This post is taking part in the Historical Writers Forum autumn blog hop, in which we each choose a historical figure and explain why we are drawn to him or her. I’ve chosen Pasquale Paoli, who led the Corsican republic from 1755 to 1769.
Paoli probably never considered himself a revolutionary. To him, the struggle to liberate the island of Corsica from its Genoese masters was a sovereign 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 Corsican struggle for independence from Genoa began with an anti-tax riot in the Bozio area, east of Corte. In 1739, aged fourteen, he was forced into exile in Italy with his father, Giacinto. He studied philosophy and political economy. Paoli retained a strong attachment to his homeland.
Paoli was invited back in 1755 to become General of the Nation at the age of only thirty. The Corsicans had tried various forms of self-government. They even backed a German adventurer and charlatan, Theodor von Neuhof, who called himself King of Corsica. He was unable to live up to his extravagant promises, so his subjects soon turned against him, and he fled. Theodor died in London in 1856.
Paoli was in power for a mere fourteen years. The Genoese, fed up with financing and conducting the war, ceded Corsica to the French by a secret treaty in 1768. They had incurred a huge debt to France for its military help against the rebellions but were unable to repay it under the terms of the treaty. The Corsicans made early gains against the French, whom they routed at the Battle of Borgo in 1768. But they were never able to take the main coastal towns, and the reinforced French forces defeated Paoli’s army at the battle of Ponte-Novu in 1769. Paoli fled and began a twenty-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 to his name. He presided over the drawing up of a constitution in 1755, which has been hailed as an early experiment in democracy. Among other things, it gave widows and unmarried women the right to vote; the first constitution to do so.
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 and predated the American Constitution by more than 30 years.
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 in Corte, in the independent heartland of Corsica. Paoli’s university was closed in 1769 after the French victory but was reopened in 1981.
In addition, Paoli legislated against vendetta. Even so, it took more than a fifteen-year republic to stamp out the customs and practices of centuries.
Paoli struggled against nations with vastly superior resources and military might. He was never able to mobilise international opinion in his favour, except for a brief interlude in the 1790s when Corsica became a protectorate of King George III (see below). But he must have been a charismatic and impressive figure, and he is revered by many Corsicans today.
James Boswell, better known as Samuel Johnson’s biographer, visited Corsica in 1765. He was greatly impressed by Corsica and 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, who then appointed another Corsican, Pozzo di Borgo, as his adviser instead of Paoli.
Paoli became a thorn in Elliot’s side until 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 never returned to his beloved homeland during his lifetime. He died in 1807 at the age of 81. One wonders what this man of both thought and action did and felt during his last years. Did he feel that his life was a failure or did he console himself with his considerable achievements? Paoli seems to have resigned himself to the fact that Corsica would never be independent when he wrote, “Now that Corsica is French, my great-nephews should go to study in France. I want them to do well in the world and above all defend the memory of their great-uncle [Paoli] and their great-grandfather [Paoli’s father, Giacinto]. They must tell everyone what we did.”
Paoli was buried in London until the mid-19th century, when his remains were returned to Corsica and interred at his family home in Morosaglia. A bust of Paoli was placed in Westminster Abbey and is still there. A square in Rome is named after him. Paoli never married and had no known heirs.
He appears briefly in my novel, The Corsican Widow, which is set against the backdrop of this turbulent period. I feel Paoli merits a novel in his own right. The story of this complex character is worthy of any Shakespearean tragedy.
The next and final post in the blog hop is by Paula Lofting. She looks at the life of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who died at the hands of the Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
You might also like:
Vendetta in Corsica: Myth and Reality
Why Corsica Should be a Happy Hunting Ground for Authors
Ten Inspiring Things About Corsica: Part 1
Ten Inspiring Things About Corsica: Part 2
Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2020, all rights reserved.
7 thoughts on “Pasquale Paoli: forgotten Corsican revolutionary”
Thank you for this history. I enjoyed The Corsican Widow, and it’s nice to have this historical backstory. Best wishes.
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Thank you. It was certainly a turbulent time in Corsican history.
It wasn’t easy being the man in charge of a strategic island that was the subject of much to-ing and fro-ing, between rulers. Very interesting post and a ‘new to me’ innovator who was maybe a little ahead of his time with regard to how a nation should be run?
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Yes, that’s true. Corsica was ruled by Pisa and then Genoa for hundreds of years before passing to France. And Paoli had to deal with external threats to his authority as well. He was brought up within the traditions of 18th-century political thought and enlightened despotism, but the particular Corsican situation pushed him into more forward-thinking policies in practice.
Reblogged this on Ocelot Press and commented:
Ocelot Press author Vanessa Couchman writes about the achievements of Pasquale Paoli, 18th-century statesman and revolutionary and a towering figure of his era. Today, he is little known outside Corsica and deserves wider recognition.