One of the more fascinating “what ifs” of European history has to be the handling of the Corsican Crisis of 1768-69.
Corsica had been Genoese Italian for centuries, until a popular uprising led by Pasquale Paoli had formed the Corsican Repubic in 1755. After several years of trying to reestablish their control, the Genoese sold the island to France in a secret treaty in 1764. How did France get involved? Enter Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, small, smiling, fat, easy to underestimate and a born international intriguer (a kind of cross between James Bond and one of the banking goblins in Harry Potter –and if you can imagine that then you probably need therapy). He had been looking for a way for France to get one over Britain since the end of the Seven Years War in 1763.
Now the British had been involved in Corsica; even putting a consul in place, and so –quite reasonably- Paoli called on the British government to intervene. Grafton and his foreign minister, Lord Shelburne, did some wringing of the hands and made speeches opposing the French action but ultimately just shrugged. Despite calls in parliament, Grafton refused to consider sending troops to Corsica or even mobilising the navy.
The weak British response convinced Choiseul that the British were not prepared for another major war and would always back down when threatened – reasoning that British naval superiority was nothing in the hands of a government that was not prepared to use it. This boosted his hopes of leading France to a crushing victory over Britain to avenge the Seven Years War.
In 1770 Grafton resigned as first minister, and was replaced by Lord North. The same year Corsica was formally annexed as a province of France. Many in the Thirteen Colonies took the failure to prevent this, coupled with a failure to fully assert the boundaries of North America with Spain, as evidence of a collapse of British power.
The fall of Corsica was attacked in the Junius Letters which asserted that Corsica would never have been invaded had Britain shown the least bit of grit and determination. The other major powers took note of the British failure to act, and severe damage was done to Britain’s international standing. This had the knock-on effect of discouraging the Russians from concluding a treaty of alliance with Britain, leaving the British without a major ally entering into the run-up to the American Revolutionary War. If Grafton had responded with the merest show of force at Corsica then that conflict may have taken a different turn.
But an even more intriguing consequence followed the birth on 15 August 1769, in the town of Ajaccio, Corsica of one Napoleon Bonaparte. Choiseul’s sneaky project accidentally ensured that Napoleon was born French rather than Corsican or Genoese.
Grenville made a snide remark in 1768 that was to prove prophetic. He said of Grafton’s dithering that, ‘for fear of going to war, you will make war unavoidable’. Little did either know the scale of that war nor the sheer ability of the opponent now rendered French.