Isle of Beauty, Isle of Bandits
"So you're going to Corsica?" said a knowledgeable friend in Paris. "Be sure to take along a bullet-proof vest."
In the papers next day I learned that a terrorist bomb had wrecked the building of the French government agency for the economic development of the island.
In the plane the day after that I was leafing through Dorothy Carrington's beautiful work on the Corsican heritage, Granite Island, and I came across a description of the traditional mourning song, the rimbeccu, which is chanted over the corpse of a murdered man by his grandmother to tell every surviving male member of the family that eternal shame and ignominy will attend the man who does not speedily avenge the crime in blood..
I had put thoughts like these out of mind, and was enjoying a pleasant sleep in my first night in a cliffside hotel in the north of the island, lulled by the gentle plash of the waves and vaguely aware that I should get up in time to see the sun rise in unparalleled glory over the bright blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, when a peal of barbaric howls and barks bounced me out of my bed. It was, as I would later learn, not a terrorist or a grandmother, but a tourist like myself, the one in the next room to mine, who had chosen this night to have an attack of delirium tremens and, after smashing the furniture in his room was roaming the corridors stark naked, smashing light bulbs, flower pots, the reception desk, and whatever else lay in his path, till he was eventually subdued by the fire department.
"What can you expect of a Parisian?" asked an onlooker.
This was the last act of public violence I would actually see in Corsica, which in fact is a much safer place for the average tourist to wander around in than Paris or Washington DC.
Not that violence does not remain deeply embedded in the Corsican soil and the Corsican soul. One day at dinner I mentioned that I had read in the morning's newspaper about a man who had been arrested for shooting two of his neighbor's pigs after they had chewed up all the flowers in his garden. My companion did not see what business the French government had in interfering in a private quarrel like this between two Corsicans. "But what I really don't understand," he added, "was, Why did that man shoot the pigs? Why didn't he shoot the neighbor?" He was only half smiling when he said it. Like so many of his countryman, he feels a certain nostalgia for the splendid disordered old days, days which did not end till a very short time ago, when justice was a personal matter, when the law of the land was the vendetta.
Vendetta is the only word in the Corsican language which has found its way into the dictionaries of most of the other languages of the world. It describes a code which commands that an assault on a family's honor must be repaid in blood, and that blood repaid in turn till, barring a tenuous truce worked out by the local priest, it all ends with the extermination of one or both of the families. For thousands of years it was the only code which Corsicans could voluntarily follow, it was the only law they could trust
This kind of rough-and-ready self-administering justice has had its admirers. "Better occasional murders than frequent adulteries," wrote James Boswell when he came wide-eyed to Corsica in 1765 and fell in love with everything he saw. The sailors who brought him across the sea from Leghorn in Italy had told him that he would find himself among a hospitable people, but if he tried to debauch a single one of their women he would be swiftly killed, and though he was -- on the evidence provided by his journals and account books - perhaps the most adulterous great writer of all time (1), he respected the custom of the country all the six weeks he was there.
Boswell, described by the philosopher David Hume as "a young gentleman, very good-humored, very agreeable, and very mad," was probably the first man in history to come to Corsica sheerly out of curiosity, as a tourist.
He could not have come at a more propitious time. For after thousands of years of neglect, the full light of history was beginning to shine on the island.
For those thousands of years, the outer world had been aware of Corsica, if at all, as a savage island, 3300 square miles of fractured rock, all shapes and sizes and colors of rock, compacted into a clenched fist with one threatening finger pointing upward. Everything is vertical here. There are innumerable peaks, forty of them more than 6500 feet high, jutting out of the Mediterranean, and if you ask for your way among them, directions will be more often in terms of up and down than of right and left. It is a rough stubborn unyielding land, inhabited till the day before yesterday by bands of rough stubborn unyielding herdsmen and hunters and subsistence farmers whose numbers could never rise higher than that of a middling city on the mainland (archeologists guess that there may have been a population of thirty thousand in ancient times , it is about 250,000 today), . "What," asked the Roman philosopher Seneca who spent some unhappy years of exile there two millennia ago, "can be found so bare, so rugged all around as this rock? What more barren of provisions? What more rude as to its inhabitants? What in the very situation of the place more horrible?"
This was just the kind of place enlightened people of the 18th century like the young Boswell were anxious to discover, because according to the currently fashionable theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this is just what unspoiled primitive humanity was like before civilization began to corrupt everything with its social injustice and its effete self-indulgence. Walking with representatives of these "brave rude men" through towering mountains covered with forests and vine and olive trees, and great stretches of brushland suffused with "the very refreshing odor of the myrtle and other aromatick shrubs and flowers," Boswell was carried back into an older better world. "When we grew hungry we threw stones among the thick branches of the chestnut trees which overshadowed us, and in that way we brought down a shower of chestnuts with which we filled our pockets, and went on eating them with great relish; and when this made us thirsty we laid down by the side of the first brook, put our mouths to the stream and drank sufficiently. It was just being, for a little while, one of the prisca gens mortalium, the primitive race of men who ran about in the woods eating acorns and drinking water."
Left to themselves, the Corsicans might well have preferred to go on living indefinitely in proud isolated acorn-and-water poverty, herding goats and sheep, gathering chestnuts and olives off the ground, and growing a few crops on narrow ledges scratched out of cliffsides
But they were never to be left to themselves because their island though it had practically nothing in the way of natural resources to attract invaders lay athwart busy Mediterranean trade routes, its coast dotted with harbors that could be used by the great powers of the day as bases for commerce or piracy or war.
And so the history of Corsica became one long series of invasions, devastations, conquests, massacres, spoliations...
The first recorded invasion came around 1500 BC, apparently made by bands of the so-called Peoples of the Sea who were then bringing pillage and disorder to the whole Mediterranean world (the best-known of these peoples were the Philistines of the Bible who gave their name to Palestine). They wiped out settlements of neolithic shepherds, broke up the glowering stone statues of warriors which the shepherds had made to frighten off invaders, and used the pieces to build stone towers of their own to protect themselves from new invaders..
The new invaders duly and repeatedly came, century after century, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Pisans, Aragonese, Barbary pirates, Genoese, French, who successively plundered and subdued but never completely conquered a fierce sullen population, proud of its own identity. The Corsicans regularly revolted, led by chieftains who soon began to plunder and oppress them just as the foreigners did They could perform prodigies of obstinate valor - it took the Romans more than seventy years to stamp out the resistance of a few thousand backward mountaineers on this little island, while it took Julius Caesar only eight to conquer all Gaul with its millions of inhabitants - but the invaders always won the wars in the long run, it might be said of the Corsicans as it was of the ancient Britons in the old poem, "They went forth to battle and they always fell." There were simply too few of them, and their rage to be left alone was not enough to prevail against disciplined troops with superior weapons from the mainland.
And so history combined with geography to form the Corsican people, split into innumerable proud quarrelsome clans and families, united only by feelings of fear and contempt for the outside world., the world overseas. .Since the sea represented danger and death, they preferred to have nothing to do with it. Unlike all other Mediterranean islands, neither fishing nor maritime commerce played any significant role in their economy. They built their rock houses up in cracks and crannies of the mountains. Since these cracks and crannies were separated from one another by massive ridges cut by deep gorges scoured out by torrents of melting snow, their inhabitants like those of so many other mountain nations (Scotland, Afghanistan) carved up their land into fiercely independent patches controlled by rival quick-tempered clans. Clan values, family values, many of them going back to Neolithic (or Paleolithic) days, were the bedrock of society. The interplay of clan and family interests, rivalries, intrigues, exchanges of favors, exchanges of insults, memories of past loyalties and past betrayals, determined every choice they made in politics, business, crime, matrimony, everything.
There is a story of a young man born with a single leg who was called up for service in the French army. In parts of the French world ruled by logic, this would have automatically disqualified him for military service. But this was Corsica and what he did was, he called on his uncle the mayor who called on a second cousin whose daughter was about to marry a son of the ranking military officer in the local barracks, who agreed to give the boy a medical deferment in exchange for a somewhat more lavish wedding feast.
Clans might come together against a foreign invader, but they could never stick together for very long. Personal wrongs and rivalries, the deadly feuds roused and perpetuated by the rough personal justice of the vendetta system, took precedence over their common hatred of outsiders, They were repeatedly robbed by strangers of all they had except their pride. They never became serfs, they never worked for their masters..When there was no food at home, they would hire themselves out as mercenary soldiers in continental armies, some took to piracy, many thousand were victims of raids by the Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in the marketplaces of North Africa. Many of those slaves converted to Islam and became slave-raiders themselves, two of them became Deys - rulers - of Algiers before they were murdered.
Through it all, they kept killing each other with regularity in the name of honor, reaching in Boswell's century the record figure of 900 a year, in a population that was probably less than 100,000.
Then suddenly, just as Boswell, son of a rich Scottish laird, was setting out on his Grand Tour to see the world as young bloods were expected to do in his day, the millennial pattern changed. For the first and only time in their history the Corsicans had formed themselves into an independent nation. They had chased out the armies of their latest master, the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, from all but a handful of coastal forts, and under the inspired leadership of a young nobleman named Pasquale Paoli they had acquired an elected government -- they were, said Rousseau the only people in Europe who could hold a free election, the "one country capable of legislation," -- plus a University at Corte in the heart of the mountains, where Franciscan friars taught the radical doctrines of Locke and Rousseau, and a Constitution which at least on paper was considerably more democratic than the one that was to be adopted in Philadelphia a quarter century later by the United States of America. (In practice, the clan chieftains kept on running the processes of daily life as they had always done, as they still do.)
The book about Corsica and Paoli which Boswell wrote when he returned home, became one of the 18th century's best-sellers, and carried the fame of the island heroes to every European country and over the seas to America. Benjamin Franklin hailed them as the "brave Assertors of Civil Liberty within the bounds of the Old Roman Commonwealth," and some of the slogans and warcries which helped launch the American Revolution were shouted by the Sons of Liberty over drinks at the Paoli Tavern around which would later grow the town of Paoli, Pennsylvania, a few miles northwest of Philadelphia. (Other Paoli's and Corsica's and Corsicana's would later dot the American map as far west as Colorado.)
It was a false dawn. The Corsican Republic lasted only 14 years (still, an impressive figure against the ten years for the Commonwealth that had been established by the English Revolution of the previous century and the twelve for the Republic which would be created by the French Revolution in 1792.) The Genoese, tired of paying for endless trouble on a barren island, sold their sovereign rights to the French government of King Louis XV in 1768, for the bargain price of twenty thousand livres tournois>, just as later proud but cash-strapped governments in France and Spain and Russia would sell Louisiana and Florida and Alaska to the United States for a few paltry millions of dollars. The Corsicans as usual put up a fierce resistance, but as usual in vain. Paoli, a brilliant politician but a lamentable general, let himself be lured into a battle with his back to an unfordable river, and his army was destroyed at Porta Nuova in May 1769. It was the end of Corsican independence. Paoli, though he twice made efforts to return, would die in exile in London, and his name would disappear from the history books..
Among the innumerable anonymous individual incidents which accompanied or followed his last battle was one which turned out to be not only the most decisive event in Corsican history but the only thing which ever happened in the island that had the slightest effect on the course of events in the great world over the seas.
Among those fleeing the disaster was Paoli's personal secretary, a lawyer named Carlo Buonaparte and his young wife Letizia who was six months pregnant. They were on mule-back, hacking their painful way up and down slippery paths through dense mountain forests towards their home in Ajaccio - -in those days there was not a mile of paved road in all Corsica. Fording the Liamone river, swollen by melting snow, Letizia's mount lost its footing and began to be swept downstream. Her husband shouted to her to let go of the reins and head for the bank, but she knew that without an animal she would never be able to make it all the rocky miles to safety. So with all the desperate courage and strength on which Corsicans call in emergencies, she pulled harder on the reins and managed to lurch the mule over to a firm footing and then up the bank. Three months later, safe at hone, she gave birth to her second son who was christened Napoleon, a name to be twisted by his brothers and sisters to Nebulio (or Rabulio) meaning Trouble-Maker.
It is one of history's little ironies that if Napoleon had been born a few years previously, he would have been a citizen of the Genoese Republic and might have grown up to be nothing more than a Genoese general winning obscure and fruitless victories over the Tuscans and the Piedmontese. If he had been born a few years later, when Corsica was briefly ruled by an English Vice-Roy who had dreams of turning it into a second Gibraltar, he would have been a subject of King George III, he might have been sent to a n English military school and gone on to become the greatest English general of all time. (Imagine how the War of 1812 would have turned out if General Bonaparte had been leading His Majesty's invading forces.) As it was, we all know that he was born a Frenchman: his father, seeing the way the wind was blowing, had turned his back on Paoli, frenchified his name to Charles Bonaparte and served his new masters so faithfully he was able to wangle a scholarship for little Napoleon at a French military school - the first rung up the ladder which would lead the young trouble-maker to become not only the greatest French general of all time but the only Frenchman whose name is instantly recognized wherever it is uttered in the world, from Penang to Peoria.
It was Napoleon with all his victories and his empire and his Gloire who made it an article of both French and Corsican faith that the island, though it is twice as far from France as from Italy and speaks a language which some Italians can follow with difficulty but the French not at all, is an integral part of the French kingdom or empire or republic or whatever has suited the popular taste of the last two centuries..
Napoleon, it is true, showed little interest in his native island while he was in power, outside of giving kingdoms away to his brothers and brothers-in-law and making dozens of Corsicans generals in his Grande Armée which came close to conquering the world. But under his rule Corsica was organized as part of the centralized French bureaucratic state which was his principal handiwork, and that is what Corsica has been down to the present day, one département (later two), just like all the other eighty- or ninety-odd in France where all the appointments and the laws and rules and the administrative regulations are made in ministries in Paris...
There was some early sporadic resistance to French rule, put down with brutal efficiency. One French general became famous for his eagle eye which could calculate at a glance how many Corsican rebels could be hanged on any given branch of any given tree without breaking it. Once they accepted their new role as citizens of a nation-state, the Corsicans embarked on a long period of unfamiliar peace and steady, if very slow, economic progress. For the first time in their history, the islanders had paved roads, and eventually railroads, they were free to travel over the sea with no hindrance, they could get jobs and rise in the world like any other citizens of France. They took full advantage of the opportunity: in the first seventy years of the twentieth century, Corsican emigration equaled the total Corsican population in its best year.
Many of these emigrants were simply swallowed up in the mainstream life of the mainland, without ever losing a certain nostalgia for their brooding beautiful island. Many others came home to live in ostentatious leisure on their pensions and build for themselves the outsize ornamented tombs which tower over the graves of penurious stay-at-homes in Corsican cemeteries..
Given the violence of their background, it was natural that many of the emigrants should gravitate toward the French army and the French police, but in fact they spread everywhere through the French government, the customs service, the colonial service, till it became a saying that Corsica exported civil servants and imported retired civil servants..And many other Corsicans found they could blend into French society and achieve success there, in industry, in commerce, in politics, in the arts. Paul Valéry, France's greatest 20th century poet, was of Corsican descent. So was Tino Rossi, its greatest crooner, and so were many prominent politicians, including a recent mayor of Paris, Jean Tibéri.
When they couldn't these kinds of jobs, they gravitated, naturally enough since they were born with guns in their hands, into crime. The folklore of the French underworld is as full of Corsican names as the American equivalent is of Sicilians like Lucky Luciano and the Corleone family. The "French Connection" made famous by Hollywood was managed by Corsican gangsters in Marseilles.
Thousands of other Corsicans migrated across the seven seas, to North Africa, South America, Australia, and flourished in the competitive atmosphere they found there.
But those who stayed at home obstinately refused to let their character be changed by the great historical forces of modern times. The Protestant Work Ethic, which has transformed the world in the last three centuries, which changed proud chivalrous France in a few generations into a nation of shop-keepers, never could get a solid toehold here. Where the modern mind values doing things efficiently, the Corsican mind insists on doing things the traditional, the honorable, way.Witness the goatherd who was driving his goats to the coast down a path through woodland and brushland that had been used by his great-grandfathers before him. One day he found a house being built across this path, and while it would have been quite simple to go around it, he preferred to follow the code of his great-grandfathers and drive his herd straight forward through what soon became a rubble of bricks and cement and plaster and hammers and shovels.
Boswell noted two hundred and fifty years ago, "The chief satisfaction of the islanders, when not engaged in war or hunting, seemed to be that of lying at their ease in the open air, recounting tales of the bravery of their countrymen and singing songs in honor of the Corsicans."
It is all summed up in a popular French joke: A Corsican comes to Paris, succeeds in business, and then sends for his younger brother to break loose from his miserable little village and come join him in the City of Light. He greets him at the Gare de Lyon railway station, takes him outside into the whirl of traffic, and suddenly there is a gust of wind and a piece of paper fluttering and falling in the air before their eyes. "Look." he cries, "didn't I tell you the streets of Paris were paved with gold? That is a hundred-franc note which is now down in the gutter at your feet. Quick, bend down and pick it up before somebody else does." >From the granite heights of ancestral pride, the brother acidly replies: "I haven't been here ten minutes, and already you want me to start working?"
In another version, he says, "I am waiting for the wind."
To mainland French, this is a sign of congenital laziness. To traditional Corsicans, it is the mark of a noble temperament.
Whatever it is, it leaves its mark everywhere..
Some years ago the European Union, as part of its regional development program provided Corsican country people with money to buy cattle which with careful breeding might become an economic mainstay of the island. The country people turned the cattle loose, as they always have since prehistoric days, to breed the way they wanted in the mountains, where they provide perpetual traffic hazards as well as picturesque sights for tourists who wish to savor primitive life.
The Genoese three or so centuries ago planted chestnut trees all over the upland region which is still called Castigniccia, or ChestnutLand. They soon covered all the hills and the Castigniccia became a foundation of the island's economy. Chestnut flour made Corsican bread, and dozens of prosperous villages sprang up to provide it. Pigs might have created a problem because, being never penned in behind fences, they were allowed to run at liberty all over the island (you may see them to this day congregating in the middle of the highway as you take a cliffside U-turn), and pigs might have rooted up the saplings patiently planted by the Genoese. But the problem had been solved in advance by the equally immemorial custom of providing every pig with a copper nose ring stamped with the name of its owner, and the ring inhibited it from rooting up the soil. Everything went on cheerily till the middle of the 19th century, when newfangled means of transport like steamships and railroads allowed Italian farmers to send in wheat flour at a price which made chestnut culture, with all the constant labor of pruning, grafting, picking up the chestnuts as they fell, etc. a hopeless proposition economically, and Corsicans were only too happy to give up that line of work. While they were at it, they gave up the time-consuming work of manufacturing nose-rings for their pigs, it was simpler to attach a red cloth tag to one of their ears. The result has been continuous rooting up of young chestnut trees and anything else growing in the Castigniccia, which becomes a little more depopulated every year and which French environmentalists predict will soon have no trees at all, it will become part of the vast maquis which already covers half of the island's soil, the scrubland of stumps and weeds and the aromatick bushes Boswell loved, offering little of value to mankind except for hardy hikers and persons who have reason to avoid the authorities.
Such persons have always played a prominent part in Corsican life, and since the authorities in general have been cruel and corrupt, though the outer world might call them merely bandits, for their fellow-countrymen they were always bandits d'honneur..
They were also something of a necessity for the economy of the island. As the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie points out, Corsica was continuously being stripped of its wealth by foreign invaders, and the only way to get money to equilibrate the balance of payments was to steal it, by piracy at sea or banditry on land..
Not that bandits d'honneur had any interest is mere money. They were men who had become outlaws because they had dared to defend their family honor by killing those who had besmirched it and had been condemned for breaking alien laws by corrupt alien judges. As they dodged from hideout to hideout in the endless forests and the endless maquis, these bandits could always count on relatives and admirers to offer them food and ammunition, to sing songs about them, to turn them into national heroes and international celebrities. A village mayor named Frattini, having abandoned his city hall for a dugout in the maquis after a murder for honor's sake, was voted an annuity of 1400 francs by his constituents. Admirers from overseas, princes and opera singers and American millionairesses and famous writers like Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas made pilgrimages to Corsica to pay homage to these men. "He was handsome," said Flaubert of his favorite bandit Luarelli, "all his person had something naive and ardent, his black eyes shone wish a brilliance full of tenderness at the sight of men holding out their hands to him. Great and valiant heart that beats alone in freedom in the woods, purer and nobler no doubt than most respectable people in France, from the meanest grocer to the king."
Bandits d'honneur may be deemed to represent the higher limits of traditional Corsican culture. There were other features less attractive to modern tastes.
Women, for example, were treated with something less than the respect they now take for granted. They had their recognized place in society, perhaps best summed up by the observation that the surest way for a man to lose his honor -- which meant that he could be killed like a dog without setting off a vendetta -- was to be seen in public carrying anything heavier than a gun. Carrying, the men would say in their pride, was for donkeys and women.
. Girls in this society, as in other Mediterranean lands, were generally married off at fourteen, after long family councils, generally to a first or second or third cousin, and their life could not be called easy. As recently as fifty years ago, women were forbidden to dance with men. They were forbidden to sit in the sidewalk cafés, and if they wanted to show off their new dresses from Paris and share the latest gossip they had to do it while walking up and down the sidewalk with their girl friends under the baleful hooded eyes of their menfolk who sat endless hours on the terrace discussing local politics in conspiratorial tones, reaching down occasionally to fondle the gun stuck in the waistband of their trousers.
There were some compensations.
A woman who lasted long enough to acquire a big brood of grand-children became responsible for all the family planning, it was she who at funerals chanted the rimbeccu, and orchestrated the vendetta which followed..
One determined girl achieved legendary respect by going through with the marriage to a cousin from a branch of the family she deemed unworthy of her. She kept his house clean, grew his vegetables, bore and raised his children, and never addressed a word to him till the day he died.
Times change, even in Corsica. And many of those old customs and attitudes and rules have passed away, or have lost their bite..
Goatherds still follow the ancient paths, but they carry with them cell-phones with which they can check up on the latest prices for the milk which they ship to Roquefort in mainland France to be dosed with penicillium to make the world-famous cheese.
The bandits d'honneur are long gone. The breed died out more than a century ago, to be replaced by the so-called bandits percepteurs, tax-collecting bandits, plain bandits in short. For a while they were all over the place, and it is said that indoor plumbing was introduced to a reluctant Corsica because it was so dangerous to go out of doors alone in the dark. As with most Corsican statistics, there is a bit of self-serving exaggeration here. Despite the fearsome reputation of the bandits, remorselessly built up by the Paris press and later by gangster movies, the number of yearly murders on the island fell dramatically with the development of the French judicial and police systems -- 144 a year in the 1840's, 40 in the 1860's, an almost invisible 4 in the 1960's - even while the population was growing, as the French police and judicial system, making full use of new inventions like automobiles and eventually helicopters, spread their tentacles over what had been howling wilderness.
Even the vendetta had to face the music of modernity and lose its charm. It had long turned into a parody of its arrogant righteous past. Seventeen men in the early years of the 20th century were killed in what started as a dispute over the ownership of an olive tree growing out of a wall dividing two families' land. The last classical vendetta in Corsica started on Armistice Day in 1954 when the donkey of Jules Giuly chewed up the garden of his neighbor Joseph Sansini. Sansini complained, presumably in a loud and offensive manner. "In so doing," notes Dorothy Carrington, "he fell short of the alacrity a vendetta system demands, for if the injured person expostulates instead of killing at once, he may well become the victim of the offender." And Giuly did kill Sansini, spent eighteen months in jail, and then prudently went to live in mainland France where he died of natural causes four years later. When his corpse was brought back to his village, the funeral procession on the way to the cemetery passed through a barrage of insults from members of the Sansini family sitting at a café terrace. On the way back from the cemetery, the gunfire began. It ended with two dead, five wounded, and one ten-year jail sentence.
Such things are now regarded as quaint episodes of a distant past.
For, against its will and with much grumbling and grousing and occasional mayhem, Corsica has been dragged, at an increasingly furious rate, into the modern world.
The villages which were once the core of the island's society have been decaying and dying for over a century now, many of them are empty ruins, as life becomes increasingly urban or suburban, motorized, electrified, bourgeois.. Less then five percent of the population makes its living from agriculture today.
Girls have caught the contagion, they now insist on getting jobs as school-teachers or as shop-assistants, they wear miniskirts and bikinis to the distress of their grandmothers. .They sit shamelessly in cafés beside the men with hooded eyes who no longer have guns to finger at their waist-bands.
Schoolboys demand automobiles so that they can drive to school.
Corsica in short has made what Le Roy Ladurie describes as a flying leap from a primary food-producing economy, skipping the secondary industrial phase through which most of the world has been passing for the last two centuries, directly into the tertiary, the postmodern service economy. Like so many Mediterranean islands and so much of the Mediterranean littoral, it has become part of the global tourist business, self-described as the hospitality industry, in which millions of what were once the wretched of the earth make good livings out of making other people feel good.
Corsica has much to offer in that department, Not for nothing did it earn the nickname of Ile de Beauté. It has a unique combination of charms.
It has an amazing variety of landscapes to offer, in fact the landscape can change completely beyond the crest of every serried ridge. A combination of snow-covered peaks and favorable winds guarantees Corsica, alone among the Mediterranean lands, more than enough water to keep the whole island green with an extraordinary profusion of plants throughout the whole year. There are chestnut forests and oak forests , pine forests out of New England, rounded grassy hilltops out of southern California, olive groves and vineyards, there are snow-capped peaks and rugged gorges and giant rocks sculpted into fantastic shapes by the erosion of wind and wave. The wild maquis where once bandits and resistance fighters crouched, now offers hikers its profusion of sweet-smelling plants, and the pigs which feed on those plants provide sausages whose flavor is justly famous. With luck, wanderers who go off into the unspoiled wilds may, if they go high enough, catch sight of a mouflon, a long-horned wild sheep, a favorite game animal of the crusaders, leaping from crag to crag, or a of rare species of vulture circling on a lookout for animals or motorists who might have fallen off ledges on the flanks of cliffs. If they go low enough they may burst suddenly out into long stretches of cliff-girt beach which they can have all to themselves..
The works of man are here too, forty centuries of such works. There are abandoned clusters of old stone houses with their randomly placed windows clinging to cliffsides, there are transmigrating goats, there are megalithic statues including what is claimed to be the first sculptured portrait in the western world, there are feudal castles on mountaintops, there are round Genoese towers along the coast to give warning of the sighting of pirate sails, there are chaste 12th century Romanesque churches put up by the Pisans with their jewel-like frescoes and gaudy 17th century baroque churches put by the Genoese, there are deserted beaches tucked at the bottom of cliffs, there are yacht harbors and scuba-diving schools and casinos and jazz festivals, there is the birthplace of Pasquale Paoli and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, there are yacht harbors and scuba-diving schools, there is the museum built by Napoleon's uncle Cardinal Fesch crammed with paintings pillaged from Italian churches and palaces by the Imperial armies, and everywhere the contrasting blue glories of the Mediterranean sea and sky.
And, unlike some other island tertiary paradises, the natives are not hostile. You must not expect an offensive of charm, but that is precisely the charm of Corsica. The people have a long tradition of hospitality, but they would not dream of making a show of it. They do not flash expansive Mediterranean smiles, their faces are generally grave, reserved, unbending. They do not burst spontaneously into joyous song.
But still, this is a peaceful prosperous Mediterranean vacation land, and the million and a half visitors who come here every summer (there is no reason why they shouldn't come every fall winter and spring too, when the weather is milder and the prices much lower) have no difficulty in fitting into the landscape and making the usual choices of swimming, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, skiing, dancing, barbecuing, sight-seeing, sunbathing, shopping for souvenirs, or sampling the local beverages.
It did not happen in a day. The stubborn Corsicans had to be dragged very step of the way.
Becoming part of the paternalistic French state gave the Corsicans something they had never know before, stability. The French made the first maps of the island and constructed the first roads., Compulsory education and compulsory military service would eventually teach every one to speak French and open their homes to a rain of information about the outside world from newspapers, radio, television. Cities had to be built to house the apparatus of the bureaucratic state. And as had happened in other parts of France, indeed all over the world, once people who had known only the cramped monotony of their little villages discovered that there was another world out there more lively and more comfortable and altogether more interesting over the horizon, they began to drift away from the countryside to the cities, and drift away from their ancient traditions as well. .
The land remained desperately poor. Trade was by barter, and money - outside of the two seaports and administrative centers Bastia and Ajaccio -was only part of daily life when the tax-collector came around. The first step toward a cash economy is said to have come as a footnote to the tragedy of the First World War, in which 10,000 Corsicans died for the French Republic. Most of the survivors were wounded, and the disability pensions they received put the first large flow of cash into the island's economy.
Even so, money was not taken as seriously as in other places.
A bare fifty years ago, when Dorothy Carrington first came to Corsica, as she was tramping over the mountains came across a gloriously empty stretch of beach She shed her clothes, splashed around in the Mediterranean, came back, dressed, made her way back to the family she was staying with, and it was only when she reached for something in her purse that she realized that the purse was not with her, it was back on her beach with a large packet of fresh Bank of England notes inside it. Could she find her way back in time? Before she could answer the question, a man whom neither she nor her hosts had ever seen before, turned up the next morning. He had found the purse, like every one in a radius of fifty miles he knew an English lady was visiting, and knew were she was staying, he handed her the purse and departed before she or any one else had time to ask his name.
It would not be advisable to leave any quantity of banknotes on a Corsican beach today.
The decisive event in the transformation of Corsican economy and Corsican mentality came in 1943, when Corsica became the first French département to be liberated from German and Italian occupation, thanks to a Free French invading force aided by an armed uprising of the population to which the remaining bandits contributed their considerable expertise. The US Air Force then moved in and took over the strip of plain on the northeast coast, the only sizeable piece of flat real estate on the island, to use as a base for bombing Germany. There was one serious problem: the plain, which had been a rich agricultural area for the Greeks and Romans, had over centuries of neglect and misuse been turned into desolate malarial swamp land, viewed with superstitious dread by the population which had fled up into the mountains . The Air Force sprayed all this empty waste with DDT, causing a mass slaughter of birds and mosquitoes, and built its airfields and bombed the Germans without losing a man to malaria. After the war, the birds came back, but not the mosquitoes. However, the swamps retained their deadly image, and no one dared to move back down from the mountains to the plain.
Then in 1962, when France gave up Algeria, and the French farmers there, known colloquially as pieds-noirs or black feet, many of them of Corsican descent, were forced to give up their homes and their land, about 17,000 of them resettled in Corsica with the aid of a subsidy from the French government. Skilled in the ways of large-scale modern agriculture, they bought up the empty land, drained the swamps, brought in tractors, cultivators, insecticides and all the rest, and made fortunes, turning the plain back to the rich thriving land it had been in Classical times. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire years Corsica began experiencing something approaching an economic boom..
The Corsicans, for whom the cutting edge of agricultural technology was still the plough pulled by a mule, were furious. Why hadn't the French government given them the money? The old island hostility against intruders burst out against the pieds-noirs and against the thousands of Moroccan laborers they imported to work their fields. In the course of a violent mass demonstration outside one of the new farms in August 1975, two policemen were killed, setting off a wave of sporadic shootings and plastic bombs which has sputtered along ever since, though it is generally hard to say whether any particular act of violence is politically-motivated terrorism or old-fashioned racketeering.
It was not just from Africa that the new population came. French mainlanders came swarming in to take jobs or build summer homes in the new world of leisure and resorts. The native Corsicans were beginning to think of themselves as a persecuted minority in their own land. A variety of movements and political parties sprang up, with programs ranging from the revival of the ancient Corsican polyphonic music to revolutionary groups or gangs dedicated to the idea of an independent pure-blooded Corsican nation.
Painful negotiations over the years, interspersed with occasional murders and bombings, may or may not be moving toward a compromise that would give Corsica a certain amount of autonomy while remaining firmly part of France. Only a small minority (eighteen percent in recent elections and polls) are actually in favor of independence, which would indeed pose serious problems: how could a people which pours out its deepest and most theatrical ardors, complete with multiple gunfire, every 15th of August to celebrate both the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the birthday of Napoleon Bonaparte conceivably choose to be governed by people for whom Napoleon was a traitor who sold his people into French bondage?. On the French side there is less taste for naval bases and la Gloire these days than there used to be, and very few voters remain convinced that doling out a measure of self-rule for Corsica would mean the disintegration of the nation.
The constant threat of violence under the pleasant surface of daily life may actually have done some good. Corsica was twenty and more years behind its rivals in getting ready for the invasion of tourists bearing gold. This was partly due to outrageously high air fares, partly to the well-founded fears of ambitious developers that fierce defenders of ancient tradition might make good on their threats to blow up the new hotels and swimming pools and other forms of the modern contagion.
This gave the French government something like a twenty-year respite in which it could not only draw up and enforce strict building codes but also lock up a good fourth of the island into a national park where no development is permitted and the mouflons and the lynxes and the giant tortoises and the wilderness-lovers are at rest. Corsica has thus avoided the orgy of quick building which turned so many Mediterranean shore-lands into ungainly concrete ungles.. It remains a primeval landscape on which has settled a fine dust of moderately comfortable and reasonably priced hotels and restaurants, marinas, specialty food stores, antique stores, with no great luxury hotel complexes, no Vegas-style casinos, no little disneylands, a blend of laid-back ancient tradition and modern competitive bustle.
Fire is a perpetual menace in dry seasons, and spectacular Corsican conflagrations are always good for headlines in the Paris press. As in the rest of the world, many of them are set by arsonists, who according to one theory are shepherds who want more pasture land for their animals. Another theory holds that they are set routinely by village people as a boost to their otherwise moribund rural economy, because after every major conflagration the government has to hire more local fire fighters, and then it has to hire other local people to replant trees on the burned-over hillsides.
Will Corsica ever settle the question of its identity in the modern world? It will take a long time to find a peaceful solution to its ongoing problems with the French state, but even in Corsica peaceful solutions are possible.
Three hundred years ago the Genoese authorities sponsored the immigration to Corsica of several hundred members of the Stephanopoulos clan from the Mani region at the southern tip of the Peloponnesus in Greece. It was the most savage and desolate region of Greece, inhabited by what a French admiral described as "ferocious looking villains," and so desperately poor that the Turks never bothered to occupy it and contented themselves with periodically plundering it. A typical Mani story was of two 17th century travelers from northern Europe who came to explore it and rented an old house only to find their old landlady in tears. "Oh my son, my son," she wailed, "my son has not come, he was supposed to be here, he was supposed to rob you."
Despite such credentials, the newcomers for many generations had a miserable time of it in Corsica, they were regarded as invading mercenaries, they were shot at, their homes were torched, they were driven from place to place. They finally ended up in a little town called Cargèse on a beautiful mountain-girt bay north of Ajaccio. There they established an uneasy truce with their neighbors, they built a Greek church with its icons just across the way from the Latin church with its frescoes. The two communities lived side by side, but quite apart, like the ethnic enclaves in American cities, for many generations. But over the course of three centuries they gradually began to speak to one another, to frequent the same cafés and join in the same political intrigues, even eventually to intermarry. Today the descendants of the original immigrants still go to mass at the Greek church, still say their prayers in Greek, but there is only a single old woman left who speaks the language, at home every one speaks Corsican or French and you can tell the Latins from the Greeks only by the spelling of their family names..
Today, as almost everywhere on the island, you can find a mixture of the very old and the very new in Cargèse. If you go high enough in the encircling mountains they say you may still run into mazzeri, straight out of prehistory. These are people who, as the result of a dream or a vision, go wandering out into the maquis at night and kill the first animal they come across, dog or goat or wild boar or whatever. When it is dead, they roll it over and look into its eyes and they recognize the eyes of one of their fellow-villagers. In the morning they tell the story, and the person they have named dies within the year.
And somewhere in a cellar may be lurking a little knot of young men in Ku-Klux-Klan hoods planning to plastic-bomb their land back to its days of acorn-eating purity; or simply to scrawl black paint on a roadside boulder saying FUOR I FRANCESI [Frenchies get lost] in a language Frenchies cannot understand,.
On the other hand, you may leap far into the 21st century if you drop in on the Institute for Advanced Scientific Studies which holds regular seminars here, and find mathematical physicists from great universities all over the world scribbling out equations which may or may not win them Nobel Prizes for unlocking the last remaining secrets of the structure of the sub-atomic universe.
Between the two extremes Cargèse with its flowered paths and its beaches goes on living in the relaxed hum of a global-economy vacation resort, with the smell of barbecues and sun-tan oil in the air, the kids splashing into what pass for waves in the Mediterranean, the grown-ups impartially admiring the Greek church and the Latin church, and the splendors of the Mediterranean sea and sky while they take leisurely drinks on café terraces with no guns in sight, while fleets of catamarans are taking off for a carefree cruise around the cape to glimpse the chaotic jumble of gaudily colored thousand-foot-high granite blocks up the northwest coast which Guy de Maupassant described as a mass of "peaks, columns, belfries, thin, round, twisted, bent, deformed, unexpected, fantastic, looking like trees, animals, monuments, men, monks, horned devils, magnified birds, a nightmare menagerie petrified by the whim of some delirious god," and which rate three stars in the Michelin Guide.
1) In the course of the voyage that would take him to Corsica he had seduced the mistress of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who told him, "you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art," and offered to educate him. A few days later he was proudly reporting, "yesterday morning had gone to bed very early, and had done it once. Thirteen in all. Was really affectionate to her"
©2002 Robert Wernick
Parts of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, January 2002