Dance of the Diplomats
View of Tabarka under the Genoese, c. 1700
Despite gaining recognition from France as a consequence of the Treaty of Monaco, the Kingdom of Corsica did not immediately enter into full diplomatic relations with other other European states. For some, Corsica was simply not relevant; others wondered whether the “kingdom” was merely an ephemeral state, serving only as a stepping stone to French annexation or the abdication of King Theodore in favor of some other, more established sovereign. Even the British, who had done more than anyone to support the Corsican Revolution, withheld recognition chiefly as a means to protest the underhanded way in which France had conducted and concluded the Monaco negotiations.
Initially the handful of powers which sent representatives to Corsica restricted their presence to consuls rather than diplomats.The presence of a consul allowed a government to have some diplomatic presence in Corsica and look after its commercial affairs without making too bold of a statement regarding Corsican independence.
The Dutch were the first, with their consul Joseph Valembergh
arriving in March of 1750. Valembergh, formerly consul to Naples, had close ties to the leaders of the Syndicate (now the NCC) and had protected Corsican exiles in Naples, but the Dutch had been forced to recall him after his zeal on behalf of the Corsicans and the Syndicate raised the ire of the French and Genoese legations in Naples. With the support of the Company he was rehabilitated and sent to Corsica, and was for all intents and purposes the mouthpiece of the NCC in the Corsican court. The Dutch were followed by the Sardinians in late 1750. With his acquisition of a port at Finale as a consequence of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, King Carlo Emanuele III
was looking forward to expanding his state’s role in Mediterranean trade and had a vested interest in keeping tabs on the French presence in Corsica. The Maltese and Tuscan governments followed suit a few months later, with the Tuscany’s consul also handling the affairs of Austrian citizens.
This limited recognition did not prevent Theodore from sending diplomats of his own. As sending and maintaining an embassy was expensive business, however, the Corsican government had to choose carefully where ambassadors were needed. By 1751 the Corsican government had ambassadors in Paris, Turin, and Rome, as well as a minister-resident in Florence. Corsican consuls were stationed at Livorno, Tunis, Finale, and Valletta (Malta). Notably absent from this list was Genoa. Notwithstanding the establishment of peace and normal trade relations between Genoa and Corsica in the Treaty of Monaco, the Genoese refused to send representative, ostensibly because Corsica had supported and sheltered Genoese revolutionaries (although they had not sent any representative before
the Genoese Revolution either). Theodore, in turn, felt it would be undignified to send a consul to Genoa if the Genoese would not do the same.
Theodore’s ambassadors were all familiar names from the Revolution. The all-important post of ambassador to France was first filled by Count Antonio Colonna-Bozzi
, who as the brother-in-law of Don Matteo, Principe di Porto Vecchio
was one of the few Corsicans with ties to the “royal family.” Theodore’s first (official) representative at Turin was Count Antonio Simone Rivarola
, the son of the late Domenico Rivarola who had served in the same capacity during the Revolution. Father Erasmo Orticoni
was moved from the post of foreign minister to become Theodore’s permanent ambassador in Rome. The Florentine merchant Francesco dell’Agata
was appointed minister resident in Florence; despite the fact that he was not Corsican, his long and faithful service as Theodore’s agent in Tuscany was proof enough of his fidelity.
Theodore’s relations with the Knights of Malta was especially productive. Manuel Pinto da Fonseca
, the Grandmaster of the Order, had at one point mused about gaining Corsica for himself and had even sent a representative to the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle to float the suggestion that the troublesome island be granted to a “neutral prince” (read: Fonseca himself), but the failure of this poorly conceived scheme did not sour him against Theodore. The naval operations of the Order, having largely ceased by 1700 owing to the decline of the Barbary corsairs and the opposition of Christian states, enjoyed a modest renaissance around the middle 18th century. Corsica occupied a strategic position in the western Mediterranean and its ports were essential to these operations. Theodore, for his part, professed to be an admirer of the Order; the king had always liked the dash and prestige of chivalric organizations, but he also saw the Order’s policy of strict neutrality as an example for Corsica to emulate.
Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, Grandmaster of the Order of St. John
In 1751 the Kingdom of Corsica and the Knights of Malta signed a treaty of cooperation, allowing Maltese warships to dock at Corsican ports and take on water and provisions without having to pay taxes or wharfage fees. Maltese ships were permitted to use the Corsican flag as a “flag of convenience,” which had become a common practice to evade various legal attempts by Christian states to limit the Order’s piratical activities; in short order the “Moor’s Head” became one of the favorite flags of the Order’s corsairs, rivaled only by the flag of Monaco and the grandmaster’s own pennant.
The Order, in return, exempted Corsican ships from searches and promised close cooperation with the Corsican navy. Theodore lacked the money to sustain a permanent fleet, but he could defray some expenses by “loaning” a few of his ships to the Order to join their anti-corsair patrols and letting the Order shoulder the burden of provisioning their crews. He also encouraged his seamen to serve as Maltese corsairs during peacetime while remaining on the navy rolls, which allowed Corsican sailors, gunners, and officers to gain experience and training. Maltese service was nothing new for the Corsicans; Giovanni Francesco Natale
, the most famous of the Corsican Revolutionary privateers, had sailed as a corsair out of Malta in the 1730s.
Domestically, Theodore made much of his “alliance” with the Knights of Malta, eventually securing his own membership in the Order as a “Knight of Devotion” (a sort of honorary knighthood for which married men were eligible) and even commissioning a portrait of himself wearing the robes of the Order.
As the Catholic monarch of a Catholic people who had long been subjected to the depredations of Muslim pirates and slavers, associating himself with the sworn enemies of the Barbary corsairs could only burnish his image. Yet despite dressing up as one, Theodore was no crusader at heart, and his relationship with the Barbary states was always ambiguous. Even as his ships cruised with the Maltese he maintained a cordial relationship with Bey Ali Pasha
of Tunis, with whom he had signed a treaty of friendship and trade.
The most important and politically fraught issue involving Corsica and Tunis in the 1750s was not piracy, slavery, or commerce, but coral. Corsican coral fishermen had long exploited the rich reefs of the Tunisian coast from the Genoese outpost at Tabarka. In 1741, however, Ali Pasha had seized Tabarka and enslaved its residents, denying the Corsican coral fishermen their base of operations and putting their activity in Tunisian waters in doubt. The impetus for this action had been an attempt by France to purchase the island from Genoa, as the French - represented by the Compagnie Royale D’Afrique
- were keenly interested in establishing a monopoly on Tunisian coral and other exports. The fall of Tabarka, followed by the seizure of the French outpost at Cape Nègre, led to a war between Tunis and France, but at that time the French had more pressing matters to attend to than a spat with the Bey of Tunis. They signed a conciliatory peace treaty with Ali Pasha in 1742, by which France retrieved Cape Nègre in exchange for paying the Bey an annual tribute and renounced their claims to Tabarka.
The aggressive and monopolistic tactics of the Compagnie
in Tunisia were a source of great consternation to Theodore. Even as Paris instructed Envoy Extraordinary Pierre Emmanuel, Marquis de Crussol-Florensac
to win the goodwill of the Corsicans and their king, the Compagnie
insisted upon their exclusive rights and drove Corsican coral fishermen from waters which they had fished in for centuries prior to 1741. Theodore complained to Crussol that it was not realistic for him to service the kingdom’s debt to France if the French insisted upon hobbling one of Corsica’s few lucrative industries. Crussol was sympathetic, but his reports to Versailles fell on deaf ears; the Compagnie
had wealthy and influential supporters and was called “royal” for a reason, being managed by agents of the crown. Crussol’s communiques and the protests of Count Antonio simply could not compete.
Despite his good relations with Theodore, Ali Pasha was a man chiefly motivated by material interests. Theodore attempted to appeal to the bey directly, but the fact was that France could pay him for the coral concession and Corsica could not. Yet since the bey still disliked and distrusted the French, he devised a plan to counterbalance their influence by proposing to sell Tabarka to the British crown. Intrigued, the British government directed Commodore Augustus Keppel
, the British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, to gather more information. A certain Mr. Franco
, an English merchant captain who did business in Tunis, reported to Commodore Keppel that the Tabarka coral fishery under Genoese management had yielded profits of up to £30,000 per year. The Board of Trade saw both profit and danger in the idea:
“...as to the utility of the proposal, if the Crown of Great Britain was in possession of Tabarka, they might sell the liberty of fishing for coral to the Genoese, Corsicans, or any other persons, until the English should have acquired the art of fishing it for themselves; that it would likewise be attended with advantages on account of the trade which might be carried on with the Main for oil, wax, hides, corn, and cattle... it is also worthwhile to consider the great importance of the English being in possession of this island, in case the Government of Corsica should fall completely into the hands of our rivals in trade, which from the situation and circumstances of that island must be such an incident that would greatly affect our trade in the Mediterranean… [However] it might give rise to disputes betwixt the Crowns of Great Britain and France concerning the limits of the coral fishery belonging to each crown.”
British Prime Minister Henry Pelham
was not especially eager to provoke the French, as his country was still recovering from a very expensive war and focusing on cutting military expenditures and paying down the debt. But in foreign policy he was at odds with his own brother, Secretary Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle
, who had not spared one moment after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle before embarking on a campaign to diminish French influence across Europe and beyond. While he was committed to maintaining the “Old System” of the Anglo-Austro-Dutch alliance, Newcastle also courted Prussia and Russia as allies in an attempt to diplomatically isolate France. Every French maneuver had to be met and countered, no less in the Mediterranean than in Germany, India, or the Caribbean.
Newcastle saw the Treaty of Monaco as a worrying sign of French expansionism towards Italy and a clear threat to British trade interests in the Mediterranean generally and Livorno specifically. Acquiring a presence at Tabarka seemed like a reasonable countermove. As a naval base it was not very useful - it had no harbor to accomodate large warships, forcing them to anchor in the roads offshore in a vulnerable position - but it was perfectly suitable as a logistical
base for resupplying and victualling the fleet, particularly since grain, cattle, and other provisions could be purchased from Tunisia and stockpiled there. Its acquisition could even be spun to the Prime Minister and the rest of the country as an economic benefit given its potential as an export hub for Tunisian trade goods.
Commodore Augustus Keppel
Taking Tabarka was also a means to engage with Corsica. Despite Theodore’s “betrayal” at Monaco, the British had taken the same lesson from Theodore’s marriage as the French: that the king was attempting to assert some independence from Versailles. As there were no British coral fishermen, some foreigners would be needed to exploit the Tabarka concession if Britain were to recoup their investment, and by turning to the Corsicans the British government would gain leverage on the Corsican monarchy. Even if war came and Theodore remained in the French diplomatic orbit, he might be reluctant to allow the French access to his ports and his island’s strategic naval resources (particularly timber and pitch) if he knew that it would mean the loss of his country’s rights in Tabarka.
Negotiating the cession was difficult and involved many moving parts. Commodore Keppel found that although the cession had been the bey’s idea, he was a master of feigning disinterest in the outcome of negotiations while trying to gain every treaty advantage he could. To sound out Corsican willingness to participate in this scheme, the British consul in Tunis Charles Gordon
approached his Corsican counterpart Christoforo Buongiorno
, Theodore’s former aide-de-camp.
The conversations between Buongiorno and Gordon were relayed to Theodore through his longtime associate Hamet
, acting as the king’s courier. Theodore approved, and in December of 1751 the British signed a treaty with the Bey of Tunis which provided for the cession of Tabarka in exchange for a fixed annual tribute. The commercial terms the British secured were favorable, and sure to irk the French: Ali Pasha promised Britain that regardless of the tariff rate the French paid for Tunisian goods, the British would pay 2% less.[A]
Subsequent to this, an agreement was reached between the British and the Corsican government granting a set number of Corsican boats access to Tabarka and its nearby reefs in exchange for a fee paid by the fishermen. Had Theodore been wiser, he might have thought twice about this entire scheme. It is clear in retrospect, and ought to have been clear at the time, that any cooperation with Britain in this obvious move contrary to French interests would imperil his relations with France. But Theodore does not seem to have been fully aware of just how suspicious the French ministry was of him, for his personal
relations with Crussol were very cordial. Theodore felt justified in the fact that he had acted in the best interests of his people, but self-interested neutrality was not what France was looking for in its Corsican client.
Elsewhere, energetic British diplomacy helped secure the peace of Italy. For some time the monarchs of Spain and Austria had been moving towards a signal and unprecedented territorial settlement. The late King Felipe had waged a series of wars over nearly half a century to gain the Italian patrimony which he believed was rightfully his, but his son and successor Fernando VI
had no interest in such adventures. As soon as the throne was his he had sidelined his Italian stepmother Elisabetta Farnese
, and had remained in the War of Austrian Succession only to salvage some face-saving peace from the ruin of his father’s dreams. Fernando was open to burying the hatchet with Vienna, and fortunately for him, Empress Maria Theresa
felt the same way. Although she had tried to regain Naples in the previous war, the theft of Silesia had redirected her focus permanently towards Central Europe, and she was eager to put Italian issues to rest.
This newfound willingness for a permanent peace in Italy was music to Newcastle’s ears, as he saw a chance to complete the isolation of France by dividing her even from Bourbon Spain. Italy had been the main point of contention between Madrid and Vienna, and if it were removed from the table the Spanish would have little cause to join another continental war. Better still, once freed from the obligation to defend Italy from a Spanish invasion, the Austrians would be able to turn their full strength against France so as to better fulfill their ancient role as France’s great continental nemesis.
These considerations led ultimately to the Treaty of Aranjuez of 1752, also known by contemporaries as the “Treaty of Italy,” which created a defensive alliance between Spain, Austria, and Sardinia and their dependent states (Tuscany, Naples, and Parma). The powers confirmed their existing titles, renounced any claims on each others’ territories in Italy, and pledged to support each other with armed force if any of these territories were attacked. There was some reluctance on the part of Carlo Emanuele, whose expansionist schemes were curtailed by this general peace, but he was convinced to join for fear of isolation, because of British pressure, and because the treaty would at least confirm him in the possession of his gains from the last war which Maria Theresa had been eager to annul. Britain was not a signatory of the treaty, nor even a formal participant in the negotiations, but British diplomats had played a vital role in getting Vienna and Turin on the same page. France was well aware of the negotiations, but proved unable to stop them from reaching fruition.
The “non-aligned” states of Italy - Modena, Venice, Genoa, Lucca, the Papal States, and Corsica - were not mentioned. Nevertheless, the treaty affected them all, as it appeared to mark an end to the Bourbon-Habsburg dynastic wars for Italy which had wracked the peninsula throughout all of the 18th century thus far. For some, this was a disappointment; not satisfied with his humiliation in the last war, Duke Francesco III
of Modena had been rebuilding his army with Spanish subsidies in the hope of making gains in the next great Italian war, a war that now seemed unlikely to materialize. Others welcomed it cautiously as a reprieve from violence and uncertainty. Either way, a new age in Italy seemed to be dawning.
 This was not entirely dissimilar to how the European courts handled the Barbary states. Although Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli functioned in most respects as independent states, they were technically Ottoman vassals. Since the Ottoman government had no real power over the Barbary States it was necessary for European governments to deal with their leaders directly, but to dispatch ambassadors
to these “regencies” - a gesture which was proper only between sovereign states - risked the ire of the Sublime Porte. Thus, European governments did their business with Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli through consuls exclusively.
 An unfortunate consequence of this use of the Corsican flag was a growing association of the flag with piracy. The Moor's Head had already acquired a somewhat unsavory maritime reputation thanks to its usage by Corsican corsairs during the Revolution and "King Theodore's War," and this reputation was not improved by Maltese rogues and adventurers using it as a flag of convenience to raid under the dubious cover of law. The Moor's Head came to be especially reviled in the Barbary states, where it was not only seen as the emblem of the piratical Maltese "crusaders" but assumed to be a depiction of a decapitated Muslim. Greek sailors under Ottoman rule, whose ships were frequent targets of Maltese corsairs despite their religion, also considered the "Black Head" to be a pirate's banner.
 The fact that Malta was among the greatest slaving marketplaces of Europe does not appear to have troubled Theodore’s relations with the Order. Theodore maintained that Muslim captives ought to be ransomed or traded to the Barbary states for the liberation of enslaved Christians, which was often done, but nevertheless his warships cruised alongside Maltese galleys rowed by Muslim slaves and it seems likely that slaves were taken by corsairs flying under a Corsican flag. As the Maltese “alliance” was politically useful Theodore turned a blind eye to his own complicity in slavery, something which he otherwise detested and railed against.
 Presumably Theodore is one of the few people in history to have been both a Teutonic and Hospitaller knight.
 Theodore had originally met Buongiorno in Tunis while preparing for his journey to Corsica. His father was a doctor from Livorno who had settled in Tunis after being sent there by the Grand Duke Gian Gastone, ostensibly to buy back Christian slaves but possibly as a commercial or diplomatic agent.
[A] Ali Pasha’s offer to sell Tabarka to the British is historical, but IOTL the negotiations ultimately ended inconclusively; Britain and Tunis signed a treaty but the Tabarka cession was dropped. ITTL, Britain’s more confident position after their marginally better outcome in 1748 coupled with concerns over French influence in Corsica leads to Britain and Tunis closing the Tabarka deal. Britain has a little piece of North Africa now...