The Church of the Annunciation, Borgo, built in the 17th century
On the night of October 22nd 1758, nineteen men gathered at the Church of the Annunciation in Borgo and swore an oath to drive the French from Corsica by any means necessary. They were not disgruntled peasants or bandits, but notabili
of some standing in the northeast, including Giuseppe Barbaggi
of Murato, a bureaucrat and academic; Luigi Angelo Zerbi
of Oletta, a diplomat and canon of the cathedral of Bastia; Francesco Antonio Saliceti
of Patrimonio, a parish priest; his brother Giovan Carlo Saliceti
, a royalist army officer; and Ignacio Domenico Baldassari
of Furiani, another former officer of the Corsican army. They and their followers became known as I Devoti
(“the devoted”) - either because of their devotion to the cause, or because their oath was dedicated to Saint Devota, one of Corsica’s patronesses.
Although tensions between the French and the Corsicans had been building slowly for several years, the devoti
ultimately owed their existence to the British conquest of Ajaccio, and more directly to the crisis this created between the French and Corsican leadership. The few months between Ajaccio’s fall and the oath of the devoti
at Borgo were pivotal in the final breakdown of this relationship, fueled by the weakness of the Corsican government, the double-dealing of King Theodore, and - perhaps most importantly - the prickly inflexibility of maréchal de camp Guy André Pierre de Montmorency, Marquis de Laval
, who showed that he was completely incapable of de-escalation.
Laval had not expected the British invasion - and, in fairness, neither had anyone in his government. The French had fielded more than 10,000 soldiers in their own conquest of Corsica, and believed that a similar British effort would be sheer folly; with the loss of their vital base at Port Mahon, the logistical challenges to such an operation would be insurmountable. Accordingly, the French occupation of Corsica was not intended to repel a dedicated British assault, but rather to thwart British “gunboat diplomacy” against Corsica and ensure that its strategic ports were closed to British privateers. But the British, misled by the rosy predictions of Pasquale Paoli
, had embarked on the operation not to conquer
Corsica but to spur a native rebellion, and this limited goal combined with the parsimony of their own government meant that the British landed fewer than 3,000 men on the island - a much weaker force, certainly, but also one which was easier to supply.
What surprised the Marquis de Laval even more than the British landing, however, was the attitude of the Corsican government. It was not that the maréchal
expected them to rise immediately to arms against the British; the French were there precisely because the Corsicans lacked the means to defend themselves. But Laval was genuinely baffled by the offense taken by Theodore to the arrival of French reinforcements - who, whatever the technicalities of the Convention, were there to protect
Corsica - as well as the king’s decision to dismiss the French consul and give a warm welcome to Colonel John Arabin
, an enemy officer. That the 1758 consulta generale
would condemn French reinforcements in the face of a British invasion beggared belief. Despite some local friction between the French and the Corsicans under occupation, the maréchal
had presumed that the “malcontents” were a vocal minority and his abuse at the previous consulta
had been the work of grandstanding local politicians. Laval’s decision to headquarter himself in Calvi probably did not help his perspective; it was an isolated city whose largely Corso-Genoese population was indifferent to the royal government and welcoming to the French.
The activities of Colonel Arabin at Corti strongly suggested that the British were not merely seeking to occupy Ajaccio but to make a play, both military and diplomatic, for Corsica itself. Although initially Laval had been most concerned with the prospect of additional British landings, he soon came to fear that Arabin and an “Anglophile clique” led by the likes of Pasquale Paoli
, Giovan Felice Valentini
, and the king’s Scottish and Irish retainers already had their hooks in the king, and that the British would use this faction - together with leverage from their control of Ajaccio - to force the king to side with them. After all, showing up unannounced at Ajaccio with an army was exactly how the French had “convinced” Theodore’s government to accept their occupation in the first place.
Laval faced a dilemma. Military logic demanded a defensive stance, as his forces were limited and he still suspected that the British had more troops in reserve. Confining his forces to San Fiorenzo and Calvi - or better yet, just Calvi, the island's finest fortress - would give them the best chance at thwarting a British attack. Political
logic, however, went in the opposite direction. If the French shut themselves within Calvi they would be effectively ceding the rest of the island to the British, who would be able to cajole and intimidate the Corsican government without hindrance. A retreat into safety would save the French army, but it would also lose Corsica, which the ministry would not tolerate.
Forced to contest the island with the British, Laval naturally cast his eye towards Bastia. The French had not occupied the city earlier because it was deemed to be of no military value; Bastia was on the wrong side of the island for raiding the French coast and its harbor was too small and shallow for ships of the line. Yet as a piece of leverage on King Theodore and his government, its value was apparent. It was the largest city on the island, Corsica’s main link with the Italian ports, and the chief residence of the royal household. This time Laval notified Theodore of his intentions, but did not wait for a reply from Corti before ordering a detachment of 800 men to take control of the city. Their orders were to secure the palace and the citadel and man its defenses. If the British arrived with a force too strong to repel, they were instructed to spike the citadel’s guns, cripple its fortifications, and destroy its arsenal before withdrawing to San Fiorenzo.
The French took the city without a fight, but not without incident. At the palazzo dei governatori
, where Queen Eleonora
and much of the royal household were presently residing, their way was blocked by around 60 soldiers of the king’s foreign guard who refused the French entry. The guard, however, was under orders not to fire on the French, and ultimately could not resist being forcibly disarmed by the much larger French column. The French then proceeded to take over much of the palace and use it as quarters for their troops. This was not entirely without justification; much of the palace had yet to be renovated and went unused by the Neuhoffs, while both the Genoese and Corsicans had both used the palace as a barracks in the recent past. It would, however, be a major blow to the reputation of the French on Corsica.
Front Gate of the Palace of the Governors
Rumors soon spread of the humiliation of Theodore’s guard and offenses against his family, which collectively became known as l’oltraggio di Bastia
(“The Outrage of Bastia”). Although the factual basis of these stories is dubious, tales were told of the arrogant French soldiers getting drunk on the king’s wine, trampling upon the Corsican flag, and harassing Theodore's family and servants. Most incendiary was the tale of the Prince of Capraia’s pregnant wife, Elisabeth Cherrier Jeanne d'Harcourt
, who was allegedly forcibly dragged out of her apartment by French grenadiers. It certainly did not help that the princess suffered a miscarriage five weeks later, which was immediately blamed upon French cruelty and maltreatment. Formerly regarded with suspicion by the Corsicans - who referred to her rather contemptuously as A Donna Francese
(“the French Lady”) - Princess Elisabeth was transformed by this episode of dubious veracity into a symbol of injured national pride. The Corsicans were nothing if not sensitive to family honor; this was, after all, a country where merely touching
a woman not your own was sufficient grounds to launch a vendetta
. If the French thought so little of Theodore as to disrespect him in such a flagrant manner, what regard could they possibly have for the Corsican people?
The Corsicans of the northeast had more concrete grievances as well. The farmers of the Nebbio had long grumbled about the French presence, and the events of July 1758 - the peak of harvest season - fanned this smoldering discontent into a wildfire. The French practice of “compensating” the government for stores and supplies with cancelled debt had bled the state’s treasury dry, and the attempts by the Corsican authorities to requisition grain on the mere promise
of future payment were not very successful. The luogotenente
of Bastia, Don Simone Ginestra
- himself a native of the Nebbio - was so completely disgusted by his lack of resources and the demands of the French that he simply gave up and washed his hands of the matter. The French in the northeast would now have to perform their own requisitions, and the seizure of grain and supplies by French soldiers - often with little or no payment - created immediate and intense hostility.
The combination of these forced requisitions, heavy-handed policing by the French and Greeks, and resentment stirred up by the l’oltraggio di Bastia
finally broke the patience of the locals. On September 15th, a farmer from Patrimonio who had hidden grain from the French was beaten by Greek troopers of the Busacci squadron; two days later, as one of the troopers was getting water from a well near the village, a Corsican man walked up to him and shot him in the head in broad daylight. With the local government under Don Simone incapable of making any serious effort at keeping order, the French took matters into their own hands. Increasingly, men were detained or beaten on suspicion of conspiring against the occupiers or merely for insulting the French and their auxiliaries. The old revolutionary slogan from twenty years before began to make an appearance once more - "Morte ài Francesi, Evvivu u Re
On the night of October 3rd, an explosion ripped through an old monastery in the valley of the Nebbio which had been commandeered as a barracks. Conspirators had smuggled several barrels of gunpowder into the monastery and lit the fuse as the garrison lay asleep. The resulting explosion was probably smaller than the conspirators had hoped and was far from sufficient to level the building, but nevertheless three French soldiers were killed and more than twenty wounded.
The French quickly tracked down two of the conspirators, who were arrested and interrogated. Yet being simple farmers, someone must have given them the gunpowder, and the French soon had a suspect: Don Giuseppe Ginestra
of Oletta, the younger brother of the very same Simone Ginestra who was the luogotenente
of Bastia (and also the brother of Don Salvadore Ginestra
, Theodore’s Minister of Agriculture). Ever since the fall of Ajaccio, Don Giuseppe had been part of a group of local notables who had been stockpiling arms and munitions for the local militia. In French eyes, the evidence against him was damning: he had recently been seen in the company of one of the arrested conspirators, had made large purchases of gunpowder (and other munitions) over the last month, and went on the run immediately after the monastery bombing. But it was Giuseppe’s connections which particularly infuriated the French. As Don Simone was supposed to be in charge of security in his province, the French immediately blamed him for his brother’s escape. At best he was incompetent; at worst, he had actively colluded in this heinous act.
Count Gianpietro Gaffori
immediately denounced the bombing and promised justice, but finding an arrangement with the French proved difficult. The Marquis de Laval wanted Don Simone sacked, which was easy enough; Theodore was reluctant but Gaffori seems to have convinced the king that removing a governor was worth keeping the peace with the French. But in return Gaffori wanted the arrested suspects to be tried in a Corsican court, which Laval refused to allow. The affair remained at an impasse until October 11th, when the French garrison at Bastia attempted to detain Don Simone for questioning. The luogotenente
was tipped off and barely managed to escape the city before the French came for him. His flight only further convinced the French of his complicity.
With the provincial government effectively dissolved by Don Simone’s escape, Laval instructed his commander in Bastia, Colonel Jules Marc Antoine de Morell, Comte d'Aubigny
, to take provisional responsibility for maintaining order. Aubigny informed Lisandro Farinola
, the podesta
of Bastia, that he was to continue in his duties but would now take orders from the French, at least until a satisfactory new luogotenente
was appointed. Among Aubigny's first actions following this de facto
institution of martial law was to publicly hang the two bombing conspirators at Bastia. Meanwhile, the French forces in the Nebbio moved to seize arms and munitions. A Franco-Greek force met with some resistance at Murato, where around 35 armed Corsican militiamen had assembled on the green outside the local church, but this small troop was dispersed with warning shots without any casualties on either side. Various small arms, as well as a cache of munitions for the local militia, were taken by the French.
Church of San Michele, Murato
It is said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, and it certainly seems as though the French had failed to learn from the experience of the Genoese. By exploiting the farmers, degrading the symbols of Corsican national pride, confiscating weapons, and seeking to maintain order with brutal and heavy-handed tactics, the French turned the people against them. The Marquis de Laval believed that his actions were sensible and necessary to keep the peace, but so had the Genoese; his officers were confident that by holding the strong points of the province with regular forces they could subdue any insurrection, but the Genoese had once been confident of this too. The nineteen devoti
of Borgo did not seem like much of a match for the approximately 1,600 French regulars and auxiliaries stationed between Bastia and San Fiorenzo, but their numbers would soon grow.
As this new uprising against the French began, the Corsican government continued to keep its distance and maintain its official neutrality. Theodore could do little else, as his wife and relations were effectively French hostages. Even this, however, did not stop the king from plotting. Theodore had seemingly backed off from his flirtations with the British after Gaffori’s resignation gambit during the consulta
, but a series of British maritime successes in 1758 and the deteriorating situation in the northeast inspired him to resume negotiations. These negotiations would be conducted in secret, hidden even from Gaffori, using Theodore’s old ex-Jacobite friend Sir John Powers
as an intermediary.
The king’s chief aim was to keep the British on the island, as he was concerned that a British evacuation from Ajaccio would leave him wholly at the mercy of the French occupiers. But Theodore was also exploring the possibility of a full defection and what sort of terms the British would offer him for it. Aside from the obvious necessity of military assistance and protection in the present war, his wish list was mainly financial - a British commitment to wiping out Corsica’s debt to France, subsidies to re-arm and rebuild the army, and more favorable terms for Anglo-Corsican trade. But Theodore was reluctant to concede too much for these goals, as he was also mindful of the future. If Corsica became a mere British satellite the French would always see his island as a threat to be stamped out, and sooner or later they would manage it. The fortunes of Britain might wax and wane, but France would always loom a hundred miles off the Corsican coast. Theodore wished to escape French dominion, but he also worried that his country could not afford to become France’s perpetual enemy.