17th century Hungarian Hajdúk

Uskoks of Croatia


This brief glimpse of the Cossacks has shown that their history is highly revealing of the complexities and ambiguities of the Islamic-Christian border. The inexpiable and chronic struggles for which that border was the theater were no doubt waged in the name of two antagonistic religions, but political interests inextricably combined with them: the lords of the Polish-Lithuanian border had irredentist aims on the coasts of the Black Sea and conducted their own policy, in concert with the Habsburgs when necessary. That policy was officially at odds with the one announced by the Polish Crown, which was compelled to exercise caution toward its troublesome neighbor. The Crown, however, did not neglect to give these lords their approval and support, but by necessity in secret. Economic interests were also present, since there was booty to be had on either side, and on this point the Cossacks and their potential silent partners among the nobility were not to be outdone by the Tatars.

At the same time, each of the two camps, in violent opposition with each other, was far from being as united as the Manichaean model of confrontation would suggest. On the Christian side, tensions existed not only between the Russian and Polish states but also between Catholics and those of the Orthodox faith. At the social level, that is, between lords and peasants, these conflicts lay at the very heart of Cossackry, even if the movement was later co-opted to a certain degree.

The Muslim camp was also not unified. Grafted onto the Ottoman-Tatar tensions were all sorts of conflicts among the Tatars themselves: rivalries between members of the ruling clan and rivalries between tribes, as illustrated by the episode involving Kantemir Mirza, the ally of the Ottomans against the ruling Giray branch. These fissures on both sides opened the way for a complex play of alliances and oppositions that was not always overridden by the fundamental Islam/Christendom cleavage.

In addition, the Cossacks were the emblematic embodiment of a phenomenon—the one, perhaps, that left the most traces in Europe’s collective memory (though we must take care to remember that each region of Europe has its specific memory)—that existed more or less, in various forms and with diverse fates, along every segment of the Islamic-Christian border in Europe.

As for the Habsburg border in Croatia and Slavonia, it too was separated from the Turkish lines by a no-man’s-land similar to the Polish dzikie pola, though on a smaller scale. These were called the nicija zemlja (“empty lands”). They resulted from the border raids by Turkish forces but also from the scorched-earth policy conducted on both sides. Refugees leaving the territories ruled by the Turks came to settle on these marches near the Habsburg lines. They were given the name “Uskoks” (from a Croatian verb uskociti, meaning “to move by successive leaps”). They were primarily Serbs and Vlachs. (These Romanian-speaking Vlachs were also called “Arumanians” or “Kutsovlachs” or “Tsintsars.”) The authorities granted them peasant holdings on uncultivated lands and on the prairies. In 1538, Ferdinand of Habsburg exempted them from paying taxes for twenty years, in exchange for their services guarding the border, and granted them the right to collect a third of the booty recovered from the Turks. Each Uskok captain had to maintain a standing army of two hundred settler-soldiers.

Over time, various elements joined these first Uskoks, not only Serbs and Vlachs from the Ottoman Balkans but also—moving us closer to the origins of the Cossacks—outlaws and peasants fleeing the oppression of the Hungarian and Croatian magnates in order to live under a different social arrangement. Their base cell was the zadruga, a community of members united by blood ties, collectively using goods held jointly and sharing the revenues among themselves. Several communities formed a village, which elected its own civil and military leaders. The rights and obligations of these “border guards” (Grenzer, Granicari) was ratified and elaborated in the very exhaustive charter on the military borders of Slavonia and Croatia, issued in 1630 by Emperor Ferdinand II, the statuta Valachorum. The term haram, an Arabic word meaning “outlaw” or “bandit,” transmitted by the Ottomans, was used to designate these communities, whose military leader bore the Slavic title “voivode.” Several “harams” formed a “kapitanat,” commanded by a kapitan, who was under the “border general.”

In addition to these land Uskoks on the Croatian border, there were maritime Uskoks along the edge of the other border zone, the Adriatic. Their base was the fortress of Senj (Segna), an aerie overlooking the sea. Some of these maritime Uskoks also came from the Ottoman territories, which they had fled, but others were from the Habsburg possessions and from Venice. Like the Cossacks, they were ardent defenders of Christianity and the inveterate enemies of Islam, but they would sometimes attack and pillage the ships of Christians living under the sultan’s rule or in Venice. They justified themselves by arguing that these were bad Christians who collaborated with the infidel. They were officially dependents of the Habsburgs, but Venice sought to contain them, so as not to incite disputes with the Ottomans detrimental to its commercial interests.

The Ottomans, of course, also had corsairs in the Adriatic. Intended on principle to respond to the attacks of the Uskoks, they did not overlook an opportunity to take the initiative. Nor did either side forgo attacking ships from their own camp on occasion. Similarly, when the two opposing camps wanted to settle their quarrels and enter a phase of peace, their respective corsair auxiliaries, deaf to all diplomatic considerations, continued to obstruct commerce and to precipitate incidents. They thus became a nuisance, against whom the two camps now united. For example, the minutes of a hearing held by the judge (n’ib) of the fortress of Nova record that the representatives of Venice and those of the sultan reached an agreement to compensate merchants and other victims of corsairs, dependents of each of the two parties, as well as victims of Montenegro bandits (Karada eshkiyalari). On the Hungarian border as well, the Habsburgs had to be very pragmatic in resolving the question of labor power. They appealed to German mercenaries, to the great displeasure of the populations they were supposed to protect, since in reality the Germans perpetrated the worst misdeeds. In addition, as their predecessors had already done in the fifteenth century, the Habsburgs recruited shepherds and serfs for their border needs. As in the previous cases, these elements were designated by a term of Turkish origin meaning “bandit”: they were hajduks (Turkish, haydut). It is quite true that they often became bandits. In 1604, Stephen Bocskai, future prince of Transylvania, used that labor pool in his rebellion against the Habsburgs. Once his victory was assured, he fulfilled the promise he had made to the hajduks who had supported him: by the terms of an agreement reached with Vienna in 1610, he relocated them to the plain around Debreczen, where they would enjoy a great deal of autonomy. In 1608, the Hungarian diet recognized their privileges in exchange for the performance of military service for the king. Thereby established on the border of Ottoman Hungary and Transylvania, they maintained small strongholds between the course of the Tisza and the Transylvanian border. These elements, however, were overseen by Calvinist preachers and welcomed fugitive peasants, whom they refused to hand over. Once again, the Islamic-Christian border, by virtue of the need for troops to which it gave rise, became, with the complicity of the border officers, a social escape route for those in the hinterland and the site of an “alternative” society.

Another famous episode in the history of these communities with a special status, established on the border between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman, was linked to the wave of Serbian emigration in 1690. In 1689, the imperial army, having recovered Hungary, had broken through the Ottoman defense and penetrated into Serbia and Bosnia. Many Serbs had taken the side of the invaders and conducted guerrilla warfare against their Ottoman masters. Their religious leader, Patriarch of Pec Arsenio III Crnojevic, after hesitating between placing himself under the protection of Venice or under that of Emperor Leopold I, finally opted for Leopold. On April 16, 1690, Leopold published a proclamation in which he asserted his desire to restore the ancestral freedoms of all peoples who were his subjects in his capacity as king of Hungary. He especially promised to ensure freedom of religion. That pledge favored the uprising of the Orthodox Serbians and Albanians, the sultan’s subjects, by mooting their reservations about a regime known for its militant Catholicism. As a result, the imperial armies suffered setbacks that obliged them to retreat. The Serbian patriarch also decided on withdrawal, taking along a portion of his people, though their number is in dispute: he himself spoke of forty thousand families. They went first to Belgrade—in June 1690—a city the imperial forces still held. But the Ottomans recaptured Belgrade on October 9. The Ottoman victory forced the patriarch and his flock to negotiate with Leopold a move to Habsburg territory. On August 21, 1690, the emperor published a first diploma—others would follow in subsequent years—laying the foundations for Serbian autonomy, particularly in religious matters, in a kingdom of Hungary that had come under Habsburg domination. The Serbian peasant soldiers escaped the unbridled tax exactions of the noble large landowners and did not pay tithes to the Catholic clergy. They dedicated the equivalent sum to supporting their own clergy. The Hungarian magnates and the episcopate did not fail to protest these privileges. In addition, on May 1, 1694, the War Council of Vienna decided that the Serbs would receive lands in “Cumania,” that is, between the Danube and the Tisza. After that, the Serbs came to populate the regions, desert at the time, of that zone along the Danube, from the lower Tisza and the Maros to the border with the Ottomans.

Since there were Serbs on the Ottoman side of that border as well, here, as along the border of Slavonia-Croatia, the Serbian people were split in two by the great fracture. Initially, the Serbian patriarch was also installed on the border, at the Krushedol Monastery (about fifty kilometers northwest of Belgrade), among his people. But in 1701, he received the order to move to Szentendre (about twenty kilometers north of Buda), this time far from his flock.


On the Ottoman side of the border of central Europe, there were no exact equivalents of the Uskoks of Croatia or the hajduks of Hungary, but there was a similar need felt to complement the regular units (Janissaries sent from the capital, siph who held local timars) by elements recruited, with extreme pragmatism, at the local level. A corps of “local Janissaries” (yerli kul) thus formed, made up of Islamized South Slavs and in particular, of emancipated slaves (aza-dlu). Another corps, the ‘azab, posted to the fortress garrisons but participating in naval expeditions as well, also recruited from among the local Slav peasants. Originally Christians, they usually—but not always—became Muslims. A Ragusan witness thus wrote to Emperor Maximilian I in the early sixteenth century, “possunt esse Assapi tam christiani quam Turcae et aliae nationes.” As for the corps of martolos, present in many Ottoman border fortresses, they were still composed primarily of Christians, though they included converts to Islam, and their officers, the aghas, were Muslims. They also displayed another similarity to the Grenzener on the other side: although some received pay, others were peasant soldiers whose land holdings had a special status, exempting them from most agricultural royalties. It is possible that, on this side as well, the Serbs were organized into extended family communities of the zadruga type. Ottoman regulations specified that those of their brothers and nephews who did not perform military service were not exempt from the ordinary agricultural royalties.


The acquisitions in North Africa of Sleyman the Magnificent and Selim II had made the coasts of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli an Ottoman border. This time, the western Mediterranean constituted the buffer zone with the Christian states. As on other borders, local representatives of the central power, from which they were far removed, had a tendency to conduct their own policies, which did not always coincide with that of the center. But things went farther here than elsewhere: the former provinces became quasi-independent states, though they never completely cut the umbilical cord attaching them to Istanbul. Like the other border regions, the “regencies” had at their disposal a labor force in the “intermediate buffer zone.” This time they were Barbary corsairs. Like the other “border men,” these corsairs were unpredictable (opportunity could turn them into common pirates) and their motivations were mixed: they fought in the name of Islam, and it has been noted that the resentment of Muslims, then of the Moriscos driven from Spain, played a role in the growth of privateering and in the trafficking to which it gave rise. At the same time, privateering and its booty were also their source of revenue, an alternative to regular commerce. The corsair captains and their own captains, like the officers of the Maghrebian ojak, occasionally rose from the ranks of these “renegades,” whose Islamization generally took place for opportunistic reasons and did not always withstand every test. (But woe to those “Christians of Allah” if they returned to Christendom and fell into the clutches of the Inquisition!) Among the renegades were emancipated slaves, but also, since here again the border served as an escape valve, dissidents of all kinds who had an interest in fleeing Christendom: dissatisfied soldiers or sailors, peasants oppressed by their lords, habitual offenders and other outlaws, merchants in quest of brighter opportunities, and any specialist willing to cash in on his knowledge or expertise. There was no dearth of Venetians, Genoese, Sicilians, Calabrians, Neopolitans, Corsicans, and sometimes even Jews, who would “become Turks” and try their luck in Tunis, Algiers, or Tripoli. In part 1 of his Don Quixote (chaps. 39–41), Cervantes recounts that the bey of Algiers, a certain Hasan Pasha, demonstrated his friendship to the author during his captivity in the Barbary port—and that bey was a Dalmatian who had converted to Islam. Another famous example is the man who became bey of Tunis in 1637. The founder of a dynasty, the Muradids, which would rule the regency until the early eighteenth century, he was none other than a Ligurian by the name of Osta Morato. Another celebrated case is that of a Venetian, who would rule Algiers from 1638 to 1645 under the name Ali “Piccinino.” Not all had such good fortune, but many of these renegades had astonishing fates: there was also Orzio Paterno Castello, from a noble family of Catana that he was compelled to leave, having killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. During his escape, he was captured by corsairs from Tripoli, and he converted to Islam, taking the name Ahmad. He would become a dragoman (interpreter) in Tripoli.

Beginning in 1650, the renegades who acquired high positions in the regencies were instead “Ponantines,” seamen from the north, English and Flemish especially. The corsair threat poisoned Mediterranean navigation and had an impact on every nation. It affected populations who were in a position to see “Turks” only during a sea journey, generally to the greater misfortune of the passengers in question. European literature and theater are full of captives taken by the Barbary corsairs, who in an instant reversed people’s best-laid plans and suddenly made the worst outcome seem possible, though not always certain. Molière describes such a fate in The Bungler, act 4, scene 7: “In feats of adventure it is common to see / Folks taken by Turkish corsairs at sea.” Victims of the corsair attacks were reduced to slavery. How many destinies were thereby altered! They would toil and wallow in prisons, in convict galleys, or in the service of private individuals. The Christian states strove to redeem them, as did charitable institutions and religious orders that specialized in bargaining with the infidel masters. The most important of these were the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinitarians, founded in France in 1193 by John of Matha and Felix of Valois, and the Order of Our Lady of Mercy, also called the Mercedarians, which Pedro Nolasco founded in Barcelona in 1203. But the slaves who were redeemed after a more or less prolonged captivity were in the minority. According to the estimate of Emanuel of Aranda, a Flemish gentleman soldier and himself a captive in Algiers, 600,000 Christians died in captivity in Algiers between 1536 and 1640. Considering the Maghrebian slave trade as a whole between 1530 and 1640, a Trinitarian, Father Dan, declared: “It would not be stretching the truth to say that they [the Maghrebis] have put more than a million [Christians] in chains.”

Algiers was the principal center of the slave trade, but all the cities of the Barbary Coast between Sale and Tripoli participated in it. In the hundred years between 1580 and 1680, there were on average some twenty-seven thousand of these Christian slaves in Algiers (there would be fewer subsequently). At the same time, there were some six thousand in Tunis and perhaps two thousand in Tripoli. The grand total for these estimates nearly corresponds to the figures Father Dan indicates on that somber balance sheet:

As to the slaves of both sexes that are in Barbary today, there are a quantity of them from all the Christian nations, such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Flanders, Holland, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Russia, and so forth. The number of these poor captives reaches about thirty-six thousand, according to the enumeration that I have carried out on the spot and to the records that have been furnished and sent to me by the Christian Consuls who live in the Corsair Cities.

Such a grave phenomenon mortgaged the entire economic and social life of many coastal zones, such as those of Valencia, Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Campania, and Sicily. But it also poisoned navigation as a whole, in both the western and eastern basins of the Mediterranean. In addition, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Maghrebis ventured as far as the Atlantic and into the English Channel. They then abducted their captives from off the coast of Cape Finisterre of Galicia, as well as near Belle Isle and Saint Malo, and even on the Banks of Newfoundland, where the French, Portuguese, and English cod fishermen were threatened. Iceland itself was attacked.

Like all who sailed the Mediterranean, the French were targeted, despite their political alliance with the Great Turk. They thought they could remedy the difficulty by turning to him. Registering complaints with the Sublime Porte about the exactions by Barbary corsairs was a recurring mission of ambassadors to Constantinople. But apart from the fact that the pirates were by nature uncontrollable (like the Cossacks, Tatars, and Uskoks), such measures assumed that the regencies were still altogether an Ottoman frontier, when in fact they had become quasi-independent states. They had to be bargained with or combated directly. That realization came about gradually. By the early seventeenth century, an insidious war took hold between the French fleet and the Maghrebis. Then, to end privateering, France signed treaties with Algiers in 1628 and 1640; with Tunis in 1665; and again with Algiers in 1666. But since the problems persisted, in the 1680s Louis XIV engaged in gunboat diplomacy against the corsair ports: in July 1681, Abraham Duquesne bombarded the roadstead of Chios, where he had pursued Tripolitan vessels. Algiers was shelled in 1682, 1683, and 1688; Tripoli in 1685. After that repressive phase, France signed a whole series of new treaties: in 1684 and 1689 with Algiers; in 1681 and 1685 with Tripoli. The corsairs of Sale were a special case, necessitating a negotiation with the Moroccan sovereign. A French captain, Lefebvre de la Barre, negotiated a first treaty, but Versailles refused to ratify it. An ambassador of Mawly Ism‘l named Temim, governor of Tetouan, had to travel to France before Louis XIV would finally sign a treaty, on February 12, 1682. The baron of Saint-Amans brought the text to Morocco, so that Mawly Ism‘l could ratify it in turn. Nevertheless, French-Moroccan relations rapidly deteriorated. In 1699, a new Moroccan embassy to France, that of Admiral Abdallah Ben-‘Aïcha, attempted to conclude another treaty, but negotiations fell apart. The problem posed by the Barbary corsairs persisted into the eighteenth century, and there were further bombings from time to time.


Elsewhere, however, on that border as on others, the mirror effect was fully at play: Christendom’s other response to the exactions of the corsairs was to retaliate in kind against the “Turks.” The corso maltese was a large-scale privateering operation under the aegis of the Knights of Malta, freed from Ottoman pressure by the failure of the siege of the island in 1565. At the same time, the Knights of Saint Stephen established themselves in Livorno in 1562, at the instigation of the grand duke of Tuscany. That organization survived until the early eighteenth century, under the dual patronage of the grand duke and the eponymous saint. These Christian corsairs engaged in pillaging as well. They took booty and especially slaves, who were sold on the markets of Livorno, Malta, and Genoa. For the most part, Muslim captives were assigned to the various European galley fleets as oarsmen. In a letter to Colbert, the marquise of Nointel, ambassador to Constantinople, cites the figure of two thousand “Turks” rowing on French galleys in 1670 (not all came from the Mediterranean corso, however). In 1721, an ambassador of Sultan Ahmed III named Yirmisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi arrived in France with great pomp to see the young Louis XV, having ransomed, at his stop in Malta, a captain by the name of Süleyman held prisoner there. He also brought with him a list of captives in Marseilles and asked the French authorities to liberate them or at least to allow them to be ransomed. The unwillingness he encountered impelled the ambassador to cause a very undiplomatic scene in front of his interlocutor, Minister Dubois:

While you claim to be the best friends of the Most High Empire, you are holding as slaves and in prison more than a thousand of my brothers in the Law. You make them pull the oars on your galleys. What are their crimes? For what reason are they held in that slavery? … The Germans, with whom we are sometimes at war and sometimes at peace, deliver our slaves in exchange for ransom. And there are many to whom they give their freedom without demanding anything! I have received from our people requests by which I see that you have them for thirty, thirty-five, forty years of slavery. Why not deliver them?

That incident marred the festivities and undercut the friendly atmosphere. It peremptorily reminded people of something that everything else was intended to make them forget: that Europe was split in two.