The history of Corfu is, undoubtedly, one replete with events the tragedy of which can hardly be quantified by nowadays imprints the passage of time has left on the general dash of the island. Indeed, Corfu – both the city and the island – is dotted with landmarks descending from various historic periods substantiating the greatness of those moments, may they be glorious or tragic, and the importance the island of Corfu has had on the political scene of Europe from ancient times until the contemporary age.
The beginnings of Corfu float halfway between mythical speculation and historical data. Yet, what one can make of such information is that the island has been inhabited since 40000 BC by the so-called Phaeaceans. Consistent archeological findings close to the Gardiki Castle(center of the island) and Sidari evidence traces of human settlements since the pre-Neolithic and the Bronze Age. However, the first significant historic event Corfu had to undergo was represented by the Corinthian colonization, prior to which Illyrians and people from Eretria had settled on the island. The rivalry between Corfu – back then called Corcyra – and Corinth was of great importance for the Peloponnesian War which was intensely fueled by this vying. Athenians were the ones to support Corfu both against Corinthians and Spartans, the latter having made their attempt to gain dominion over the island in 375 BC. For the remaining Antiquity, Corfu was under the Roman rule, a situation the island was forced to assume as a result of the Illyrian invasion in 229 BC. The most significant event to peg out this period was represented by the arrival of Christianity (the 1st century AD).
Corfu entered Middle Ages under Byzantine dominion (in 445 AD), a rule which had lasted for more than 9 centuries and which saw Corfu sacked by many barbarian people, such as Vandals, Goths and Normans, the latter having considerably contributed to the alliance between the Byzantine Empire, Venice and Corfu, which rallied in view of dealing with the Norman threat. The decline of the Byzantine Empire officially handed over the dominion to Venice, in 1204, but it was not until the end of the 14th century that Venice actually became a prominent political force in Corfu, given that for more than a century the island had passed from the rule of Michael Komnenos II, Despot of Epirus, to Charles of Anjou. Orthodox Christians underwent an extremely difficult period under Angevin rule, given this dynasty’s allegiance to the Papacy.
Lasting for more than 4 centuries (from 1386 to 1797), the Venetian dominion over Corfu had its benefits and shortcomings as far as locals were concerned. The main highlights of this rule refer to the fact that by force of Venetian support, Corfu had been the only part of Greece not to fall to Turkish incursions, though the conquering attempts of the latter had been constant and fierce. This set of circumstances contributed largely to the Corfiots’ self esteem, an asset they have always took pride in when facing their fellow countrymen. The intense cultivation of olive trees and the architectural richness are also a part of the Venetian heritage which is even at present extremely fruitful for Corfu’s economy and tourism. More precisely, nowadays olive groves occupy about 30% of the surface of the island, whereas as far as Venetian architectural heritage goes, its main highlights are represented by the Old Fortress (Palaio Frourio) and the New Fortress, not to mention the general dash of Corfu Town which is replete with buildings and churches visibly constructed in the Venetian style. Despite such benefits, simple Corfiots as such had lived in unbearable conditions, such as poverty and diseases, which is why antagonist relationships between rulers and the ruled soon occurred. Corfu saw the arrival of the French rule (at the end of the 18th century, under Napoleon Bonaparte) as an opportunity to gain their long awaited freedom.
The French dominion over Corfu did not sum up more than 17 years, and even so, French were not a constant presence in Corfu, since the other three leading powers of the world back then, namely, England, Russia and Turkey made an alliance against the French occupation of Corfu. The geo-strategic significance of Corfu made the island too important to be left in the hands of the French, each of the other powers coveting after Corfu for their own. The main benefits of Corfu under French rule were represented, culturally speaking, by the reintroduction of Greek as the official language, and by the introduction of printing, whereas the two major agricultural achievements referred to the introduction of potatoes and tomatoes.
This period (1814-1864) had been extremely favorable to Corfu and to the Ionian Islands, for that matter, given that it opened the trajectory for the future unification of Corfu with the mainland Greece. Some of the main cultural achievements gained during the previous rule were consolidated, whereas architecturally speaking, the general dash of Corfu Town was enriched by the construction of certain landmarks, such as the Palace of St. Michael and St. George and the Maitland Rotunda. 1864 marked the unification of Corfu with Greece – which, for that matter, had managed to gain its independence from the Turkish domination.
Subsequently to the unification, Corfu underwent a period of prosperity, the island thriving on the newly discovered tourist activity. The most prominent visitor and occasional guest of the island was Empress Sissy, her heritage to the island being represented by the Achillion. The relative calmness of Corfu had occasionally been troubled by the Italians’ attacks during World War I and by the tragic circumstances which occurred during World War II, when the population suffered the impact of the German occupation pretty seriously, and the bombing destroyed a significant part of the architectural heritage. The last violent event to mark Corfu and the entire Greece at the same time was the Civil War. However, nowadays Corfu stands out as a major tourist destination which has managed to get out of the many historic circumstances which contributed to the inestimable assets the island now takes pride in.