The island’s history
A’ Mythical Past
Corfu is identified by most archaeologists with the mythical island of Phaeacians. It was here, according to those that accept the identification of Scheria with Corfu, that Homer placed the penult station where a necked castaway the ingenious Odysseus arrived after days of straggle with the sea-waves.
The arrival of Odysseus at the Courtyard of King Alcinous (Watercolour of the Scene of San Giacomo Theatre)
The ancient Corfiots were proud that they were the descendants of the mythical Phaeacians, Nausikaa and King Alcinous, and they named their military harbour, “Alcinous Harbour”. Until today, despite the efforts of famous archaeologists like Drpfeld and Bulle, the palace of King Alcinous and the Mycenean Scheria has not yet been found, though Mycenean potsherds were found in the western part of the island.
Apollonius of Rhodes is referred to Phaeacians in the ‘Argonautica, where Jason and the Argonauts, having stolen the Golden Fleece and pursued by the inhabitants of Colchis, found refuge in the palace of King Alcinous and Arete. There, in the cave Makris, the marriage of Jason and Medea took place.
Mythology delivered the current emblem of city to the present-day Corfiots. The “Apidalos Naus” (Unhelmed Ship) remains the symbol of the naval virtuosity of Phaeacians.
In literature, apart from the Homeric name Scheria, we meet various other names for the island, like Drepane or Arpi, Makris, Cassopaea, Argos, Keravnia,Phaeacia, Corkyra or Kerkyra (in Doric), Gorgo or Gorgyra and much later the medieval names Corypho or Corfoi, because of the twocharacteristic rock-peaks of the Old Fortress of Corfu.
B’ Historic Times
The island of Corfu was inhabited in the Palaeolithic Era. At that period Corfu was a continuation of the mountain range of Pindos, was joined to the mainland of Greece and constituted a headland of Epirus. The human presence is also ascertained on the island at the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age.
The great importance of the geographical position of Corfu, on the sea route to the shores of the Adriatic and Italy, caused, according to Diodorus Siculus, Strabo and Plutarch, the interest of the Eretrians (people from the island of Euboea) around 750 BC.
The Euboean city-state was overthrown in 734 BC by a group of Corinthians under the leadership of Chersicrates, of the aristocratic family of Bacchiadae, descendants of Hercules. The island was named Corkyra and the doric writing prevailed.
The new Corinthian colony, that was named Chersoupolis, was founded to the south of the present city, on the peninsula we know today as Palaeopolis. The new inhabitants brought from the metropolis their customs, worship and way of government. The favourable conditions for the autonomous development of the colony were obvious from the beginning and very soon Corfu was promoted to a big commercial and naval power of the Ancient Greek world. The city acquired powerful war-fleet and a colony of her own: Epidamnus on the coast of Illyria (current Durrazzo), successfully confronting Corinth in the trade, a fact that soon led the two cities to conflict.
Thucydides mentions that the oldest sea battle known to have been taken place between the Greeks occurred in 664 BC, between Corinth and Corfu, in which Corfu triumphed.
During this period, by the influence of Corinthian artists, great works of art were made, like the lioness on the cenotaph of Menecrates at Garitsa, the doric temple at Kardaki, and the temples of Hera and Artemis with the famous pediment of Gorgon. The pediment is exhibited in the archaeological museum of the city and is the oldest stone pediment that has been found until today.
The Gorgon pediment in the Archaeological Museum of Corfu.
After the death of the tyrant of Corinth Periandros (585 BC), Corcyra recovered its independence from the metropolis Corinth and gradually reached the acme of its prosperity. Already a naval power offered 60 triremes for the war against the Persians. Around this time circulated its first coins.
The alliance with Athens and the entanglement of Corfu in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which bursts out on the occasion of the voluntary adhesion of the colony of Epidamnus to the Corinthian camp and the consequential civil war between the aristocrats and the democrats (backed by Corinth and Athens respectively), had, as a result, the gradual weakening of the island, its entanglement in serious war conflicts and the final collapse and decline.
Corfuin 229 BC, after several raids and suzerainties, was forced to ask the protection of the Romans and finally yielded to them, in order to protect itself from the Illyric pirates. Under the Roman sovereignty remained for the next five centuries (337 AD).
The Romans used the island as naval base for their expeditions in mainland Greece and the East. Nevertheless, in 31 BC, on the eve of the naval battle in Actium, Agrippa, an ally of Octavian, destroyed the city, to punish the Corcyreans for having sided with Mark Antony. A long period of decline began.
Later the Roman Emperors granted a number of privileges to Corcyra in acknowledgement of the assistance that the city offered to the roman fleet. The city maintained a relative autonomy with her own laws and currency. During this period many notable Romans bought land-properties and built luxurious villas in various parts of the island. Amongst the Romans that visited Corcyra was the notorious rhetor (speaker) and politician Cicero, the Emperors Vespasian, Antoninus Pius, Septimius Severus, and Nero, who, as tradition has it, sang before the altar of Zeus Cassius in Cassiope, (a city of great acme during this period).
The Romans attended to the water supply of the ancient city transporting water with vaulted aquaduct from the area of Katakalou. The most important event of this period is the Christianization of Corfu by two disciples of St. Paul, Jason and Sosipater, which occurred in the first half of the 1st century AD. Corcyra was one of the first Greek cities to convert to Christianity. One of the first martyrs on the island was the daughter of the Roman vice-consul, the young Kerkyra, later sanctified by the Christian Church. In the next two centuries Christianity prevailed on the island and the Church of Corcyra, already in acme, participated with her bishop, Apollodorus, in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea of Bethany in 325 AD.
Saints Jason & Sosipater
C’ Avg Past
After the division of the Roman Empire in the Eastern and the Western parts, in 395 AD, Corcyra devolved to the Eastern Roman Empire and followed the fates and the adventures of Byzantine Empire until 1204, when the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople.
At the beginning of the Medieval Era the first churches of the new Christian religion were built in the ancient city next to the old temples. The calm rhythms of the ancient life were interrupted in 455 AD by the Vandalic raids. Up to the 11th century Huns, Vandals, Goths and Arabs threatened and repeatedly plundered the old city of Chersoupolis. The reaction from Constantinople for this outmost point of the Empire was not always immediate. During the reign of the Emperor Justinian I in 534 AD, his renowned general Belissarius passes from Corfu on his way to Italy.
However, the occupation and the pillage of the island by the king of the Eroule Goths, Totila, in 551 AD, was decisively important for the later life of the city. During that raid the ancient city Chersoupolis was devastated and the inhabitants began gradually to abandon her and constructed another, to the north, in a place naturally-fortified, between the two rock-peaks of the nearby peninsula, which was gradually reinforced and offered the medieval name to the city: Coryfo or Corfoi, Corfu.
In the 7th century, Byzantium divided its territories into “themes” and Coryfo was initially included in the territory of Epirus, but by the time of Leo the Wise (9th century), it came under the jurisdiction of the maritime “theme” of Cephalonia.
During the next years the Slavs made devastating raids and Corfu suffered repeated attacks. In one of them, in 933 AD, the bishop of Corfu Arsenius, the head of the local Church, played an important role in the defence of the city. After his death, in 953 AD, his sanctification and his nomination as Patron Saint of the city reveals the difficulties that Corfu had to face in this period.
In 968 AD, the Byzantine name Coryfo appears for the first time when the bishop of Cremona Liutprand wrote to the Emperor of Byzantium Nicephorus Phocas: ‘ad Coryphus parvenimus’ (we reached Corfu). During this period, when the Macedonian Dynasty reigns in Constantinople, Corfu enjoys relative safety conditions. This is deduced from the construction of the monumental church of the Saints Jason and Sosipater, at the end of the 10th century in Palaeopolis, outside the city-walls.
After the conquest of Byzantine Empire by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade and on the basis of the terms of the treaty known as Partitio Terrarum Imperii Romaniae (October 1204), the Venetians laid claim to Corfu and other imperial territories on the Adriatic. Showing determination to seize these territories, the Venetian fleet appeared in front of Corfu and the admiral Giacomo Morosini succeeded in overthrowing the Genoese corsair Leone Vetrano, who for a short period had occupied the island.
The Venetians in their first short-term presence in Corfu (1204-1214) divided the land among ten Venetian noblemen, who were to have hereditary possession on two conditions: that they should always keep the fortifications of the island in good repair and that they should pay 500 gold pieces a year to the Most Serene Republic.
In 1214 the island was captured by Michael I Angelos Comnenus Doukas, Despot of Epirus. The new ruler and his successors, of the same race and of the same faith as the Corfiots, renewed the older privileges and strengthened the defence of the island, improving the fortifications of the medieval city. According to the local tradition, during this period the castles of Gardiki and Angelocastro (Castel Sant’ Angelo) were constructed on the west coast of the island.
The rule of the Despots of Epirus ended in 1259, when the Despot Michael II Doukas ceded Corfu and regions of Epirus as dowry to his son-in-law Manfred, King of the Two Sicilies, which Manfred had already seized.
The pro-Catholic Angevin princes, who reigned from Naples, oppressed the Orthodox faith and during this period the Church of Corfu met with the first humiliations. The conquerors abolished immediately the office of the Orthodox Bishop and in his place a prelate of lower rank was appointed, the ‘Great Protopapas’, who had no right of ordination. The title of Archbishop Corfu was given to a Catholic prelate, with no consideration to the small number of Catholic population on the island. The Orthodox Church lost all of her revenues from the ecclesiastical lands, which were given to the Catholics. The magnificent church, which was built in the 10th century, the Cathedral of the medieval city dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul, where the bones of the Saints Arsenius, Jason and Sosipater were kept, became the Latin Cathedral. Most of the Orthodox churches became Catholic.
The pursuit of a securer shelter resulted in the accumulation of an increasing number of inhabitants in the fortified city around the two peaks of the rocks. Those in excess began to settle near the fortified city, outside the walls and thus ‘el borgo’ (the suburb) was created, known by the name ‘Xopoli’ (outer town), where the next decades an increasing number of residents settled in and finally, ‘el borgo’ replaced the medieval city in all functions.
During this period, according to certain scholars, the Castel Nuovo – the landward castle – in the Old Fortress was constructed, but other evident Angevin architecture on the island has not yet been found. Nevertheless the feudal organisation of the Angevins lasted much longer. They divided the island in four ‘bailata’, those of Gyros, Oros, Messi and Lefkimmi, with a ‘bailos’ at the head of each. It was this social structure that set the basis for the development of the aristocratic character of the Corfiot society and later became the abutment of the Venetian rule on the island.
Second Revetian Rule
In the second half of the 14th century the politico-military affairs in the Eastern Mediterranean are dreary. The Angevins of southern Italy, already in serious dynastic crisis, are no longer interested for the reconquering of the Eastern Roman Empire and the occupation of the island of Corfu, which was to be used as a base, has no longer any special meaning. Corfu had nothing more to expect from the old Balkan and Byzantine world. The Ottoman stormcloud had already risen over the Balkans. The Eastern Roman Empire collapses and seeks support from the Pope and the Western sovereigns, who had been entangled in the Hundred Years’ War.
In a desperate attempt to save Constantinople the delegates met at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438 and decided the Union of the Churches. The Emperor Ioannis VIII Paleologos on his way to Italy together his elite escort (the humanists Johannes Bessarion, Georgios Gemistos Plethon, Georgios Scholarios, Markos Eugenikos) passed from Corfu and attended a Service in the church of Agios Antonios in the presence of the Patriarch of Constantinople Josef II.
The Corfiots realising that had nothing to expect from Byzantium, looking for a powerful protector, found shelter in the Venetian Council.
The island accepted unequalled appreciation by the Senate and the Grand Council of Venice and was considered, from the very beginning, as “the key” for the maritime interests of the Serenissima Republica di San Marco, which had every reason, but also the forces, to check the sea-routes to the Levant.
At the end of the 14th century the renewed interest of Venice for the island managed to create a pro-Venetian movement in the ranks of the nobles of Corfu and as a result, in May 1386 five elected deputies of the Nobles’ Council of Corfu went to Venice to request the approval of the Senate for the voluntary subjugation of Corfu. After the approval, the deputies gave the necessary oath of obedience under the term that the Venetians should eternally defend the city and the island.
The Venetians forces headed by Giovanni Miani, Admiral of the Gulf, occupied the island and a decree (chrysobull), which was issued in January 1387, ratified all the old privileges and arranged the relations of the island with the Most Serene Republic, ensuring in return the fidelity and the devotion of the new subjects to the only democracy of the time, as the Venetian oligarchy called herself.
Shortly, in 1402, the Venetian Senate bought Corfu and its dependencies from the Kingdom of Naples for 30.000 gold ducats, thus formally legalising its occupation, which lasted for 411 years, 11 months and 11 days.
During the Second Period of Venetian Rule, that was the most longevous foreigner occupation of the island, many important changes took place in all sections.
Corfu left to Venice the supreme authority, but maintained its internal institutions. The Venetian administration laid in the hands of a governor with the title of ‘Bailos’ up to 1420, who was later assisted by two counsellors for the political and judicial matters and a third the ‘Pronoetes Capitanos’, garrison commander and judge in cases concerning the Fiefs and the Public Funds. The safeguarding of the fortresses was assigned to two other Venetians (captain and castellan). After the 16th century Corfu became the headquarters of the General Pronoetes of Sea or Lavant (Proveditor General del Levante). The Venetian administration was always exercised by nobles sent by the Council of the Most Serene Republic, elected on a short term (one or two years, except General Pronoetes that was for three-year in office). This way the danger of a powerful person, that by staying on the island for long periods could harm the interests of Venice, could be avoided.
The domestic administration was exercised by the General Assembly, which was composed of distinguished citizens, both Greeks and Italian. Later this class was transformed into a closed cast of nobles with strict regulations. The entry of new members in that class was possible only after a thorough examination of the qualifications of the candidates. In 1572 there were 122 families listed in the so-called ‘Golden Book’ (Libro d’Oro), which composed the corps of the Nobles. A part of the General Assembly, 60 or 70 and later 150 persons, formed the City Council, which appointed all the employees in the several governmental positions for one-year term, as judges, ambassadors to the Doge, proveditors on public health etc.
The long-lasted peaceful period that the Venetian rule ensured for Corfu, accounted for the exploitation of the agricultural wealth of the fertile island and when compared with the conditions in mainland Greece, the position of the inhabitants of Corfu was preferential because they had the chance to work and to enjoy a relative prosperity.
Venice minded the fishery and handcraftmen, but especially the agriculture. The commerce was protected, new settlements on the island were encouraged, a new harbour was constructed in Mandraki, a pawnshop was founded and the defensive fortifications of the medieval city were reinforced.
After the Turkish siege in 1537, when the biggest part of the Corfiot vineyard was eradicated, the Venetians subsidised the cultivation of olive trees. A considerable income for the administration came from the renting of public lands, the monopoly on salt, the exportation of olive oil and the transit trade. It was mainly the middle-class that profited and developed economically and as a result many professions were created and organised in guilds with a treasury for charities, a Saint protector and their own church.
The first years of the Venetian rule the public education was almost non-existent, not only on the island, but also in the entire world. Schools, press or libraries did not exist and only in certain Catholic monasteries (Santa Giustina in Garitsa) certain catholic priests taught Latin to the noble Italians and Greeks, while the education of the lower classes was rudimentary.
By mid-16th century the Corfiots asked the Venetians to approve the appointment of schoolteachers to teach Greek and Latin to their children. Later, the economic growth allowed an easier access to education so that educational institutions and Academies were established on the island (Academy of the Fertile or Fruitful, Academia degli Assicurati, Academy of the Wanderers) and this way many important personalities of the Greek Enlightenment evolved, like the scholars Eugenios Boulgaris and Nikiphorus Theotokis.
Venice did not prohibit the foundation of colleges in the metropolis, like that of the Corfiot Thomas Flangini, where indigent students from Corfu and Cyprus studied. Graduates of ‘Flanginion’ were allowed to register at the University of Padova and in other Italian institutions. This contact with the great intellectual movements of that age created the first nucleus that gradually led to the creation of the so-called Heptanesian Civilisation.
Head of the Church of Corfu was the Latin Archbishop, who tried in every possible way and by every possible means to impose Catholicism on the island. He had sound reasons to believe that the Catholics would be absorbed by the Orthodox. Venice ratified from the beginning the old privileges that concerned the Orthodox clergy of Corfu. However, during the first decades of the Venetian rule the Venetians tolerated the efforts of the Latin Church to impose Catholicism on the island, because of their alliance with the papal forces. When the Venetians realised the conflict of their interests with the Pope, their attitude towards the Orthodox Church began to change and in their relations with the Catholic Church applied the motto: “Siamo prima Veneziani e poi Cristiani” (We are Venetians first and then Christians).
The Venetians, in 1521, convinced the humanist and philhellene Pope Leo X to issue a Papal Bull in favour of the Eastern Church and right after the loss of Cyprus in 1571, they realised that if they were to keep their possessions in the Levant, they should allow their Orthodox subjects the freedom of worship.
Despite the severity of the threatened punishments, the Latin Church continued the insults and the oppressions of the Orthodox population with more intensity. The only exception was the Latin Archbishop of Corfu, Angelo Maria Querini (1723-1727), noble Venetian, hellenist, friend of Voltaire, distinguished figure in the European letters of the 18th century, that left a good memory to the Corfiots compared to his predecessors and his successors.
Head of the Orthodox Church was a simple Head-priest with the title ‘Great Protopapas’ and was elected for a five years term. After 1555 he was elected by special electors, who came from the clergy of the city and from 30 members of the City Council. In his public appearances he was escorted by the ‘Sacred Band’ of the priests of the city. (The ‘Sacred Band’, that had its privileges ratified by the Venetians, numbered 20 members after 1474 and presented similarities with the medieval orders of Knighthood).
The ‘Great Protopapas’ had jurisdiction over the total of the priests and the friars of the city and the countryside, also in cases of marriages, divorces, church maintenance etc. Spiritually he was directly depended on the Patriarch of Constantinople, but administratively he was obliged to obey the Dode’s decrees.
The Latin clergy, even though of a higher level of education, could not conquer the souls of the Orthodox population, who remained faithful to the Eastern Church and its doctrines. Focal point and national awareness of the Corfiot Orthodox was the relic of St. Spyridon, which was brought to the island from Constantinople together with the relic of St. Theodora the Empress at the end of the 15th century. The relic of Saint Spyridon was put in a brilliant church that was built in 1590 and the Corfiots assigned to the Saint the island’s protection from threats of epidemics, plagues, famines and Ottoman arms. It is characteristic that St. Spyridon at his name-day (12 December) and at his splendid litanies, which took place four times per year in commemoration of four miracles of the Patron Saint, managed to unite all the faithful on the island, overcoming even the dogmatic differences.
Despite the dogmatic differences of the two churches, the Venetians, for reasons of expedience, established mixed ceremonies with the participation of the Latin and the Orthodox clergy on the occasion of religious feasts or other celebrations with political meaning.
The Byzantine fortifications, powerful indeed were further reinforced by the Despots of Epirus, the Angevins and later by the Venetians, could not have the same effectiveness in the 15th century, the age of the artillery advancements.
The encounter with the Genoese and the Ottomans, who during the 14th century made frequent raids, required a new method and scholastic observation of the advancements of the military techniques. Shortly the Angelocastro and the fortress of Cassiope were abandoned and all the efforts were focused on the medieval city.
The fortification works began in 1402 with the construction of the harbour in Mandraki, the opening of a sea-moat and the replacement of the Byzantine walls with new ones on the perimeter of the peninsula and round the two peaks of the medieval city. Indicative of the Venetian interest is the fact that the two citadels were armed with cannons (two big bombards), ten years before the fall of Constantinople. The tall defensive towers on the tops of the two rocks and all the projections that could be useful for the fire-range estimation for the enemy artillery, were demolished.
With the Turkish expansionism in his climax, in 1537 the devastating raid of the Turkish admiral Khaireddin Barbarossa took place with the consequent obliteration of the agricultural cultivations (vineyards, olive-trees) of the island and the enslavement of nearly all the population of the countryside (roughly 20.000 Corfiots were sold as slaves in Istanbul). Luckily the Old Fortress was well defended by a 4,000-strong garrison with 700 guns and when several assaults failed to carry the fortifications, the Turks reluctantly re-embarked. Several complaints were expressed for the role of the protector that Venice had undertaken and with the Turkish danger always active, the completion of the fortifications was decided. The work was undertaken by the military architect Michele Sanmicheli, who, in 1557, constructed two powerful pentagonal bastions on the western side of the Old Fortress (named Savorgnan and Martinego), rendering Corfu the uncontested recipient of the application of the new theories about the defensive architecture. The demand for more effective protection returns imperatively after the second Turkish siege in 1571, during which the authorities remained secure behind the walls of the Old Fortress, but the houses, churches and the public buildings of the ‘borgo’ (suburb) were burned and all the inhabitants were annihilated.
A new defensive plan was then decided and was implemented during the years 1576-1588, on the basis of the initial proposals of Michele Sanmicheli and the drawings of the military architect, Ferante Vitelli. A New Fortress was constructed on the hill of Saint Mark, the land in front of the Old Fortress (Esplanade) was widened and the suburb, ‘Xopoli’, was walled. The demolition of many buildings that stood on the way of the walls was necessary and the line of the new walls terminated on the New Fortress, ensuring that the western front of the city was a powerful defensive system (fronte bastionato) comprised of the bastions of Sarandari and Raimondo, the platform of St. Athanasios, several other half-bastions and a protective moat, along which there was a hidden passage. Four main gates were constructed to serve the residents of the city – Porta Reala, Porta Raimonda, Porta Spilia, St. Nicolas Gate – and a few others for military use – Porta Otturata – Porta stopa al Tenedo. New buildings were designed inside the walled city and were constructed according to the new town-planning ideas that developed in the Italian cities during the Renaissance.
The defensive fortifications were supplemented in the 17th century on plans of the military engineer, F. Verneda who added a second wall on the exterior of the western side of the first wall.
The works were not yet completed when on 5th July 1716 a Turkish fleet of 35,000 infantry and cavalry was sighted on the sea opposite Corfu. During the siege, the city suffered several furious attacks, but was saved thanks to the defensive plan of the newly appointed Captain-General of the Venetian forces on the island, Count Johann Matthias Von der Schulenburg, who had served with distinction under Marlborough and Charles XII of Sweden. After the end of the siege Schulenburg, who was suitably honoured by the Republic (his stature still stands on the Spianada sq.), carried out the last stage of the defensive fortifications of Corfu, which lasted 10 years. The hills of Avrami and Sotiros were fortified, a small redoubt was constructed in the suburb of San Rocco and the defences of the harbour and the opposite island of Vido were reinforced.
The impressive fortifications of Corfu were chartered on detailed naval, military and topographical maps in order not only to inform, but also to impress and deter every potential invader. Today they are regarded as works of art.
The fact remains that Corfu, after the loss of Crete and for the whole of the 18th century, was at the centre of interest and was identified with the maritime State of Venice.
First French Possession
The end of the 18th century found Europe in arms and the history of Corfu cannot be isolated from the international developments and the military antagonisms that the foreign powers sought in the Ionian region.
In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the Venetian State and Campo Formio’s Treaty transferred to France the sovereignty of the Seven Islands and the Venetian possessions on the opposite coast of Epiros. The last Venetian governor of the island, Carlo Aurelio Widmann, delivered the island to the French soldiers of the Corsican Lieutenant-General Anselmo Gentili, who was accepted with great enthusiasm by the population of Corfu.
According to the proclamations of the French Revolution, which were already known to the island, the first concern was the abortion of the aristocratic regime, the formation of a municipal council under the leadership of the democratic party and the presidency of Spyridon Theotokis, and the application of the French Constitution of 1795. Amidst celebrations the Tree of Freedom was planted in the Esplanade Sq. in Corfu, the golden book of the Nobles, “Libro d’Oro”, was burned and the French flag was raised on the Fortresses.
However, shortly afterwards the celebrations were replaced by doubt and resentment. The imposition of new taxes, the levy under the term “loan”, the looting, the pillages and the desecrations of the churches and of the religious symbols, and the disproval of the hopes for the liberation of the rest of Greece from the Turks, turned the initial enthusiasm of the Corfiots into an open animosity.
Among the beneficial works of this period were: the foundation of a municipal library, the organisation of the public education, the establishment of the first on “Greek” soil printing press, the care for better operation of the courts and policing, the protection of the public health as well as the wide use of the Greek language in the public documents.
Second French Possession
In September 1807 Napoleon, already Emperor of France, sent his General Cesar Berthier in Corfu, who became governor-general of the island. He abolished the Septinsular Republic and turned the islands into provinces of the French Empire.
Because of the strategic position of Corfu in the Adriatic, Napoleon had the island’s fortifications brought up to date, assigning the administration of the seven islands to the wise General Francois-Xavier Donzelot, who was ordered to ‘hold the Seven Islands at all costs in the event of a British attack’. The line of defence was strengthened with the construction of new redoubts (Lambovitissa and Vido) and also the six new independent peripheral batteries, the ground between them being protected by the artillery’s crossfire.
The French improved the street-layout and the architecture of the city. Trees were also planted in the Spianada sq. and on its western side, a long row of buildings with arcades on the ground floor, today known as “Liston”, was constructed on the plans of the French engineer Lesseps, who reproduced the architectural style of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. They introduced new cultures, among which those of the potato and tomato, the institution of vaccination, and the foundation of the School of Fine Arts. However, their most important work was the foundation of the Ionian Academy (1808), the first university of modern Greece.
By 1814 the star of Napoleon was setting. Following the political developments, General Donzelot received the order to surrender Corfu to the British General Sir James Campell on 26 June 1814. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 adopted the proposal of the representative of Russia, Ioannis Kapodistrias, and the Ionian Islands were recognised as a free and independent state, under the name “United States of the Ionian Islands”, with Corfu as capital, under the sole protection of Great Britain.
Russo – Turkish Occupation
The Russo-Turkish alliance was formed to counteract Napoleon’s expansionary plans in the East. The allied forces begun to capture the islands (1799-1807) exploiting the resentment of the inhabitants of the Ionian Islands against the Republican French.
After a four-month siege, in March 1799, the Russian admiral Ushakov gained control of Corfu and assigned a provisional government on the island consisted by a number of nobles and certain bourgeois.
The constitution of Septinsular Republic in 1800 was considered an important event. It was the first Greek State after 1453 and was recognised as semi-autonomous republic, with Corfu as capital, obliged to pay tribute to Turkey. The delegates of the Ionian Islands in Istanbul drew up a Constitution, which was approved by the “Sublime Porte”. It was named “Byzantine” and was very liberal for its time.
The return in an aristocratic way of government and the consequent exclusion of the other classes from power brought serious agitations. The Senate, in order to confront the situation, gave dictatorial powers to its president, Spyridon Theotokis, but the situation could not be controlled effectively.
The most important act of this period was the reestablishment of the Orthodox Bishop of Corfu. Unfortunately, the ‘de facto’ recognition of the right of intervention of Russia in the internal and exterinal policy of the Septinsular Republic led inevitably to the loss of its autonomy and Russia, as the final regulator of the political matters, ceded the Seven Islands for a second term to Napoleon at the Franco-Russian Treaty of Tilsit in 1807.
The Union of Corfu in Greece
On May 21st 1864, after several intensive diplomatic consultations, Corfu and the rest of the Ionian Islands were united with Greece. The Ionian Parliament of the XIII period had previously taken the decision, which was ratified by the British government. The Union was facilitated by the election in the throne of Greece of a Danish prince as King Georgios I of Greece (a figure trusted by the British) and from that time onwards the Ionian Islands shared the same fait as the rest of Greece.
Although the treaty provided a regime of ‘permanent neutrality’ for Corfu, the island became involved in the military conflicts of the 20th century.
The enlisted Corfiots soldiers participated with the 10th infantry regiment in the war of 1897 and that of 1912-13. In the Balkan Wars the 10th infantry regiment was part of the III Division and took part in decisive battles. The 10th infantry regiment and its commander, Colonel Anastasios Papoulias, took part in the battle of Sarantaporo and Giannitsa. It also fought in the battle of Kilkis and had the honour to liberate that city. After the encampment in Vathylakos near Salonica, the 10th regiment took part in the Second Balkan War, in the battle of Avret-Issar and in the battle of Doirani. During that war conquered the town of Stromnitsa and also took part in the battle of Vladimirovo. The Corfiot regiment had 522 dead and 1367 wounded during the Balkan Wars and its war-flag was honoured with the War-Cross of the First Class and the Bravery Medal of the First Class.
During the First World War, the island was used as a base for the British, French and Italian allied armies, while the Serbian troops were allowed to set up camp here after their defeat in 1916. For some time the Municipal Theatre of Corfu was the seat of the Serbian Parliament and since that time strong bonds of friendship exist with the Serbian people.
In 1923 the city was bombarded and temporarily occupied by the Italian navy, on the pretext of the assassination of general Tellini on the Albanian borders.
During the Second World War the 10th infantry regiment was assigned with the defence of Corfu. The regiment took part in the so-called ‘Latzides attempt’, which, despite the misfortune that met, the heroism and self-sacrifice Corfiot soldiers were made obvious once more. After Greece’s surrender to the overpowering German might, Corfu was occupied once more by the Italians. The first Sunday of November 1941 pupils of the High Schools of Corfu demonstrated their opposition to the occupation and confronted the Italian army. It was the first act of Resistance in Greece. Many Corfiots were enlisted as partisans in E.L.A.S. and E.D.E.S. (partisan groups) and crossed to the opposite coast of Epirus were the active Resistance to the conquerors was taking place. In September 14th 1943 Corfu was bombarded by the Germans. The incendiary bombs destroyed churches, houses, whole blocks of neighbourhoods, especially the Jewish getto, and many important buildings, the Ionian Parliament, the Municipal Theatre, the Municipal Library and others. The Germans departed from Corfu on October 9th 1944, but they had previously sent about 2000 Jewish Corfiots in concentration camps in Germany.
During the years of dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974) many Corfiots were enlisted in resistance groups, but the case of Kostas Georgakis is unique in the whole of Greece. The 22years-old Corfiot student of geology with an act of self-sacrifice and a spirit of dynamic protest, which could not bear to see Greece under the military regime, set himself on fire the first morning hours of 19th September 1970 in the Matteoti Sq. in the Italian city of Genoa. For security reasons his body was buried in Corfu four months later, his self-sacrifice though, a rare event for that time, caused international sensation and was considered as one of the most important resistance acts of that period. Later the Hellenic State and his homeland Corfu honoured the man, who with his life became a symbol of resistance and patriotism, herald of the students’ sacrifice in Polytechnion in 1973.
The second half of the 20th century reserved a better luck for Corfu. The island healed the wounds of the war and set forth a new journey to the productive activities and energetic offer, exploiting the resources of the historic past with respect to the peaceful invasions of people and civilisations that started visiting the island.
In 1952 ‘Club Mediteranee’ begins to operate and a new concept starts to become reality. From 1960 onwards tourism becomes one of the two most important wealth-producing resources. The gradual economic growth brings consequently the rising of the cultural level, which after 1984, will be materialized with the foundation of the Ionian University and the beginning of a new intellectual life for Corfu.
Sir Thomas Maitland , governor of Malta, the second son of Lord Lauderdale, was appointed by the British first Lord High Commissioner of the island (1816-1826) and was called to impose the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1815) by which the “United States of the Ionian Islands” were independent and free states, but under foreigner (British) protection. The first Constitution that the Lord High Commissioner himself drew up was undemocratic and very shortly caused resentments.
Contrary to the Treaty of Paris, England considered the islands as colony and Ioannis Kapodistrias asked for the replacement of “King Tom”, as he was sneeringly nicknamed, because of his autocratic ways. In 1818 the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George was instituted and Maitland was appointed first Grand Master of the New Order, who suggested the erection of a new Hall to serve as Treasury for the Order, a residence for the Lord High Commissioner and a chamber for the legislative bodies of the Heptanese.
The anti-Hellenic attitude of Maitland during the Greek War of Independence, his betrayal of Parga to the Turks, the execution of the patriots and the confiscation of their properties made his replacement imperative.
In 1824 Maitland died in Malta and Sir Frederick Adam, head of the Army on the Seven Islands, succeeded him. Tough in the beginning, almost philhellene later, he built the countryseat of the Lord High Commissioners in Palaeopolis, later to be named Mon Repos, he looked after the road system and solved permanently the problem of the water supply of the city with the construction of an aquadact, a pioneer work for its age. During his governorship the Ionian Academy was re-established thanks to the philhellene Frederic North fifth Earl of Guilford.
After Sir Frederic Adam the Lords High Commissioners governed the Heptanese according to the British interests, lawfully to the British government’s decisions and as a result the Corfiots were showing increasing displeasure towards to Protector. Nevertheless, the British took care of the public services, the drainage system and the sanitary system. The town-planning and the expansion of the city with strict rules for building, contributed to the high level construction of buildings. The British looked after the defence of the city and constructed powerful fortifications on the New Fortress, on the island of Vido and other peripheral redoubts, which were demolished just before the Union of the Seven Islands with Greece.
Among the beneficial works of this period was: the recognition of the Greek language as the official language of the State, the revision of the Constitution in 1848, which did not prohibit the freedom of the press, and the foundation of artistic, literary and financial institutions (School of Fine Arts 1815, Reading Society 1836, Philharmonic Society 1840, Ionian Bank 1837).
The presence of the national poet of Greece, Dionysios Solomos, in Corfu (1828-1857) stimulated the already flourishing cultural life and became the basis for the creation of the ‘Heptanesian School’ in the Arts and the Letters.