The most significant historic heritage of the island and the town of Corfu are, undoubtedly, the two stunning fortresses and the remains of other fortifications, which embrace the historic part of the island’s capital for more than four centuries. The significance comes not only by the fact that these enormous arts of the Renaissance architectural science are unique, as human erections, in Greece and the whole of the NE Europe, but also due to their measureless contribution to the formation of the political and cultural character of modern Europe.
In three major occasions, the forts and people of Corfu formed the ultimate outpost of the European world in its struggle to keep the Ottoman Turks away from the heart of the continent. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Corfu, along with Vienna, were for the Europeans the equivalent of Marathon and Salamis for the ancient Greeks. In 1537, Corfiots faced the wrath of the infamous Chairedin Barbarossa, moaned almost 30,000 dead and captured, but they maintained an unmatched defense and won the battle against the conqueror of Brindisi and other castles in southern Italy. In 1571, Corfu, with its fortifications, ports and people, played the role of the remote base of the Sacred League’s fleet before and after the Battle of Lepanto. Finally, in 1716, the fortifications of Corfu “broke the spear” of the Turkish expansionism for the last time, having, thus, a large part in the decay of the Ottoman Empire.
One and a half century later, the British Armed Forces, while departing after the end of British Protection and the Union of the Ionian Islands with Greece, detonated explosives under these very same fortifications that had saved Europe in the past. Their excuse was that they couldn’t leave such a strong fort standing, since poor Greece was not in position of maintaining and defending it.
Despite the fact that the destruction of Corfu’s fortifications was “legitimated” by two treaties signed in 1863 and 1864 by the European Great Powers (the latter signed by a Greek representative, as well), it was clearly an action against the international (absence of an Ionian representative) and civil laws (destruction of another’s property) and the ideas of preservation of monuments and freedom of independent states (deliberate reduction of an independent country’s means of defense). Under the Treaty of Paris (1815), the Ionian Islands formed “a single, Free and Independent State”, under the exclusive protection of the United Kingdom. Article V of the same treaty, clarifies that the British armed forces should occupy the fortresses, while their ownership was to be maintained by the Ionians. Furthermore, for the duration of the British protection, the Ionian State, paid no less than £ 1.395.000 (mid-19th century equity) as contribution to the occupying British forces, with the greater part concerning the maintenance and expansion of the fortifications.
These facts led even some spokesmen in the British Parliament to blame their government for the illegal action against the Corfiot historic heritage in 1864. At the same time, a century before the UN Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), Corfiot scholars appealed to the international community for the urgent need to protect the monuments of the European history.The international political environment of the mid-19th century left no space for sensitivities for the protection of monuments and the respect towards one’s historic heritage, as the rulers of the world would sacrifice almost anything on the sake of raison d’ état. Today things have changed a lot· the international law and the voice of the people force the governments to act for the preservation of monuments which consist part of the world heritage.
By Andreas Grammenos, Corfu, Greece, 20 June 2007