Corfu’s history is action-packed… to say the least! It has the makings, of real-life epic featuring the likes of Alexander the Great, Dimitrios the Besieger, Roman emperors Brutus and Claudius, France’s Napoleon, and the pirate Barbarossa… to name but a few of the tyrants and leaders who have battled over the island’s position.
Corfu was the first Roman base on Greek soil, after being asked for help, in 229 B.C, following a particularly strong pirate attack. Under the Romans, Corfu lost the power and privileges it had accumulated, struggling through years of defeat and depravity.
In 40AD the new Christianity arrived on Corfu through two Ionian bishops, Iasonas, and Sosipatros of Tarsus. Disciples of St. Paul, it is thought that they were the first to preach the gospel on Corfu and later built the first Christian church in the area, on the Pythia islet, and dedicated to Agios Stefanos.
The History of Corfu, like that of many other Greek islands, is shrouded in tales, myths, legends, and stories, all passed through the Ages. Since prehistoric times, the good geographical location, wealth and activities of its inhabitants made the island of Kerkyra or Corfu, alias Makri, Drepani, Scheria, or Coryfo (the names the island was given through the years) an important economic and cultural center. The island was first settled by the Eretrians in 775 – 750 BC and it was 734 BC when the island was colonized by the Corinthians.
Corfu History from Antiquity to Today
The name “Ionian”, it is said, is straight from mythology, coming from Io, one of the many victims of a Zeus love-affair. Hera, Zeus’s wife, heard of the love-match with the pretty, young maiden, but decided to keep quiet, waiting for the right moment to unleash her fury on her husband. Zeus, however, seeing his wife’s suspicion, decided to turn Io into a white cow which a quick-thinking Hera then demanded as a present so she could keep a careful eye on it! With a little help from Hermes, Io escaped from Hera, only to be followed by a ghastly gadfly which pursued her all over the world. One of the first places the luckless Io visited was the eastern part of the Adriatic sea which has since been known as Ionian in honor of the tormented girl!
Corfu has its own tales and claims a prominent place in Greek mythology. In ancient times it was called Corcyra, after the nymph-like daughter of the Asopos river and mistress of the sea god Poseidon. Corcyra and Poseidon produced a son, Phaex, who was born and grew up on the island and later ruled over Phaecians.
In the 7th and 8th books of the Odyssey, Homer tells of the adventures of Odysseus on the island and his relationship with the princess Navsika, the daughter of the royal couple, Alkinou and Aries. After his dramatic escape from Calypso, an exhausted Odysseus was washed up on to a Corfu beach. He was, of course, being guided by his protectress, the goddess Athena who, according to the tales, used her magic to lead the local princess to Odysseus’ side.
Under Athena’s spell, Navsika, her maids and companions, left the palace to wash clothes and to swim in a nearby stream. At the end of their chores, the girls bathed, and, while their clothes were drying, played ball and Navsika sang. Odysseus was awakened by her singing. Haggard, unkempt and wild-looking, he tries to cover his naked body and went closer to the princess. He entourage fled but she remained and agreed to help what she considered a worthy vagrant, giving Odysseus food and clothing and agreeing to guide him to the town.
Corfu is also mentioned in the epic of the Argonauts, by the famous Apollonius of Rhodes, whose story tells of the plight of Jason and Media who were hounded by the Colchians with orders to return her to her father. The couple was received as guests by Alkinou and Areti at the Phaecian kingdom. They married there and, to avoid further family squabbles, both they and their pursuits, the Colchians, stayed on Corfu.
Corfu has been known by many names. Homer referred to it as Phaiakia, after the Phaecian kingdom; it has also been called Drepani after its sickle-like shape, Kassiopi after the town, Kereina, Arpi, and Scheria. More recently, it was known as Korfoi because of the two peaks in its main town and this has gradually changed to Corfu, a name by which it is recognized worldwide and even used by many of the Greeks.
Venetian Rule 1386 – 1797
At the beginning of the 15th century, Corfu was occupied by the Venetians who, for almost 100 years, had pressured its governors to sell the island. The king of Naples was paid 30.000 gold ducats and Corfu was sold! For 400 years the island was ruled by Venetian nobility, the locals enjoying limited self-rule. Local administration was run by the Grand or Central Council (Venetian government) which met annually to elect town councilors, noblemen, registered in the Libre d’Oro, the gold book who also claimed public posts as judges, teachers, health officers; at the same time Corfu’s middle class developed and gained some political and economic strength.
The agricultural working class, the backbone of the economy, enjoyed no political rights and few privileges. They lived and worked in appalling conditions and yet it was these farming workers who planted thousands of olive trees, thus transforming Corfu into one of the wealthiest olive producing areas in the Mediterranean.
The Venetian government supported the development of the olive groves, paying 12 gold coins for every 100 trees! While the rest of Greece was under the Turkish Rule, Corfu had been attacked without any success many times. The Turks were back in 1716 with 30.000 soldiers and 46 canons, fighting against the 5.000 strong guard and some 3.000 local volunteers under Field Marshall Johan Matthias von der Schulenburg. They attacked the new fortress for one month, looking certain victors until a huge storm hit their camp. Panicked, their fighters turned tail and ran, chased, so local legend has it, by Saint Spyridon who, dressed as a monk and holding a burning torch, roused the locals to fight against the Turks. The ultimate, unexpected victory has since been attributed to the island’s patron saint who is honored every August 11.
French Republic Rule 1797 – 1799
On June 19, 1797, the Venetian occupation of Corfu ended when French Lt General Anselm Gentille landed, occupying the fortress and declaring democracy on the island. The locals were ecstatic, destroying, the Libre d’Oro and Venetian crests, and welcoming the French as liberators and saviors – it was, however, a short love-affair. The French immediately set up a conservative, nobility – based local government whose members, after local pressure, was extended to include one artisan and six representatives from the villages.
They did little to gain the locals’ support and much to kindle their hatred; treasures from the fortresses and churches were taken and shipped back to France, the Orthodox church was alienated, and the lower classes persecuted. Napoleon’s rights of man – freedom, equality, and brotherhood – did not, it seemed, apply to the Corfiots!
The official annexation of Corfu was made in October 1797 with the signing of the Convention of Campo Formio between France and Austria. Local government underwent further changes, with three central administrations formed, each governed by a five-member committee whose head was the French Administrative representative. The French rule was not to last long.
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Turko-Russian Occupation 1799 – 1807
In October 1798 Russian troops occupied islands in the Ionian Sea, their sights set on Corfu! News of the Russians whereabouts roused the locals to rebel against the French and the nobility; civil war raged once more and a combined Russian and Turkish fleet gathered strength. On November 5, 1799, the French military commander, Sabeau, was asked to surrender. His refusal sparked off four months of fighting which ended with the French surrender on March 4.
The Russian admiral Ouchakov and Turkish Kadir Bey took on the administration of the island, restoring the nobility’s control and giving limited power to the middle classes. In April 1799 an independent Greek republic of Ionian islands was announced, with Corfu as its capital. Under a convention signed by Russia, Turkey, and England in Constantinople on March 21, 1800, the islands were recognized as an autonomous state, dependent on Turkey. This “seven islands” republic, recognised as a separate Greek state, can be seen as the first step in the re-organization – the rebirth – of the Greek state.
Yorgos Theotokis was elected senate president and the allied fleets left the island, possibly unaware of the discontent felt by the lower classes who immediately rebelled and threatened the new government. Russia reacted quickly, sending the army-backed Zakynthian count, Yiorgos Mondsenigo to the island to restore order. In 1803 another constitution was drawn up but had little effect with war then declared between Russia and Turkey. The republic supported Russia but it was not to remain under the guidance for long. On July 8, 1808, Russia and France signed the Treaty of Tilsit and the islands went back to the French!
British Occupation 1814 – 1864
Internal rebellions and Napoleon’s fall brought about the end of the French influence on Corfu and on June 23, 1814, Donzelot surrendered to the English general Campbell. Corfu’s fate was temporarily sealed in September of the next year when Count John Kapodistria, acting on Russian’s behalf at the Conference of Paris, voted in favor of the British Protection of the Ionian islands. Kapodistria, soon to become the first president of Greece, was a son of Corfu and, at the time working for the Tzar of Russia. He had requested British “military protection”, but the British centers on Corfu took upon themselves all the affairs of the Ionian state.
In 1821 the Greek War of Independence began. At that time many Corfiots faced imprisonment, loss of property, and, in some cases, death and this hard-line policy against rebellion continued after the formation of the new Greek state. At the same time, however, the British encouraged the island’s economic and cultural development.
Union with Greece 1864
On May 21, 1864, after Yorgos I was selected as king of Greece, the Ionian islands joined the Greek state. The British pulled out, leaving Corfu on one condition – that its fortresses were destroyed. A wave of protest from all corners of the Greek world failed to change the British mind, and, in 1864, the very fortifications they had strengthened and rebuilt were blown up, along with other historic Venetians buildings.
If the islanders reckoned on a peaceful time then, they were wrong! In December 1915 the allied armies of England, Italy and France took over, using the island as a base until the end of World War I. In 1923 Corfu faced another – short-lived – occupation by the Italians. Mussolini bombarded and occupied Corfu after the assassination, on Greek territory, of an Italian delegate to the Greek – Albanian border.
At the end of the year, however, the League of Nations forced him to withdraw. During World War II the island was bombed by Italian warplanes, and on April 28, 1941, occupied again by the Italians. They surrendered, the Germans took over and finally withdrew on October 9 1944.