PIRATES OF THE ADRIATIC
History is fairly frantic with groups unfairly maligned both by contemporaries and, subsequently, careless historians. The Uskoks of Senj, which lies on the Dalmatian coast where the Gulf of Kvarner begins to ungulf into coastline, are an exemplary illustration. At the height of their piratical success in the 16th century, they were grotesquely caricatured by the Venetians as cannibalistic savages, half men-half beasts, whatever the Venetian minds of the time could conjure into nightmare. Adding to the caricature, it seems no matter who attacked Dubrovnik in the 16th century they were called Uskoki even though that was rarely the case. To make matters worse, the great historian of the common man of the latter half of the 20th century, Fernand Braudel, more or less provides his readers with a similar view of the Uskoks. Yet on the contrary, the Uskoks (from the Slavic ‘to jump’), represent one of the greatest displays of successful rapid adaptation to adverse circumstance in human history.
As the Ottomans drove northward up the Balkan peninsula they famously absorbed great numbers of the populace, converting many, mostly former Bogomil heretics of Bosna, and ruling others more benignly than they had been ruled in the past. They had the habit of stealing children that they would raise as Ottomans, specifically to become Janissaries, so that over the centuries many of the most able of Ottomans, including the extraordinary ‘foreign minister’, Sokollu, were Slavs. However, these interesting singularities tend to disguise the most normal result of such an advance of an empire of an alien faith, which is the creation of an endless flow of refugees whose enmity towards the conquerors is of remarkable endurance. Many of such refugees were called Uskoki, Uskoks. During the centuries of uncertain boundaries between Islamic Ottomans and Christian Europeans, many outposts, or garrisons, composed largely of Uskoks and financed by, usually, the Hapsburgs, were strung along wherever the border happened to be at the time. Those Uskoki who found their place on the shores of the Adriatic, primarily in Senj, though there were Uskok havens in the area of Rijeka as well, and certainly farther south than Senj, became people of the sea; pirates, if you will, whose mission was to avenge their fate by attacking Ottoman ships. The vengeful and zealous aspects of these Uskoks should not disguise the primary motivation for their and virtually all acts of piracy (privateering aside), which is economic distress. The Uskoki just happened to arise in a religiously clear-cut circumstance. Senj was an ideal location for the Uskoki. It was hemmed in by mountains but for just enough of a pass to allow the ferocious burja to prevent large ships from anchoring in its already shallow harbour. Virtually unassailable by land, and safe from the large ship favored by their enemies, the Uskoki developed light, swift boats with shallow drafts that could easily be hauled up onto land. Their success is aptly attested to by the numerous attempts by the Ottomans to root them out by both land and sea, attempts that failed. The composition of the Uskoki should receive a bit more mention for it would be easy for the reader to imagine a rather heterogeneous and motley assemblage of environmentally-sculpted thugs; yet there were Uskoks of all stripes: Albanians, every kind of southern Slav, Vlachs, Morlachs, and as their reputation grew, recruits from the Habsburg and Venetian territories. One particular irony is that Venetian propaganda was probably closer to the truth after various Venetian outlaws had joined the Uskoki cause.
The second chapter in the Uskoki story has two versions (I have actually skipped the very involved first chapter for the sake of relative brevity: the first Uskok bastion was Klis, indeed further south than Senj, a redoubt finally taken by the Turks, driving the first Uskoki north). The more appealing is that they were so appalled by their co-religionist Venetians trading readily with the Ottomans that they began to attack Venetian ships as well. The other version is that the Ottomans, thoroughly frustrated, appealed to the Venetians to send military escorts along with the Ottoman merchant fleets. Whatever the truth, the Uskoks were a seaworm at the bottom of the Venetian vessel. Many attempts were made to get the Austrians to rein them in, but they were of great use to the Austrians in more ways than one. For instance, the Austrian nobility was known to acquire some of the finer merchandise stolen by the Uskoks: a likely apocryphal story that nonetheless describes a truth is that a Jewish merchant robbed at sea later saw his very own jewels adorning a Habsburg princess at court. And of course it was hardly in the interests of the Austrians to aid Venice in its commercial affairs, or, especially, the Ottomans, whom they would be fighting at the outskirts of Vienna as late as 1683. It was up to the Venetians to solve their own problem (by the latter quarter of the 16th century Uskoki were more their problem than the Ottoman’s), and so they sent a special detachment after them under the leadership of a certain Giovanni Bembo, whose abilities were not adaptable to the sea-guerrilla tactics of the Uskoks. His efforts often read like high comedy. In one instance, he had the Uskoki squadron hemmed in—the Uskoki were forced to take refuge on a small island from which there was no escape, especially since just after they landed a strong burja began blowing that Bembo knew no sailors could survive (his own ships dropped anchors to await the subsidence of the wind). The next morning, the wind had calmed, and the Venetians landed to find a makeshift fortification before them, the Uskoki determined to fight it out to the last man—precisely what Bembo wanted. The heavily armed Venetians approached cautiously until they could make out the individual weapons of the Uskoki, and kept approaching, until they could see that the Uskoki weapons were sticks aimed toward the beach and not a living soul could be seen. In the night, during the height of the wind, the Uskoki had dragged their boats to the other side of the island and escaped.
To be balanced, the Uskoki did commit a number of atrocities. Raiding towns, for instance on the Istrian peninsula, seems reasonable enough as they were pirates and the towns were under Venetia subjection—but did they have to chop off all those heads? Venetian propaganda made the Uskoki out to be savages, and cutting off heads of civilians may be savagery, but there is no record of the Uskoki making a feast of the corpses left by these victorious raids. To understand the quotidian demands of a people of such a long ago time requires extreme empathy and many guesses; but we do know the people of Senj had to eat, and such was there state of want that it has been said that most of there raiding was actually done on land, within a small radius of their fortress town. Vlachs and their herds coming down too near the sea at times of religious fervor—Christmas and Easter—were special targets of the Uskoks (nothing personal, just faith and hunger). For despite their rapacious anti-Turk drive, they were in fact still poor folk who stole for the most part to feed themselves and their families. Anyway, for the most part, such raids were a minor part of the Uskok story, which came to such a head that a battle was named after them—the Uskok war, mainly between Venice and Austria, which lasted from 1615 to 1617 and ended with an agreement to disband the Uskoki, who were sent into various hinterland areas that are today in Croatia and Slovenia. Subsequently, many historians as I have said disparaged the Uskoki, and many seem to be under the impression that the Austrians held them in their employ rather than tolerating them, supporting them, and occasionally profiting directly from them. But the fact remains that the Uskoki were an Ottoman creation, a band of outlaws, who adapted ingeniously to horrific circumstances, and in the face of one of the most powerful navies in history just across the narrow Adriatic, managed to prosper for nearly a century. Rebecca West, the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a sort of historical travelogue about the Balkans written in the 1930s actually credits the Uskoki with being an ingenious bunch, but ends her brief account by saying that no one knows what happened to them after they were disbanded. Other than those who settled in the aforementioned areas were the many who simply joined other outlaw fleets, dispersing independently throughout the Mediterranean—this I add to prevent the thought that after one hundred years of piracy, this subculture could simply be tamed. Instead, their manners and tactics endured as invisible threads through the history of piracy and banditry in the Mediterranean.