Culture & History

History of Corfu

Corfu is the second in size among the Ionian Islands. It has a population of 11.975 people, according to the general population census of the year 2001 and with the island of Paxos and the Diapontia Islands (Othonous, Ereikousa and Mathraki) it constitutes the Prefecture of Corfu. The town of Corfu is the political, administrative and commercial centre of the prefecture.

The period of the Venetian domination dates back in 1386, when the community of Corfu town asks to come under the protection and rule of the Venetian State.

The interest that Venice had over Corfu had been shown much earlier, as the island constitutes a point of strategic interest for Venice so much for the commercial as for its geopolitical interests in the East. This reality elevates the island of Corfu to an important stronghold of military juxtaposition, in almost every war between the Venetians and Turks, with consequences that can be traced throughout the long duration of the history of the island, so much on the landscape as on its population reference.

Corfu went through three Ottoman sieges, which failed to conquer its strong fortifications. However, these were followed by pillages and destructions of the countryside and the enslavement of its residents. The first one took place in 1537 and led to the extensive ruin of the unfortified town and the countryside. This ruin had a decisive impact on the configuration of the landscape of Corfu, with the replacement of the destroyed vineyards with olive trees. The siege brought forward the Venetians’ problems in the defense policy on the island, which virtually left the town and its residents unprotected. This also meant the beginning of new interventions to the Old Fortress (1557), during which the new fortification policy was taken into account; a policy that was being shaped by the needs created on the fortress architecture with the use of new weapons (fire-guns). The new siege in 1571 by the Ottoman forces, led Venice to the decision of having the town fortified.

This became materialized with the making of walls around the city, the building of the New Fortress and the configuration of the Esplanade square, which was included in the defense plan of the Old Fortress. New fortification works took place after the third siege (1716), during the 4th war between the Venetians and the Turks, making the interest that Venice had over the possession of Corfu known, particularly after the loss of Crete (1699).

The population losses that the two first sieges brought about were faced with the encouragement of immigration towards Corfu. At the same time, groups of people from areas which came under the Ottoman rule (Crete is a characteristic example) take refuge in the island.

Social structures in Corfu are characterized by a pyramid form, which results from the existing social and economic feudal structures. In rough lines, we acknowledge three main social groups, in proportion to the rest of the Ionian Islands; the nobles (nobili), the bourgeois (cittadini) and a wider mass of population, known as popolo. Within the above feudal structures a rural economy is developed, which is prevailed by the cultivation of olive trees. Crucial, however, is the contribution of Corfu to the salt production with the three existing public salt-pans on the island. The rural population of the island, which is acting within this feudal institutional status, is characterized by the feudal lords’ privileges and the feudal taxes. The last two, particularly hard to bear, lead the rural population to react; a reaction that reaches even revolution, as happened in 1652 and 1748.

The Venetian administration of the island is exercised by the Bailo, (an emissary of Venice, emanating from aristocratic families of the metropolis – as the rest of the Venetian officers) with competences regarding the bestowal of justice, the tax system and the defense. Shortly, more dignitaries are to be added (Provveditore, Capitano, Bailo’s counselors). Since the 16th century, Corfu constitutes the headquarters of the General Sea Prudent or of the East with competences that are extended to all the islands under Venetian administration.

With the sailing of the French naval force in Corfu on 27th June 1797, the period of the first French rule begins. People accept the French with enthusiasm, while nobles face the abolition of the aristocratic system of government and of their feudal privileges with animosity. Corfu constitutes now a prefecture of the French domination, including its neighbouring islands (Paxos, Diapontia) and the former Venetian mainland conquests (Parga, Vouthroto).

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