Introduction to a series on: Napoleon, Corsica and the Corsicans

As the ‘Fondation Napoléon’ from Paris will be proposing a series of conferences on a regular basis, starting this month of May at the Fesch Museum in Ajaccio, I believe it would be of great interest to inform you beforehand of their wish to provide further knowledge on Napoléon and Corsica – interest shared with pleasure by Philippe Perfettini, historian at the Fesch Museum, with whom I regularly meet in order to supply you with captivating and important historical facts relating to this amazing little island.
A brief retrospective in this respect will not be superfluous.

Having remained in Corsica until 1793, Napoléon leaves to make a career – spending time in Italy and returning to Corsica for the last time in 1799.
Before he dies in 1821, he held a plan to develop Corsica, and as of 1821 an enthusiastic ‘Napoléon’ cult would be observed.

The following question arises: what exactly does Corsica represent for Napoléon ?
In his memoirs from Saint Helena, he writes in length about the favourable geographical situation and his love of nature, continuing with the political conquest of the island by France, as he was born the same year Pasquale Paoli left the island.
He grows up with an idea of a ‘free Corsica’. However, as there is quite a lot of disorder on the island, he realises there is ground there for the taking.
Quite amazing to learn that his mother had fourteen pregnancies in twenty years, resulting in eight children. He detested his father who was a lawyer, but he loved to read and his father owned over a thousand books at that time, many of which fascinated Napoléon, who went to school at the Royal College in Ajaccio. His attention was especially intrigued by soldiers. He would bring them bread, white bread in particular and trade it for black bread (wholemeal bread).

1779-84:
After he succeeds in acquiring an education grant, he leaves for military school in Brienne (Aube) – and being away, discovers his attachment to Corsica. He has a very hard time trying to integrate, which he never really ever does, this also being fuelled by the fact that he doesn’t speak nor write French at all well – prior to this, he does spend three months in Autun learning the language. However, he is indeed continually mocked by his fellow students, who used to call him ‘la paille au nez’ (straw-nosed).
The school in question was for European nobility.
One day, he said to his brother Joseph that he would cause all the trouble that he could to ‘these French’.

1784-90:
Napoléon leaves for military school in Paris, does a return trip to Corsica as his father dies in 1785 – and when Marbeuf dies, Napoléon and Joseph find themselves almost alone, with just an old uncle (Luciano) left alive.
We’re coming up to the period when a distinctive web will be weaved by the Napoleonic family; Napoléon being a soldier, Joseph Fesch a priest, and Joseph Bonaparte a jurist – they are a fine example of a family who manages to appropriate everything they set their mind to. And, this can be perceived through the centuries as the ‘ascenseur social’ (social mobility), through education and marriage.

1789 brings the French Revolution, and in 1790 the exile law is abolished by the newly elected.
Pasquale Paoli returns to Corsica, after spending some time in Paris first.
He will be elected President of the Department of Corsica.
At this stage, our three family members return to Corsica.
Joseph Bonaparte becomes a lawyer in 1790 and deputy mayor. Joseph Fesch becomes archdeacon of the cathedral (Ajaccio), and Napoléon becomes lieutenant colonel of the garrison in Ajaccio.
Now they are all set and in place.

In 1790, Napoléon meets Pasquale Paoli in Orezza. We must keep in mind the fact that Paoli is sixty-five years of age, compared to Napoléon who is only twenty-one years of age – quite a meaningful gap between them.
This meeting didn’t really go too well at all, as Napoléon told Paoli exactly what his thoughts were concerning Ponte Nuovo. This was also a period of time when there was much double-dealing within the families, along with clan struggles which took place between 1790-93. Those for and against Paoli – moderates and extremists.
From 1792, France is attacked from all sides – revolutionary war. The English occupy the Mediterranean, and as France is surrounded, Corsica finds itself right in the middle. Paoli receives the order to assemble an army, to make war against the ‘Royaume de la Sardaigne’ (Sardinian Kingdom) – he carries it through against his will, with mercenaries coming from all over.
The Expedition to Sardinia was a short military campaign in 1793, which did not turn out as expected – according to Napoléon, it was Paoli’s fault this was unsuccessful. He accused Pasquale Paoli of being anti-French, and allying with the English (Napoléon himself was with Salicetti). They inform Paris and Paoli is arrested. However, he seeks to meet Paoli afterwards as he realises he had made a mistake – he goes to Corte to try and settle this affair, but cannot do so. Now it is evident for those dedicated to Paoli, that those following Bonaparte are traitors.

In April of the same year, Napoléon organises an exit for his family. He goes to Bastia by sea, to meet the authorities for a battalion in order to regain Ajaccio, which he states belongs to Paoli.
He recuperates his family at Capitello, goes to Calvi and from then onwards to the mainland.

You have now read a first account, which I sincerely hope has held your attention – there will of course be a suite, for the avid disciples of history and historical moments, all of which will try to entangle and offer supplementary reports and details, necessary for the comprehension of this emblematic figure, and his attachment to his island. My thanks again to Philippe Perfettini for his time and conviction. 

 

Source/images: Philippe Perfettini, Historian Fesch Museum
First meeting scheduled at the Fesch Museum: May 17th.

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