Pasquale Paoli, who led the Corsican republic from 1755 to 1769, probably never considered himself a revolutionary. To him, the struggle to liberate Corsica from its Genoese masters was a nation state’s legitimate bid for independence and he regarded himself on a par with other heads of state. Today, he is much less well known outside Corsica than his compatriot Napoleon Bonaparte, and yet he was a towering figure of his era.
Paoli was born in 1725, four years before the Corsica struggle for independence began with an anti-tax riot in the Bozio area, east of Corte. In 1740, aged 15, he was forced into exile in Italy with his father, Jacinto. He retained a strong attachment to his homeland.
Paoli was invited back in 1755 to become General of the Nation. The Corsicans had tried various forms of self-government. They even backed a German adventurer, Theodor von Neuhof, who called himself King of Corsica. He was unable to live up to his extravagant promises. His subjects soon turned against him and he fled.
Paoli was in power for a mere 14 years. The Genoese, fed up with financing and conducting the war, sold Corsica to the French in 1768. The Corsicans made early gains against the French, but they were never able to take the main coastal towns, and the French routed Paoli’s forces at the battle of Ponte-Novo in 1769. Paoli fled and began a 20-year exile in England.
Despite his failures on the battlefield and the internal challenges to his authority, Paoli was a serious statesman with considerable achievements. He presided over the drawing up of a constitution, which has been hailed as an early experiment in democracy.
Paoli made several attempts to enhance his own powers and could probably be described more accurately as an enlightened autocrat than a sponsor of egalitarian democracy. For the time, though, the Corsican constitution was a radical break with the past.
Paoli also began to develop a fleet, the lack of which was one reason for Genoa’s continued dominance. He established the island’s own coinage, with a mint at Murato, and founded a university at Corte, in the independent heartland of Corsica.
In addition, Paoli legislated against vendetta, and sentenced one of his own kinsmen to execution for breaking that law. Even so, it took more than a 15-year republic to stamp out the customs and rituals of centuries.
James Boswell, better known as Samuel Johnson’s biographer, visited Corsica in 1765. He was greatly impressed by Paoli and published An Account of Corsica on his return to England. He remained a lifelong fan, proclaiming the Corsican cause wherever he went, which earned him the nickname “Corsica” Boswell.
Paoli returned to Corsica in 1790 to great acclaim following the French Revolution, and was proclaimed U Babbu, the Father of the Nation. Throughout his stay in England, he had harboured the dream of liberating Corsica. However, things had changed. The French Constituent Assembly decreed definitively that Corsica was an integral part of France and subject to its laws.
By 1793, Paoli was disillusioned with the French government and suspected of pro-British sympathies. Eventually, he was outlawed and appealed to Britain to come to his aid. There followed a strange two-year period known as the Anglo-Corsican kingdom. Paoli was overlooked as Viceroy in favour of Sir Gilbert Elliot and then became a thorn in Elliot’s side. A series of riots led to Paoli’s re-exile to England in 1795. The British finally threw in the towel and left the ungovernable island in 1796.
Paoli died in 1807 and was buried in London until his remains were returned to Corsica and interred at his family home in Morosaglia. He never married and had no known heirs.
He appears briefly in my forthcoming novel, The Corsican Widow, which is set against the backdrop of this turbulent period. I feel he is worth a novel in his own right.
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