In his Odyssey, Homer mentions the island of Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, which some believe to be Corfu. The first true historical records however don’t start until 743 BC, when the Corinthians formed a colony founding the ancient city of Corcyra, centred on Analypsis near Kanoni. They got rich and with the help of Athens in 432 BC, split with Corinth which helped start the Peloponnesian War. This evidently didn’t do them much good as Corcyra (the city name was also given, as now, to the whole island) lost its importance and found itself under a succession of rulers until in 229 BC it invited the Romans to do the job, becoming the first area of Greece to come under their rule. It was here that Octavian assembled his fleet before the battle of Actium in 31 BC, near present day Preveza.
Eventually in 395 AD the Roman Empire fell and the Byzantine realm took over. They seem to have stayed for quite a while, but by 1204 the Byzantine State was dismembered by the Frankish Crusaders. The Venetians took charge for ten years, and then the Greek Despots of Epirus annexed the place for 50 years. Apparently the Angevins then had a go for 120 years from 1267. It seems that they came from Anjou, in western France, having also taken a large chunk of Italy, so it would have been the Angevins of Naples under Charles 1st of Anjou that decided to come here. The islanders were not too impressed by this bunch either, so in 1386 they asked the Venetians to stay again, and so they did without a break until the 18th century. Things were not plain sailing however as piracy flourished during this time and the Turkish Ottoman Empire, who already occupied mainland Greece, had a go at taking Corfu three times. In 1537 the Turks, presumably under the command of the Ottoman Admiral of the Fleet of the time known as Barbarossa (Red Beard in Italian), invaded via Gouvia Bay and devastated the island, but the fortresses were not taken. The Turks tried again in 1570 whilst at the same time attacking Cyprus that was then also under Venetian rule. Fortunately in the spring of that year, the Venetians increased the size of its fleet by constructing 100 galleys in just 2 months. An additional reason for the Turks failing again was a change in the former Venetian policy of neutrality by joining forces with Spain and the Pope to form the Holy League. On 7th October 1571, the League triumphed over the vast Turkish fleet in a battle at Lepanto, a town in the Corinthian Gulf now called Nafpaktos, the artillery mounted on the sides of the Venetian galleys being the deciding factor. During the decline of the Venetian State, they lost to the Turks their colonies in Corinth amongst others in 1715, but managed to repel the final attack on Corfu by the Turkish Ottomans in 1716. There is still a statue of Marshal Schulenburg on the Esplanade in Corfu town, who was employed by the Venetians as commander during that last attack. Of course, the fact that the Turks did not manage to take Corfu was of little comfort to the majority of the population, since only about 12,000 were safely inside the various fortresses, whilst perhaps 40,000 villagers were killed, or taken as slaves, with their crops and houses burned.
All good things come to an end, and so it was that on 12 May 1797 the Venetian Democracy fell. This was brought about by Napoleon, whose plans required the destruction of Venice as a power. Corfu was therefore taken by the French democrats for a couple of years, and then by the Russo-Turkish forces. The Russians and Turks then agreed in 1800 to set up an independent state for the Ionian Islands under the name of the Septinsular Republic. That only lasted 7 years when in 1807 the French returned, staying another 7 years. Then having previously laid siege to the island in 1809 without success, over the horizon once more came the British to ‘liberate’ Corfu. It was then 5th November 1815, when by the Treaty of Paris, Corfu became part of the independent state of Ionian Islands under the protection of the British Crown and Corfu became the seat of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. The locals started revolting in 1848, and the British slowly took the hint, so on 29th March 1864 the protectorate came to an end with the signing by the United Kingdom, Greece, France and Russia of the Treaty of London. So after 50 years in charge, Britain gave up the Ionian Islands, and on 21st May 1864 Corfu joined the newly formed kingdom of Greece, headed by George of Denmark under the name of George 1st of Greece. Since then Corfu has remained a part of the Hellenic Republic and its recent history has been the same as the rest of Greece.
Since Corfu had been spared the 400 years of rule by the Ottomans suffered by the rest of Greece, there was a greater tradition of education here. The Ionian Academy was established in 1824 by Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, a British politician and colonial administrator. In 1827 the first head of state of the independent state of Greece was Count Ioannis Kapodistrias who was born in Corfu to a distinguished Corfiot family. He was subsequently assassinated in 1831 in Nafplio, in the Peloponnese which was then the Capitol of the First Hellenic Republic. His body was later returned to Corfu and his tomb can be seen in the Platytera Monastery in the outskirts of Corfu Town on the Paleokastritsa road. The oldest bank in Greece is located in Corfu, the Ionian Bank here dating from 1839. Located in a square just off Nikiforou Theotoki Street a short distance from Liston, and now owned by Alpha Bank, it houses a money museum.
During the First World War, the remnants of the retreating Serbian army were given refuge on Corfu, having been driven from their homeland. Many of the Serbian soldiers died here from exhaustion, lack of food and various diseases, and were buried at sea near the island of Vidos, where a mausoleum was subsequently erected by the Serbian people. In the Second World War, Corfu experienced the invasion of the Italians in 1941, then shortly after the collapse of Italy, it was in the early morning hours of 14th September 1943 that the Germans staged a major raid, bombing the town with incendiaries from their base in Epirus, fearing that the British would seize the island as a strategic base. Corfu burned for three days. Buildings including the Opera House, the Public Library with its 80,000 volumes, and many Venetian houses filled with priceless artefacts were all destroyed. When the ruins were cleared, the rubble was used to build the airstrip, reclaimed from the lake behind the main town, which continues to serve the island’s only airport. Corfu was eventually liberated on 14th October 1944 by British troops, although unfortunately in June earlier that year the Allies had also bombarded Corfu as a diversion from the Normandy Landings. Despite the devastation caused during the war years, many buildings survive to provide an interesting and picturesque record of the history of Corfu.
According to a verbal account obtained from a particularly chatty local, at some time it seems that a large part of the main town, from San Rocco to Alepou, was inhabited by people from Malta. The Maltese people were brought to Corfu by Sir Thomas Maitland, the second Lord High Commissioner, who had previously held a similar role in Malta, so was familiar with their skills as stone masons so used them to build the palace of St. Michael and St. George. When the British eventually left, these Maltese people were given the option of relocating to the UK or remaining as Greek citizens. A strong contingent remains that now make up the largest part of the Catholic community here. It seems likely that this Maltese connection may be the origin of the horse drawn carriages wandering the streets of Corfu town that are now one of the tourist attractions, as they are identical in style to those traditionally used in Malta, although this needs a bit more research to verify.
Another minority foreign population lived in an area of the main town called Spillia, the area of town closest to the old port, and is still referred to as the Jewish quarter, although it is not clear when this section of the population arrived. It is likely however that at least some were part of the Sephardim, some of whom settled in various parts of Greece following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. It is clear that many of the Jews were still living here at the time of the Second World War, as testified to by a statue erected in memory of the many rounded up by the German Gestapo in June 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. Only approximately 200 escaped out of a total population at that time of about 1900. An active synagogue still survives in that area.
To the north of the island there is a village called Armenades, which together with the neighbouring village of Rachtades were originated by people from Armenia. It seems that Armenians had arrived in various areas of Greece including Corfu throughout hundreds of years dating back to the Byzantine period, coming for reasons including war and business.
A rather quirky piece of Corfu historical trivia, not recorded in any of the guide books, relates to Billiards. It seems that the very first sale of a billiard table that incorporated a rubber cushion, one of several improvements to the design of billiard tables by manufacturer John Thurston, was to the officers’ mess of the 42nd Royal Hussars in Corfu on the 16th May 1835. Prior to this the cushions were stuffed with flax, cotton or other padded materials, with the result that they were rather deadening. Although there is no evidence that billiards was brought to Corfu by the British, they certainly brought Cricket which was adopted by the locals who now support eleven teams. One of the cricket pitches only occasionally now used is located in front of Liston. Another introduction resulting from the period of British rule is the brass band or ‘phiharmoniki’. Originally the British army provided a band to accompany the Litany of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spiridon when paraded then as now on 11th August. This practice however became forbidden in 1837, by order of the British Government who forbade military bands from taking part in any religious ceremony, so the locals formed their own band on 12th September 1840 which still exists and is called the ‘Palia’ or the old one. Fifty years later in 1890 a new band called ‘Mantzaros’ was formed then much more recently in 1980 the third band of Corfu Town, ‘Kapodistrias’, was created. In the rest of the island other bands were started including Gastouri in 1898, Skripero in 1909, Lefkimi in 1953 and Ano Korakiana in 1958.