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Exploits of a Secret Agent:
 Philippe Masseria and Napoleon in Corsica and Paris

by J. M. P. McErlean
University of York, Canada


Napoleon spent a good deal of his time from 1789 to 1793 in Corsica. One of his closest politicaI allies and best friends was Philippe (Antonio Filippo) Masseria (l739-1814). What Napoleon did not know and only a handful of historians have noted since was that Masseria was a paid member ofthe British Secret Service. This is not surprising since without secrecy Masseria could not have hoped to succeed in his missions.

Napoleon's friendship with Philippe Masseria is readily understand-able. At the start of the French Revolution Napoleon and his brother Joseph were very ambitious but also very young and not eligible for significant public office. Masseria, on the other hand, was a well known figure in Ajaccio. In the struggle for Corsican national independence, his father and eldest brother had died in 1763 in a vain attempt to capture the citadel of Ajaccio from the Genoese garrison, thus conferring on Philippe, a student at the time, a degree of local fame. The Corsican national leader, Pascal Paoli, took Masseria under his wing and the two men remained closely connected thereafter. Masseria's younger brother, Louis, was a student at the recently  established University at Corte, where he most likely attended the same classes as Charles Buonaparte. It probably was the case that Masseria was Paoli's sole companion when he left Corsica for exile in June 1769 after the victory that made Corsica a French possession. Paoli went to England, while Masseria at first remained in Italy. At the end of the siege of Gibraltar in 1782, where Masseria and other exiled Corsicans had served in the British ranks, he joined Paoli 's entourage in London. In his Journal, theBritish writer, James Boswell, noted Masseria's presence at Paoli's side on a number of occasions. In 1789 the National Assembly in Paris passed a motion allowing Paoli to return to Corsica from exile. The old general sent Masseria back to the lsland to prepare his own return.

Thus on his return to Ajaccio at the start of 1790, Massena benefited from his own reputation as a participant in the war for independence of 1796, from the legend of his father's heroism, and from the prestige of having been a companion of Paoli's exile in London. He wasted no time in signing up in the National Guard which was just then being set up on Ajaccio, for which he and Napoleon were among the first volunteers. He lodged in the Rue Royale, scant seconds away from both the Bonaparte family house and from that of Marius Peraldi, before which Napoleon mounted guard. The young Bonapartes were, in contrast, somewhat hampered by public memory of their father, Charles, having decided to remain in Corsica in 1769 and compose with the French. Masseria like the Bonapartes, was an enthusiast for the French Revolution, especially because this allowed the return of Paoli and other exiles, and because this seemed to make likely the replacement in public office of those Corsicans, like Buttafuoco, who were considered to have betrayed Paoli and the cause of independence by going over to the French, even before the French conquest, and accepting positions, titles and estates from them after it.

Masseria took an energetic part in local politics. His name was frequently linked with those of the Bonaparte brothers and of their kinsman and ally, Charles-Andre Pozzo di Borgo. All of them, for example, were involved in March in setting up a committee in Bastia (Comité Supirieur) to run Corsican affairs until the new constitution being drawn up in Paris could be applied. He himself, Joseph Bonaparte and Pozzo di Borgo, took part in the discussions of the committee, which in fact met in Orezza in April. Napoleon, Joseph Bonaparte and Pozzo were all elected in April as representing Ajaccio in the electoral assembly scheduled to meet in Orezza in September, and in due course they all took part in its proceedings.

In May, in Ajaccio Masseria and Napoleon had to face down an angry crowd in what might have turned into a riot. About forty demonstrators, led by a priest, the Abbé Recco,loudly complained that the Bonapartes and their associates had driven the French (i.e. officers and officials) away from Ajaccio. It might have gone badly for them but both Masseria and Napoleon responded colly, calling for public scrutiny of their behavior, provided their accusers testified in public. In an account he later wrote of this incident, Masseria describes the crowd as "royalists" and claims they referred to the Bonapartes and himself as' 'anglo-maniacs.'' This is not so far-fetched as it may seem, since before the constitution was devised for revolutionary France, England provided the best example in Europe for a parliamentary system, one with which Masseria had some acquaintance. Some days later, at a public meeting in Ajaccio, Masseria was applauded and carried in triumph. He then harangued the crowd and was yet again applauded. The revolutionary writer and theoretician, Buonarroti, writ-ing in his newspaper of the time about these incidents, referred to Masseria as the "principal target of the aristocrats."

One of the issues behind the mob scenes of May, 1790, in Ajaccio was the question as to who would have control of the citadel and especially of the cannon, which could be turned either to face the sea or to overawe the city. Napoleon, writing to Joseph, probably in May, 1790, claimed that Masseria himself was plotting to seize the citadel. Because his father had died in making a similar attempt, we may well believe that this idea was constantly passing through Masseria's brain. At all events, a recent French specialist. Jean Defranceschi, writing of these events, has concluded that in 1790 it was Masseria and not Napoleon, as many writers claim, who was the real leader of the "patriotic" or revolutionary party in Ajaccio. This claim seems confirmed by the choice of Masseria as the first President of the Ajaccio Jacobin Club.

A letter survives written by Joseph Bonaparte which shows he had been perturbed by Masseria's absence in Florence which threatened to delay the first meeting of the "Patriotic Club." He comments on Masseria's principles as being those of a Jacobin. Fortunately, Masseria arrived in time to preside over the first meeting in January 1791, at which he launched proceedings by a diatribe against Buttafoco, listened to by Napoleon. Among the secretaries of the Club was Lucien Bonaparte. Following Masseria's lead, Napoleon also denounced Buttafoco and subsequently put his views into writing. Later in the month Masseria, in his official capacity, formally wrote to Napoleon to ask for permission to publish Napoleon's Lettre á Matteo Buttafoco, since the Club had voted funds for that purpose.

Masseria agreed with the Bonapartes on the thorny question of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, an issue that caused violent controversy in Corsica from 1791 on. For this he was denounced by his neighbor, Marius Peraldi, the richest man in Ajaccio, who called him the "sworn satellite" of the Bonapartes. When the question of the control of the citadel came up again in 1792, Napoleon and Masseria seem to have thought alike this time, though nothing came of the discussions. In June, 1792, Napoleon was in Paris and referred in a letter to Joseph to an errand he was running for Masseria, with whom, he said, he was on good terms. But it is clear that by this time Napoleon was no longer the disciple following a master.

In August, 1792 the French monarchy fell and in the elections in Corsica that followed, it became clear that the supporters of the Revolution were now quarrelling among themselves. ln part this was because General Paoli, since his return to Corsica in June, 1790, had come to occupy such a commanding position. Had Paoli not been ill and thus been unable to determine the results of the elections to the Convention in Paris, as he had been able to determine those to the Legislative Assembly earlier, Masseria might well have been elected to the Convention. Had he been elected to the Convention, he probably would have voted for the execution of Louis XVI, because he was, in Napoleon's recollection in Saint Helena when talking to O'Meara, "a republican, and maintained that the death of Charles the First was .just and necessary. " In the contest for the position of sixth Corsican representative in Paris, Masseria won 102 votes out of 410, which put him in third place. The big winner was Christopher Saliceti, who presided over the election in the absence of Paoli, who was elected the first of the six representatives and was to emerge the following year as his principal enemy.

In the period from 1790 to 1793, Masseria was in fact elected to no significant public office but seems to have spent his time in attendance on General Paoli. When in February, 1793, the minister of finance, Claviére, made a public statement criticizing the administration of Corsica (where taxes were not collected), Masseria defended Paoli in a pamphlet attack-ing Claviére. Meantime France declared war on Britain. This develop-ment made possible charges that Paoli would hand over the Island to Britain. Among those who denounced Paoli were Lucien Bonaparte in Toulon and Saliceti in Paris. Saliceti thought that Masseria was one of the few people in Paoli's entourage who was a genuine friend of Republican France. The result of these denunciations was that Paoli was summoned to Paris to explain himself, which he declined to do. These events brought about the circumstances which forced the Bonapartes to flee their natal isle. Masseria claimed that it was on his urging that Napoleon drew up a defense of Paoli (that had no lasting effect in Paris). When it became known in Corsica that Lucien Bonaparte had played a part in the denunciation of Paoli, Masseria tried to reconcile Napoleon and Paoli, but failed. When Napoleon had to run for his life in May, Masseria, or so he afterwards claimed, helped Napoleon to escape. This claim is certainly spurious. However, when Napoleon's attempt to batter the citadel of Ajalccio from a small flotilla of French ships failed in the very last days of May, Masseria was one of the Commissioners sent to Ajaccio by Paoli to take charge. In his capacity as Paoli's Commissioner, in early June he was able to enter the citadel and occupy an office there - a family ambition at last realized.
By the summer of l793, a grave danger of civil war existed in Corsica. Paoli declined to go to Paris to answer charges before the Convention. Saliceti had got himself appointed with two others to take over the Corsican administration in the name of the government in Paris. At this point Masseria was reactivated as a British agent. In 1789, he had suggested to the British government that they might take over Corsica because of the changed circumstances at the start of the Revolution, but when the National Assembly declared Corsica part of France in Novem-ber, this plan became inoperable. He sent reports to London in early 1790 and again in November when in Florence (where he was probably collecting his pay). It was from this trip that he returned to become President of the Jacobin Club in Ajaccio. From November, 1790, to July, 1792, he seems to have had nothing to do with the British government and to have concentrated entirely on Corsican affairs. But in July the'' mole'' awoke. On July 8th the head of the Secret Service in London wrote to him inviting him to make contact with the British minister in Genoa. Francis Drake was the regional British spy master. It is not clear if this letter ever reached Masseria. It certainly could not have reached him by the time he in fad left Corsica for Italy to appeal to British authorities there for help for Paoli.

He seems to have been sent by Paoli from Corsica around July  11th and to have arrived in Leghorn by July 19th, if not sooner (possibly the 16th). According to accounts he provided himself, Massena's journey was quite dramatic. Travelling in an open boat, he filled his pockets with stones so that if a French boat came close he could sink and take the documents he was carrying with him. Arriving in sight of Italy, he set about transforming his clothes into an approximation of a British military uniform so that he could present himself as having an official mission, thus bypassing port controls and passport technicalities. Masseria was in fact a British army lieutenant on half-pay (60 Rifles) supposedly because he had served as a lieutenant at Gibraltar. In fact this was the Secret Service device to give him an official income in return for the services he rendered it. However, his tailoring skills were unequal to the occasion, aroused suspicions and he was promptly thrown in jail in Leghorn. Rescued by the British consul, who knew him from his earlier trips to collect pay, he made his way to Florence and communicated with the British minister Lord Hervey.

Thereafter he made his way to other British ministers and ambassa-dors in northern Italy, finally arriving in Toulon in early September. Between July and September he wrote various letters and memorandum all urging the British government to come to the aid of Paoli and suggesting the acquisition of Corsica. By the time he arrived at Toulon, the city was in British hands. Admiral Lord Hood sent a few ships under Commodore Linzee to St. Florent to attempt to capture it, but they were badly handled and probably also too few. This attempt failed. Masseria was blamed by Linzee in order to divert attention away from his own mistakes. This tactic worked. Masseria was sent to London with dispatches and there he stayed.

In 1794, a month after Napoleon had driven the British from Toulon, Hood, in person, began to organize the expulsion of French Republicans and their Corsican supporters from Corsica and the island became the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom. Had Paoli become the Viceroy, it is possible that Masseria might have become the Secretary of State, as some archival documents suggest. Instead George III appointed as Viceroy Sir Gilbert Elliot. Masseria, in London, became Paoli's chief source of information about British affairs, until Paoli himself returned to London. By the end of 1796 the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom was over, troops sent by Napoleon from Italy during his great campaign against the Austrians having by then reasserted French control. It is not certain what Massena did between 1796 and 1799. Because of the friendship between Paoli and General Sir Charles Short (who had served in Corsica, quarrelled with Sir Gilbert Elliot and sympathized with Paoli), Masseria may have served under General Stuart in his successful campaign in Minorca. What is clear, however, is that Masseria was recalled to service in 1799 as a result of Napoleon becoming first Consul in November. The possibility of working out a peace treaty seemed greater now that the French government had changed. Since Masseria knew Bonaparte personally, he seemed a worthwhile agent. After discussions with General Stuart, supplied with a passport signed by the Secretary of State, the Duke of Portland, and with the permission of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, Masseria made his way to Calais aboard a neutral, Swedish, ship.

Despite his protestations that he was a personal friend of Joseph Bonaparte and of the First Consul and charged with a mission, he was thrown into jail. After checking with the government in the capital, the local authorities released him and he was able to arrive at Paris. There he had an interview with Napoleon after midnight, the First Consul receiving him in his bath. Napoleon listened to what he had to say and then referred him to General Clarke for further discussions. Perhaps something might have come of this but, meanwhile, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, publicly declared that there would be no peace with France. So much for British Cabinet solidarity under Pitt. Thus there was no point in continuing the mission. Thanks to a passport from Talleyrand, Napoleon's new Foreign Minister, Masseria left Paris the day before Fouche's police came looking for him at the Hotel des Etrangers. So much for the coordination of the ministries under the rule of the First Consul Masseria returned to England via Hamburg.

After the successive French victories at Marengo and Hohenlinden, peace again seemed attractive in London and Masseria went on a second mission to Paris in 1801. General Stuart was dead, but his place as Masseria's patron was taken by Lord Hobart, Minister of War (Stuart's nephew). Again Masseria reached Paris, but this time he had no direct or public access to the First Consul in the Tuileries, though he did talk to the Foreign Minister, Talleyrand. He did however meet Napoleon, who dropped in to see his mother just at the same time that Masseria was also visiting her. Masseria later said he was at Letitia's for tea ! Whereas for Masseria' s first mission to Paris in 1799, there are available records in the police files and elsewhere, for his second mission of 1801, these are not available since they have not yet been classified. Thus we know less about it. According to what Masseria told a friend, Peter Moore, a somewhat eccentric Member of Parliament who had supplied Masseria with ex-penses for his journey, Napoleon offered Masseria a job, and, on his refusal, filled his pockets with gold. This detail was omitted from Masseria's report to the British government on his return.

According to Masseria's own claims, on his return to London from Paris in 1801 and on the basis of his meeting with Napoleon, he went to talk to Otto, the French commissioner in London for the exchange of prisoners. This, according to him, started up discussions between Otto and the British government that led to official talks in France that culminated in the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 (and for a few short years, peace). This claim is impossible to verify. There is no mention of Masseria in Otto's correspondence in the French archives. Otto was closely watched by British operatives, who usually managed to follow his visitors back to their homes and record their addresses. However their reports do include one occasion when a visitor to Otto's house in London escaped their scrutiny. This visitor came not on foot but by carriage. Emerging from Otto's house, his driver whipped up the horses which galloped away faster than the Home Office watchers could run after the carriage. So the possibility exists that Masseria may have visited Otto.

However, from a personal point of view, Massena benefited from his second mission. He wrote it up in as favorable a light as he could. He pointed out that he had helped with secret missions in Corsica as early as 1768, had supplied intelligence about Minorca when he was living in Italy, had recruited Corsicans for the British army at the siege of Gibraltar and listed his services with respect to Corsica from 1789 on. A copy of the part of this report describing Masseria's missions to Paris was sent to Charles James Fox in 1806 when he entered the British government and the possibility of restoring peace again seemed possible. Masseria's friend, Peter Moon, thought it might persuade the new minister to take similar action, but he was wrong. The new Secretary of State, Lord Liverpool, who knew of Masseria's services only what Masseria told him, agreed to give Masseria a pension. This was disguised as a half-pay captaincy in the newly formed Corsican Rangers, an organization with which Masseria had never served and for which he was probably disqualified by age. He died in 1814 and thus never knew the end of Napoleon's reign.

In Saint Helena, in conversation with O'Meara, Napoleon remembered Masseria. ln l792 he had written to Joseph from Paris that Massena was physically unattractive, had "no tact" and that he was "good only to ruin whatever he gets involved in." Nevertheless he asked to be remembered to him. This penetrating judgement seems to be borne out by the facts. In Saint Helena Napoleon was less critical but still pointed to Masseria's weak points. To O'Meara he commented, "Massena though un bravissimo uomo, was a great bavard. I believe that he was sent by King George himself'' The truth probably is that Masseria was a bumbler. He was useful because he spoke French, Italian and English and because, at various times, his knowledge of Corsica was helpful. But in hoping to make a great coup, either in 1789 or in 1793, or again in his two missions to Paris, he considerably overestimated his own abilities, and especially in his trips to Paris. More than likely Napoleon read him like a book and gleaned more from him than Masseria could guess. But equally probably, the two men liked each other at a social level and certainly shared a common political out look in the early 1790's. Masseria, despite his role in 1793 in inviting the British to Corsica and his well known permanent residence in London, was never put on the list of émigres.

Perhaps this is an indication that he did render Napoleon service in Corsica and that one can count him among the genuine friends of Napoleon's youth.


I. There is vely little on Masseria in English. The basic French studies of Napoleon in Corsica, Masson, Napoleon dans sa jeunesse; Chuquet, La jeunesse de Napoleon: Marcaggi. La genése de Napoleon, all have information on Masseria, but the English studies (Oscar Browning, Norwood Young) based on these French books do not.
2. Many of the documents in British government files are listed in the invaluable Dorothy Carrington, Sources de l'histoire de la Corse au Public Record Office de Londres, 1983.
3. A well documented but short account of some of Masseria's activities is McErlean, "Between Paoli and Bonaparte -Philippe Masseria," in Proceedings of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, for 1986.
4. For his missions to Paris see P. Mackesy. War Without Victory. 1984.
5. An edition of his Memoirs and Correspondence is in preparation.


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