The Bonifacio Expedition
A Map of Bonifacio in the 1760s
Vice-Admiral Henry Medley
, like his predecessors in the Mediterranean, was faced with two potentially contradictory directives. On the one hand, he was charged with maintaining British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and denying the Bourbon powers the effective use of their fleets; on the other, he was required to put his forces at the service of Britain’s allies, Austria and Sardinia. These requirements suggested quite different dispositions. The maintenance of naval supremacy would best be served by the consolidation of the fleet and the enforcement of strict blockades on enemy fleet bases, specifically Toulon and Cartagena, so as to prevent the naval forces present there from breaking out and combining into a united force that might seriously threaten the Mediterranean squadron. Britain’s allies, however, demanded ships to perform variety of littoral blockade and support duties further east on the coast of Italy.
Upon gaining command, Medley at once recalled the squadron which Rowley had posted in the Atlantic off Cadiz, considering that position to be a dangerous overextension which had left the Spanish at Cartagena unchecked. He then gathered Captain George Townshend’s
fleet from Corsica, which had recently accomplished the capture of Calvi with the aid of the Corsican “malcontents.” King Theodore
had proposed a subsequent assault on Bonifacio, but although Medley’s orders bade him to divert a squadron to the ejection of the Genoese from Corsica, he considered this neither possible nor advisable at the moment. His ships needed resupply and refitting, the Corsicans did not seem at all ready to embark on such an expedition, and he was confident that the Admiralty would agree that obtaining the security of the fleet was of paramount importance. Aside from six ships cruising off the Riviera, another two assisting the Austrians in the Adriatic, and a handful of vessels careening or carrying despatches, Medley took his entire fleet to Port Mahon in February to take on stores and munitions and to conduct repairs. In March, with the consolidated fleet now in fighting shape, he sailed to Cartagena. What he found was most encouraging, for although the Spanish had at least 16 ships of the line in the harbor, they were in no way ready for service.
Satisfied that this foe did not pose an immediate threat, Medley detached 11 ships to return to Corsica with Townshend (six ships of the line, three bombs, and two sloops) and led the rest of the fleet cruising between Cartagena and Gibraltar, hoping to keep an eye out on the Spanish fleet while also interdicting any attempt by the French to move ships into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic (or vice versa). Medley was not pleased to be sending ships back to Corsica and did so only under protest, pointing out in his reports to his superiors in England that it was the height of foolishness to have nearly a dozen ships devoted to Corsican affairs while the vital Riviera blockade was entrusted to a force half that size. Nevertheless, now that his ships were fully resupplied and the Spanish were checked, he had no plausible reason to defy London’s orders any longer.
Theodore was enjoying the fruits of a long-awaited victory. With the Genoese ejected from Calvi the Diqua
was now free of the Republic’s forces for the first time since the rebellion began, and Medley’s commitment to help garrison the citadel was welcome considering that the civilian population was almost universally hostile to Theodore and the naziunali
. Before he returned to Calvi, he spent two weeks in the northwest issuing edicts, rewarding men with commissions and titles, and organizing the governance of the newly “liberated” territory. Theodore’s aides reported that the king had not been in such excellent spirits in months, perhaps years.
His acts of rulership in the Balagna were not entirely without controversy, as the king took advantage of his presence in the north to perform a curious act of mercy. This concerned Giovanni Tommaso Giuliani di Muro
, a royalist general who had been arrested by Marquis Simone Fabiani
and accused of complicity with the Genoese in 1743. Giuliani’s house arrest appears to have ended in 1744, but his “faction” had been forcibly disarmed and dissolved by Fabiani’s men and his own formerly prominent position in the rebel movement had not been regained. In a move that clearly surprised Fabiani, Theodore announced that this veteran of the battles of the Balagna and Ponte Novu had only been alienated from the crown by a “misunderstanding,” and not only restored him to the good graces of the crown but awarded him with the governorship of the Jurisdiction of Calvi. It was not out of character for Theodore to work with dubious figures and even raise them to high rank; particularly early in his reign, he did so often knowing that he could not afford to alienate powerful notabili
and their clans even if their loyalty was known to be suspect. Giuliani’s sudden return to grace may have been an example of this, as his clan remained considerable despite being marginalized by Fabiani. Perhaps, as some said, the king was simply in a good mood, and desired to play the part of the gracious and benevolent monarch.
Yet it is also possible that this was a more calculated political move against Marquis Fabiani, who - if we are to believe Father Carlo Rostini
- had been troubling the king’s mind lately. Fabiani does not seem to have done much to give any indication of disloyalty, but he had amassed a tremendous amount of power in the Balagna since the “purge” of 1743, and certain other Balagnese notables like General Gio Ambrogio Quilici
had been quietly warning the king about his pretensions for some time. There were allegations that Fabiani used the judicial troops of the Balagana (which he controlled totally) to advance the interests of his clan, which was probably true, as well as rumors that he had misappropriated taxes from the Isola Rossa port. Theodore also appears to have been irked by his behavior during the Siege of Calvi, in which he moved to occupy and assert his control over Algajola prior to any formal edict from Theodore and had failed to provide as many militiamen as the king had requested. As Algajola was the capital of the Balagana, one could argue that Fabiani - being the governor
of the Balagna - already had clear jurisdiction there, and it would hardly be the first time that Theodore overestimated the number of militiamen who were ready and willing to come fight for him. Nevertheless, these incidents and the weight of allegations against Fabiani by his rivals appear to have strained the king’s opinion of his Captain-General somewhat, which may explain why Giuliani, certainly no friend of the marquis, found himself abruptly rehabilitated. Whatever the reason, his return to power was not quite as dangerous as one might assume - the State of Calvi comprised a fairly small territory between Calenzana and the Bay of Calvi, and although this governorship put the city
of Calvi under Giuliani’s authority, the citadel itself was held by British and Royalist regulars who answered to other masters.
Theodore returned to Corti in early February. It was from here, assisted by his Grand Chancellor Father Giulio Natali
, that Theodore - somewhat prematurely - grandly proclaimed the “liberation” of Corsica from the Genoese Republic. The Kingdom of Corsica, he declared, had been welcomed to the “congress of free and sovereign states” by its allies the Emperor and the kings of Sardinia and England,
and Corsican armies [sic] were even now fighting the Genoese in Italy. The king called upon all Corsicans to abandon their quarrels and unify to defend the nation and secure her prosperity. To this end, a general amnesty (hardly the first) was declared for all those who had fought against the Corsican nation and her king, provided that any of those persons still in rebellion against the crown desist immediately, and that those presently in the service of the Genoese abandon said service within 14 days. The chief method of dissemination of this proclamation was to be the Corsican clergy, and parish priests were instructed to make it known to their parishioners.
Despite this optimism, the war was not over yet, and the Corsican regular forces were thinly spread. Of the six companies of the First Battalion, two were garrisoned at Bastia, one at Calvi, and one (the grenadiers) were held in reserve at Corti in case there were any trouble inland. This left only two companies for a further expedition to Bonifacio - nominally about 200 men, but neither was full strength. The Second Battalion, of course, was in Piedmont, while the Third Battalion which Count Marcantonio Giappiconi
had promised was still not in evidence owing to slow recruiting and Theodore’s increasingly tight purse-strings. If the Bonifacio expedition was to go ahead, it would rely heavily on the militia, and specifically the militia of the Dila
Aside from Ajaccio, southern Corsica had been fairly quiet since the renewal of the rebellion. Many pieves, particularly in Alta Rocca, were not clearly naziunale
. They had rejected the Concessions and made no attempt to remit taxes to the Republic, but neither had they demonstrated any loyalty to the national consulta
or the Royalist government. Theodore sent messages to many notabili
of the south, many of them bearing royalist ranks and titles, urging them to send military support, but the response was anemic. He thus decided to entrust the gathering of forces to his most powerful vassal in the south, Marquis Luca d’Ornano
. It seemed appropriate; d’Ornano had insisted on maintaining his grand title of “Lieutenant-General of the Dila,” which suggested that if anyone was responsible for gathering the militia forces of the Dila
it would be him.
Since the fall of Ajaccio in 1743, d’Ornano had remained politically active. He had appeared several times in the north to attend a major consulta
, demonstrating his continued presence in “national” politics, and he had sparred occasionally with Gaffori over the issue of southern autonomy and the powers of the consulta
. Generally, however, things were going his way: He enjoyed almost total autonomy in the south, and the royalist conquests of Bastia and Calvi - while of no direct significance to him - suggested that he had picked the winning side in the war. The king’s abrupt demand for him to raise a militia army, however, was not well-received. Who controlled Bonifacio was of no importance to d’Ornano or his clients and allies, and the king was not offering much in compensation for the men, arms, and supplies he was supposed to produce.
Theodore’s choice of his “nephew” Matthias von Drost
to lead the Corsican part of the expedition also caused problems. To Theodore, the choice was logical; he had no loyal native captains of consequence in the far south (or at least none he trusted with overall command), while Drost was trustworthy, had already been working with the British as their liaison, and had some military experience of his own. He was also the brother-in-law of Count Antonio Colonna-Bozzi
, the military governor of Ajaccio, which would presumably be helpful in gaining the support from that clan. Yet despite his links to the Colonna, Drost was still viewed as a foreigner and outsider in much of the Dila
and his recruiting appeal was limited. He was also not particularly close to d’Ornano, whom Drost had accused of profiteering and fraternization with the Genoese during the siege of Ajaccio. The unfortunate result was delay, bickering, and paralysis. D’Ornano’s plodding steps towards mobilization were more performative than actual, which he explained by pointing out the scarcity of his resources and the difficulty of the season. Drost’s attempts to prod him into action upon reaching Ajaccio succeeded only in annoying d’Ornano and causing him to send letters to the king complaining of his obdurant nephew’s unreasonable requests.
After breaking off from the fleet at Cartagena, Townshend had stopped at Port Mahon to pick up military stores and then sailed to Sardinia, where he rendezvoused with one of his ships on dispatch duty as well as a flotilla of Sardinian galleys bearing supplies for the Corsican rebels. He sailed thence to Ajaccio, which he knew to be in rebel hands, and finding Drost there on April 5th agreed to disembark his supplies and materiel. The Corsican regulars, however, were still in the Balagna, and Townshend proceeded there with four ships of the line, leaving the rest of his fleet at Ajaccio. He found only 170 uniformed infantry there, plus some soldiers of the Corsican artillery, amounting to no more than 200 men. With these forces and some of the rebels’ artillery, he sailed back to Ajaccio, having been assured by Drost that more men would soon arrive at Ajaccio. By the time he returned, however, Drost had fewer than 300 local militiamen to show for his efforts, many of whom were poorly equipped and armed.
Having received Drost’s frustrated reports, Theodore had offered what help he could. He sent the “foreign regiment” to Ajaccio, consisting of foreign volunteers and deserters from Genoese service (minus the small company of German and Swiss soldiers he kept as his own Leibgarde
). He further proposed to arm the Greeks, noting that they had been worthy soldiers under Genoese leadership and might be willing to prove their loyalty to the new regime. When Drost communicated this proposal to Colonna and the podesta Giuseppe Costa
, however, they immediately scotched it. Giving arms to a people famous for their loyalty to the Genoese and then expecting them to fight
the Genoese, they argued, was foolish. Furthermore, even if the Greeks agreed to serve, their presence would offend and alienate the Corsican troops and cause friction within Drost’s corps.
Townshend had serious reservations about proceeding with this small and motley force. The Corsicans had fielded some 1,200 men at Calvi; presently it appeared they would not even manage half that. This deficit would not be made up by British soldiers either, as Townshend only had about 300 marines in his entire squadron.
Drost, eager to keep the mission from being abandoned, attempted to assuage Townshend’s reluctance by proposing that the fleet stop at Propriano on its way south to raise additional militia. Once there, Drost sought to make contact with Colonel Giacomo Maria Peretti
, a powerful clan leader in the jurisdiction of Sartena. Peretti’s family had long dominated the region and had generally been faithful to the Genoese; Don Giacomo had sided with Theodore early in his reign, but had abandoned the royalists during the French invasion and became the captain of a filogenovese
militia company. He switched sides again in 1743 when Colonna marched on Sartena and the Genoese regulars abruptly evacuated, leaving Peretti and his militia in the lurch, but that about-face was now three years in the past. That he sent no men to meet the royalist “army” at Propriano seemed like a bad omen. Drost resolved to go to Sartena, but turned back prematurely, claiming that he had been warned that Peretti intended to seize him and hand him over to the Genoese.
According to the campaign’s chronicler Pasquale Paoli
, who was on board the Bedford
(Townshend’s flagship) as Drost’s secretary and aide-de-camp, Townshend was growing ever more pessimistic about the outcome of his mission. Britain’s “allies” in Corsica, in his estimation, had failed to live up to their end of the agreement. Nevertheless the commodore decided to press on to Bonifacio, at the very least to make a detailed observation of the city; if the defenses proved entirely beyond the capacity of his small force to overcome, then he would feel justified in aborting the campaign and would at least have some military intelligence to show for it.
The southernmost part of Corsica is quite unlike the rest of the island. Corsica has sometimes been called “the Granite Isle,” but its southern tip is a great block of limestone. The sea flowing through the Strait of Bonifacio has sculpted much of the coastline into a palisade of tall white cliffs, of which the plateau of Bonifacio, protruding like a finger between the Strait and the narrow Bay of Bonifacio, is but the most striking example. The cliffs are interrupted only by canyons cut by streams running into the sea, the largest of which form calanche
, steep-sided inlets resembling fjords cut from limestone. It was in one such calanca, known as the Bay of Paragnano, that Townshend eventually found a safe anchorage on April 28th after struggling with high winds for several days off Cape Feno. Drost, who among his soldiers had a few who were familiar with the region, suggested that the much larger Bay of Santa Manza would be more suitable, but Santa Manza lay on the eastern
coast of the island. This would not only obligate the fleet to sail through the Strait of Bonifacio, which might be dangerous given recent high winds, but would require the supply ships from Ajaccio and Alghero (in western Sardinia) to transit the strait as well, to say nothing of the fact that the strait would also be between the landed army and the blockading fleet. Townshend insisted that if a landing was to be made at all, it would be at Paragnano.
Paoli commented on the beauty of the bay, the clarity of the blue sky, and the rich scent of the macchia
wafting down from the hills. That macchia
, however - the characteristic Corsican brushland - was to be the greatest enemy of the besieging forces. Paragnano was suitable for landing and offered some protection from the winds, but from the edge of the beach a dense, trackless shrubland stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. In fact the brush grew so close to the water’s edge that there was not even sufficient space to encamp the army, small as it was, and for many days the British and Corsican forces had to continue to suffer in their dim and cramped quarters below decks. Further inland there was a path leading to an old 13th century convent known as the Hermitage of the Trinity (about three-quarters of a mile northeast of the beach of Paragnano) towards Bonifacio, but like most roads in Corsica it was little more than a mule track. It would have to be made suitable for heavy artillery with hard brush clearing and levelling, to say nothing of dragging the guns up 250 feet of elevation from the beach to the level of the track, and across a total distance of about two and a half miles to reach the cliffs north of the city.
As soon as the landing was underway, Townshend placed Bonifacio under blockade. It took only a brief examination of the defenses for him to rule out the possibility of a direct naval attack. The elevation of the city upon its plateau - at least 200 feet - effectively immunized it to conventional naval bombardment; the guns of his ships of the line simply could not elevate high enough to fire upon the town. Only the mortars of his three bomb vessels actually stood a chance of causing damage, but were largely kept at bay by the threat of counter-fire from the city’s batteries.
Despite his apparent security, the Commissioner of Bonifacio Giovanni Cesare Mambilla
was not optimistic about his chances of survival. The mighty fortress of Calvi had just fallen to just such an Anglo-Corsican force a few months earlier, and the situation of the Bonifacio garrison seemed significantly weaker. The Genoese had considered Bonifacio to be the least likely target of the Corsican rebels, and faced with a limited budget and scarce manpower they had sensibly deployed most of their resources elsewhere. Bonifacio’s garrison was comprised of less than 200 regular soldiers, and due to both budget problems and the difficulty of getting ships from Genoa to Bonifacio through the British blockade, they had not been paid in nearly six months. Although the fortress boasted a large artillery park, the garrison had only half as many artillerists as it had guns, and many of the gun carriages were in a serious state of disrepair. The greatest problem, however, was food. Bonifacio was dependent on imported grain, but the British blockade of Genoa, the fall of the other presidii
, and the state of war with Sardinia had made their usual sources difficult or impossible to access. The city’s reserves had also been tapped to supply Genoese garrisons elsewhere in Corsica over the last several years. Mambilla acted quickly, immediately implementing rationing and establishing harsh penalties for gouging and hoarding, but he knew the situation was precarious.
On land, the miserable work continued. The invading forces had very few pack animals, which made hauling supplies and artillery difficult. Drost complained of a lack of tools, the irregularity of provision deliveries, and the scarcity of fresh water, which could be obtained locally but not in sufficient quantities for the whole army and its needs. Desertion from the Corsican forces, specifically the militia and the foreigners, grew steadily higher, diminishing the already small besieging force. Several such deserters (who had apparently deserted from the Genoese army initially) fled to Bonifacio and gave information to Mambilla about the strength and disposition of the enemy. Mambilla had too few troops to make any sort of sally based on this information, but he was pleased by reports that the attackers were relatively few in number and were having supply problems of their own.
It was not until May 11th that the first gun was moved into place on the cliffs overlooking the Bay of Bonifacio just west of the “Little Calanca” (one of two inlets branching off from the north side of the bay). This position, however, could only effectively fire upon the western plateau of Bonifacio, which was sparsely inhabited and had few targets of value. The cannon deployed here exchanged fire with some Genoese gunners and caused heavy damage to a windmill, but this seemed unlikely to compel the surrender of the city. More batteries had to be constructed further east, which would require hauling the guns up and down the steep ravines of the Big and Little Calanche.
Townshend had dispatched the Enterprise
sloop to Medley’s fleet to report on their situation, and the report was not generous. He opined that more men and (cargo) ships would be necessary to complete the siege, as the Corsicans had too few of the former and the Sardinians too few of the latter to carry off their task without significant British help. Moreover, he pointed out that his warships were being quite wasted, as naval bombardment was not practical and he did not require half a dozen ships of the line to keep some Genoese feluccas out of Bonifacio harbor. Medley agreed, but felt he could do nothing until his orders changed. To that end he sent off a letter to the Admiralty pleading his case. Before that letter could complete its journey, however, new orders arrived from London ordering him to withdraw his forces from Corsica and devote all possible naval power to the Riviera blockade.
The reasons for this had nothing to do with any dissatisfaction with the Corsicans or their king. In fact Newcastle was well-pleased with the success at Calvi, and he was not alone. In England, gazetteers and self-appointed naval “experts” were chatting excitedly at the possibility that Corsica might become a new Menorca, a naval base which would consolidate British power in the Mediterranean. In the spring of 1746, however, the fortunes of war in mainland Italy had undergone a rapid reversal which would significantly change Britain’s strategic considerations. Yielding to the power of Prussian arms, diplomatic pressure from her British allies, and the prospect of losing all her Italian patrimony, the Empress-Queen Maria Theresa
had reluctantly agreed to abandon her quest to reclaim Silesia from King Friedrich II
of Prussia and had signed a treaty of peace at the end of 1745. This meant that almost the entire Austrian army serving north of the Alps (save for a corps of observation to watch the untrustworthy Friedrich) was now free to be redeployed to Italy, and in January they began streaming into Mantua and the Milanese. They were soon joined by the Sardinians, who had been forced into an armistice with the Bourbons but now returned to the war on Austria’s side. The Bourbon position in Italy rapidly began to collapse.
The main cheerleaders of Britain’s involvement in Corsica had always been her Italian diplomats, especially Arthur Villettes
in Turin. As Britain’s ambassador to Sardinia, however, Villettes’ first duty was to see to King Carlo Emanuele
, an ally who was quite frankly more important to Britain than Theodore by several orders of magnitude. As the Bourbon front began to buckle, Carlo Emanuele demanded a stronger blockade on the Riviera; too many supplies were getting to the enemy though Genoese territory, and if the Bourbons were
driven from Italy British intervention might trap them and allow their combined army to be cut off and crushed. Villettes could only reply that the ships were unavailable, in part because of the navy’s commitments in Corsica, an assertion which Medley backed up. Carlo Emanuele still thought the Corsican mission to be worthwhile, but he knew his priorities - Piedmont had to be rescued and the Bourbons driven from Italy at all costs, while Corsica could always be mopped up later. Finally comprehending the limits of British naval power, Carlo Emanuele consented to a reallocation of forces. The effect was not immediate, but when word of this decision reached Newcastle, he wasted no time in providing Medley with new orders.
Townshend could not have been more relieved to hear the news. Although the besiegers had made some progress, erecting a second battery which had damaged the city's northern ramparts and bombarded the main Genoese barracks, the Corsicans were still losing men to desertion and morale was terribly low. On the 19th a Genoese mortar bomb exploded near the second battery, setting off several barrels of gunpowder which were being carried up to the guns; seven people were killed and more than a dozen injured. General Drost, meanwhile, had come to suspect that Townshend was purposefully undermining him, and castigated him for doing nothing with his fleet and withholding his manpower. Townshend countered that an effective bombardment of the city was impossible, and refused to land even more marines and sailors as this would leave his ships short-handed and vulnerable if they met the enemy at sea.
With his new orders in hand and seeing no reason to believe that the city was on the verge of surrender, Townshend immediately ordered an evacuation. Drost pleaded for more time, but the captain gave him an ultimatum: The fleet was leaving, and he could either be on it or be left behind. Paoli wrote that the Corsicans had to withdraw so quickly that they were forced to abandon several of their guns, which were spiked and rolled off the cliffs into the bay while the Bonifacini shouted and jeered from their walls. The British fleet set sail for Ajaccio on May 27th. Mambilla considered it to be nothing less a miracle; he estimated that even on strict rationing, his granaries would have only lasted another three weeks.
Although humiliating for Drost, the failure at Bonifacio was not as a severe a setback for Theodore as it might seem. Bonifacio was far from the minds of most Corsicans, and the vast majority of the besiegers' losses had been to desertion, not injury or death. Some materiel had been lost, but the capture of Calvi and its arsenal more than made up for it. Nevertheless, the Bonifacio campaign served as a sobering reminder of the logistical hurdles faced by any army operating in Corsica, the limited extent of the king's authority in the south, and the fickle nature of Theodore's British "allies." No doubt London had its reasons for deserting him, but the experience cautioned Theodore against relying too heavily on a power which, in the end, served its own interests first and foremost.
The Situation in Corsica in May 1746
 Maria Theresa had obtained the election of her husband, the Grand Duke Franz Stefan, as Holy Roman Emperor in September of 1745, and he was crowned the following month. All the electors cast their votes for him save Brandenburg and the Palatinate, which abstained.
 Nor could the Sardinians spare any soldiers. At this time, the entire island of Sardinia - nearly three times the size of Corsica - was held by only two regular battalions.