Although I said previously that Bonifacio has been a harbour since they invented the boat, that is somewhat obvious as Corsica is an island, and I doubt anyone swam or flew there in antiquity!
Apparently human remains dating from 6500 BC have been found in caves nearby. The first time Bonifacio appeared in written records is in Homer’s Odyssey. Because Bonifacio is such a unique place the description Homer gave of the harbour that Odysseus’ fleet used could only fit Bonifacio. Whilst here Odysseus met the local tribes people, called Laestrygonians, allegedly giant cannibals! Following this meeting Odysseus came a very poor second, loosing his entire fleet to the Laestrygonians who stood on the cliffs and threw rocks and spears on the ships below. Odysseus only managed to save one ship anchored closer to the sea than the rest. This is apparently the only reference to Corsica’s early inhabitants who disappeared into obscurity again.
The Romans had a settlement in Bonifacio but it wasn’t linked to the main road network and it wasn’t until 828AD that the town and port assumed any significance. Count Bonifacio II from Tuscany, returning from fighting the Saracens, built the first fortifications there turning Bonifacio into a secure naval base.
The Tuscan were replaced by the Pisans in 1092 when the Pope handed it to them and they remained the dominant power for the next 200 years. In the 12th century the Genoese captured the town, massacred the population and replaced them with people from Liguria! They then set about fortifying the town properly and making it ‘impregnable’. And they pretty much succeeded.
In October 1420 the Aragonese tried taking the town. King Afonso VI was fairly confident of success being at the head of a professional army equipped for siege warfare and up against a town with only a small military garrison. How wrong they were. The town held out until December when resupplyed by a Genoese fleet at which point Alfonso discovered a pressing need to return home to be named his mother’s successor.
In 1553 the French successfully took the town, but by subterfuge rather than assault. Henri II of France, allied with the Turkish pirate Dragut, besieged the town. Despite overwhelming firepower and numbers they failed to take it even when the buildings had been reduced to rubble and the occupants were starving. The town sent a messenger to Genoa for help but he was captured by the French and returned to the town with the message that Genoa refused to help. The town, believing there was no hope, finally surrendered, and the Turks promptly massacred the population.
After a brief occupation by France the island was returned to the Genoans in 1559, remaining under their control until the French regained the island in 1768 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. It has remained French ever since.
Apparently the French began interfering with the way in which the merchants operated. Fairly predictably the merchants left and Corsica’s fortunes began to decline. Apparently Bonaparte spent time in the town before his rise to power and following his fall the population continued to support him.
During World War II Bonifacio regained it’s significance. It aquired more fortifications and coastal gun batteries to return it to its position as as a defensible naval base. The final military chapter in its history saw the French Foreign Legion based there from the 1960 to the 1980s.
The harbour is now home to local fishing boats and the marina and tourism appears to be the mainstay of the economy.
As I said previously, well worth the visit.