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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Egregius Hieronimus di Buonaparte


the year 1529 Francis Buonaparte, whether pressed by poverty or distracted by despair at the misfortunes which then overwhelmed Italy, migrated to Corsica. There the family was grafted upon a tougher branch of the Italian race. To the vulpine characteristics developed under the shadow of the Medici there were now added qualities of a more virile stamp. Though dominated in turn by the masters of the Mediterranean, by Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, by the men of Pisa, and finally by the Genoese Republic, the islanders retained a striking individuality. The rock-bound coast and mountainous interior helped to preserve the essential features of primitive life. Foreign Powers might affect the towns on the sea-board, but they left the clans of the interior comparatively untouched. Their life centred around the family. The Government counted for little or nothing; for was it not the symbol of the detested foreign rule? Its laws were therefore as naught when they conflicted with the unwritten but omnipotent code of family honour. A slight inflicted on a neighbour would call forth the warning words--"Guard thyself: I am on my guard." Forthwith there began a blood feud, a vendetta, which frequently dragged on its dreary course through generations of conspiracy and murder, until, the principals having vanished, the collateral branches of the families were involved. No Corsican was so loathed as the laggard who shrank from avenging the family honour, even on a distant relative of the first
offender. The murder of the Duc d'Enghien by Napoleon in 1804 sent a thrill of horror through the Continent. To the Corsicans it seemed little more than an autocratic version of the _vendetta traversale_.[1]

The vendetta was the chief law of Corsican society up to comparatively recent times; and its effects are still visible in the life of the stern islanders. In his charming romance, "Colomba," M. Prosper Merimee has depicted the typical Corsican, even of the towns, as preoccupied, gloomy, suspicious, ever on the alert, hovering about his dwelling, like a falcon over his nest, seemingly in preparation for attack or defence. Laughter, the song, the dance, were rarely heard in the streets; for the women, after acting as the drudges of the household, were kept jealously at home, while their lords smoked and watched. If a game at hazard were ventured upon, it ran its course in silence, which not seldom was broken by the shot or the stab--first warning that there had been underhand play. The deed always preceded the word.

In such a life, where commerce and agriculture were despised, where woman was mainly a drudge and man a conspirator, there grew up the typical Corsican temperament, moody and exacting, but withal keen, brave, and constant, which looked on the world as a fencing-school for the glorification of the family and the clan[2]. Of this type Napoleon was to be the supreme exemplar; and the fates granted him as an arena a chaotic France and a distracted Europe.

Amidst that grim Corsican existence the Buonapartes passed their lives during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Occupied as advocates and lawyers with such details of the law as were of any practical importance, they must have been involved in family feuds and the oft-recurring disputes between Corsica and the suzerain Power, Genoa. As became dignitaries in the municipality of Ajaccio, several of the Buonapartes espoused the Genoese side; and the Genoese Senate in a document of the year 1652 styled one of them, Jerome, "Egregius Hieronimus di Buonaparte, procurator Nobilium." These distinctions they seem to have little coveted. Very few families belonged to the Corsican _noblesse_, and their fiefs were unimportant. In Corsica, as in the Forest Cantons of Switzerland and the Highlands of Scotland, class distinctions were by no means so coveted as in lands that had been thoroughly feudalized; and the Buonapartes, content with their civic dignities at Ajaccio and the attachment of their partisans on their country estates, seem rarely to have used the prefix which implied nobility. Their life was not unlike that of many an old Scottish laird, who, though possibly _bourgeois_ in origin, yet by courtesy ranked as chieftain among his tenants, and was ennobled by the parlance of the countryside, perhaps all the more readily because he refused to wear the honours that came from over the Border.

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