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Dreaming of Corsica

Pascal Paoli: Père de la patrie corse

by Antoine-Marie Graziani
Paris: Tallandier, 340 pp., x21.50 (paper)

I had got upon a rock in Corsica and jumped into the middle of life.”

—James Boswell,in a letter to Pasquale Paoli1

Not long ago, at the start of a bicycle tour of Corsica, I found myself in a hotel on the northeastern coast, in Bastia, Corsica’s largest city.2 In the breakfast room was an oversized reproduction of an engraving which had been done in 1806 by the French artist Carle Vernet, who had accompanied Napoleon on his Italian campaign. Vernet specialized in battle scenes, so it was not surprising that there are soldiers in the foreground, what look like a fleet in the harbor in the background, and a tower-like structure with smoke rising behind it. The caption under the picture read “Déli-vrance de la Corse.”

Corsica has had several “deliverances”; the date for this one was given as “29 Vandemaire 5,” that is, five years after the beginning of the Revolutionary Calendar in 1792, which puts it at 1796. This was the year that the French delivered Corsica from the English, who had in turn delivered it from the French in 1794, who had in turn delivered it from the Pisans. A bit puzzling was the matter of the tower. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Genoese had constructed eighty-five stone coastal watch towers of which sixty-seven are still standing in various condition. All but four of these towers are round, while the one in the engraving is square. The locations of the existing square towers do not seem to correspond to the scene shown in the lithograph. Perhaps Vernet imagined it or the tower he drew was destroyed.

One of the surviving square towers is near Nonza, a village on the west side of Cap Corse. Our tour passed through Nonza and we stopped at a café for lunch. I asked the proprietor about the origin of the tower and he replied with great confidence that it was “Paoline,” which meant that it had been built by Pasquale Paoli—pronounced “pauli.” He also told me that Paoli—referred to in Corse (corsu), the dialect of Italian spoken along with French on the island, as “U Babu di la Nation” (“the father of the country”)—had written the American Constitution. Reticence prevented me from informing him that his tower had been built by the Genoese in 1550 and that our constitution had other authors. But I could have cheered him up by informing him that there are four old American cities with the name “Paoli” in deference to the “Babu.” That Paoli’s fame had spread to his contemporaries as far away as America is owing almost entirely to the then twenty-five-year-old James Boswell’s seven-day visit to him on the island in 1765. This visit resulted in Boswell’s book An Account of Corsica: The Journal of a Tour to That Island and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, which he published in February of 1768. The book was a runaway best seller in England and was published in translation in France, Germany, and other countries, where it also sold well. It made the reputations of both Boswell—who became known in England as “Corsica Boswell”—and Paoli.

We now know much more than we did about Paoli and about Boswell’s visit thanks to a splendid new biography, Pascal Paoli: Père de la patrie corse. It is written by the Corsican historian Antoine-Marie Graziani, who teaches at the island’s Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres. Professor Graziani has been studying the history of his country for some time and his book is a model of erudition and style. Both Professor Graziani and Paoli come from the same part of Corsica, the Castaniccia, so named because of the ubiquitous presence of castagni—chestnuts, owing to the vast forests of chestnut trees planted on the hills by the Pisans. Paoli was born in Stretta, a hamlet a few miles from Morosaglia—where Professor Graziani lives—on April 5, 1725. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the island.

Paoli was the sixth, and last, child of Hyacinthe (Ghjacinto) and Danisia Valentini de Pastroreccia. He was especially close to his older, and only, brother, Clément. Paoli’s father, Hyacinthe, was one of the leaders of a rebellion against Genoan rule that began in 1735. But the French soon arrived with a strong force, and in 1738, Hyacinthe was forced into exile in Naples, where he joined a Corsican army regiment against the French. He took with him only his fourteen-year-old son Pasquale. Much has been made by Boswell, among others, of the influence of French thinkers like Rousseau and Montesquieu on Paoli. But they overlook his early education in Italy and the greater influence of Machiavelli and Thomas Aquinas in Paoli’s writings.

Hyacinthe wanted Pasquale to become a priest. While Paoli had always been religious he felt he did not have a priestly vocation.3 Instead, he became a soldier, joining the Corsican regiment in Naples in 1741, in which he served for the next fourteen years, a period when the Genoese once again occupied Corsica.4 Even though he was in Italy, Paoli seems to have felt that it was his destiny to rebuild the Corsican nation. While still a soldier he made a study of the literatures that he thought might be useful to him. One of the qualities that astounded Boswell when they met was the depth of Paoli’s culture. In many quarters Corsicans were considered barely literate primitives, yet here was someone who seemed to know the classics by heart.

In the spring of 1755, Paoli returned to the island to take part in the rebellion, an action his father vehemently opposed. He was just thirty. Paoli wrote Hyacinthe reassuring letters, some of which are quoted by Professor Graziani:

I see my passage [to Corsica] as the invitation to a party, and you see it as a step toward death and unhappiness. As I’ve written to you, I’ll take precautions to make it certain that your dreams are clearly the product of the alarmed imagination of a father.

What is remarkable is that by July, Paoli had been elected “general of the Nation” which meant that he was now to lead the rebellion against the Genoese. It is quite unclear, at least to me, why his fellow Corsicans should have put such trust in someone who had not been on the island for more than fifteen years and who was so young, unless he was a remarkable personality. I did not realize until I read Professor Graziani’s book that Paoli was not robust, suffering particularly from, among other ailments, prolonged spells of dizziness.

Paoli wanted nothing less than to create a new country—something like a constitutional republic. He did in fact establish a partly independent Corsica between 1757 and 1768. The obstacles, internal and external, were enormous and in the long run he failed. He was never able to free the island’s large coastal cities from the Genoese, although he fought several successful campaigns against them. He tried to create a navy, but failed for lack of money and because the Corsicans, although they live on an island, are not a maritime people. In 1758, he managed to create a port at L’Île-Rousse on the northwest coast that allowed enterprising Corsicans to avoid burdensome Genoese taxes on trade, as well as an institute of higher learning in Corte, a substantial town in the central highlands which he made his capital and where he set up a printing house that published material describing events in Corsica and helped gain support for his republic throughout Europe. He encouraged Jews to come to Corsica, granting them full rights. When an objection was raised to this Paoli wrote, “La liberté n’a ni confesseurs ni inquisiteurs.” (“Liberty has neither confessors nor inquisitors.”)

The internal obstacles were equally daunting. Corsica was torn apart by banditry and by vendettas among clans and competing factions, often encouraged by the Genoese, who used rivalry and conflict to prevent any unified opposition to their rule. The island still has this reputation, and both Corsican nationalist politicians and French officials have been murdered in recent years.5 A Corsican story tells of a housewife who says to her husband, “Antoine, put on your pistols and take out the garbage.” It is funnier when told in the thick Italianate accent characteristic of older Corsicans when they speak French.

Paoli made it clear that laws would have to be obeyed. Shortly after his election he ordered the execution of three people who had committed murders, one of them his own cousin. Material conditions on the island improved when Paoli ordered the draining of marshes, thereby reclaiming farmland and stopping the spread of malaria. By the time of Boswell’s visit in 1765, there was a precarious stability on the island. It was the high point of Paoli’s attempt at nation-building.6

The events that led to the meeting with Boswell are well known. Born in Edinburgh in October 1740, Boswell was some fifteen years younger than Paoli. His father, Alexander, later Lord Auchinleck, was a distinguished jurist. His mother, Euphemia, a woman noted for her piety, died while Boswell, then in his mid-twenties, was still in Europe on his way back from Corsica. With his mother’s piety and his father’s total lack of appreciation for anything that Boswell did, it is little wonder that he sought approval and models elsewhere, finding heroes not only in Johnson and Rousseau, but in Paoli among many others.

With Boswell, a short period of good behavior would be followed by a wild period of wining and whoring; the consequence was often a venereal disease and vows by Boswell to reform. He managed to begin the study of law and in 1763 his father agreed to finance a year abroad where Boswell could complete his education. It didn’t quite work out that way. In the fall of 1763 he began an unhappy stay in Utrecht, which he found prim and boring. Nine months later, he set off on a European tour. After a visit to Berlin in September, Boswell headed for Geneva, hoping to meet Voltaire and Rousseau, then fifty-two and living in what amounted to enforced retirement in Môtiers. Upon arriving in Môtiers, Boswell sent Rousseau a flowery note saying that it was important that he call upon him. He got a cautious reply, but before long he was having lengthy conversations with Rousseau, some of which he recorded.

Boswell had just read Rousseau’s Social Contract, in which Rousseau wrote about both Corsica and Paoli. Rousseau saw Corsica as a blank slate on which ideas of freedom could be imprinted. In fact, one of Paoli’s officers, probably without Paoli’s consent, had invited Rousseau to draw up a constitution for the island. Rousseau had never been to Corsica and had never met Paoli. He did not understand that Paoli wanted to build a modern, pragmatic state, integrated with the rest of Europe, which would bring Corsicans out of generations of poverty and backwardness. Rousseau’s “project” for a constitution envisaged a completely egalitarian agricultural society in which cities would diminish in importance. His ideas had no effect in Corsica and his constitution itself was never completed.

It was this visit to Rousseau that kindled in Boswell the notion of visiting Corsica. It was a bold idea. So far as was known, no Englishman had ever toured the island, which seemed at the time more remote than India, a place familiar to generations of Englishmen. However, before Boswell made his visit, something like a year passed. In the interim he met Voltaire and then headed to Italy where he had a riotous time as usual. A year later, he left “sweet Siena” and a tearful married mistress for Corsica, carrying a letter of introduction from Rousseau.

Boswell’s Journal does not contain maps. Nonetheless, if one knows something of Corsican geography it is quite easy to trace his route, since there are not many roads, and the terrain is rough. He arrived in a small sailboat from Leghorn accompanied by his servant, Jacob. The wind died down so he helped to row. Wishing to arrive unobserved, they landed at a small port on the west side of Cap Corse—Centuri. Then, for a few days, with guides, they made their way inland to Corte.

When Boswell arrived, however, Paoli had moved his quarters south to Sollacarò, and Boswell had to make a difficult mountain trek to find him. Boswell describes what happened when he was shown into Paoli’s quarters:

I found him alone and was struck with his appearance. He is tall, strong, and well made; of a fair complexion, a sensible, free, and open countenance, and a manly and noble carriage. He was then in his fortieth year. He was drest in green and gold. He used to wear the common Corsican habit, but on the arrival of the French, he thought a little external elegance might be of use, to make the government appear in a more respectable light.

…I shewed him my letter from Rousseau. He was polite, but very reserved. I had stood in the presence of many a prince, but I never had such a trial as in the presence of Paoli. I have already said, that he is a great physiognomist. In consequence of his being in continual danger from treachery and assassination, he has formed a habit of studiously observing every new face. For ten minutes we walked backwards and forwards through the room, hardly saying a word, while he looked at me with a stedfast, keen and penetrating eye, as if he searched my very soul.

In 1768, three years after Boswell’s visit, the Genoese authorities, who had by then tired of trying to administer the island, turned it over to the French, who already had considerable power there. Now Paoli tried to mount a rebellion against the formidable French forces. He was defeated in 1769 and, like his father, he was sent into exile. By this time, Boswell’s book had been published and Paoli was known throughout Europe. He moved to England, where he was lionized and given a pension by King George III. Of course, Boswell introduced him to Dr. Johnson and some of their conversations are recorded in Boswell’s Life and in the letters of Fanny Burney. She and Boswell, being rivals for Dr. Johnson’s attention, did not much like each other. Burney’s account is a bit sardonic, but she had a genius for capturing dialogue. The meeting with Paoli took place at the house of Johnson’s friends Mr. and Mrs. Thrale. She writes of Paoli, “He is a very pleasing man, tall and genteel in his person, remarkably well bred, and very mild and soft in his manners.” Then she goes on:

I will try to give you a little specimen of his conversation, because I know you love to hear particulars of all out-of-the-way persons. His English is blundering, but not unpretty. Speaking of his first acquaintance with Mr. Boswell,

He came,” he said, “to my country, and he fetched me some letter of recommending him; but I was of the belief he might be an impostor, and I supposed, in my minte, he was an espy; for I look away from him, and in a moment I look to him again, and I behold his tablets. Oh! he was to the work of writing down all I say! Indeed I was angry. But soon I discover he was no impostor and no espy; and I only find I was myself the monster he had come to discern. Oh,—is a very good man; I love him indeed; so cheerful! so gay! so pleasant! but at first, oh! I was indeed angry.”7

Part of Boswell’s genius as a writer is his ability to give the reader the impression of a long and intimate acquaintance with his subject. One of the things they discussed was marriage. Boswell wrote,

He said to me one day when we were alone, “I never will marry. I have not the conjugal virtues. Nothing would tempt me to marry, but a woman who should bring me an immense dowry, with which I might assist my country.”

But he spoke much in praise of marriage, as an institution which the experience of ages had found the best calculated for the happiness of individuals, and for the good of society. Had he been a private gentleman, he probably would have married, and I am sure would have made as good a husband and father as he does a supreme magistrate and a general. But his arduous and critical situation would not allow him to enjoy domestick felicity. He is wedded to his country, and the Corsicans are his children.

Paoli never did marry and Professor Graziani tells us that his only romance seems to have been in England with an Italian-born woman named Maria Hadfield. She was twenty-five years his junior and married. Whether their love affair was ever consummated we do not know.

As for Boswell, his return from Corsica was difficult. By the time he reached Bastia he was very ill, and the French officials who were in charge there looked after him. He reached London in February of 1766, accompanied by Thérèse Le Vasseur, Rousseau’s mistress. This was certainly a factor in the end of his relationship with Rousseau. He soon set about writing his journal of his Corsican trip.

Paoli lived in exile in England until 1790. By this time Corsica had returned to a state of anarchy and Paoli was recalled to try to put the situation in order. In fact, it got worse and Paoli appealed to the British to come to Corsica to evict the French. After sending a naval force, the British decided that Paoli’s presence on the island was disruptive and ordered that he be brought back to England, by force if necessary. In October of 1795 he left Corsica for England on a British frigate. He never returned.

The England he found was very different from the one he had left. Both Johnson and Boswell were by then dead. His pension was reduced and as he aged his health got worse. He was able to follow events in Corsica, and knew that in 1796, the French had retaken the island. It remains, of course, part of France, though a movement for independence, with an active, sometimes violent, underground, still continues. Opinion polls suggest that only a small minority of the 260,000 Corsicans favor independence.

Paoli lived long enough to see a fellow Corsican, from Ajaccio, become emperor of France. After the outbreak of the Revolution, Napoleon had tried to join Paoli’s Corsican patriots, but the Bonaparte family was rightly seen as staunchly pro-French and they had to leave the island in 1793. Mr. Gra-ziani tells us that in 1802, when Paoli was seventy-seven, Napoleon offered to restore his rights as a French citizen if he would apologize for having collaborated with the English. This he refused to do. The English had, he said, “proposed a good constitution for his island.” He died in London in 1807. The sculptor Flaxman made a statue of Paoli which was placed in Westminster Abbey.

In Stretta, Paoli’s birthplace, one can visit a lovely small museum which has, among other things, what must be a first edition of the Italian translation of Boswell’s book. It also has what I assume is a copy of Thomas Lawrence’s oil portrait of Paoli. This must have been done when Paoli was in late middle-age. His hair, which had been reddish-blond, is now white. The museum also has a short TV documentary about Paoli’s life. It is a little sad. It keeps referring to him as the father of his country—a country that he was never able to father. Paoli’s remains are in a chapel next door, along with those of his brother. Paoli’s were brought there in 1889, from England.

On the tomb is engraved,

Le père de la patrie est inhumé ici:
Il repose là où il est né;
Le voeu sacré de la Corse est maintenant réalisé;
Requiescat in pace.

It is the final irony.

  1. 1

    Paoli’s first name is variously spelled depending on the language of the writer; “Pascal” in French. I will adopt the Italianate spelling, which was Paoli’s.

  2. 2

    Bicycle-riding readers who want to visit some of the places I describe might contact ExperiencePlus Specialty Tours at the e-mail address tours@ExperiencePlus.com.

  3. 3

    When I first was in Corsica, in the 1960s, I was told that when a male child was born a coin was tossed. If it landed heads the child became a priest, tails a bandit, and if by chance it stood on its edge the child would become an honest man.

  4. 4

    Paoli’s brother was a leader in a serious rebellion against the occupation. Indeed, many of the rebels tried to make him “general of the nation” (capo generale), which he declined.

  5. 5

    This July 4, Corsican police arrested Yvan Colonna, a Corsican nationalist accused of assassinating the governor of Corsica in 1998 as he walked from his car to join his wife at a concert in Ajaccio. Three days after Colonna was arrested, the Corsican electorate voted by 51 to 49 percent to reject the French government’s plan to combine two regional administrations in one and to give limited powers to a locally elected assembly. According to The New York Times of July 7, voters were “particularly incensed” that the police arrested Colonna less than forty-eight hours before the referendum. The Times report also said that “opinion polls over the years indicate that only a small percentage of Corsicans favor independence.”

  6. 6

    In this account of Boswell’s visit to Corsica I relied on, among other sources, Peter Martin, A Life of Boswell (Yale University Press, 1999); William C. Dowling, The Boswellian Hero (University of Georgia Press, 1979); Frederick A. Pottle, James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740–1769 (McGraw-Hill, 1966); and, of course, James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to Corsica (Brighton: Print Publishing, 1996). Most editions, including this one, do not include Boswell’s history of Corsica, which is available only in the earliest editions. Dr. Johnson wrote him, “Your history is like other histories, but your Journal is in a very high degree curious and delightful…. Your history was copied from books: your journal rose out of your own experience and observation.” See Martin, A Life of Boswell, p. 219.

  7. 7

    Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, edited by Charlotte Barrett (London: Macmillan, 1904), Vol. 2, pp. 100–101.

  8. 8

    The father of the country is interred here:

    at rest in the place where he was born;

    The sacred vow of Corsica is now realized;

    May he rest in peace.

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