King Theodore’s War
"Theodore on Stilts." Theodore struggling to reach for a royal crown in a Dutch satirical print (1749).
As 1748 wore on with no signs of resolution on the “Corsican question,” the great risk for the Genoese seemed to be that the de facto
independence of Corsica would gradually give way to actual recognition. The British, mindful of their agreement with the French, maintained their prohibition on commerce with the rebels, but other powers were less reluctant. The Empress-Queen Maria Theresa
had already annulled the ban against Corsica during the war and saw no reason to reinstate it despite the protests of the Genoese ambassador. This in turn freed the Tuscans to land at Corsican ports without repercussions. Other powers, particularly the Dutch, Sardinians, and Neapolitans, admitted that Corsican trade might technically be illicit but failed to exercise any diligence in preventing it. Corsican-flagged vessels docking at Livorno, Naples, Portoferraio, and Finale - now in Savoyard hands - met with howling protests from Genoese consuls, which were generally ignored.
Theodore, however, was not content to observe the “peace without a truce” for long. His economic plans were not practical without recognition, as while traffic to Corsican ports had increased, other countries would still not accredit his consuls or make treaties with his government. His snubbing by the international community damaged his prestige and undermined his own credibility at home. He was also saddled with a military establishment that was unsustainable; with the withdrawal of Corsican forces from Provence he had nearly 1,500 regulars under arms, but since the end of the war had also ended Turin’s subsidies he could not afford such an army for long. The regular battalions were “demobilized” and put on half-pay in August, but even this was beyond his ability to permanently sustain. Logic suggested that for the brief period he still had a significant army, it would be wise to use it.
The decisive external factor was the reactivation of the syndicate, which notwithstanding the murky status of Corsican sovereignty had decided to come into the light (as it had never been strictly legal) and reorganize itself as the Nederlands-Corsicaanse Compagnie
in October of 1748.
Seeking to make good on Theodore’s promises of trading privileges, the company sent its authorized agents in Livorno to Corsica to conclude a treaty. The NCC’s intention was to establish a factory at Isola Rossa, which they judged to be the most convenient port for the export of Balagnese olive oil. They insisted upon special privileges, including the ability to export oil duty-free and the cession of suitable land in the city to raise their warehouses, which would be wholly owned by the company and not subject to wharfage fees. Already much indebted to their aid, Theodore could hardly refuse, but he had another condition: the company needed to help him wage a war.
Theodore was confident that his assessment in 1744 that the Corsicans would have to “conquer Genoa where she lives, upon the sea” remained valid. If Genoa had any hope of recovery from its ruinous war it was through the rejuvenation of maritime trade, which had been all but cut off during the conflict. While Theodore had supported Corsican privateers for years, they operated very few ships and their attacks were not much more than pinpricks compared to British naval interdiction. By late 1748, however, the possibilities for maritime engagement had grown. The royalists now fully controlled Capo Corso and Capraia, where most Corsican sailors and fishermen lived, providing a base of recruitment. The last few years of the war had delivered all of Corsica’s ports, save Bonifacio, into rebel hands. Most importantly, the end of the war had left Europe awash in sailors, ships, and arms. Demobilized sailors and out-of-work privateers crowded European ports, state navies were economizing in peacetime by selling off old ships and surplus stores, and the markets were newly flooded with surplus weapons and munitions.
The king thus proposed to force Genoa to come to the table by waging a guerre de course
against the Republic, throttling her commerce until she recognized the fact of Corsican independence. This would be accomplished with a combination of “native” privateers, state vessels, hired NCC ships, and other hired vessels and foreign privateers. Theodore took pains to ensure that everything was legal by the standards of the day - all privateers would require lettere di corse
from his chancery, which were drawn up in advance. The final step was taken on December 10th, 1748. With a unanimous vote of approval from the National Diet, citing “offenses and injuries against the Kingdom and her subjects” including “grievous insult to the dignity and sovereign right of His Majesty the King of Corsica” and “interference... with peaceful and lawful commerce, contrary to the common Law of Nations,” the Kingdom of Corsica formally declared war on the Republic of Genoa.
The Genoese had no reason to take this seriously. Declaring war in the middle of a war seemed like another Theodoran publicity stunt, Corsican privateering had never actually stopped even during the “peace without a truce” of late 1748, and the new “war” was slow to get off the ground. By the spring of 1749, however, the Corsicans were fielding ever greater numbers of privateers including larger and more dangerous ships.
Corsica’s advantage was that she did not need to win battles to win the war. The republic’s navy was nowhere near large enough to defend its merchant fleet, which meant that either ships would be left unguarded or the Genoese would have to hire armed vessels to defend their interests. Either option would be a drain on their coffers, and because Corsica had very little merchant traffic of its own the republic could not respond in kind. The costs were indeed significant, although they should not be overstated; the number of Genoese ships taken by the Corsicans was small compared to losses during the War of the Austrian Succession, and few bankruptcies seem to have resulted. Nevertheless, merchants’ costs did indeed rise and marine insurance rates spiked, while the government struggled to find the ready cash to pay private armed ships for the defense of their trade.
If the efficacy of the campaign was debatable, however, the psychological impact was not. Theodore had a talent for spectacle and explored every method to terrorize the Genoese. The most spectacular attempt involved a captured Genoese pinque stuffed with combustibles and some particularly brave Corsican volunteers. Posing as a fishing vessel off the Ligurian coast, the Corsicans waited until the night of June 4th, when the moon was new, and launched their ersatz fireship against the port of Genoa itself. The attack was botched; the Corsicans had little knowledge of the harbor, struggled to make their way in the darkness, and ended up igniting and abandoning their ship too early, which drifted into a breakwater. But while the attackers were all captured and the ship burned out harmlessly, it did so in full view of the city, where the British consul John Birtles
reported watching the “bright pillar of flame” from his house until the ship exploded and filled the night sky with streaks of flaming debris. Failure though it was, it was also a symbol of defiance the Genoese would not forget. Birtles reported that paranoia grew steadily thereafter, with volunteer citizens’ brigades patrolling the beaches by torchlight, convinced that the Corsican “bandits” would attempt a landing.
The Genoese were not the only ones to be alarmed by the conflict, for a series of developments starting in May of 1749 convinced the great powers that the situation was spinning out of control. The first of these was the so-called “Merlin Affair.” The sloop Merlin
of the Royal Navy, launched in 1744, had been a very successful anti-privateering cruiser in the Channel and the Atlantic. After the war’s end, with more sloops on their hands than were needed in peacetime, the Admiralty had decided to decommission and auction off the ship, and had sold it - apparently unwittingly - to an agent of the NCC in November of 1748 for £310. After fitting out in the Netherlands the company delivered it to Corsica, where it was renamed the Cyrne
and put into action in May.
Illustration of the HMS Merlin, subsequently the Corsican flagship Cyrne.
The first true sailing warship of the Corsican Navy, the Cyrne
proved to be an ideal privateer. The Merlin
, which gave her name to a whole class of ships, was the first of a new generation of Royal Navy sloops-of-war. 91 feet long and weighing 271 tons, the Merlin
was larger and heavier than previous generations of British sloops, allowing it to mount 6-pounder guns instead of the three and four pounders previously used on vessels of this class. Nevertheless it remained swift and maneuverable, and - usefully in Mediterranean waters - was also cut with oar-holes to move under manual power in calm weather. Armed with ten 6-pounder carriage guns and fourteen swivels, it was more than a match for lightly-armed merchant pinques. Indeed, strictly speaking it was surplus to requirements; while a very able ship, several armed feluccas could have been launched and kept at sea for the money spent buying and outfitting the Cyrne
and maintaining the ship and its 110-man crew. As with the fireship attack, however, Theodore sought to make an impression, and the mere presence of such a heavily armed ship (relatively speaking) in Corsican service frightened merchants and forced the Genoese to take additional precautions which demanded additional expenses.
The discovery of the ship’s original identity caused a serious international incident. The French government accused the British of deliberately supporting the Corsicans in contravention of the spirit of their mutual agreement. What alarmed the French even more, however, was the identity of the man who Theodore had recruited as the captain of the Cyrne
: none other than the infamous English privateer Fortunatus Wright
, whose ship Fame
was said to have done more damage to French commerce during the recent war than any other single privateering vessel. Although lauded at home, Wright had gotten in trouble for seizing Turkish property on French ships, and after a complaint from the Sublime Porte he had been imprisoned by the Tuscans on British orders. He was set free after a few months, but his legal battles continued for years after the war’s end. Valuing his reputation even more than his skills, Theodore had attempted to recruit Wright (who lived in Livorno) for his cause, offering him a pension and a knighthood.
Wright had not immediately accepted this offer. He considered himself an English patriot, not a mercenary, and worried that privateering under the unrecognized Corsican flag might constitute piracy. But he also shared the general sentiment of the English public towards Corsica, and the volatile Wright had already begun to grow restless in peacetime.
He was convinced to come to Corsica and meet with Theodore, who dishonestly implied that he had the tacit backing of the King of Britain. This was hardly incredible given the joint efforts of the British and Corsicans during the war, and eventually Wright consented. After making some modifications to the ship and recruiting some of his fellow English Livornesi sailors, Wright took the Cyrne
to sea. Even before he accepted the offer, news spread of his journey to Corsica, and the rumors only grew wilder from there. Not long before, Wright and his business partner (and fellow ex-privateer) William Hutchinson
had purchased the 20-gun British frigate Lowestoffe
intending to use it as a merchant ship. This led to a rumor that “Admiral Wright” was now leading the Corsican fleet aboard a Royal Navy frigate, when in fact Hutchinson and the converted Lowestoffe
had already sailed for the West Indies.
Wright was not even the most controversial character whom Theodore tried to recruit to his cause. In early 1749 Theodore reached out to the only ruler who had yet recognized Corsica’s independence, Bey Ali Pasha
of Tunis, and invited him to join the war. An alliance between the anti-slavery king of a fervently Catholic people and the slave-taking ruler of a Barbary state seems unlikely in the extreme, and indeed a formal alliance was never actually proposed. Theodore merely offered the bey’s ships access to Corsican ports to take on provisions and water if they would focus their attentions on the Genoese. The bey, who had given Theodore modest support in the past and had already victimized the Genoese a few years earlier by seizing their colony of Tabarka, decided to take advantage of the evident weakness of the republic by demanding a substantial sum of tribute. When the Genoese gave no satisfactory response - they simply could not pay - the bey attacked Genoese coral fishermen off his coasts, and then declared war in late June. Theodore, not surprisingly, did not advertise this collusion to the Corsicans, and steadfastly maintained to both foreign diplomats and his own ministry that he had no contact with the bey.
This was quite enough for the British and the French. It was one thing for the Genoese and the “malcontents” to have a few skirmishes at sea, but by the summer of 1749 the conflict had managed to pull in the Barbary corsairs and create a diplomatic furor between Britain, France, and the United Provinces regarding the Merlin
Affair and the activities of the NCC. Corsican-flagged raiders, who were not always well-versed in the laws of war, had managed to offend Bourbon sovereignty by capturing several ships bearing French goods. Wars had been declared for less. The government of Tuscany was accused of aiding the Corsicans, King Carlos of Naples was preparing a flotilla ostensibly to defend his interests from the "Barbary menace," and King Carlo Emanuele III
of Sardinia - also claiming to be concerned about piracy - hinted that he might be forced to intervene militarily and moved regiments to Finale. The conflict that Theodore had started was now interfering with major shipping lanes and threatening to trigger a much broader conflagration. London and Versailles each resolved to bring a swift end what was now known in the London press as “King Theodore’s War.”
While the privateers caught all the international attention, the war was also being fought on land. With arms and logistical assistance from the NCC (and possibly the Tuscans and Sardinians), the Corsicans had amassed a stockpile of supplies and artillery at Porto Vecchio towards the end of 1748. The land blockade of Bonifacio intensified following the declaration of war in December, and in the spring a regular army camp was established at the head of Santa Manza Bay just over three miles from Bonifacio. It was not long before heavy guns were being hauled across the peninsula to positions overlooking the last Genoese citadel.
By mid-summer the situation of Bonifacio was extremely desperate, for any Genoese supply ships now had to run the gauntlet of the corsair-infested ports of Capraia, Macinaggio, Bastia, and Porto Vecchio. Hunger and disease began to take their toll on the population and the small garrison, which had been further depleted by the desertion of dozens of Grisons mercenaries who had not been paid in years. Some defected to the rebels and ended up in Theodore’s foreign regiment, and were happy to provide the rebels with details on the city’s defenses. While the occasional arrival of supplies (and a company of Ligurian soldiers) strung out Bonifacio’s resistance, the Senate considered it likely that the bastion would eventually fall. As negotiations eventually opened, curated by the great powers, the Genoese thus operated under a time constraint; the longer the war went on without a truce, the more likely they were to lose their last remaining position on Corsica. But Theodore too needed to bring the war to a swift conclusion, as he simply had no more money. War was expensive, and there was only so much credit the NCC was willing to extend to him.[A]
 Also known as the DCC (“Dutch Corsican Company”) in some English sources. In Corsica it was known simply as la Compagnia Olandese
(“the Dutch company”).
 As an example of his temperament, some years earlier Wright had traveled to Lucca and violently resisted the attempt of the city guards to disarm him. He drew a pistol and pointed it at twenty armed soldiers, informing them that the first man to try and arrest him would die for it. It eventually required no fewer than fifty soldiers and a Lucchese colonel to convince the “mad Englishman” that the odds were not in his favor, and he finally submitted to be disarmed and taken into custody. He was freed by the intervention of the British consul, but was permanently banished from the Republic of Lucca.
[A] Okay, I was going to finish this in one update, but it ended up going longer than I expected and to avoid making it overly long I decided to break it up. One more to go, for real this time.