Between Two Fires
Plan of Ajaccio in the 1760s
On May 14th 1758, Ambassador Pasquale Paoli
beheld the island of Corsica from the deck of the British flagship Prince
. It had been five years since he had last seen his country, the final two of which had been spent in a strenuous attempt to convince the British government to liberate Corsica from her French occupiers. Despite the favor which was shown him by many in the British elite, Paoli and his plans had been repeatedly put off because of ministerial instability in London, political wrangling, and a general preference for American over European operations. Unbeknownst to Paoli, however, the delay would prove invaluable. His predictions of Corsican opposition to the French were wholly untrue when he first uttered them in 1756, but two years on the relationship was considerably more strained.
Although the ascent of William Pitt
to prominence as Southern Secretary had brought Paoli’s dream to fruition, the British had not invested heavily in the “Corsican expedition.” It was to be accomplished primarily with resources already in the theater, which had not originally been intended for Corsican action: the remnants of the doomed Menorca relief expedition and further forces sent to strengthen Gibraltar against a further French attack which never came. What had ultimately convinced the British ministry to strike at Corsica was not a reassessment of the importance of the Mediterranean theater, which was still considered peripheral, but the realization that Corsica would be a useful base for the oversight and blockade of Toulon - as well as the desire for a morale boosting victory in a war that was not going particularly well for the British thus far.
The British task force under the command of Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders
consisted of nine ships of the line, four frigates, two bomb vessels, and around thirty five auxiliary ships (transports, supply ships, bomb tenders, and sloops). The ground forces, led by Major-General Henry Seymour Conway
, amounted to approximately 2,500 men comprised of three regiments of foot and four companies of marines. Although this was smaller than the French presence on Corsica - around 3,000 regulars - the French forces were divided amongst three citadels separated by miles of difficult terrain and would be unable to reinforce one another. Moreover, it was expected that the British would be supported by the Corsicans following the uprising which Paoli confidently predicted. Despite this dependence on Corsican goodwill, however, no attempt was made the liaise with the Corsicans prior
to the landing in order to maintain operational secrecy; even Paoli was not informed of the details of the plan until the fleet was actually in the Mediterranean, and his offer to land at Corsica prior to the British arrival was refused.
The expedition had a promising start. Upon entering the Gulf of Ajaccio, the fleet immediately captured a number of Corsican fishermen who proved completely willing to tell Saunders everything they knew about the numbers and disposition of the French. General Conway and his forces disembarked on the plain of Campo di Loro and attempted to outflank the French bastion of Fort Costa while Saunders launched a naval bombardment. Although the fort’s earthworks proved resistant to cannonballs, the plunging shells from the bomb vessels proved deadly and came very close to detonating the fort’s magazine. Outnumbered, poorly protected, and fearing that the British would cut them off from Ajaccio, the French at Fort Costa chose to destroy their guns and abandon their position.
Major General Henry Seymour Conway
The 37 year old General Conway was an accomplished gentleman; he was handsome, honest, amiable, and well-educated. As a soldier he was personally fearless, and his reputation for bravery combined with the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland had gained him the rank of major-general at a relatively young age. He had been denied command of a amphibious “descent” against France in the previous year by King George II
himself on the basis that he was too young, but it turned out for the best; that operation had been a debacle from the start and Conway was one of the few subordinate officers involved who came out of the affair with credit rather than censure. Pitt had recommended him for Corsica, a much smaller affair, and the king had somewhat reluctantly agreed.
While undoubtedly courageous, courage is more valuable in a soldier than a general, and Conway was the perfect example of a man promoted past his level of competence. The shy and reserved Conway eagerly followed orders but was full of indecision and self-doubt when giving them. He seldom had ideas of his own, and his lack of confidence meant that he was constantly seeking the consensus and approval of his subordinates. His hesitation after the capture of Fort Costa was not entirely his fault; he was burdened by instructions from the ministry to avoid any undue harm to the Corsicans or their property, which made him reluctant to storm or bombard the city. Nevertheless, Conway allowed bickering among the British commanders and his own fear of failure to paralyze him, and ended up waiting fruitlessly for Corsican politics to develop in his favor as he squandered time and resources waiting outside Ajaccio.
The first Corsican official to confront the British was Marquis Luca d’Ornano
of Ajaccio, who had not been in the city at the time of the landing and rode into the British camp under a flag of truce. According to Paoli, the rather irate d’Ornano stormed into the camp demanding to speak to their commander. When Conway made an appearance and greeted the marquis, d’Ornano brushed aside his pleasantries and demanded brusquely “Alors, sommes-nous en guerre?” “En paix, monsieur,” replied Conway serenely, “si votre souverain l'aura.”
Paoli, meanwhile, broke free of his British handlers and made for the interior, hoping that he would be able to rouse his government against the French. These hopes quickly proved misplaced. Foreign Minister Giovanni Vincente Garelli
, Paoli’s superior, acidly pointed out that Paoli was “two years late” (referring to Paoli’s recall back in 1756) and was presumably interested to know why Paoli had not only failed to give his government advance notice of a foreign invasion
but had actually joined
it. Whatever his response, Paoli was not disciplined; given that his ambassadorial credentials had already been withdrawn two years before, he could not even be fired. The king informed Paoli of his displeasure through Garelli, but privately Theodore could not help but admire the audacity of it, immediately suspecting that Paoli had played a role in pushing the British to act. “What can be done with such a man?” the king mused to Prime Minister Gianpietro Gaffori
, according to secretary Carlo Rostini
. “Eventually we will either have to shoot him, or make him a minister.”
The king’s immediate response to the invasion was to do nothing. Theodore seems to have privately hoped for a British victory, as this might provide him with a means to escape his attachments and debts to France which had become debilitating and destabilizing. Because a British victory was by no means obvious, however - either in Corsica or anywhere else - Theodore temporized. His provisional neutrality was not controversial; even Paoli, chastened by his chilly reception at court, did not call openly for war. More controversial, however, was the question of whether Corsica ought to prepare
Several ministers and prominent noblemen called for the militia to be mobilized to ensure that (further) threats to the kingdom’s sovereignty could not be made without opposition. Theodore opposed the idea, mainly because his present lack of an army was a good excuse for doing nothing: Once he had soldiers, he would have to explain to both the French and the British why he did not use
them. Since he could hardly make this argument openly, however, the king instead warned that mobilization could be seen as a “provocation” and a violation of neutrality, and complained about the costs involved.
The government’s inaction was an irritation not only to those “partisan” Corsicans who favored the French or British, but to a far larger number who feared that Corsica was allowing itself to be trampled upon by foreign invaders while doing nothing to defend itself. There were calls to summon an early consulta
, as the annual consulta generale
was not scheduled until August, but the prime minister declined. Yet government paralysis did not prevent the Corsicans themselves from taking action. Individual pievi
began stockpiling gunpowder and mustering men under the authority of their caporali
or local notables. Some had support in high places; Don Giovan, Principe di Morosaglia
, actively encouraged the northern mountain pievi
to arm and organize their militias and purchased gunpowder with his own money. Count Gaffori, who had initially supported Theodore’s policy of neutrality, began to fear that official inaction might cause the situation to spin out of control.
This interminable delay was a source of tremendous frustration to Conway, who had expected Paoli’s promised uprising to accomplish his mission for him. As it began to dawn on him that the ambassador’s promises might have been empty, the general appealed directly to d’Ornano, offering him arms and money to join the British side. The marquis was not normally one to turn down such largesse, but this time he declined. Luca d’Ornano was a French sympathizer; he had kinsmen among the French nobility and two Marshals of France in his family tree, and never let anyone forget it. More importantly, however, d’Ornano was no more convinced of British success than King Theodore, and he had no desire to burn his bridges with both the French and his own government by taking a side in a war in which the kingdom remained steadfastly neutral.
As Conway dithered, the British position grew increasingly dispiriting. The French had possessed ample time to shore up their defenses around the city, while Saunders was now refusing to commit his ships to an attack; some of his vessels had taken damage aloft from counter-fire from Fort Costa, and the admiral feared that a duel with the citadel would leave his ships too damaged to stop a French attempt to break out of Toulon for the Atlantic, a nightmare which Saunders fretted over daily. Meanwhile, the British soldiers suffered under the hot Corsican sun and malaria began spreading through their ranks. With the “uprising” nowhere to be seen and his supply of able-bodied soldiers swiftly diminishing, Conway faced a decision point.
On June 22nd, Conway convened a council of war to decide whether the siege - and thus Corsica - should be abandoned. Saunders thought that it should; he had always considered the affair to be a pointless sideshow, and pointed out that the native support which the enterprise had been predicated upon had not materialized. Conway’s army subordinates, however, did not share this opinion. Conway’s senior colonel was the 55 year old John Arabin
, the son of a French Huguenot family which had settled in Dublin and became considerable landowners. Arabin was an experienced and dauntless officer who was said to have marched his detachment a hundred miles through Scotland in the midst of a snowstorm in only three days. The junior colonel on Conway’s staff was indeed junior, the 31 year old James Wolfe
, but despite being the inexperienced son of a general he was no mediocre product of aristocratic nepotism. Brilliant and energetic, a tireless disciplinarian who was nevertheless beloved by his men, Wolfe’s limited experience would prove no handicap. Significantly, all three of them - Conway, Arabin, and Wolfe - knew each other, having served together under Cumberland in the Jacobite campaign.
Arabin and Wolfe both argued for an immediate attack on Ajaccio. Notwithstanding recent losses to disease, they were confident that they outnumbered the French defenders. As usual, Conway hesitated; he was pessimistic about the whole endeavour and feared the bloody consequences of a direct assault, but he also hated the idea of slinking away in defeat from his first independent command. Amidst this indecision, however, a critical development played right into the hands of the colonels. For some time the British had been aware of dissidents within the city who were willing to cooperate with the British, and at just the right moment these contacts finally delivered. Detailed notes were smuggled out of the city and passed to Colonel Arabin regarding the dispositions of French troops, their patrol routes, the state of their supplies, and the condition of the city’s defenses. With this intelligence coup in hand, Arabin and Wolfe were finally able to convince Conway to commit to an attack. Saunders reluctantly agreed to commit some of his assets to a bombardment, and on the 26th the British engaged the defenders by land and sea.
The French managed to hold back this attack with well-aimed gunnery, but the British assault on the 26th was intended mainly as a demonstration and to probe the French defenses. On the advise of his colonels, Conway feigned a withdrawal on the following day, demolishing works on Fort Costa and pulling his men back from their lines outside the city. Instead of evacuating, however, the British returned to their positions under cover of night and launched a second assault on the city hours before dawn on the morning of the 28th.
The night attack did not go off without a hitch. Wolfe’s column went the wrong way in the darkness and arrived late, leaving Arabin on the left flank to fight the defenders alone, and the feigned evacuation had not caused the French to led their guard down quite as much as Conway had hoped. Nevertheless, the darkness muted the effect of the French batteries and the British still held a strong numerical advantage. When Wolfe’s column finally struck on the right flank, the French collapsed, and British forces seized the outer bastion overlooking the borgu
. The British were repulsed from the citadel itself, but Colonel Jean Baptiste Calixte, Marquis de Montmorin
quickly decided that his position holed up within the citadel was untenable. Denied access to the supplies and cisterns in the upper town, he could not resist for long. On July 6th he surrendered with his garrison and received the honors of war.
In conquered Ajaccio, the British finally received the welcome they had been expecting. Despite the violent fall of the city, the damage was relatively light and the population was happy to be rid of the increasingly onerous French presence. Cavaliere Giuseppe Maria Buonaparte
and the rest of the city elders held a welcome ceremony for Conway and his officers. But there was also a darker side to liberation, for hardly had the French flag come down from the citadel than a spontaneous riot erupted against the Greeks. In fact the Busacci brothers and their pro-French volunteers were not even at Ajaccio; they had been reassigned to the north. Micaglia Stefanopoli
and his son Giorgio-Maria
, the most prominent Greek leaders left in the city, were rivals of the Busacci family and had opposed collaboration with the French. This distinction was lost upon the rioters, however, who assaulted the Greeks and looted their homes. The British forcibly suppressed the riot, though not before a Greek man was killed and many others injured.
Notwithstanding this victory, the British were in no position to continue the campaign. Counting the dead, the sick, and the wounded, General Conway’s 2,500 men had declined to scarcely 1,500 able-bodied soldiers. The plan had originally called for a landing at Bastia to take the island’s largest city and spark a rebellion in the north, but Conway now considered this to be overly optimistic. Saunders suggested demolishing Ajaccio’s defenses and then evacuating, but Conway - once again preferring to wait on events - delayed any final decision pending the result of the looming consulta
, so as to give the Corsicans one last chance to recognize their “true interests.” To that end, he dispatched Colonel Arabin to Corti to personally represent British interests. In the meantime, Saunders and the majority of the fleet sailed to the French coast to cruise off Toulon.
Admiral Charles Saunders
Count Gaffori realized that the fall of Ajaccio had rendered the “policy of inaction” extremely precarious. Corsica was now an active theater in the Anglo-French war, and future conflict looked ever more likely as the French had dispatched another battalion from Antibes to reinforce Guy-André-Pierre de Montmorency, Marquis de Laval
in the north. Local pievi
were arming themselves, tensions were flaring between the Corsicans and the French in the Balagna and Nebbio, and Gaffori’s rivals like the Prince of Morosaglia were trying to use the conflict to undermine the prime minister politically. Under mounting pressure, Count Gaffori finally bowed to demands to hold the consulta generale
early so as to elect a new dieta
with a mandate to address the crisis. The procuratori
, already elected in May, would convene at Corti on July 20th, about three weeks ahead of schedule.
Gaffori went into the consulta
believing that neutrality was still the only reasonable option, and that this belief was shared by King Theodore. As the consulta generale
began, the election of Carlo Grimaldi d’Esdra
of Castifao - an ally of Gaffori - as president of the consulta
suggested to the prime minister that things were going his way. The ground, however, was not as solid as it seemed. Theodore was pleased with the British victory and appears to have agreed with Morosaglia and Queen Eleonora
that the kingdom’s interests were best served by an alignment with Britain. He may also have been influenced by Colonel Arabin, who arrived in Corti well before the consulta
. A practicing lawyer before becoming a soldier, Arabin proved a capable diplomat, and as a polyglot French-Irish Freemason he easily ingratiated himself with the king and his circle of ex-Jacobite courtiers.
Acrimonious debate was to be expected, as there were both pro-French and pro-British procuratori
, and Gaffori planned to position himself as a reasonable voice of moderation. Immediately prior to his planned speech, however, the floor was ceded to Giovan Felice Valentini
, a representative of the pieve
of Rostino and cousin of Pasquale Paoli. Nobody expected much; then in his early 30s, Valentini belonged to a family of caporali
but was too young to have been in the influential “first generation” of rebel leaders, and his family was counted among those in Gaffori’s faction. What began as a rather ordinary speech, however, quickly escalated into an attack on the “policy of inaction” in general and the prime minister in particular. After recounting French support for “Genoese tyranny” and the Corsican blood shed by French soldiers, Valentini stunned the chamber by daring to give Gaffori the rimbeccu
: “I swear before God, I would rather forsake Paradise than be the coward Gianpietro, who shirks [his countrymen’s] blood and fears to avenge them!”
Popular legend has it that the assembly briefly descended into chaos and that Gaffori was too shocked to respond. This seems to be a bit overblown; Gaffori was well known for both his oratory and his iron nerves, and the slanderous blustering of a young notabile
is unlikely to have flustered him for long. Natali wrote that the minister’s speech was delivered without incident. But Gaffori was legitimately troubled by the realization that the king’s
opinion was not quite his own. Valentini was probably acting on his own accord, but a considerable amount of similar (if less vituperative) criticism came from the “royal electors” appointed by the king (including Morosaglia). Upset by this lack of support, Gaffori went to the king directly and offered his resignation. It was a good bluff; whatever game Theodore may have been playing, he knew very well that he had no good replacement for Gaffori, who still held the balance of power in the consulta
. Theodore declined to accept his resignation and assured his minister that he still enjoyed the royal confidence.
With this royal intrigue defused, Gaffori turned back to the consulta
, where he faced not only division and rancor among the delegates but the meddling of Colonel Arabin who was set upon stirring up anti-French sentiment. The absence of any counterbalance to the colonel was chiefly the fault of the Marquis de Laval. Laval had personally attended the last two consulte
, but he had come under such impertinent criticism in the 1757 consulta
that he declined to attend this present assembly, leaving that duty to the French consul. When the time came, however, the consul was absent. The arrival of French reinforcements had infuriated the king; it was not so much that it was a violation of the Convention of Ajaccio (although it was
a violation), but the fact that Laval had not thought it necessary to seek Theodore's approval or even notify him of the decision. In retaliation, Theodore dismissed the French consul from court shortly before the opening of the consulta
, inadvertently leaving the field to Arabin.
Still, Count Gaffori held his ground. The assembly passed resolutions calling for the “defensive” mobilization of the militia and condemning the arrival of additional French forces, but Gaffori succeeded in keeping them below the two-thirds threshold, which meant that they lacked legislative force and depended on the approval of the ministry (that is, the approval of Gaffori
) for their execution. Having quashed both Theodore's scheming and a revolt in the consulta
, the count appeared to have weathered the storm. Yet he had failed to reckon with the myopic blundering of Laval, who seemed determined to ruin everything.
At the end of the consulta
of 1758, a Franco-Corsican breach was still far from inevitable. Arabin’s influence had been considerable but not decisive, and the colonel himself had reported to Conway that his mission had been unsuccessful. Gaffori still held the government on its moderate course and assured the French that the situation was well in hand. Laval, however, chose to take umbrage with what he saw as intolerable affronts by an ungrateful king and his people: the expulsion of the French consul, the warm reception of the invader Arabin at the royal court, and the outrageous provocations of the consulta
(despite Gaffori’s insistence that their resolutions were quite toothless). The marquis could not let such behavior go unanswered, and determined that a strong response was necessary to remind the Corsicans of their proper allegiance. It would be the worst mistake of his career.
 “So, are we at war?” “At peace, sir, if your sovereign will have it.”
 Technically giving the rimbeccu
- publicly goading a person for failing to avenge a murder - was a capital crime. Valentini was not prosecuted, however, probably because it was questionable whether giving the rimbeccu
was legally actionable if the murdered party was not an individual person but the “martyrs of the Revolution." The chief danger of the rimbeccu
, after all, was that it fueled the vendetta
, and Gaffori was hardly about to go on a killing spree against Frenchmen as a consequence of Valentini’s insult. Gaffori did not pursue the matter, having no desire to lower himself to the level of feuding with Valentini, and he appears to have been satisfied once Valentini was censured by president Grimaldi d’Esdra for disrupting the “peace and good order” of the consulta
. Nevertheless, Valentini’s kinship with the Paoli clan would have consequences for the relationship between Gaffori and the Paoli brothers, who up to this point had been solidly within Gaffori's faction.