Corsica’s Turbulent Past

Corsican History

A glimpse into Corsica’s tumultuous and complicated past…

You might wonder why, but there is a real reason Corsicans have such a hard edge and are known to bomb enemies, burn homes, and uphold blood feuds.  Corsica’s apparent serenity belies its violent past; Corsicans have had it very rough over the centuries…

  • The Black PlagueCorsica was struck early and hard by the “pest” (Black or Bubonic Plague), leaving two-thirds of their population buried underground.  The plague arrived in the mid 1300’s with the infected rats that had boarded on trade ships coming from China.  Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of CorsicaThe disease first emerged in Sicily before quickly spreading to Corsica and Sardinia and other Mediterranean ports.  The last victim collapsed to the disease in 1528 in the town of Bonifacio where a small chapel now stands to commemorate the numerous victims.  It must have been so heartbreaking for the families to watch their loved ones succumb one after the other, often in under a week, their limbs turning black from the dying tissues.
  • Foreign Invaders – The first recorded invasion came around 1500 BC, but the invasions repeated again and again over the centuries.  Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of CorsicaTheir lands were a magnet for raiders and invaders…  Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Pisans, Aragonese, Barbary pirates, and the of course the Genoese.  More recently under Italian, British, and now French rule…  Plundered and oppressed, Corsicans hid in the mountains dividing into innumerable proud and quarrelsome clans, united only by their feelings of contempt for the outside world.
  • Economics Corsica was regularly neglected by the French Government time and again.  Agriculture was the primary source of income, but France privileged trade within the mainland ruining Corsica’s economics and ignoring any complaints or requests for support.  They clearly were treated like second class citizens of little interest…

    With no support, their only resources were the herding of goats and sheep, the gathering chestnuts and olives, and the few crops they could managed to grow on the narrow ledges they scratched into the cliffsides.  As a direct result, Corsica remained a primitive society of scrawny people as ragged as their livestock forced to rule the only way they knew – family, honor, and vendetta.

  • Blood Feuds The Vendetta commands that a family’s honor be repaid in blood.  Unfortunately, that blood must then be repaid in turn by the opposing family, and back again aeternum.  It only ends by either a truce worked out by the local priest (rare), or when one of the families are exterminated.

    This is the only way of life that the Corsicans trusted.  They knew that while their future was dim and unknown, the past was clear and they knew how to handle it. There were literally hundreds of blood feud murders in the early to mid 1800’s.  Even grandmothers encourage the practice of vendetta by chanting the traditional mourning song, “Rimbeccu“, over the corpse of murdered family members to encourage their speedy vengeance.  Anything less would leave the family in great shame.  The practice to this day has not completed disappeared.

  • Bandits –  All those blood feuds left a whole population to flee to this hills for safe hiding.  Those were the real Corsican bandits of the past, men bound by the honor of their families forced into hiding.  They were protected by the “Omerta”, the code of silence…snitching was considered very dishonorable.  Many even considered these men heroes.  The bandits fled vanishing into the landscape becoming as savage and rugged as their environment.

    Although you can still see road signs peppered with bullet holes as you drive around Corsica, today’s bandits or outlaws are really just “political activists”.  They spend their time shooting sign posts and blowing up things instead of killing their neighbors.  “Bombing is customary in Corsica, a form of communication with more impact than a fax.”   The last real outlaw was Yvan Colonna, a nationalist responsible for killing the prefect of Corsica.  He was captured in 2003 after spending five years evading the authorities by hiding in the back country.

  1. Independence“Liberty without peace, maybe.  Peace without liberty, never!” Marquis Luigi Giafferri (1673-1748), Chef Suprême of the Nation of Corsica.  Corsicans love and value their freedom above everything else, with the exception perhpas of family and clan. Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of Corsica - The people of CorsicaTheir aspirations to finally become the independent nation they so desired were crushed by France on May 8th, 1769 after 14 years of conflict. The final battle that took place on the Ponte-Novu bridge near Castello-di-Rostino while on route to Corte and ended in the horrible massacre of Corsican nationals by their so-called allies.  Many Corsicans still resent France’s presence to this day.  In the recent past, the majority of the population just wanted recognition of their culture and language, and greater autonomy from the mainland.  But, since the election of the National Party in the regional elections, there has been a recent resurgence of interest for independence from France (some say two-thirds vs just 15% a few years back and vs 90% in 1864).  Many mainland French are rumored to unkindly embrace this idea…
  1. PoliticsIn the late 1950-60’s, a nuclear building project and the chemical pollution imposed upon them from mainland Italy increased tensions with the French government who did not step in to provide protection. Corsicans were outraged and escalation deteriorated into armed assaults by the Corsican Nationalist against the French government and beginning the nationalist (FNLC) movement still active today.

    Since then, the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) periodically organizes bombings, raids and killings similar to a mafia. The year 1976 marked a particularly bloody year that attempted to finally secede Corsica from France.  The last violent flare up ended with the assassination of the Prefect Erignac in 1998. The NLFC announced the definitive cessation of its armed struggle in 2014.  You will often see sign posts covered with graffiti in the hopes of frustrating and scaring off foreigners (similar to the Bolinas, California story that you may have heard about – or not).

  2. Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of Corsica - The people of Corsica - FLNCWW’sDuring WWII, Corsica served as an US military base for attacks on German occupied Italy before later becoming the first French department to be freed.  The World Wars were also particularly hard on Corsica, taking significantly more lives (twice as many) in comparison to the mainland. It is rumored that the French government held a grudge against Corsica and purposely put more Corsicans on the front line than others.
  3. Stereotyping – Over the years, mainland French citizens have continued to stereotype Corsicans as proud and easily offended bandits who hold silly grudges and don’t blink an eye at the constant explosions and violence. Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of Corsica - The people of Corsica - FLNC Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of Corsica - The people of Corsica - FLNCThe comic book published in 1973 titled “Asterix In Corsica” makes solid fun of Corsicans and is the most sold title in the history of the series.  The importance of honor and respect to Corsican’s is satirized several times, as is their laziness and their quest for vendettas. “L’Enquete Corse” is another more recent comic book in the same vein, with a 2004 movie version distributed under the same name (or The Corsican File in English) directed by Alain Berbérian.

“Les Goumiers” – The forgotten heroes of WWII

Little known are the volunteer Moroccan  forces called the “Goumiers” who played a crucial and decisive role in liberating Corsica of German occupation. These forgotten heroes cleared Corsica of the majority of its invaders in three short weeks, fighting valiantly and ferociously against the enemy forces.  Those that fell into German hands were immediately executed, and yet the Goumiers remained fearless continuing their task of clearing the hills above Bastia and the treacherous “Col de Teghime” of the invaders.

Buried alongside the fallen Goumiers of Corsica is their Christian commander who wished to be buried next to his men, with no signicatif distinction between them.My uncle fought amongst the Goumier in the Algerian War, and has the utmost respect for these people who remain vibrant honorable and brave figures in his memories.

The seven remaining Goumiers received France’s highest award, the “Légion d’Honneur” in 2013 (a bit late in my opinion).

The Corsican Flag

The Corsican flag consists of a white background with “testa Maura” ( head of a Maure) – or figure-head representing a Maure/Moors (or Saracens/Sarrasins) warrior. The Moors were the Berber inhabitants of Maghreb, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages. The first raids by the Moors into Corsica took place in 713 AD. The bandana which originally blindfolded the figurehead is thought to represent the defeated moors. It is interesting to note that Corsica did not choose its own flag, but received it by default during the creation of a 16th century map as it had none of its own. It echoes the nearby Sardinia flag that has the same figure-head, except with four heads and whose meaning is somewhat unclear.   When Corsica tried again to regain its freedom and become independent in 1755, the bandana was moved above the eyes to symbolize clear thinking and the liberation of the Corsican people.

Did you know Ajaccio was Napoleons birthplace ?

Napoleon - Corsican history - Corsica's Past Struggles - The History of Corsica - The people of Corsica - FLNCRight downtown in 1769…  His family home is now a museum and is well worth a visit. You may have known that fact, but bet you didn’t know his nickname was “Napoglione Paille au Nez” (Napoleon Straw-in-the-Nose)!  His peers thought he was a stuck up snob in school holding his nose up high in the air, hence the nickname.  “Le Petit Caporal” (the Little Corporal) or “the Little Corsican” are his well known adult nicknames.

At the time of Napoleon’s birth, France had just claimed Corsica as its territory.  His bourgeois family had prestige but little fortune, and fully supported this new alliance. Napoleon was sent to military school in France at the very young age on 9 years old where he was treated as an outsider and bullied. He never was quite able to lose his Corsican accent and only fully grasped the French language in his last years. But even with all this and his tiny stature (or not – at 5’6″ tall he wasn’t actually that far off the French average height of the time – so ignore that myth!) he definitely did not allow anything or anyone to stand in his way!  His complete biography is a fascinating journey well worth further exploration for those unfamiliar the details. Napoleon remains the main and indissoluble link between France and Corsica to this day.  And when you do visit Corsica, don’t forget all those locals are direct descendants and cousins of Napoleon…

Want to dive deeper into the fascinating world of Corsican history and culture?  Check out “Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica” (1971) or the more mystical “Dream Hunters of Corsica” (1995) both by Dorothy Carrington.  If you missed the first part of the series, check out “Wonderful Magical Corsica“.  Otherwise, stay tuned for Part 3 of the Corsican Series (the photo gallery) coming out soon!

Happy Travels,
-Girl Gone Gallic

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  13 comments for “Corsica’s Turbulent Past

  1. June 12, 2016 at 12:52 am

    Fantastic post and so informative, I love hearing about all the history – turbulent or not!

  2. June 3, 2016 at 7:05 am

    I knew about Napoleon and I’ve heard about the bandits but a lot of what you wrote is new to me:) very informative, thanks! #all about france

  3. June 3, 2016 at 12:59 am

    GGG we visited Corsica a few years back and loved every moment. Thanks for sharing some very interesting details on the island’s history and the origins of the flag.

  4. June 2, 2016 at 5:58 am

    An impressive amount of research there! Sets it all in perspective, always useful. I was speaking to a Corsican not long ago who refused to return to his home village because he’ll be expected to carry out a vendetta. Plus ça change…

    • June 2, 2016 at 9:51 am

      I had heard that vendetta’s were not totally a thing of the past, and it did seem possible knowing a little of their culture. Thanks for sharing, I was curious to know the real truth!

  5. June 2, 2016 at 3:03 am

    I knew Corsica was violent/has a reputation for violence and I’ve seen the bullet holes in signposts but I didn’t know much about its history. This is such a detailed and thorough post with lots of nuggets of information to think about. I did know about Napoleon though as I’ve been to Ajaccio and it’s hard to miss if you’ve been there. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance GGG!

    • June 2, 2016 at 9:54 am

      Someday maybe I will tackle a blog about Napoleon, such a fascinating character… I had to at least mention him, Corsica and Napoleon are inseparable!

  6. June 2, 2016 at 1:21 am

    A fascinating glimpse into the Corsican history and culture, which I find riveting. As I said in my comment on your other Corsica post, it’s a place I can’t keep away from. And there is so much in Corsica’s history and background to explain why the Corsicans are as they are. My own blog is mostly about SW France but I’ve written a bit about Corsica too, following our visits. We aren’t going this year and I already feel I need another fix!

    • June 2, 2016 at 9:58 am

      I did see that you love Corsica as much as I do! Have you read the book that I suggested? Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington?

      • June 2, 2016 at 10:04 am

        Oh yes, I’ve read it about 4 times! Wonderfully erudite and so interesting. The only downside is that the typeface in the Penguin edition is very small. But I recommend it to everyone who I think might be interested. Look forward to more Corsica on your blog! 🙂

      • June 15, 2016 at 1:26 am

        I have just read Vanessa Couchman’s book, called The House at Zaronza. It’s very atmospheric and gives you a real feeling for Corsica in the early 1900s. I thoroughly recommend it.

        • June 19, 2016 at 8:21 am

          Thanks for the tip! I will definitely check out that book, sounds interesting and a perfect follow up to my series…

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