The Old Enemy
Genoa at the turn of the century
All corruption… no public spirit - everything jobbed - no Liberty of the Press - that and all personal liberty at the mercy of Inquisitors of State… No military knowledge or spirit. Fortifications ruinous…
- William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, describing Genoa in his journal after visiting the city in 1771
The defeat and occupation of Genoa in the War of the Austrian Succession had ended the Republic’s pretensions at being even a minor military power. Goaded into war by Sardinian rapacity, the Genoese had managed to scrape together a 10,000 man force (at least on paper) which had performed adequately as a Bourbon auxiliary. After the catastrophic defeat of the Gallispan forces in Lombardy, however, the government’s will to fight disintegrated. The foreign regiments defected to other armies, the Corsican regiments were disbanded, and many of the Ligurians either deserted or ended up joining the insurgents in the failed Revolution of 1750. Left with ruined finances and a devastated country, the post-1750 government could not spare much for military preparedness. By 1780 the entire army amounted to about 3,200 men, nearly half of whom were foreign mercenaries. Very little had been done over the past 30 years to modernize or strengthen the Republic’s fortresses. Many bastions still bore the marks of war, and many coastal batteries were still missing guns that had been seized and hauled away by the Austro-Sardinian armies. The “navy” was an antiquated flotilla of four galleys which rarely left port.
Genoa’s confidence in its security came not from this weak and decrepit military establishment, but from its diplomatic relationships. The Genoese believed that Austria, France, and Spain could all be counted on to protect the Republic from its most dangerous enemy: Sardinia. Spain had close commercial ties to the Republic, France did not want the Savoyards to gain total control of their approaches into Italy, and Austria had every reason to fear that if the House of Savoy came for Genoa, they would come for Milan next. The Empress-Queen had been particularly zealous in the Republic’s defense, for while Maria Theresa did not love Genoa - she never forgave the Republic for joining the Bourbons against her - she despised
King Carlo Emanuele III, who had extorted her out of her rightful patrimony in the 1740s. Genoa’s army was weak, but it was (barely) adequate to garrison the frontier fortresses, and in times of emergency the Ligurian peasant-militia had proved to be surprisingly adept at harassing enemy troops in the mountains. The Genoese army did not need to win battles; it merely needed to hold its ground long enough for help to arrive.
The Genoese government was not blind to the fact that the Corsicans coveted the last bit of the island they did not control, but they had learned to not take Corsican threats seriously. From the consulta
demanding war during the “Saporiti Conspiracy” of 1764, to Federico’s ephemeral “occupation” of Isola Maddalena in 1773, to Piccioni’s act of piracy in 1781, it seemed as though every King of Corsica felt the need to brandish his saber towards the hated Republic at least once in his reign. What was true for Sardinia, however, seemed even more true for Corsica. Sardinia was a respectable secondary power with a powerful army, while Corsica was a poor island with a handful of second-hand corvettes which could be blasted into submission by any power with a real navy (which excluded Austria, but certainly not France or Spain). Sardinia was a threat; Corsica was a belligerent child waving a toy sword, a shabby little delinquent aping the adults as if he was one of them.
Because of this singular focus on Sardinian aggression, the defense of the remote outpost of Bonifacio - by now the very last vestige of a Genoese overseas empire which once stretched all the way to the Crimea - was completely neglected. Bonifacio’s natural defenses made it invulnerable to any seaborne attack. It was certainly possible
that the Sardinians might enlist the aid of the Corsicans and invest the city by land and sea, but the Sardinian Navy was not terribly impressive, and unlike the fortresses of Liguria the fall of Bonifacio would not place the rest of the state into peril. Genoese war plans concluded that in the event of a war with Sardinia, all resources would be devoted to the defense of the Ligurian heartland and Bonifacio would be left to fend for itself.
Reports and letters from the 1770s portray a shocking state of military decay in Genoa’s last colony. Bonifacio’s usual garrison consisted of a single company of (typically foreign) troops, supported by no more than a hundred part-time militiamen and a handful of bombardieri
. The soldiers were paid regularly, but grumbled about old and broken muskets, poor quality uniforms, and a lack of lanterns which made patrolling at night impractical. A string of commissioners for the last three decades had sent letters to the War Office complaining that the fortifications needed repair, gun carriages were rotted or broken, many guns lacked appropriate ammunition, the powder in the magazine was old and unreliable, and their stock of working small arms was insufficient. The fact that these complaints had to be made repeatedly by every new commissioner suggests that solving them was not a top priority of the War Office. Bonifacio had ample cisterns, but the garrison did not routinely stockpile large quantities of food in peacetime for reasons of cost, and thus would be dependent on naval supply in the event of a siege.
One of the reasons that King Federico had felt bold enough to occupy the isle of Maddalena in 1773 was because much of this information was known to him. Early in his reign he had enlisted spies to report on the city’s defenses, which proved very easy to do. Corsican shepherds who grazed their flocks on the Isole delle Bocche
regularly visited the city to buy and sell wares, and it was easy enough to ply them for information or even infiltrate the city with an agent in shepherds’ garb. The Corsicans may not have been privy to the commissioner’s own correspondence, but simple observation and some idle chatting with the soldiers told them quite a bit. Theo inherited not only a crown and a kingdom, but a desk drawer full of intelligence reports, sketches of the fortifications, and pilfered letters.
As encouraging as these reports must have been, the Corsican ministers knew that their own military shared many of these same problems. Their defenses were similarly decrepit, and were only beginning to receive serious work with the help of Spanish funds and engineers. Their army was small and underfunded, and their soldiers also complained of poor quality uniforms and missing equipment. Count Innocenzo di Mari, the Minister of War, informed the king that while in theory the kingdom could raise more than three thousand provincial infantry, he did not have enough muskets for even half of them and only enough uniforms for a third. The “new” navy had only been in existence for three years, was still short of skilled sailors, and had accomplished nothing more distinguished than escorting coral boats, making a cruise to Tabarka, and robbing some Genoese fishermen. Only in the area of artillery did Corsica have a clear advantage, and that was only because they had managed to cajole King Carlos III into giving them cannon and powder for their coastal defenses. Whether the army could actually find men who knew how to use them was another question entirely.
The capabilities of Corsican artillerists was crucial because the siege of Bonifacio would be the keystone of the whole affair. Once captured it was impossible to imagine that it would be recaptured
, as Bonifacio could only be threatened from the land, and it was taken for granted that the Genoese would not be mad enough to attempt an invasion of Corsica (although Mari declared that he dearly hoped they would try). The longer the siege dragged on, the more opportunity there would be for the Genoese to send a relief fleet or for the powers to intervene. Federico had considered many options, including bribing disgruntled soldiers to gain entrance to the city. If such long-shot methods failed, however, the only option would be to break the will of the defenders by a siege, for Bonifacio was believed to be impossible to take by storm. Cannon would have to be placed across the bay to bombard the city, and the besiegers would have to wait for the defenders to either run out of food or decide they simply could not take such punishment any longer.
This had already been attempted during the Second Siege of Bonifacio, which had dragged on for nine months before French diplomatic pressure and Theodore’s lack of money had compelled the king to sign the Treaty of Monaco and end hostilities. At the time many leading revolutionaries had grumbled that the siege was a “stolen victory,” but the operation had also been plagued by difficulties. The siege was poorly planned and slowly implemented. The land blockade had begun in January but the besiegers’ guns were not in place until March, and both ammunition and trained gunners were in short supply. The naval blockade involved only a few small ships which were constantly being driven off by bad weather, and numerous Genoese supply vessels managed to slip through. Lessons had been learned, but it was uncertain if the Corsican government was capable of applying the proper solutions.
The ministers of the council of state were far from unanimous on the subject of war. Marco Maria Carli, the Minister of Finance, was the most vocal opponent. He expressed skepticism that a war would “pay for itself” by commerce raiding and worried that the state would be digging itself into a deeper financial hole, particularly if it lost
. Innocenzo di Mari, the Minister of War, was more conflicted; he had long desired to showcase “his” army and had complete contempt for the fighting ability of the Genoese, but admitted that his forces were untested and under-supplied. Foreign Minister Giovan Francesco Cuneo d’Ornano supported the war and was optimistic about Turin’s attitude, but even he cautioned that the response of the Bourbons was very uncertain and that either France or Spain was capable of forcing Corsica to back down. Only Father Carlo Rostini, the Grand Chancellor - and, at 70 years old, the only man on the council who actually had memories of the bad old days under Genoese rule - was fully and unreservedly for war, considering the “liberation” of all Corsica from the hated Genoese to be worth any sacrifice.
Ultimately it was the king’s word which mattered, and the king’s word was war. Similarly to his father, Theo believed that taking Bonifacio would constitute the “completion” of the Revolution which his esteemed great-uncle had begun. He also argued that Corsica’s victory would demonstrate the state’s vitality and its ability to chart its own foreign policy, which in his mind had been recently thrown into doubt by his own ill-advised decision to bow to Spanish demands. Having studied at the Royal Academy of Turin and spent time at court, Theo believed he knew the Sardinians and believed that they could be brought on board. He was equally convinced that the Dieta
could be convinced to follow his wishes - for, as the council reminded him, there could be no war unless the Dieta
Nevertheless, war would not come immediately. The twenty six year old king was rash, but he was not so rash as to discount the advice of Minister Mari, who pointed out that the best time for a war would be October. This was when “malaria season” ended, which would make troop movements less hazardous and allow the full use of Porto Vecchio. October was also the beginning of the autumn-winter period of rough seas in the Mediterranean, during which galleys and other rowed craft were typically laid up until spring. This would give Corsica’s sailing fleet at least five months of operation without interference from Genoa’s galleys. Genoese coral boats would also be getting ready to head home at this time after months at sea, and would thus have holds full of coral - the perfect time to plunder them.
First minister Paoli kept his cards close to the vest in these council meetings. Privately, he echoed many of Carli’s misgivings and bemoaned the belligerence of his “always immoderate” friend Rostini. The plan of enlightened reform and public works that he had long dreamt of implementing would be considerably delayed by the expenditures of war. In council, however, he seemed to side with the belligerents, pointing out that as long as Bonifacio was in Genoese hands the Genoese could dispose of it as they saw fit. If they were to lease or even sell
it to the French or British - which was not beyond the realm of possibility - that power would have total mastery over Corsica, and any chance Corsica had of taking this key harbor for itself would probably be lost forever. This possibility really did unnerve Paoli, but he clearly also recognized what the king’s own wishes were and decided that it was best to shape his will rather than to fight it.
In light of Mari’s recommendation, Paoli proposed that “all necessary measures” be taken to prepare the country for war by late September. There was much to do - The attitudes of the Bourbons had to be discreetly sounded out, the cooperation of Turin had to be secured, the army had to be prepared to act, the navy needed to be fully supplied and ready to sail, a sound plan for taking Bonifacio needed to be agreed upon, and all the supplies needed for a siege - cannon, ammunition, gunpowder, tents, blankets, tools, provisions, carts, draft animals, and so on - had to be prepared and staged. At that time, if these things were in satisfactory order and the diplomatic situation remained favorable, there would be war; if not, they would stand down and consider whether to make plans for the following year, or abandon the enterprise entirely.
They had just over three months, not long at all to make a country ready for war. It was encouraging to know, however, that their unwitting foe was even less ready.
 “Job” in this context means “to use public office for private profit or advantage.” There was plenty of “jobbing” in Britain but apparently the Earl Shelburne believed the Genoese civil service was particularly corrupt and self-interested.
 The Genoese, in contrast, had virtually no intelligence on Corsica. The fact that no Genoese were allowed to reside in the kingdom was probably an obstacle to good spycraft, but more importantly the Genoese government simply did not believe that Corsica constituted enough of a threat to merit an intelligence campaign. What they knew of the government at Bastia came mainly from the reports of visiting merchants and information passed to them by the Spanish consul, who looked after Genoese mercantile interests in the city.