History of Corfu
Corfu (Kérkyra) is the second largest island of the Ionian Sea. It has a population of 111,975, according to the 2001 census and, together with Paxi and the Diapontian Islands (Othoni, Erikoussa and Mathraki), constitutes the Prefecture of Corfu. Corfu Town is the prefecture’s political, administrative and commercial centre.
The Venetian rule period starts in 1386, when the community living in Corfu Town asked to be placed under the protection and the rule of the Venetian State.
Venice had expressed her interest in Corfu in the past, since the island is at a crossroads of strategic importance to Venice, in terms of her trade and geopolitical interests in the East. This reality renders the island the key area of military dispute in almost each Ottoman - Venetian War, with consequences that may be traced throughout the island’s long history, both in the landscape and in the composition of its population.
Corfu experienced three Ottoman sieges, which did not succeed in defeating its powerful fortifications; nevertheless, they were followed by pillaging, raiding, looting and destruction of the countryside, as well as by enslavement of the locals. The first siege took place in 1537 and led to extensive devastation of the unfortified town and the rural areas. These destructions played a decisive role in the in the way that the landscape of Corfu was subsequently shaped, with the replacement of destroyed vines with olive trees. The siege made evident the problems in the Venetians’ defence policy on the island, which left the town and its inhabitants virtually defenceless and resulted in new, major interventions on the Old Fortress (1557), during which new fortification practices were applied, as dictated by the needs created in fortress architecture by the use of new weapons (cannons). The new siege of 1571 by the Ottoman forces, made Venice decide to effectively fortify the entire city.
The fortification included building the surrounding walls, the New Fortress and the creation of the Spianada square, integrated into the defence design of the Old Fortress. New fortification works were undertaken after the third siege (1716), during the fourth Ottoman - Venetian War, proof of the interest that Venice had for Corfu, particularly after the loss of Crete in 1669.
The population losses that were suffered as a result of the first two sieges were dealt with by encouraging inhabitants to move to Corfu Town. At the same time, the island is used as refuge by groups of people from other Greek areas under Ottoman occupation (Crete being the most characteristic example thereof).
Social structures in Corfu are pyramid-shaped, deriving from the then existing social and economic feudal ones. In general, one may identify on the island three major social groups, which is largely the case with the rest of the Ionian Islands: the nobles (nobili); the bourgeois citizens (cittadini); and a more general population, known as popolo (lower class). Within the framework of these feudal structures, a rural economy thrives, mostly based on olive tree cultivation. On the other hand, Corfu plays a leading role in salt production, with its three public salt pits on the island. The rural population, having to exist within this feudal institutional environment, is constantly tried by the privileges enjoyed by the feudalists and the heavy tax burdens imposed on the peasants. These particularly onerous burdens are the ones that make the rural population react and even revolt, as was the case in 1652 and 1748.
The island’s Venetian rule is represented by the Bailo (appointed by Venice and coming from the aristocracy of the metropolis -not unlike all other Venetian officials) with competences such as serving justice, imposing and collecting taxes, and dealing with defence-related matters. Very soon, he is assisted by other officials (Provveditore - Capitano, and Bailo’s advisors). From the 16th century, Corfu is the seat of the Governor General of the Sea (Provveditore generale da Mar) or the Governor General of the East (Provveditore generale in Levante) with competences and extending to all islands under Venetian rule.
With the arrival of the French fleet on 27 June 1797 in Corfu, starts the period of the first French rule. The people receive the French with enthusiasm, while the nobles are hostile against the abolishment of the aristocratic regime and their feudal privileges. Corfu becomes a department of the French territories, including its neighbouring isles (Paxi and the Diapontian Islands), as well as the former Venetian dominions in Epirus (Parga, Vouthroto).