Last updated on January 13th, 2023 at 08:38 pm
History of Corfu island
Corfu’s History is over 3.000 years old and is turbulent and fascinating. Despite the numerous raids, attacks by barbarians, and conquests by Europeans during the medieval period, Corfu has managed to survive and keep intact its Greek identity while incorporating in its culture the best elements of civilizations that have passed from here.
Prehistoric and Ancient times
Corfu has been inhabited since the Stone Age.
At that time it was part of the mainland, and the sea that today separates it from the mainland was only a small lake.
It became an island after the rising of the sea due to glaciers melting at the end of the Ice Age in about 10.000-8000 BCE.
Evidence of Paleolithic occupation has been found in two spots on the island, the first near the village of Agios Mattheos in the southwest and the second in the northwest near the village of Sidari.
The Greek name of Kerkyra, according to Mythology, came from the Nymph Corcyra, a daughter of the river god Asopos. Corcyra was kidnapped by the god of the sea Poseidon who brought her here and gave her name to the island.
Corcyra transformed into Kerkyra later according to the Doric dialect.
The first residents in the 12th century BC were the Phaeacians, the first founder was Phaeakas and his son was Nafsithoos who was the father of the Homeric king Alkinoos.
According to Odyssey, King Alkinoos and his daughter Nausikaa helped Odysseus to return to Ithaca.
All of the above aren’t facts rather than mythology which gets muddled with history, as we are still not sure about the exact origin of the Phaeacians. According to Homer, they had some relationship with the Mycenaeans.
Lately, we had archaeological investigations that failed to prove this as no Mycenaean remains were found.
In the following centuries, more immigrants arrived from Illyria, Sicily, Crete, Mycenae, and the Aegean islands.
The Ancient times – the first Greek colonization
Officially, the History of Corfu starts about 775BCE, when we had the first Greek colonization by Dorians from Eretria of Euboea, soon followed by a large number of Dorian refugees from Korinth in 750BCE, who with their leader Hersikrates created a strong colony.
Soon, the Corinthians dominated the area around Corfu creating their own colonies, one of them was Epidamnos in ancient Illyria (today Dyrrachium in Albania)
They also build the ancient city of Corfu in the area where Garitsa and Kanoni are today.
Kerkyra(the Greek name for Corfu) was the first of the Greek city-states, to build a fleet of triremes in 492 BCE.
In the lagoon of Chalikiopoulos, where the airport is today, the harbor was situated. The home base of the strongest fleet of ancient Greece (second only to the Athenian navy) with more than 300 triremes and other vessels.
The fast-growing colony quickly gained strength and openly challenged the metropolis of Korinth. Therefore the unhappy Corinthians sent their fleet to occupy the island of Corfu and regain control of this strategic region and especially the colony of Epidamnos.
Therefore the first naval battle between Greeks took place in 680 BCE and was a failure for the Corinthians.
After the battle both Corfu and Corinth sent ambassadors to Athens trying to gain their support. The Athenians preferred the great naval power of Corfu and chose to conclude a defensive alliance with the Corfiot sending 10 triremes on the island and later another 30.
The alliance continued during the Peloponnesian war and lasted more than a century.
The Corinthians came back in 435 BCE with a strong fleet of 150 ships against the Corfiots. The battle raged near the coast of Lefkimi in the south narrow channel of the island and near Sivota off the mainland coast.
The right wing of the Corfiot fleet started to buckle but the 10 Athenian triremes and shortly another 20 intervened, after this, the Corinthians decided to retreat.
Later in 375 BCE, Corfu became a member of the Athenian Confederation and fought for Athenian interests during the entire Peloponnesian war.
The Corfiot issue, as ancient historical Thucydides writes, was one of the main causes of the thirty-year-long civil Peloponnesian war that eventually weakened and broke Greece. But the real reason that made the war inevitable was the growing fear of Sparta about the expansionist imperialist policy of Athens.
Roman era and early Byzantine period
First Roman era (229BCE– 379CE)
After the Peloponnesian War, internal political conflicts between democrats and oligarchs disintegrated the power of the state and the alliance with Athens.
The island for a short time was captured by Illyrian pirates, so the Romans exploited this opportunity and captured Kerkyra in 229 BCE.
Romans gave autonomy to the Corfiot provided they were allowed to use the island as a naval base.
Corfu followed the fate of all other Greek city-states, they accepted the sovereignty and protection of Rome from the various invaders and intruders of that era. Corfu was a part of the Roman empire.
During the first century CE. Christianity arrived, brought by the two disciples of St Paul, Jason, and Sosipatros.
After the death of emperor Constantine in 337CE the Roman empire was divided into three sections- the North (Spain, France, England), East (Constantinople and Asia Minor), and the West which included Greece, Italy, and Rome’s African territories.
Corfu then was included in the so-called West empire.
Early Byzantine period (379CE– 562CE)
At the time of emperor Theodosius (339CE), the Roman empire was re-divided into East and West, Corfu then belonged to the Eastern empire known as early Byzantine, and that period lasted for about three centuries.
During this period the whole island was badly protected and exposed to frequent barbarian raids and pirate invasions.
Middle Ages and Byzantine period of Corfu history
East Roman Empire (Byzantine empire)
During this period, Corfu was attacked in 562CE by the Goths. In this raid the Goths destroyed the ancient city of Corfu, leaving the ruins that today are called Paleopolis.
This was the end of the ancient city and the beginning of the medieval age on the island. The old city`s remaining inhabitants abandoned the location and fled further north to the natural promontory of land which later became the old fortress.
From there the new city slowly expanded to the area where the old Corfu town is today.
The period from 562CE until 1267CE is known today as the Byzantine period.
Right after this Corfu was occupied by the Angevins.
That was a very difficult period in Corfu’s history, and the island (as the westernmost corner of the empire) was very vulnerable to the constant pirate attacks and the various appetites of its neighbors.
The multicultural Byzantine Empire was trying to protect it in every way moving here several mercenary guards of various races and peoples.
Guards consisted of many nationalities, Greeks, Syrians, Bulgarians, and Byzantine soldiers (stradioti) scattered in outposts that began from the northeast of the island and reached up to the southwest. These border guards slowly merged with the local population.
That was the era when most fortresses, scattered around the island, were built.
The redesigning and strengthening of the old Corfu fortress in the city happened then. But also Angelokastro fortress in northwestern Corfu, the fortress at Kassiopi, the fortress in Gardiki at the southwest, and other smaller ones were constructed.
The turbulent years after the Fourth Crusade (1204CE – 1214CE)
At 1204CE Corfu was captured by the Normands of the 4th crusade, followed by the Venetians for a short period until 1214CE.
The Despotate of Epirus (1214CE – 1267CE)
From 1214 to 1259 CE, Corfu became part of the Byzantine domain of Epirus (A Duchy called Despotate of Epirus). During this time the Gardiki fortress near today`s Chalikouna area and the fortress of Angelokastro at the northwest part of the island north of Paleokastritsa was built by the Despot Duke Michael-Angelos Komnenos the second.
The Period of Sicilian rulers
During the turbulent period from 1259 to 1267CE various Sicilian rulers attempted to claim Corfu, sometimes as a dowry and other times with arms.
The first who conquered the island was Manfred, king of Sicily, and when he was killed in a fight, his Franco-Cypriot adjutant named Philip Ginardo took over.
Philip Ginardo was later murdered and the island passed into the hands of his generals, the Garnerio brothers and Thomas Alamano. It is worth mentioning that the surname Alamanos is widespread today in Corfu, apparently people of Sicilian origin.
The House of Anjou (1267CE – 1386CE)
In 1267CE it was the turn of the Angevin King of Sicily Charles of the house of Anjou to conquer the island.
He divided Corfu into four departments-regions, called Gyrou, Orous, Mesis, and Lefkimi respectively – names still heard today.
That was the era when large numbers of Jewish people, mainly from Spain, settled in Corfu and created the Corfiot Jewish community.
Charles of Anjou attempted to replace the Orthodox Christian faith with Roman Catholicism. He tried to persecute all the Orthodox churches into Catholicism. But this attempt failed and stopped later when the Venetians returned to the island.
The Venetian domination in Corfu 1386 – 1797CE
The Council of Corfu and especially the overwhelming majority of nobility felt friendly with the Venetians.
They didn`t expect serious protection from the collapsing Byzantine Empire, and because of the ever-present Turkish threat, they officially asked at 1386CE for the protection of the Republic of Saint Markos(Venice).
Venetians knew that Corfu was a key strategic location to guard their naval interests in the region, and also a very fertile island for agriculture. Therefore they bought the island from the kingdom of Naples, paying an amount of 30,000 gold ducats.
Then disembarked their forces in Corfu led by the “Admiral of the Gulf,” Giovanni Miani.
In that turbulent era of Corfu History, there was no national awareness, and strange events happened, so, while the Venetians occupied the Old Fortress without resistance and secured their dominance over most of the island, in the north the fortresses of Angelokastro and Kassiopi were still controlled by some Angevins who did not agree with the sale of the island. Strangely many locals were supporting them and fought alongside the Angevins against the Venetians.
The Venetians sent an army to capture the two forts, and while Aggelokastro surrendered almost immediately, the Angevins and Corfiots of Kassiopi resisted furiously. The Venetians got angry to such an extent that after the conquest of the castle, they destroyed it completely and this is why today there are only remnants of that fortress.
Thus started the second long period of Venetian rule in Corfu that lasted more than 400 years, actually 411 years, 11 months, and 11 days precisely.
The constitution during the Venetian domination
Venetians established the feudalistic system to rule, there were three social classes, the nobility of aristocrats, the citizens (civili), and the poor people (popolari).
In the below painting, we see a typical snapshot of medieval Corfu, currently called Evgenios Voulgaris street, and the bell tower of Annunziata can be seen. Apart from the costumes not much has changed since then.
Agriculture had developed with the planting of many olive trees, and Arts and Science were also evolving now that Corfu had links with one of the great empires.
The Venetian era left indelible marks on Corfu in all areas such as art, musical tradition, culture, the formation of the local linguistic idiom, Corfiot cuisine, and most noticeably the architecture of the city and the villages.
The constitution in Corfu, and in all the Ionian islands during the Venetian occupation was exclusive. All political power was in the hands of the nobility, the only Venetians were the General Proveditor of the Sea who wielded the greatest political power, and his Judiciary flanked by Vailos and his two consultants.
All the rest were local nobles whose names were written in the Golden book (Libro d`Oro).
Centuries later during the era of the second Ionian state, only the people whose names appeared on this list were allowed to take their coffee in the Liston area!
In early editions of the Libro d`Oro, most of the names were nobles of Byzantine origin, Byzantine soldiers, and large landowners. But later many wealthy civilians who were able to offer financial support to the Treasury of the state were added too.
If we look at the names in the Libro d`Oro, we see, with surprise that most names known in the city of Corfu today were included there, but only a few of the common names in the villages.
The migration flow from Turkish-occupied Greece
The Venetians did well to protect the city of Corfu, but despite their military measures in the first centuries they failed to protect the island’s countryside which saw many tragedies and often paid a heavy toll during barbarian raids.
Corfu also suffered from pirate attacks, especially during the first two major Turkish raids, one in 1537 and the second in 1571.
In 1537CE the Turks invaded and seized 20.000 men from the countryside to sell as slaves in Constantinople and Egypt.
The countryside was devastated, so, many Greeks from Peloponnese, Epirus, and Crete came as migrant workers to the island, and later became part of the resident population.
More recently, when the island was under British rule, many immigrants came from the small Mediterranean island of Malta, the original home of many, mainly Roman Catholic, Corfiot’s.
Following the raids of 1537 Corfu was almost deserted, and a few years later, in 1571 the Venetians lost Peloponnese, Crete, and Cyprus to the Turks.
This created an inevitable large wave of refugees from these areas looking for a new home, and the Ionian Islands were the ideal destination, so by this coincidence, the Turks indirectly helped to repopulate Corfu.
The Venetians also gave impetus to this migration stream for two additional reasons, firstly to revive the dead countryside, and secondly, to encourage people with the great spiritual, military, technical, and economic potential to leave the Turkish-dominated land- this would also weaken the Ottoman occupiers, and at the same time strengthen Venice.
A large group of refugees came from Nafplio and Monemvasia, half of them settled in the area of Lefkimi and build Anaplades village, the others scattered on the northeast coast, from Pyrgi up to Kassiopi.
Their leader was the chieftain Barbatis, after him the area south of Nissaki today is called Barbati.
There is a suburb north of the city called Stratia, formerly known as Anaplitochori (Village of Anapli).
Another group from the Peloponnese built the village of Moraitika, and some others took over the deserted village of Korakiana and spread to other villages such as Benitses.
Across the island, there are many families with the surname Moraitis and also many whose last name ends with the Peloponnesian suffix. . “opoulos”
The largest group of all immigrants was from Crete, many settled in Garitsa, just south of the city, and the most prosperous new arrivals moved into the city itself.
Others built the village of Saint Markos in the north above Ipsos, whilst in the south of Corfu the villages of Stroggyli, Messonghi, Argyrades, and Kritika were also established by Cretans.
All these populations introduced elements of their tradition and culture to Corfu, especially the Cretans who contributed much to the formation of the Corfu linguistic idiom which anyway was constantly evolving, the prefix “tsi” instead of “tis” is pronounced like this only in Crete and the Ionian Islands.
After some time the Corfiot culture proved very strong, and all these people were absorbed into the local community and within a few years became regular Corfiots.
Later on around 1800, a large group of refugees from Souli, after its destruction by Ali Pasha, fled to Corfu and many of them settled in Benitses, their descendants today constitute about 70% of the Benitses population
The Venetian fortifications and the frequent Turkish raids
The Venetians tried to convert the population to Catholicism, but they did not succeed, and later they abandoned any such effort for political reasons. They had come into conflict with the Vatican and especially after the loss of Cyprus in 1571. They justified this religious tolerance with the famous saying “Siamo prima Veneziani e poi Cristiani”, which means, we are first Venetians and then Christians.
Indeed, to be liked by both faiths they organized and established many common religious events in which both faiths took part, some of these events are still observed today.
The failure of the Venetians to protect the countryside and suburbs of the town from Turkish incursions roused wide public discontent.
Moreover, especially after the loss of Crete and Cyprus, Corfu was the most important possession after Venice herself, and therefore they decided to increase the island’s defenses.
The Venetians made the most ambitious defense plans, by constructing the largest and most modern fortifications for Corfu.
From 1576 to 1588 they built a new fortress on the hill of San Markos in the west of the town, then cleared the open space in front of the old fortress to make the vast Esplanade Square.
They joined the two fortresses with a wall that protected the whole city from the west. With powerful defensive systems like the bastions of Raimondo’s, St. Athanasius, and the bastion of Sarantaris, also they built four main city gates for residents and two more gates for military purposes.
The four main gates of the city were the Porta Reala, the Porta Raymonda, the gate of Spilia, and the gate of Saint Nicholas.
Porta Reala was of unique beauty and was demolished without reason in 1895 creating an international outcry.
These defensive plans were made by the engineers Michele Sanmicheli from Verona and Ferrante Vitelli.
Fortifications were constantly enhanced and later in the 17th century, following the third great Turkish siege in 1716 which was successfully repulsed by the Prussian Marshal Johann Mattias Von Schulenburg, who then was responsible for the defense of Corfu. After that siege, another wall was added outside the existing one, designed by the engineer F. Verneda.
After the Turkish invasion of 1716, Venetians fortified the island of Vido and the hills of Avrami and Saint Sotiros. They also built a fortification for the area of San Rocco (today Saroko).
The Turkish siege of 1716
The 1716 siege of Corfu was part of the Seventh Venetian-Turkish war, the occupation of this strategically importance island would open the path for the occupation of Venice and then the rest of Europe.
Turkish forces estimated that were 25000-30000 men along with auxiliary and irregulars and 71 ships with about 2,200 guns, if we add the crews of the ships they must have reached a total power of 45-50,000 men.
On the other side, the military forces of Venice were only 3097 men, of whom only 2.245 combatants. Corfu New fortress, where the big fights were held, had 144 guns and four mortars.
Marshal Johann Mattias Von Schulenburg who had the responsibility of Corfu defense, at first managed to successfully deal with the chaos that prevailed within the local population as the locals were trying in every way to leave the island or take refuge in the mountains.
He immediately ordered the recruitment of those who were able to fight, secured several reservists, and revived the morale of the besieged.
The siege had begun on July 8th when the Turks landed in Ipsos and Gouvia and ended after many cruel and deadly battles on Saturday, August 22nd.
Meanwhile, on the 20th of August, an unprecedented storm scattered the Turkish ships and drowned many Turkish soldiers and sailors.
This storm and the salvation of the city were attributed by the common people to a miraculous intervention by St. Spyridon, and ever since then, there has been a litany and a procession of Saint Spiridon on 11th August.
But despite people’s beliefs, the historic truth is that the causes of Turkish defeat were clearly military, first the strong resistance by the defenders up to the last minute, and second the defeat and destruction of the Ottoman army in Peterwardein by Eugene of Savoy. Both incidents forced the Turks to retreat.
Yielding the victory to divine intervention, misrepresents history and underestimates the heroism of the defenders.
Final losses for the defenders were about 800 dead and 700 wounded while for the Turks losses were high and reached 6,500 men. Among those killed, was Muchtar, grandfather of Ali Pasha.
Fighting alongside Corfiot’s were Venetians, Germans, Italians, 4 Maltese ships, 4 Papal galleys, 2 galleys from Genoa, 3 galleys from Tuscan, 5 Spanish galleys, and even Portuguese forces who also participated before the end of the siege.
The Jews of the city showed great courage in fighting, were equipped at the expense of the Corfiot Jewish community, and fought under the leadership of the son of the Rabbi himself.
General Proveditor of Corfu was Antrea Pizanis who had the leadership of the light fleet and was adjutant of Marshal Schulenburg the Corfiot Lieutenant Dimitrios Stratigos.
Marshal Schulenburg was honored for his determination and bravery to life pension from the Senate of Venice and his statue can still be seen at the entrance of the Old Fortress, also everyone who showed bravery during the fighting was honored.
The Turkish failure in Corfu was a historical event of enormous importance, a landmark that influenced the historical course of all of Europe and especially Greece.
Very few know that without the bravery of Corfiots and many Europeans, the course of the Turks certainly would have not stopped here and the Ottoman Empire could expand instead of collapsing, with obvious implications for the nascent Greek nation and Europe itself.
Unfortunately, it was not treated by historians with deserved importance, the Turkish invasion of the West was permanently blocked, and some overlook the fact that without this victory today`s Greek state might not exist!
The repulse of the Turkish invasion of 1716 has been a very important event for Western Europe in that era, it was celebrated with impressive events in Europe, the oratorio Juditha triumphans by Antonio Vivaldi was written because of this event and played in all the major theaters for many years.
This was the last of many Turkish attempts to expand their empire into Europe.
The period of Venetian rule left many positive elements in the culture and civilization, but was also marked by many dark spots, relations between people and nobility was like relations between slaves and master, therefore there were numerous popular uprisings, mainly in the villages due to the authoritarian rule of the Venetians and the arbitrariness and lawlessness of the ruling class of nobles.
But certainly, Corfu was very important to Venice and remained an integral territory of the State until the fall of Venice to the French.
The Ionian State (Septinsular Republic) 1800-1807
The Venetian period was followed by the first French occupation in 1797, It was the end of the feudal system, and the people burned the book of Gold (Libro d`oro) where all Aristocrats were listed.
In a symbolic gesture, the Libro d`oro was burned in all Ionian islands.
The initial euphoria after the arrival of the French, who were welcomed as liberators, quickly turned to severe distress due to French arrogance towards the locals and the heavy taxation.
Followed by a period of instability, people were divided, and the Nobles began to exploit the popular discontent against the French and began to plot the occupation of Corfu by the Russians.
They finally succeeded in 1799 when a strange alliance of Russians and Turks occupied Corfu.
The Russian admiral Ousakof, of aristocratic origin, immediately restored the privileges of the nobility and later on the 21st of March 1800, at the instigation of Ioannis Kapodistrias, then foreign minister of Russia founded the Ionian State, also known as the Sept insular Republic.
This was the first independent Greek state, something that Kapodistrias envisioned as a harbinger of the rebirth of a Greek state.
It was a federation of the seven larger island states, Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos (Zante), Paxos, Lefkada, Ithaka, and Kythyra, also including all other smaller Ionian islands, the capital was Corfu.
This state remained until 1807 when the French under Napoleon returned and stayed until 1814.
It was the time when the two buildings which today are the famous Liston were built by the French for use as military barracks.
United States of Ionian islands 1815-1864
In 1815 Corfu went under British rule, and the seven Ionian Island states declared their independence under British protection. The official name of the new protectorate was: “United States of Ionian islands” with Greek as the official language and Corfu town as the capital.
The first “Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands” was Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Maitland.
The state`s government had 29 members, 7 members from Corfu, 7 from Kefalonia, 7 from Zante, and 4 from Lefkada.
Paxos, Ithaka, and Kythera elected 1 each plus a second member who was elected in rotation by the three.
During this period the Ionian Academy, the Reading Society, and the public library were established.
Under British rule the local economy was well developed, the palace of Saint Michael and George was built and also the road network of the island was expanded as well as the construction of the aqueduct that supplied Corfu town with water from the hills around Benitses.
Power plants too were built in Corfu, which however after the union with Greece were moved to Piraeus.
Many other projects and significant improvements to the island’s infrastructure were made during this period.
Ioannis Kapodistrias and his role in the history of Corfu
The first governor of modern Greece Ioannis Kapodistrias, an offspring of an aristocratic family, was born on the island and after his education left for Russia of the Tsars. There he made a brilliant career reaching the office of foreign minister, a position that allowed him to participate actively in many European political affairs.
One of them was the creation of the state entity and constitution of Switzerland, something for which the Swiss honored him.
Regarding the historical course of Corfu, his only involvement was his diplomatic role in the occupation of the island by the then alliance of the Russians and Turks when they took over the island from French domination in 1800.
Apart from that, there is no other involvement of his name in the history of Corfu, so he is not mentioned on this page to the extent that some people would expect.
(World history includes several Russian-Turkish alliances, while the Russians have never actually been friendly to Greece, this is something for the local friends of the Russians to consider!)
Modern Times, union with Greece
On 21 May 1864 after the London treaty and the positive vote of the Ionian Parliament, Corfu and all Ionian islands united with Greece.
It was one of the most important turning points in the history of Corfu, the turbulent historical past of the island ended, and so ends the prominence of Corfu as the capital of the Ionian State.
The emergent Greek state could not afford the existence of two centers of economic and cultural strength, so in the battle with Athens Corfu lost its university, its fame, and its cultural lead and after just 40 years became a Greek provincial town.
But the memories of the glorious past remain and this is what makes Corfu unique, a Greek town that does not look like the others.