Audacity and Humility
18th century map of Capo Corso (click to enlarge)
“At the last we must conquer Genoa where she lives, upon the sea.”
- King Theodore I
Despite the quick success of the rebel forces in the spring of 1744, King Theodore decided to delay an attack on Bastia, judging the odds against him to be too great. The city’s fortifications had been upgraded since its recapture by the French and additional steps had been taken to secure the water supply, a vulnerability which the rebels had used to take both Bastia in 1736 and Ajaccio in 1743. Giustiniani’s report to the Senate in May indicated that his effective garrison was comprised of 587 regulars, 47 provincial dragoons (mounted Genoese militia used for policing and auxiliary duties), 32 truppa paesani
(village militia), 13 bombardiers (artillerymen), and 60 micheletti
, for a total of 739 men. Although the government had stripped the citadel of its best and newest artillery, Bastia still retained two dozen guns ranging from small antipersonnel falcons and falconets to enormous mortars and demi-cannons.
Artillery at Bastia, May 1744 [A]
Two 40-pounder petrieri (stone-throwing mortars)
Four 25-pounder demi-cannons
Three 15-pounder quarter-cannons
Two 14-pounder demi-culverins
Two 9-pounder sakers
Seven falcons of diverse calibers
Four falconets of diverse calibers
Against such a concentration of force and materiel the king thought himself unprepared. The geography of Ajaccio had allowed the city to be cut off from the sea and starved into submission, but Bastia had no such Achilles’ heel and would presumably have to be either stormed or overwhelmed by firepower. Yet Count Marcantonio Giappiconi
was still raising the regular regiment which Theodore had entrusted him with, and Theodore doubted whether the eight guns (six 12-pounders and two 6-pounders) which Colonel Alerio Francesco Matra
had thus far brought up the coast were sufficient for the task at hand. Theodore also hoped that the aid of the British fleet might finally be forthcoming, as he had written to Arthur Villettes
and Horace Mann
, the British ministers to Turin and Florence, respectively, formally requesting British assistance. As the Genoese position at Bastia was unlikely to strengthen anytime soon, it seemed sensible to build a stronger hand before making a play for the city.
By May, Theodore had established his headquarters 15 miles south of Bastia at Vescovato, which was to be the staging point for royalist forces in the northeast. Situated where the Golo met the eastern coastal plain, the hilltop village was well-placed both for communication with the interior and limited contact with the sea by way of smaller boats which could traverse the Golo estuary. Magazines were established here and in the neighboring villages of Loreto and Venzolasca, and a tent camp was erected just below Vescovato for the new army and rotating companies of militia. The king remained here for the rest of the month, supervising the buildup of his forces and the consolidation of the northeast under royalist control. Although he left engagements there to his lieutenants, the king was particularly interested in establishing royal authority in Capo Corso for the purposes of building a fleet.
Despite being an island, Corsica had never been a seafaring nation. All of Corsica’s ports had been created by the Genoese; of the significant “cities” of the island, only Corti, the high and wintry citadel of of interior, was indigenous. The coasts had been depopulated as early as the 5th century as a result of the Vandalic invasion, and they had remained so because of Muslim raids and the scourge of malaria which rendered the old Roman colonies of Aleria and Adiacium (Ajaccio) uninhabitable.
The mountains were the refuge of the Corsicans, foiling slavers, pirates, and invaders, and shielding them from the deadly fever. An aversion to water found cultural expression in the traditional belief that streams and rivers were places of particular spiritual danger associated with evil spirits and malign influences.
Only in Capo Corso did the indigenous people maintain a seafaring lifestyle. The Cape is a rugged promontory where mountains flow directly into the sea; as a consequence, there were no coastal flatlands or marshes to harbor malaria. This same rugged terrain made travel difficult and the movement of goods virtually impossible save by water. Economics, too, pushed the Capocorsi towards the sea. Under Genoese rule the agriculture of Capo Corso became dominated by wine grapes intended for export, and thus unlike the self-sufficient shepherds and chestnut-growers of the interior even Capocorsi farmers relied upon maritime travel and trade for their survival. A native pool of fishermen and merchant sailors was the sine qua non
for any successful 18th century navy, and on Corsica the Cape was the only place (outside the citadels themselves) where such a population could be found.
The king firmly believed that for independence to be won, Genoa would not only have to be driven out of Corsica but challenged on the sea, as this would bring the war home by threatening the livelihoods of the powerful Genoese merchant class and create domestic pressure for peace. Theodore also hoped that Corsican vessels “showing the flag” in foreign ports would bolster the kingdom’s international recognition. Some fitful attempts at a navy had been made in Theodore’s first reign and a few prizes had been taken by privateering boats out of occupied Bastia, but at that time the rebels had lacked the resources and money necessary to build a fleet. Now, however, with Sardinian money and privateering on the rise in the Mediterranean, it seemed like the right moment to resume the guerre di corsa
in earnest. Securing control over Cap Corse was a necessary component of such a strategy.
The conquest of the Cape would not be swift. Aside from the difficult terrain, Capo Corso had the largest concentration of towers in Corsica. Although most of the 16th century towers weren't terribly impressive fortifications by 18th century standards, the terrain made it difficult for the nationals to bring artillery to bear against them. Although there were no regular forces active between Bastia and Rogliano, a few small bands of micheletti
were active in the region, and the nationals were opposed by many locals. The Capocorsi were more Republican in their sympathies than most Corsicans owing to their proximity to and close economic ties with Genoa. It was also difficult for the naziunali
to bring sufficient forces to bear, as many of the national militiamen were not particularly interested in serving as a conquering army against other Corsicans so far from their home pieves
, and the logistical impediments of the peninsula made sustaining large forces there impractical.
The task of conquering the Cape fell principally to Carlo Francesco Alessandrini
, a 58 year old Capo Corso native from the village of Canari. He had been instrumental in leading the first stirring of the revolt in Capo Corso and the Nebbio in 1730, but was caught and imprisoned by the Genoese that same year. That imprisonment must not have lasted long, as in 1731 his name appeared on a list of confirmed rebels who were exempted from Genoese amnesty, and in 1732 he was present at a consulta
at Corti which had been convened to discuss an Austrian-supported treaty between the nationals and Genoa. Shortly thereafter he was caught and imprisoned again, and this time was released only in 1736. He promptly rejoined the rebellion, now led by Theodore, and was confirmed by the king as “Lieutenant-General of Capo Corso.” During the French invasion, he had played a key role organizing local irregulars and delaying the progress of Montmorency’s battalions down the peninsula, but after the royalists evacuated the Nebbio he was cut off and surrendered to the French, who allowed him to remain in the country.
Alessandrini’s offensive concentrated on the west coast of the peninsula, as this allowed him to be supplied and supported by boats out of San Fiorenzo. The first major obstacle was the village of Pino, which was protected by two towers - the Torre di Scalo on the coast and the Torre di Ciocce in the village center a third of a mile inland. The latter, a square tower built by the Pisans in the middle ages, proved particularly difficult despite being older than the Genoese dominion of Corsica. After a failed attack which cost the rebels nearly a dozen casualties, Alessandrini attempted to bring a light cannon in by boat, but the boat was unable to find a safe landing spot on the rocky coast. Ultimately the defenders had to be starved out, which took eight more days.
Thereafter the efforts of the naziunali
focused on the subjugation of the pieve
of Luri at the tip of the peninsula, home to about a thousand residents. The pieve
incorporated the two major port villages of the Cape, Centuri to the west and Macinaggio to the east, where local fishermen brought in their catches and Genoese pinques took on barrels of Corsican wine. Although Luri’s terrain was marginally gentler than the rest of the Cape, its people were for the most part sympathetic to the Republic and were supported by a Genoese garrison of 35 regular infantrymen (and a handful of “bombardiers,” or gunners) under the military command of Captain Valdestein
and the overall administration of Natale Giustiniani
, the Lieutenant of Rogliano and a relative of the Commissioner-General.
Combined with armed locals, this was a not-insignificant force given that Alessandrini’s force comprised only militiamen of Nonza, Canari, and the Nebbio, which amounted to less than two hundred men. After a series of inconclusive skirmishes and raids, Theodore reinforced Alessandrini with 150 militia from Moriani and Casinca under Colonel Sebastiano Ceccaldi
, the younger brother of Count Andrea Ceccaldi
. These forces succeeded in capturing Centuri on the 16th of June. This provided the rebels with a good harbor, where they were able to land a pair of 6-pdr guns from San Fiorenzo with which to attack the towers of Rogliano, an offensive which began in earnest in July. Genoese efforts to support their beleaguered forces at Rogliano were hampered by the fact that on the exact same day that Centuri fell to the rebels, Rear Admiral Thomas Mathews
ordered the blockade of Genoa.
Although not intended to succor the rebels, the British blockade had far-reaching consequences for Theodore’s war. In anticipation of such a development, the Genoese had already withdrawn the ships of the state fleet in early June, beaching their five galleys in Genoa’s harbor to support the coastal defenses with their guns.
While Captain Temple West’s
blockade was only marginally effective and Genoese ships were frequently able to slip through, many of Genoa’s smaller ships were commandeered by the Spanish to run supplies for the Gallispan army in Piedmont, and those that continued making runs to Corsica were now in danger of being seized by British cruisers and privateers. Although “smuggling” to Corsica was still an activity which entailed some risk, effective interdiction was no longer possible, effectively ending the 14-year blockade of the island. It was now the turn of Commissioner-General Pier Maria Giustiniani
to be isolated from the mainland, forced to subsist on an attenuated flow of supplies and money from Genoa.
The end of the blockade opened new strategic possibilities for the rebels. An armed Corsican gondola out of Ajaccio had, in May, captured a Genoese tartane carrying paper and salt. Although the cargo itself fetched a good price, the ship itself was to prove even more valuable. On June 29th the 2-gun tartane, renamed the Patriota
, departed Ajaccio harbor with a cargo of two 24-pounder guns as well as gunpowder, ammunition, and small arms from the Ajaccio arsenal. Owing to the inexperience the crew, the ship was almost lost in a gale; the ship suffered the loss of much of its rigging and was carried into the Gulf of Asinara in Sardinia. Fortunately, the ship remained afloat and the Sardinian commandant of Porto Torres made no objection to the Corsican-flagged vessel undergoing repairs in his port. The Patriota
continued its journey through the Strait of Bonifacio and northwards to the mouth of the Golo, arriving ten days late and coming as a great surprise to Theodore and his officers who had recently been informed that the ship had been lost at sea.
A typical tartane as used by smugglers and traders
Although the conquest of the Cape was not yet complete, Theodore had begun trying to constitute a navy even before the blockade was lifted. From Vescovato, he issued a new proclamation offering lettere di corsa
(letters of marque) to sailors who wished to try their hand at snatching up Genoese vessels. He did not have many takers; privateering was a dangerous business and the Capicorsi, who would be best suited for it, were not particularly eager to wage war against the Genoese. He did, however, attract the interest of the seasoned corsair Giovanni Francesco Natale
. A native of Nonza, Natale and his two brothers Giacomo
and Giuseppe Maria
had been merchant sailors until around 1730, when they had joined the crew of the Livornesi corsair Francesco di Giovanni who was notorious for preying upon the vessels of the Ottoman Greeks. The brothers subsequently moved to Malta and acquired their own ships, and in the late 1730s Giovanni Natale led a squadron of two armed feluccas which were active in the waters of Cyprus and Syria, plundering Ottoman ships in the name of the Knights of Malta and acquiring a small fortune in the process. An expedition in 1741, however, had fared badly, and Natale’s crew suffered heavy losses. He returned to Corsica not long thereafter, making his living as a merchant captain until the rebel conquest of Nonza, in which Natale had sided with the naziunali
. Having grown bored of the peaceful life, Natale volunteered his services to the king.
In July, Natale began cruising out of Centuri with the Audace
, a two-masted, 24-oar, 50-60 man felucone
(a somewhat larger felucca) armed with two 8-pounder guns in the bow, six petrieri
, and twelve spingardi
Natale had bought the ship at Livorno with his own money, although at least some of the armament was provided by Theodore. From the standpoint of carriage guns (by which warships were typically rated) it was not a powerful ship, but it was well-suited for its purpose. Natale’s modus operandi
was to sail out into the shipping lanes east of the cape - roughly speaking the area between Rogliano, the Isle of Gorgona, and Elba - and look for any Genoese gondolas, pinques, or tartanes, often using a Tuscan or Maltese naval ensign to disguise himself. Under low wind conditions the Audace
could outrun these ships with its banks of oars, and Natale would use his bow guns to damage the enemy’s rigging. Once he had closed with the enemy, if they had not yet struck their colors, he would pull alongside and use the Audace
’s considerable secondary armament to sweep the enemy’s deck with grapeshot and musketry. Finding enough crew proved to be the greatest problem, and Natale ended up hiring a number of Livornese, Elban, and Neapolitan sailors, as well as Corsican landsmen who could at least be trained to row and fire a musket. Although plagued by crew and naval stores shortages early on, the Audace
still managed on its first cruise to capture a Genoese pinque carrying grain and a gondola carrying food and some replacement soldiers for the Genoese garrison of Capraia.
Illustration of the Audace attacking a Genoese boat
The depredations of the Audace
enraged the Genoese, who considered Natale to be a mere pirate. When the Audace
arrived at Livorno in August to hire more sailors, the Genoese consul there demanded that the port authority seize the ship. The Tuscan officials denied the consul’s request, pointing out that Natale had a lettera di corsa
and that the Grand Duchy was a neutral state in which privateers of any nation were permitted to dock so long as they observed a 24-hour truce with other belligerent ships upon leaving the port. Undoubtedly this decision was colored by the fact that the Tuscan regency ruled on behalf of the Archduke of Austria, but it was nevertheless de facto
- if not quite explicit - recognition that Corsica was “a nation” which therefore might legally have privateers.
Oppressed by land and sea, Commissioner-General Giustiniani’s options were limited. He dispatched Captain Filippo Grimaldi
and around 50 micheletti
northwards to help protect Rogliano, but he lacked the resources to influence events elsewhere. Filogenovesi
in the south of the country - most notably in Sartena and Fiumorbo, where Captain Giacomo Filippo Martinetti
still had a powerful loyalist following - expressed their desire to fight for the Republic and petitioned Giustiniani and his fellow commissioners for the arms to do so, but the Republic’s armories in Corsica were nearly empty. Demoralized by the weakness of the Genoese government, loyalists in the south resisted and occasionally skirmished with the naziunali
, but did not stage an organized counter-rebellion despite the fact that royalist militias were scarce outside of Zicavo, Ornano, and the environs of Ajaccio. The best Martinetti could manage was raiding the naziunali
in Castello and Rogna-Serra, stealing livestock and burning houses. This was serious enough that Colonel Matra, the governor of Serra, left the royalist camp with his followers to protect his home pieve
, but Martinetti lacked the resources to rove far beyond his own base of strength.
Where strength failed, the Genoese attempted persuasion. In the spring, Doge Lorenzo De Mari
had appealed to Pope Benedict XIV
to assist the Republic in restoring peace and obedience to the people of Corsica, citing the terrible violence which afflicted the population. The pope dispatched the renowned Franciscan missionary and future saint Leonardo da Porto Maurizio
, himself a native Genoese, to go to Corsica and minister to the people. Hailed as one of the great preachers of the century, Leonardo was easily Theodore’s equal in sheer charisma and rhetorical skill. Unlike Theodore, however, Leonardo wore no masks - he was utterly earnest in his simplicity, humility, and true piety. While this made him an extremely effective missionary, it also made him a willing tool of the Pope, as Benedict shrewdly understood his value as a diplomat and propagandist for the Church and Leonardo was too humble and obedient to do anything but follow Rome’s commands despite his own fragile health.
Father Leonardo arrived in Bastia on May 17th preaching there for ten days and meeting with the commissioner-general. On the 28th he rode on a mule to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta at Mariana, just a few miles from the royalist encampment at Vescovato. He was shocked to find that the audience which had gathered there was heavily armed with muskets, pistols, and knives. Informed that this was the custom of the country, he launched into a sermon against the vices of hatred and revenge. He instructed the people to put tablets with the Most Holy Name of Jesus upon their doors so that whenever they went out of their homes they would be reminded of the virtues of forgiveness. It was reported that his words were so convincing that several local families who had been feuding with one another broke into tears, embraced their enemies, and promised to abandon the vendetta.
From Mariana he proceeded to Casinca, and then to Casaconi in the Castagniccia with similar results; feuds were ended and the people crowded around him to confess their sins and repent. Miraculous happenings were reported wherever the friar went. A man embittered by revenge refused to come hear the preacher, saying he would never forgive his enemies; he quickly became seriously ill, and was healed just as quickly when his worried relatives finally convinced him to come to the sermon. Another man reportedly came to the event with his musket in hand, intending to kill a rival who he thought might have come. Upon hearing the friar’s words, the young man loudly mocked him - only to be suddenly struck by fits and seizures, a condition which only left him when he repented of his wrath and confessed his sins.
Preaching against the vendetta was not at all opposed to Theodore’s own policy, and the king did not initially oppose the friar’s travels. Leonardo’s message, however, was also one of peace and obedience. His commands to abandon war and strife and to obey the authorities - by which he meant the Genoese - made Theodore uneasy given his obvious rhetorical skill. The king was reluctant to interfere, but when he heard that Leonardo had preached in Casaconi that to reject the concessioni
was a mortal sin, he decided the friar had gone too far. Theodore dared not arrest Leonardo, but instead sent messengers inviting him to an audience with the king, who claimed that he shared the friar’s desire to stamp out cruel vengeance and bring peace to the land. Leonardo agreed, and on July 3rd he arrived at Vescovato.
The king kept his word regarding an audience; no power on earth was going to make Theodore von Neuhoff an earnest Catholic, but he was certainly interested in meeting the man who could make families which had been at each other's’ throats for generations embrace one another after a few hours of sermonizing. Theodore appears to have hoped that Leonardo could be convinced to restrict his preaching to the matter of the vendetta
and leave political matters alone. Privately, he complained to Father Carlo Rostini
, his secretary to the chancellery, that he did not think it Christian to chastise a people for resisting tyranny while having no words for those who enslaved, starved, and immiserated them. According to Rostini, who claimed to have been present and later published his own memoirs, the preacher and the king had an extended debate on such topics as the necessity of obedience to one’s rulers and Biblical justifications for rebellion. Although not a theologian, Theodore had been educated by Jesuits and was extensively well-read; according to Rostini, at least, he was quite capable of holding his own in a religious debate. When reminded of the Apostle Paul’s injunction to obey the lawful authority, Theodore countered by quoting Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that “it is praiseworthy to deliver a multitude from a tyrannical rule,” and further:
A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states. Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant's rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant's government. Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, “On Sedition”)
Whether Theodore could and did accurately quote the Summa Theologiae
at length is unclear - putting extended speeches of dubious authenticity into the mouths of historical figures was not exactly a rarity among 18th century historians - but the text is consistent with his view that his own legitimacy was derived from the fact that the Genoese had, by their failure to give just and wise government to the Corsicans and their oppression of the people, absolutely forfeited their right to be considered legitimate authorities. In Theodore’s view, he was not overthrowing a monarch; rather that monarch, that is to say the Doge, had by his actions abdicated whatever power over Corsica he claimed to possess.
We have only Rostini to tell us how the argument ended, which is that the friar was “obstinate in his views and his partiality towards his Republic” (a dig at Leonardo’s own Genoese birth). Theodore realized that Leonardo was dedicated to his theology and would not cease to preach peace and obedience to the Genoese even in the face of a king’s demand. On the 6th of July, convinced that the great orator could not be out-orated, Theodore ordered Father Leonardo to be deported from the kingdom at once. Quietly, to avoid any outcry among the people, he was shuffled aboard a smuggler’s boat whose crew was offered payment to take him to Civitavecchia. Publicly, Theodore claimed the friar had regrettably been forced to return on account of ill health.[B]
 Genoese Ajaccio was built in a different location than the ancient city, as the latter was considered less attractive from a defensive standpoint and too close to the marshes.
 In the case of Natale Giustiniani, “Lieutenant” was a civil, not a military rank. The Genoese divided Corsica into four “states,” each administered by a commissioner (or a commissioner-general in the case of Bastia), but within these states were several “jurisdictions” or “lieutenancies” administered by a lieutenant who answered to the commissioner. The State of Bastia had three such dependent lieutenancies (Aleria, Corti, Rogliano), the State of Ajaccio had two (Vico and Sartena), and the State of Calvi had one (Algajola). Bonifacio, the smallest state by far, had no lieutenancies; aside from Bonifacio itself, the state included only the southeastern coast around Portovecchio, but that village was inhabited only seasonally and did not merit a lieutenant.
 Most of the Genoese navy was not actually state-owned. The state directly owned and operated its war galleys, of which by 1744 it had only five, but smaller ships - galliots (or half-galleys), feluccas, tartanes, gondolas, and so on - were typically privately owned and served the state on a contract basis.
 Aside from carriage guns, Genoese records refer to armed ships as carrying both petriere
. Both can probably be categorized as “swivel guns,” but a petriera
was of higher caliber and probably lacked a stock, while a spingarda
had a musket-like stock and lock but had a higher caliber than a regular musket and fired from the ship’s rail with a hook or pintle. Confusingly, it seems the Genoese also used “petriere”
to refer to massive stone-throwing mortars.
[A] These guns appear heavier than they actually are. A British (Avoirdupois) pound at this time was about 454g, but a Genoese pound was only about 317g. Thus, those 25-pdr demi-cannons have a shot weight just under that of a British 18-pdr (≈17.5 lbs avdp) and the 14-pdr demi-culverins have a shot weight just over that of a British 9-pdr (≈9.8 lbs avdp). Meanwhile, a Spanish “Castille pound” was ≈460g, so the “12 pounder” guns pulled from the San Isidro
by the rebels are 17.4-pdrs in Genoese units, and the “18 pounder” guns are equivalent to Genoese 26.1-pdrs.
[B] Saint Leonardo’s mission to Corsica in 1744 was a real thing, and he was said to have healed many feuds. Ultimately, however, his words did not succeed in returning the Corsicans to the obedience of Genoa. While Theodore’s Corsica could no doubt benefit from an orator of Leonardo’s prowess preaching against the vendetta, I can’t see Theodore letting Leonardo freely roam the island preaching obedience to the Republic. Accordingly, Leonardo's tour - which lasted until November IOTL - gets cut short.