Napoleon was not yet 10 years old(1) when he left Corsica(2) for the first time on the 1st of January 1779 to go to the College in Autun(3), and later, on the 12th May in the same year(4), to the military school in Brienne. Granted a royal scholarship, he was to study in France(5) where, suffering existential pain and permanent melancholy, isolated and marginalized, he would retreat into his inner self in attempt to resist the hostility of his French classmates. To resist; this was his first independent action. A child in exile, dispatched by his family to a foreign country, an idealist and a dreamer, he remained a Corsican, nothing more, nothing less, and wished to remain so. “Peoples only get strength through nationality”, he was later to say(6). In 1784, in a letter to his father(7), instead of broccio or some other Corsican delicacy, Napoleon asked him to bring the History of Corsica by Boswell(8) and “other stories related to this kingdom”(9). His temperament spontaneously drew him to these dreams in prose, and the writings he asked for present Corsica as idealized, glorified, a lost paradise rediscovered. A paradise lost more than once, however.
Oppressed by conquistadors of all breeds, including Phocaeans(10), Romans(11), Saracens(12), Pisans(13) and Genoese(14), his native Corsica had been labouring under the “yoke of France”(15) since 1768, a yoke which Napoleon – faithful to Paoli, his master, his god(16) – desperately wanted to shake off. In Brienne, idolizing his hero, he sees Corsica as a governmental and social ideal, to be designed and brought about by Paoli(17). Left to himself, naïve and ignorant, the youngster relies on what he is told and what he reads. His Corsica has the sweetness of an earthly paradise. It is a model political system which secures a wealthy, peace-loving and harmonious society; it is a country of perfection. Napoleon watches this rainbow throughout all his school years in France. He knows nothing yet about people. He is chasing ideas.
He is 20 when his project takes shape: he is going to write a book on the history of Corsica. He had promised it to the Abbé Raynal. June the 12th 1789, one month before the beginning of the Revolution, he wrote to Paoli to reveal his intention and his fears: “Whatever the success of my work may be, I feel it will raise against me the whole crowd of French civil servants who govern our island and whom I attack: but does it really matter if it is for the sake of our Country”(18). “Loving one's Homeland is the very first virtue of civilized man”, he will also say(19). In this book, he wanted to write the history of his island and to damn the intruders. The work was also intended to glorify the Corsican people. “Corsica's history is nothing but a perpetual struggle between a small nation who wants to live in freedom and its neighbours who want to dominate it.”(20) Although contemplated for a long time, the project was never to be accomplished, Napoleon suddenly doubting his talent(21). He was not an ideologist but a soldier – and one in uniform at that! The idea that Napoleon might write a history of Corsica did not fill Paoli with delight either. “… history is not written during one's youth”, he wrote to Napoleon on the 2nd April 1791(22).
We have instead several other writings by Napoleon, devoted to Corsica, among which are “On Corsica” (his very first manuscript written at the age of 17), “On Corsica's History” (1787), “New Corsica”, “Letter to Mr. Giubega” and “Letters on Corsica to the Abbé Raynal” (1789-90). Vague, oratorical and preachy – very Corsican in their passionate wording – these texts are an impetuous attack against France, a tearful lament in which the author deplores the fate of the Corsicans, which he considers as “more debased than animals”(23). He vilifies the government in power, which deprives the Corsicans of their freedom and exposes them to the whims of vile officials, “heads bent under the heavy yoke of the officer, the magistrate and the banker”(24). We are at the very core of the nationalist Corsican theme that condemns French educational(25), judicial and political colonization. Napoleon's francophobia oozes from every colon and comma, as does his contempt for those who do not fully support Paoli, those whom he calls: “…my countrymen kept in chains, who tremblingly kiss the hand of the oppressor”(26). This hatred stems from his first encounter with the French, in the classroom where he found himself the target of sarcasm from his young French classmates. Wounds sustained in childhood never heal. Napoleon pursues his attack. The French, these “people with whom (he lives) and will probably always live, have manners as different (from his own) as the moonlight differs from the sunshine”(27). The French, these “monsters” (…) “who are said to be the enemies of free men”(28), should be expelled and Corsica's freedom won back. “Dear countrymen”, he writes in 1787 in his work “On Corsica's History”(29), “we have always been unhappy. Today, members of a powerful monarchy, we experience from its government nothing but the perversions of its Constitution …” The essay glorifies the suffering of the Corsicans and expresses hatred for France. This theme is further developed in another text by Napoleon, “New Corsica(30)”. Here what is glorified is flight and a ‘maquis' resistance to the invader, themes cherished by the Corsican bandits d'honneur. Using images of the massacres and slaughter committed by the French, Napoleon raises the tone. “… I have sworn on my altar, says the Corsican patriot, (…) that I will never forgive any Frenchman (…). Having helped them as men, we killed them as French”(31).
In 1789, in the “Letter to Mr. Giubega”(32), Napoleon's godfather, French rule is described as “the most terrible tyranny”, imposed by Frenchmen, “contemptible for their customs (…), their conduct”, and for their “despicable birth”, incompatible with the Corsican language and morals. These accusations constitute the most scathing part of the text with their nationalist and – we would say today – separatist slant. Corsicans are economically exploited, Napoleon claims. “…Our country is poorly governed. (…) But today, now that the scene has changed, we must also change our conduct. If we miss this opportunity, we will remain slaves forever”(33). The honour of Corsica depends on it, the honour which a nation “must never do anything against (…) because if it does it will become the last of all nations (and) had better perish”(34).
At the time of his youthful texts on Corsica, Napoleon was between 17 and 22 years old(35). His essays bear witness to his intellectual awakening and to the evolution of his thoughts. Page by page, he unwinds the tangle of his passions. Devoted entirely to his studies, he searches for his true self, Corsica always in his mind.
The “Letters on Corsica” addressed to Necker in June 1789 were written during Napoleon's stay in Auxonne. Uncertain of his pen, Napoleon turned for advice to Father Dupuy, his grammar teacher from Brienne, at the time when he intended to write the history of Corsica. The letter itself is missing but there are two replies from Father Dupuy(36) which give us an indication of the original. All of the first letter and part of the second contain a transcription of Napoleon's introduction and a correction of it. The style of this introduction is passionate and Napoleon's descriptions are impassioned, because he hoped that through the fire of his wording he could draw the minister's attention to the fate of his island, “now a hideous nest of tyrants”(37) and to “have make him hear the cries and the moaning of his poor countrymen”(38).
Resistance and insularity
The analogy between Napoleon's writings on Corsica and today's nationalist arguments is striking. Ages pass but the eternal obsessive Corsican phobias remain deeply rooted. The Corsican way of thinking and the Corsican way of doing stigmatize the political vision, the attitude and the morals.
First, there is the resistance to the invader. Forged by centuries of foreign occupation, the fierce and unrestrained resistance of the Corsicans infiltrates all of Napoleon's narration. It is a popular and massive resistance shaped by the political logic of the insular community. Conditioned by the conservative and archaistic shades of its ancestral traditions, self-centred and attached to its ancient structures and to its very being, strong through the endurance of pain from never healed wounds, and marked by images of its burnt and plundered villages and of its population, slaughtered and enslaved during the wars that devastated Corsica(39), its sons are ready to launch the most cruel battles to safeguard the eternity of the island. Napoleon feels the same emotions. “Thus, respecting all the laws of justice, the Corsicans have been able to shake off the chains of the Genoese(40) and can do the same with the French”, he says in his essay “On Corsica”, the 26 April 1786(41). He is 17. This is the eternal Corsican conflict, that of opposition to foreign rule(42). “Corsica is an untameable nation”, he wrote to the Abbé Raynal(43).
The sea is a motif which often attracts Napoleon's thoughts. At times it is “the origin of the misfortune and the misery of (his) country”(44), at others it is the “destiny (…) that for all other nations becomes the primary source of wealth”(45), but which, for Corsica, is nothing but a dreadful calamity. Nowadays too, insularity is a theme which often arises when Corsica is debated. Forever present, would the sea then and now remain an obstacle to the islanders' opening out to the world? To Napoleon, it was above all the factor that defined the fate of his country and which accompanied his own destiny with its waves, and above all with its islands: Corsica, Great Britain, Elba and St. Helena.
Napoleon's thoughts faithfully reflect the vision that Corsicans have of their country(46), of this land surrounded by the sea which separates it from the rest of the universe and which confines it within its difference and its relentless incompatibility. Whatever comes from the other shore of the sea can only bring threat. Napoleon: “Frenchmen, not satisfied with having robbed us of all that we cherished, you have also corrupted our morals”(47). Stating this difference and stating the right to preserve it implicates the defence of a specific social and political reality, namely territorial autonomy. This autonomy is intrinsically related to the ethnic unity, which resists any invader through a fervent defence of the land of its ancestors. This mythical-historical space, the site of origin of the community, the pieve, drives Corsicans to fight mercilessly against any foreign power aspiring to seize it. Colon Fora! (Colonists go home!) is often sprayed on the buildings in Corsica. “If I had to destroy only one man to free my countrymen, I would leave at this very moment and thrust my sword into the tyrant's breast, avenging our country and its violated laws”, Napoleon says(48). His words are shot through with Corsican mysticism, Corsican sabre rattling, and revolutionary Romanticism. ‘Difference' is the key word for the Corsican identity, and it is this which shapes the perception of the other. The other, the non-Corsican, is inevitably a barbarian, a colonizer. Napoleon follows ideological logic of his ancestors. And his position becomes extreme. “When the homeland perishes, a good patriot must die”(49). In another context, he states: “anything that breaks social unity is worthless. Any institution that sets a man against himself is worthless”(50). The customs and the institutions of the invader, alien to those of the island, prevent Corsican society, confronted with the might of a foreign state, from asserting the fullness of its own rights. However perfect those foreign institutions (rejected in the name of independence) may be, they have no chance of becoming an authority unifying the local society, since social unity derives its sole source of strength from the hatred of all Corsicans for the common enemy, the colonizing state. In Corsica, the foreigner, the mocked, despised and hated alien, unintentionally becomes a unifying factor for the community because by being a threat to it, he generates a collective hatred and destroys fundamental Corsican individualism. Seen from this angle, Napoleon's narrative is a vector of the same ideology.
Up until 1791, Napoleon's admiration for Paoli was unlimited. This was the lesson he had learnt from his father: the almost fetishist cult and veneration of “U Babbu” (the father), of Paoli as the father of the triumphant corsicanism. Almost beatified, Paoli was for Napoleon the embodiment of an ideal justice, the paragon of a hero, the exemplar of the bandit d'honneur. Refusing to recognize and to submit to the invader, preferring to kill himself rather than die by the hands of the enemy, ready to retire from the world and to take to the maquis to escape repression, Paoli(51) was for Napoleon the very personification of the Corsican patriot.(52) The romantic touch of the symbol is striking. Illusions inflated by youth could only further intensify his attachment to Corsica and glorify the bravery of its bandits/patriots(53), secretly fed, helped and protected as they were by the population, living a difficult life in the depths of the forest. It is a powerful image. Yvan Colonna(54), the presumed murderer of the prefect Erignac(55), is still at large(56).
Seen in retrospective, these writings by Napoleon and his attachment to Corsica before 1791 are totally conditioned by his geographical origin. He was born on Corsican soil, and whether in France far away from his homeland or during his stays in Corsica, his only desire is to fan the flames of Corsican francophobia and Corsican perception of the world, despite his determination to have many different viewpoints. The homeland, honour, violence, banditry, freedom, suffering, heroism, economics, politics, the attitude to death, law and justice, hatred, resistance, customs, morals, struggle against the invader – all bear the stamp of Corsican. As stated above, at this point in time, Napoleon was proud to be Corsican. His writings testify to it through the claims he formulates, the topics he tackles, the interpretations he proposes, and the categorical assertion of the Corsicans' desire to govern themselves. His insular origins determine his speech, guide his actions, and shape his vision of the universe.
The years of struggle
Napoleon came back to his native Corsica on 15th of September 1786(57). He returned again on 1st of January 1788 and stayed until the 1st of June the same year, when he left for Paris. He came back to Corsica once again in September 1789(58). In France, to the thunder of canons, the two-month avalanche of the Revolution had swept away all the decayed ideas of the “ancien régime”. Yet Corsica shut itself off from this hecatomb. On his arrival in Ajaccio, Napoleon was stunned by the lethargy of the island and the lack of a sense of urgency. Compared with the radical transformations on the continent, this social apathy felt like paralysis. Corsica seemed outside history(59). The “ancien régime” remained submerged in its vices, the white cockard displayed on every uniform. For Napoleon, this return suddenly became for him a point of no return. The truth of the local reality shook him. It was at this very moment that, turned entirely towards the future, he started to pursue his own course. He could hear angels at his door. His new political convictions admitted no middle way. Determined to take only what was essential and not to give up in the face of any difficulty, he never again took up his old colours. The new ideology became the focus of his thinking and, harnessing the blazing light of social transformation, Napoleon was ready to seize the general confusion and to turn it to his advantage. From now on, his own history would no longer divert from the history of France.
In Ajaccio, Napoleon went to work. He set about spreading revolutionary ideas and had decided to help the people of Ajaccio get out of their political miasma. He urged them to take up the tricolour cockard, founded a political club and put the National Guard in place. These initiatives were to earn him fierce hatred. Whilst it is true that the local authority had means of repression, faced with the fire from the Bonaparte volcano, they had no influence at all over people's minds.
The riposte was not long in coming. The Governor of Bastia, Barrin, sent the Commander Gaffori to Ajaccio. Gaffori proclaimed a state of emergency, banned the club, and declared the National Guard illegitimate. The events toppled the local government. Napoleon and his followers put themselves in an illegal position in relation to the king. In this way, they keep up the tradition of Corsican brigandry, which, as we have already pointed out, is characteristic of the local mental specificity. It is timeless. Via the television news in France, we have become used to the sight of hooded men(60). If we analyse the symbol and the action we can begin to see to a typology. It is a question not only of a violent protest against the official regime, but also of revenge violence. Finding himself at the heart of the political impasse, it was with a truly Corsican spirit that Napoleon handled ideology, method and people.
In the way he initiated a confrontation with the State, first in Ajaccio and in Bastia in 1789, and later in Ajaccio on the 25th June 1790, Napoleon followed the established pattern of the vendetta. First he threatened, then he warned of the possibility of conflict if the State would not meet his demands, and only then did he act. This method elaborated by and used in the vendetta, and also adopted by the Corsican nationalists, is still applied today when actions against the State, always in the open, are carried out in the same spirit and following the same succession of stages.
The concepts of this method reflect the practices shaped by Corsican culture. It is a ritual defined by the requirements of a political vision, by the demand for popular sovereignty and by a behaviour ethic focussed on the total assertion of oneself and of one's rights. And these behavioural ethics, based on a specifically local interpretation of power and justice, are irredeemably Corsican. Having the support of part of the population and some of the military, Napoleon and his followers started a civil war. There had been others before this, and there would be others later, all driven by mental stereotypes.
The Corsican bandits d'honneur were of common or plebeian origin, with a gift for organization and endowed with charisma, which allowed them to exert a certain social hegemony and to obtain community consensus, doubled, it is true, by fear of reprisals and also by contempt for the official arm of the law. They were a very special elite. Descended from the gentry, Napoleon was one of them.
In 1789, spurred by the Revolution, his actions were certainly motivated by universal ideals, but they can also be interpreted as a rebellion, as an act of patriotism for a specific territory. Napoleon obeyed his insular soul. That year (although he was not to do so for much longer), he still sought the independence of the island(61). He wanted to free Corsica. His political strategy was not to be negotiated. It was to be imposed. This is pure Corsican terrorist mysticism, whereby the leader assembles, unites and builds around him a force able to challenge any resistance.
In Ajaccio, Napoleon refrained from open confrontation, which could have been perceived as having a separatist intent. The modern echoes of this terminology are striking. Napoleon wanted to avoid a savage civil war between Corsican patriots and Corsican royalists, the latter better armed and in greater numbers. The hate of yesteryear is echoed in the hatred of today, except for the reluctance to gun down one's own brothers.
To read part two, click here.