He’s been called the Che Guevara of the 18th century. He was a freedom fighter, a democrat and an intellectual. He was celebrated by Voltaire and Rousseau for producing one of the first republican constitutions of the enlightenment era; one which subsequently influenced the constitution of the United States.
The Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807) was an inspiration for liberation struggles everywhere, having succeeded in liberating his homeland from Genovese rule. He also inspired a bestselling biography by the young Scottish writer James Boswell which put him on the literary map before he wrote about Dr Johnson.
Paoli and his army successfully ejected the Genoese but his fledgling democracy was soon destroyed by France. After the French took Corsica, Paoli was welcomed in England as a hero. He met the King, was granted a state pension and was feted by London intellectual society. Later, for two years in the 1790s, an Anglo-Corsican Kingdom saw Paoli leading Corsica for a second time, supported by the British. He died in exile in London in February 1807.
London’s Corsicans and friends of Corsica gather every year in February to lay a wreath to ‘u babbu di a patria’ (the father of the nation) at Paoli’s memorial in Westminster Abbey and there have also been occasional gatherings at Old St.Pancras church where he was first buried and at the site of his home in South Audley street which is marked by a City of Westminster plaque.
So, what’s the Paoli story?
Corsica had been part of the republic of Genoa almost continuously since 1284 and in 1729 there was a significant Corsican rebellion against the Genovese occupiers who then repressed them. In 1741 the young Paoli joined the Corsican regiment of the royal Neapolitan army and served in Calabria under his father. Corsican exiles in Italy were seeking leadership and assistance for a revolution. In 1736 they had chosen Theodor von Neuhoff, a German adventurer and soldier of fortune, to be their king, but he left Corsica for the last time in 1749 seeking foreign support and ending up in a London debtor’s prison 1754. The young Pasquale attracted attention by devising a plan for a democratic native Corsican government. With von Neuhoff off the scene, Paoli was elected General-in-Chief of Corsica and sole commander of the resistance in the subsequent election.
Corsica at that time was still under the influence of groups of feuding clans only one of which had voted in the election. The others now held an alternative election of their own and chose Mario Matra as commander, and they promptly attacked the Paolists. Matra called on the Genovese for assistance but was killed in battle, putting an end to the rivalry.
Paoli’s first task was to confine the Genovese to their coastal strongholds. His second was to draft a constitution for his new state and this was ratified in November 1755. This proclaimed Corsica a sovereign nation, independent from the Republic of Genoa. This was the first constitution in the world written under Enlightenment principles. Paoli was elected president and set about building a modern state; founding a university in Corte.
The Corsican constitution was inspired by enlightenment thinking and in particular the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote in The Social Contract of 1762:
“There is still in Europe one country capable of legislation, and that is the island of Corsica. The valour and constancy with which this brave people has known how to recover and defend its liberty well merits that some wise man teaches them how to preserve it. I have some presentiment that one day this little island will astonish Europe.”*
Recognising that they had effectively lost control of Corsica, the Genovese decided to secretly sell the island to the French in 1764. Once French soldiers had replaced Genovese troops in 1768 the French announced the union of Corsica with France and attempted a reconquest. Paoli and his men fought a guerilla war from the mountains but they were outnumbered and defeated in the battle of Ponte Novu in 1769. Paoli took refuge in England and Corsica became a French province in 1770.
In London, Paoli was treated as a celebrity and attracted the attention of Dr. Johnson’s circle. Paoli’s memoirs were recorded by James Boswell in his book, An Account of Corsica. After a series of interviews with King George III, Paoli was given a pension by the crown on the understanding that if he ever returned to Corsica in a position of authority he would support British interests against the French. Paoli was sincerely pro-British and had a genuine affection for his new friends, including the King.
By the time of the French revolution of 1798, the name of Paoli had become a symbol of liberty and democracy. In 1790, the revolutionary National Assembly in Paris passed a decree incorporating Corsica into France, reaffirming the 1770 decision but under a new authority. Corsican exiles were granted amnesty so Paoli immediately left London for Corsica. He arrived in time for the election of departmental officers, ran for President and was elected unanimously. The young Napoleon Bonaparte, who organized the elections, was a great admirer of Paoli at this point.
In 1791, the National Assembly ordered elections for the officers of the Corsican National Guard, which Napoleon had created. Three lieutenant-colonel posts were available, one senior. Going on leave again, Napoleon ran in Corsica and won the senior position after kidnapping one candidate to keep him ‘safe’ (ie: out of the public eye) and having the other one beaten up. The ‘Terror’ was beginning and, like many others, Napoleon acted outside the law in arbitrary and high-handed ways.
Paoli parted ways with the French Revolution over the issue of the execution of the king and he threw in his lot with the royalists while not making this widely known at first. When the revolutionary government ordered him to take Sardinia he put his nephew in charge of the expedition with secret orders to lose the conflict. He was effectively acting as a British agent, as the British had an interest in Sardinia.
Napoleon realising what was happening, assumed command but the attack failed and he barely escaped. Having been a strong supporter and admirer of Paoli, he was enraged and denounced Paoli as a traitor at the French National Convention. Thanks to Napoleon, arrest warrants were issued and a force sent to Corsica to storm the citadels from the royalists. The Paolists and royalists, working together, defeated Napoleon and drove him from the island in fear of his life.
Paoli then summoned a consulta (assembly) at Corte in 1793, with himself as president and formally seceded from France. He requested the protection of the British government, then at war with revolutionary France. In 1794, the British sent a fleet under Admiral Hood. This fleet had just been ejected from the French port of Toulon by a revolutionary army following Napoleon Bonaparte’s plan.
For a short time, Corsica was a British protectorate under George III. This was the period of the ‘Anglo-Corsican Kingdom’. George III was accepted as sovereign and head of state but Corsica was not incorporated into the British Empire. The relationship between Paoli’s government and the British was never clearly defined, and as a result of tensions between him and the viceroy, Sir Gilbert Elliot, Paoli was ‘invited’ to resign and he returned to exile in Britain with a pension. Referring to Paoli’s views, Elliot had complained in dispatches that:
“The ideas expressed in the General’s speeches on all political matters are absurd and crude…they are in direct contradiction to the system of government established here…Paoli seems to me to have strong tendencies to democracy”
As Dorothy Carrington noted in the ‘Fallen Capitals’ chapter of her brilliant ‘Granite Island’:
“’Democracy’ was not at that time a sacred word in Britain. For the nation’s rulers it meant government by the ignorant masses, the atrocities of Jacobinism, the end of civilisation.”
Soon after, the French reconquered the island and any question of Corsican sovereignty came to an end until the 20th century.
Paoli set sail for England in October 1795 and lived out his final years in London. He died on 5 February 1807 and was buried in Old St. Pancras Churchyard in London. A bust was placed in Westminster Abbey. In 1889 his bones were brought to Corsica in a British frigate and interred at the Paoli family home in the village of Morosaglia in the Castagniccia region of North-Eastern Corsica.
Pasquale never married and as far as is known had no heirs. There is little information about his personal life although he may have had an affair with Maria Cosway the Anglo-Italian artist, musician, and society hostess who was also romantically involved with the American statesman Thomas Jefferson.
Pasquale Paoli’s story twists and turns, lurching from principle to compromise and from success to failure in his search for democracy and self-determination. He is a complex figure worth celebrating for his important contribution both to his native island and to the world.
“O saremo liberi o non saremo niente”
(“we shall be free or we shall be nothing”)
Pasquale Paoli (letters, 1768)
*A fuller account of the history of the Corsican constitution can be found in: Carrington, Dorothy (July 1973). “The Corsican constitution of Pasquale Paoli (1755–1769)”. The English Historical Review 88 (348): 481-503. JSTOR 564654.
The text of Rousseau’s Project for a Corsican constitution can be found here: http://www.constitution.org/jjr/corsica.htm
Previous posts on Corsican themes: Village wisdom: Corsican proverbs and sayings, Conrad in Corsica, Seneca in Corsica.