to such varied tasks as medicine – without a title -, theft and mercenary work. In that wandering in search of fortune he arrived in Corsica at the command of an English ship loaded with arms and ammunition for the Corsicans, supporting their cause and making friends with their leaders.

Theodor von Neuhoff / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

For lack of scruples, von Neuhoff had an imposing presence, with his scarlet coat, powdered wig and exquisite manners, to which he had the backing of England, the bey of Tunis and even the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He was soon appointed viceroy, but that was only the first step to the newly created throne: he was crowned on 15 April 1736 with laurel branches on his head, in the old Roman style, since the Genoese had intercepted the ship carrying a golden crown made ad hoc by an Italian goldsmith.

Theodore I, as has gone down in history, turned out to be an enlightened monarch who established freedom of worship, expropriated the lands of the Genoese and abolished the annoying network of internal customs that hindered the development of trade. The promulgated constitution assigned legislative power to a People’s Assembly, with a three-headed executive in the hands of Luca D’Ormano, Paoli and Giafferi, the latter also appointed Generalissimo of the army. Coins were minted and a flag was adopted (its iconic element was a Moorish head alluding to the ancient Kingdom of Aragon, which it still retains today). The Order of the Liberation was also created to reward the faithful.

The Moorish head of the Corsican flag / Image: Patricioa.fidi on Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, not everything was as buoyant as it seemed. Mistrust among many island clans prevented the designation of a specific site as a capital and, above all, there was an alarming lack of financial resources, as the promised foreign aid did not arrive. For all these reasons, in 1736 Theodore decided to embark on a tour of the European courts in search of funding. He travelled through Florence, Turin, Rome and Paris but not only did he not obtain any result but in the French capital he suffered an attack (it is not known if it was plotted by the Genoese or by former creditors) and in Holland he was even imprisoned in the face of the complaints of those creditors.

Meanwhile, Genoa refused to reach an agreement with the Corsicans and signed a pact with the French Prime Minister, Cardinal de Fleury, for an invasion. This took place in the autumn of 1737 and, although they suffered some defeats, the Gallic troops finally prevailed, forcing the local government into exile in 1740. When Theodore achieved freedom, negotiating free access for the merchants of that country to the oil production of Corsica, he returned with two ships full of weapons and ammunition to find the island occupied. And when the Dutch arrived and discovered that there was no oil, he had to escape again.

André Hercule de Fleury portrayed by Hyacinthe Rigaud / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

With a price put on his head by Genoa, the uncrowned king wandered around Europe for several years without anyone wanting to take him in until Tuscany accepted him, although this did not prevent him from spending some time in the shade in London because of his everlasting debts. He would leave in 1755 when he ceded his sovereign rights to the creditors, but by then many things had happened in Corsica – because the government in exile did not resign itself to its fate – and he died in poverty the following year.

In fact, Paoli and Giafferi, exiled in Naples, organized a small army that was to return to the island to help Gian Pietro Gaffori, who had called for a new uprising. This time the rebels were more successful, although the French still controlled the administration of the island. However, Gaffori had always opposed Theodore, so he was not willing to return the throne to him, so he offered it to a Savoy, Charles Emmanuel III of Sardinia. The latter could not accept it because Genoa signed the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1745, an alliance with Spain, France and Naples that emerged to counteract the one between Austria, Great Britain and Sardinia.

Map of Corsica made by Thomas Jefferys, cartographer to King George III of England, in 1757 / Image: Wikimedia Commons

The context was the War of the Austrian Succession, during which Empress Maria Theresa handed over to Charles Manuel III the Marquisate of Finale, a small Ligurian state that legally belonged to Genoa. The treaty limited what could have been a more far-reaching contest but left Corsica without its Sardinian candidate in favour of a Bourbon. The English ignored the agreement and bombed Bastia, a French city in Corsican territory, although their attempt to invade was rejected, despite the fact that they had the support of Gaffori. The following year Austrian and Piedmontese troops landed, increasing the confusion until 1752.

At the end of the summer of that year, the Convention of San Firenzu was held, in which it was agreed that the French would return the government to Corsica, with Gaffori presiding over it. It was not easy. He was committed to the monarchical idea, this time in the form of a principality, while others preferred a republic following the Italian tradition and there were even those who suggested placing themselves under the jurisdiction of the Order of Malta. But Gaffori was killed by hired killers from Genoa and in 1755, after a series of popular consultations, a five-member board of directors was established.

Pasquale Paoli (William Beechey) /Imagen: dominio público en Wikimedia Commons

Once the pro-Genoese opposition had been expelled, which refused to abide by the results, a constitution was promulgated by Pasquale Paoli, son of Ghjacintu, with universal suffrage for those over twenty-five years of age, which, unheard of at the time, included women because it was traditional for them to participate in the election of the podesta (the highest ranking magistrate in Italian cities, equivalent to the mayor). A Cunsulta or Diet assumed legislative power with delegates elected by district every three years, which appointed the executive by a two-thirds majority. At its head was a general (president, who, being in a state of war, had the powers of a dictator) and there was also a council of state of nine members, plus the trustees, provincial leaders and judges.

The work of Paoli, who also founded a university and a local language newspaper, as well as putting his own currency into circulation and creating a fleet to save the Genoese blockade, aroused admiration among the scholars of the time, receiving praise from Rousseau and Voltaire, among others. However, this was not enough to obtain diplomatic recognition from any country and only the bey of Tunisia granted it. Moreover, Genoa, which held some coastal cities but saw its hopes of regaining the rest of the island go up in smoke, decided to take advantage of a minor incident to get out of the way.

In 1767, Corsica invaded Capraia, an island in the Tuscan Archipelago located in the Ligurian Sea between its eastern and western coasts of the Italian peninsula, thirty-two kilometers north of another that would later become very famous, Elba. The Genoese, who had been allowing the installation of French troops for three years, then sold Corsica to France by the Treaty of Versailles in 1768. The victory of the Count de Vaux at the Battle of Ponte Novu a year later left the Gauls in control of what they incorporated into their administration as a personal possession of Louis XV, while the Corsican patriots had to flee to Great Britain. At the head of the resistance in situ was Paoli’s secretary, Carlo Maria Buonaparte, Napoleon’s father.

Corsica would later, in 1770, become a province. The whole episode was perceived by the British as a failure of their government, precipitating the fall of the prime minister, the Duke of Grafton. In fair correspondence, the Corsican refugees would approve the establishment of an ephemeral Anglo-Corsican Kingdom between 1794 and 1796, when the island was conquered by the Royal Navy (in that campaign Nelson lost his right eye), as before, during the aforementioned American Revolution, several Corsican patriots defended His Gracious Majesty against the insurrected American colonists; it is ironic, then, that the group of the latter mentioned at the beginning took them as a model.


Sources

Historia Moderna (VVAA) / An Account of Corsica, the Journal of a Tour to that Island; and the Memories of Pascal Paoli (James Boswell) / The ungovernable rock: a history of the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom and its role in Britain’s Mediterranean strategy during the Revolutionary War, 1793-1797 (Desmond Gregory) / Theodore Von Neuhoff, King of Corsica: The Man Behind the Legend (Julia Gasper) /Wikipedia